Reclaiming Rural America

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A glimpse of the 8,000 sf warehouse that is now Sangamon Reclaimed.

My friend, Meegan, recently started her own business sourcing lumber. Her sledgehammers are literally duct-taped together, and I mentioned wanting to connect her with some free tools. Of the dozens of times I’ve offered this opportunity, people have always pounced on it, but Meegan shut me down with, “No, listen, you need to talk to this guy Brian I’ve been working with who’s doing amazing things. Call him. I’m fine. I just need a forklift.” And so, when a stubborn Detroit woman who uses duct-taped sledgehammers tells you to do something, honestly, you just do it.

The next day, I reached out to the owner of Sangamon Reclaimed, Brian Frieze, a firefighter and veteran who started taking down barns and salvaging the wood. Now listen, I’m a member of the National Barn Alliance and lord knows I’ve been chased by dogs across several states while going in for a closer look, but unfortunately, we can’t save them all. The barns taken down by Sangamon Reclaimed will be burned to the ground if they aren’t carefully dismantled. Yes, burned to the ground.

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The massive building holds a retail store, a warehouse space, an office and a side yard.

Now part of what makes this story different from other deconstruction stories is that Brian understands rural America and he understands that these structures have been symbols of livelihood for the families around him for generations. He cares about that symbolism, the cultural heritage, and the materials. He not only painstakingly dismantles these structures, he actually researches their history and documents it. I work in salvage. This is not typical. This is lovely and important.

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This stroke sander has a 10′ bed and was brought in from New York. It’s a beast. A lovely, super handy beast. And great for large slabs.

Opening  your wallet yet? Brian also decided that Sangamon Reclaimed would hire as many veterans and firefighters as possible. There are now five employees doing deconstruction and using the saved materials to build furniture and custom installations. But the mission continues. In addition to rapidly growing as a retail source for lumber, barn wood, and handcrafted goods, the company is determined to help those suffering from issues like PTSD and survivor’s guilt, which can lead to some intense struggles with employment and housing. Sangamon Reclaimed has partnered with numerous groups that help vets with these hurdles, and lately, Brian has been looking into starting a job training program for veterans who currently reside at a local homeless shelter.

So, a big thank you to Meegan for the tip and introduction. Please send her your sledgehammers. The ToolMade Project was thrilled to partner with Craftsman and help Brian and his growing crew expand their tools and storage collection – we’ll post pics of them with their Craftsman loot soon. As an aside, despite their reasonable prices, I spent far too much money in their rapidly growing retail section. If you ever find yourself in Springfield, Illinois, brace yourself for their small but mighty store. I could reconstruct a Midwest 3-portal barn with everything I lugged back to Chicago.

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I snagged that black, white, and red flag and wiped out their entire stock of barn wood chevrons, thank you very much. Brian started a “Flags for Heroes” program, where a portion of each flag purchased goes directly to helping veterans and firefighters. They sell out like crazy.

 

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Deconstruction Pioneers: Rebuilding Homes and Hope at the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse

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Some of the workforce training crew in a victory pose post-Craftsman donation. From left to right: Red, Doug, Lou, Eugene, and Brett. Lou opened the warehouse just three years ago and is incredibly dedicated to the trainees and expanding the program.

The Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse is a non-profit organization founded in 2011 by Lou Dickson, a retired general contractor who was fed up with all of the construction debris clogging up the landfills. Working in Chicago and in the North Shore suburbs, there was a neverending supply of perfectly good (often very high end) building materials being trashed due to a lack of alternatives and education for both contractors and homeowners. She began trying to change legislation and stockpiling materials from her jobs until she happened to notice some available warehouse space near her home and pulled the trigger. She has essentially created a mini empire since that first lease was signed, and has already expanded the space twice. Believe me, she could fill up the state of Texas with amazing architectural saves if given the chance. Lou, though petite and ever-smiling and polite with a British accent, is an absolute force to be reckoned with.

