Old Growth: The Rebuilding Exchange Broadens in Size and Mission

By Matt Baker

Deconstruction—the art of carefully dismantling a building rather than demolishing it—has been expanding over the past few years. Also expanding is the local hub for this practice, the Rebuilding Exchange. What once was merely an exchange for repurposed building materials is now also an exchange for deconstruction ideas.

Since first opening back in February of 2009, it has been the mission of the Rebuilding Exchange to create a market for reclaimed building materials. Initially, this was manifest simply in a Brighton Park warehouse where contractors and the DIY community could donate or purchase salvaged building supplies. A recent move to the northwest side has given the nonprofit venture more room for stock. But perhaps just as exciting are the expanded endeavors such as educational seminars and even a furniture line.

Serving about 16,000 customers a year, the Rebuilding Exchange is a distribution platform for an ever-expanding market of reused building material. One impetus for the surging reuse market is the need for better avenues of handling these materials responsibly and economically. “If a contractor has to pay to landfill something, or even in some cases to recycle it, they can give it to us,” said Elise Zelechowski, Founder and Executive Director of the Rebuilding Exchange. “If everyone gets on the same page and you integrate materials management into your plans, I think you can really get more out of the process than you think.”

Despite deconstruction’s growth, it still has its detractors. The two main complaints of deconstructing a property instead of rolling in with earth movers and wrecking balls are time and money. Sometimes, these are valid complaints. But not as often as many think. “How long does it take to get a demo permit?” said Zelechowski. “From the time you start that process, you could be doing interior deconstruction. You could be removing things and prepping the building.”

As for the complaints about cost, those are eroding as deconstruction gains a larger foothold. “In some cases, if there’s a really high reuse commitment from the project owner, way beyond what the market will support, it will cost more money and take more time,” Zelechowski said. “But I think you can achieve some competitive deconstruction benchmarks these days without really incurring that much more time and cost.”

Seeking a larger space, the Rebuilding Exchange signed a multi-year lease this past November to occupy a 24,000 square foot warehouse in Bucktown. The building had many prior lives as the operations for a synthetic lawn company, a U-Haul office and decades ago, as a sheep shearing facility.

It most recently, and quite fittingly, was a plastics recycling installation. The building was partitioned into smaller offices, so before they could move in, Rebuilding Exchange staff had to carefully dismantle the portions of the building that didn’t fit their need. All of the removed material was put to use in refurbishing the space and in the different programs offered by their workshop.

It may be an old warehouse built of brick and thick wooden beams, but the Rebuilding Exchange has a light and open atmosphere. And any construction material you can think of is available for purchase. Items range from the mundane like doors, oak flooring and ceiling fans to the unusual, like church pews and card catalog credenzas.

While the warehouse is a great resource for area builders and do-it-yourselfers, educational programs are how the Rebuilding Exchange really spreads the word on deconstruction. Contractor forums, seminars and hands-on public workshops show professionals and weekend warriors alike the different ways to give new life to used materials.

Home improvement seminars with titles like “Energy Efficiency and Your Home” or “Smart Solutions for Outdoor Space” give homeowners and renters tips on how to green their homes. That same audience is the target for the “Make It-Take It” classes where attendees use scrap material and professional guidance—both provided by the Rebuilding Exchange—to construct household items like benches and coat racks.

Recognizing the need to populate forthcoming green collar jobs , the Rebuilding Exchange also provides job training and placement to people with barriers to employment—typically following incarceration. “The particular deconstruction and reuse industry is still growing,” said Zelechowski, “which is why in our training program we teach skills that are core to this industry, but also transferable.” So while the main thrust of the job training program is deconstruction, participants learn general carpentry, as well as other skills such as warehousing, retail and logistics.

Partnering with the Cara Program, the ReUse People of America and others, the Rebuilding Exchange has prepared over 80 trainees for re-entry into the workforce. In fact, four graduates of the program are currently on staff at the Rebuilding Exchange.

An outgrowth of those classes is a new furniture line, called RX Made. “We started making furniture in the training programs and our customers responded well,” said Zelechowski. “We saw it as a real opportunity to further create demand for reclaimed material and help translate these materials into beautiful things people would want in their home.”

The Make It-Take It classes are designed for those with some measure of the craft bug. However, many visitors liked the look of the furniture but had no desire to create their own. “If they weren’t handy themselves, and couldn’t imagine what the material would look like planed and sanded and turned into a shelf,” Zelechowski explained, “ we’ll help you out. We’ll make a shelf for you.”

Strand Design, located in the West Loop, created the line for RX Made. Strand is known for their clean and contemporary designs, something that the Rebuilding Exchange purposely sought out. “When people think reuse, they think folksy,” said Zelechowski. “We love that rustic aesthetic as well, but this really challenges the notion of what reused materials can look like.”

Behind the new product line was a Kickstarter campaign. The online crowdsourcing effort had successfully raised over $40,000 at press time, enough to launch the RX Made brand.

But even before the Kickstarter campaign, RX Made had several full time employees at the Rebuilding Exchange’s site. “We see it as a job creation strategy,” said Zelechowski. “The more products we sell through RX Made, the more materials we can divert from the waste stream and the more jobs we can create.”

The future of the Rebuilding Exchange would appear secure. Since opening less than four years ago, they’ve increased staff and space to accommodate the donated building materials. RX Made, levied by the fundraising, should be constructing contemporary products out of building waste for years to come.

And as for deconstruction? It’s future prospects are improving. Zelechowski hopes that the Chicago City Council will pass legislation this year recognizing deconstruction as separate from, and preferable to, demolition. Earlier this year, the Cook County Board approved a new Solid Waste Management Plan, based on a proposal put forth by the Delta Institute, the non-profit parent of the Rebuilding Exchange. That plan places an emphasis first on source reduction; deconstruction would be a major part of any serious waste reduction strategy. And with the last Chicagoland landfill set to close by 2020, these tactics can’t be ignored any longer.

Photos courtesy Matt Baker

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