You want cabinets? We got cabinets! You want lighting fixtures! You can't find a place to rest your eyes without seeing a dozen of them.

You want cabinets? We got cabinets! You want lighting fixtures! You can’t find a place to rest your eyes without seeing a dozen of them. Mind you, this is only one aisle in this ever-expanding 13,000 sf warehouse.

There are nonprofits with a noble mission and then there are NONPROFITS WITH A NOBLE MISSION. I mean, there are so many missions at this place that you pretty much go straight to heaven if you buy a used bucket sink. Here’s what this now 13,000 SF warehouse space has accomplished since it began just 3 years ago:

  • Over 13,000 volunteer hours logged
  • Over 700 memberships
  • Hundreds of tons of building materials diverted from landfills
  • 7 paid staff members and 4 paid workforce trainers
  • 5 workforce training programs with 27 trainees, 5 currently in the program and 3 more joining next month (yes, all trainees are also paid, and paid above minimum wage)
  • 25 educational programming workshops for professionals and homeowners
  • Deconstruction projects throughout the county
  • First workforce training for Deconstruction certification in the county and a new training model in the U.S. that incorporates life skills such as tutoring in English, math, computer literacy, fiscal literacy, and nutrition, in addition to teaching the hard skills needed for certification
The warehouse and workforce training programs would never have happened without an incredible group of volunteers. Volunteers consist of contractors who Lou has ensnared to help out, local do-gooders, architects, a retired chemist, groups of high school students, university students, a pilot...people of all skill levels and backgrounds.

The warehouse and workforce training programs would never have happened without an incredible group of volunteers. Volunteers consist of contractors Lou has ensnared to help out, local do-gooders, architects, a retired chemist, groups of high school students, university students, a pilot…people of all skill levels and backgrounds.

The workforce training classes have focused on adults who are formerly or presently homeless, low-income, or ex-offenders having a difficult time reintegrating into the workforce. By addressing their behavioral, educational, and physical health challenges, those who complete the 7-month program have a very high success rate finding jobs and a level of economic and social stability. Other trainees have just been disappointed with the low-paying jobs and lack of meaningful work available after high school or college, and wanted to do some hard work that would eventually pay off both financially and ethically. All are welcome, and the retention rate has been exceptional.

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Dave, who started as a trainee and is not an Assistant Trainer, pulling nails on some historic wood flooring. The reclaimed flooring sells so quickly it sometimes doesn’t even make it to the warehouse floor before being claimed by a customer.

The warehouse sells an insane amount of architectural artifacts, tubs, sinks, toilets, flooring, plumbing fixtures, and whatever else was able to be diverted from the waste stream and all staff and overhead is paid for by the sale of these items. The workforce training, on the other hand, relies heavily on grant funding. Things like tools are obviously top priority, so ToolMade put together a list of items they use most often on the site and Craftsman delivered big time. Deconstruction is one of those wonderful jobs where someone can literally start a business with just a good tool bag of what they need. This is the tool bag we put together for each of the workforce trainees, based on what they need most to take apart homes:

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Most of the loot. With these tools, each workforce trainee can show up on a job site after completing their certification with the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse and be taken seriously.

Any contractor will tell you that you never want to show up on a job site without tools. Even if you’re hired for a quick job and are more than competent, it unfortunately lessens your credibility with others on the job, and other times can prevent you from getting work in the first place. The 2014-15 graduates will literally leave the program like deconstruction superstars, saving incredible building materials with a full arsenal of both incredible and appropriate skills and tools. Lemme tell you, that makes a difference.

It costs almost $17,000 for each trainee to go through the program. Well worth it, certainly, but please consider a donation to the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse. Every cent will go towards workforce training because staff and overhead is covered by sales at the warehouse, but there is not a surplus. See how you can help here: http://evanstonrebuildingwarehouse.org/donate/

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Deconstruction Part 1: Why Barn Burnin’s a Bust

“I have dangerous bones in my body.” – Vin Diesel

In case you didn’t already know this, barns are pretty much the best things. I have a big red bumper sticker that reads “I Brake for Barns!”, am a member of the National Barn Alliance, and have been chased down by numerous dogs in rural towns while photographing these beautiful, cobbled together old beasts after illegal U-turns at dusk.

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There she is. It would be great if she could stay there forever, but I’m grateful she’s not being torched.

So, last weekend I spent my time gutting one and began the process of ending its life. An existential crisis? Nope. Usually people unceremoniously knock these old wooden brontosauruses (brontosauri?) down and just set them on fire. To which I say oh heyll no.

My friend Paul Miller grew up in an Ohio farm town and has had the foresight to salvage as much as he can from the barns that all of his neighbors are now knocking down and replacing with metal pole barns. Of course, metal pole barns are easier and cheaper to maintain, but they have about 2% of the charm and are responsible taking down so many of these structures, which continue to enrich their surroundings even when they are crumbling. I think it’s fair to say that nation-wide, these old wooden barns are now officially endangered and nobody is going to build new ones any time soon. And by “any time soon” I mean ever. The least we can do is honor them by reusing the bones that have kept these beautiful behemoths standing for 80 and more years.

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Floor joists so sturdy you could have built a totem pole of elephants on top of them.

Fortuntately Paul, who has a successful furniture business that hinges on reuse of materials, agrees. And why wouldn’t he? Here are the reasons he (very enthusiastically) gave for spending his weekends getting shredded up and bruised while carefully dismantling these structures:

  • These materials are already incredibly beautiful. They don’t require staining and painting. They’ve done all the work themselves and are already as beautiful as they are going to get. Let the materials speak for themselves.
  • It’s an art form to deconstruct a building in the same way as it is to put it up. You can understand the construction and techniques and build a relationship with the materials that makes the work and end result more satisfying.
  • The unique notching and other methods of construction can give some great ideas on how to join furniture together. Instead of screwing and bolting things together, they can be doweled or connected in other ways using just the wood itself.
  • Live edges on wood, spalting, and other features that naturally show up in the wood tell the history of the tree like a map. New wood that is grown so quickly nowadays for building doesn’t have any of these lines or any character at all, really.
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The patina on this siding is the stuff of dreams.

Yeah, that’s all pretty compelling stuff. And not only does this kind of deconstruction keep from wasting incredible materials, it also produces products that will be admired and cared for, which will keep those items out of the landfills as well. People like to own things with a history. And who cares if places like Ikea produce products using “sustainable” practices. Let’s be clear, folks, consumption is what got us into this environmental mess. If the products fall apart and are too crappy to be reused,  they become trash, and then more furniture or merchandise must be manufactured to replace it that is also crap.

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Behold the Craftsman 12″ Single Bevel Sliding Compound Miter Saw and its makeshift table. Transporting some of this wood would be impossible if we couldn’t cut it down on site.

Before the trip, we picked up a sliding miter saw to cut down some of these massive slabs and beams on site so they could be transported and given another life as a dining room table or bench or shelving or whatever the next project will be for 7m Woodworking. The ability to slide the blade back and forth allows for longer and cleaner cuts, which was helpful as some of the lumber was way too long to fit in a truck. The joists we took down (the miter saw is sitting on them) were simply enormous. I used every bit of muscle in my legs, back, and possibly teeth moving some of them to the ground from a lofted area. Er, the struggle was slightly less for Paul but he has like 8 inches on me, so whatever. The rest of the work was primarily done with pry bars and hammers—simple and hands-on and slightly perilous work=the best work, right? Afterwards, Paul’s mom made us a feast that could feed a village and we threw our shoes in the washing machine, sat under blankets on recliners and dozed to football. I mean, what else do you want? So much better than picking up pressboard at the local big box.

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Stupidly pretty coffee table from reclaimed wood by 7m Woodworking.

For more on Paul’s work, check out the 7m Woodworking website HERE.

I’ll be posting more on the merits of deconstruction soon, so stay tuned. This blog post was originally about 3 billion words long. Restraint ain’t easy.