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.

WF Dave

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:

erw tools

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/

WF Eugene Dan

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Get your hands dirty.

Get your hands dirty.

Changing brake pads.

Tools are what separate us. They allow us to create beyond the limitations of our bodies in terms of scope, detail, and pace. Whatever you are lounging on, writing on, drinking out of or toasting your Pop-Tarts in right now was not born after a romantic evening between two objects at the local Target, but made with the help of shaped iron or alloy steel, plastics, woods, or other durable material created for a particular function that couldn’t be done by hand alone. These things may seem obvious, but we are so removed from the process of manufacturing nowadays it’s hard to have any sense of how things are made and where on earth they came from.

But, this is not really a blog about tools. The ToolMade project is focused on exploring the relationship between people and tools—hands-on projects and trades that involve expression and skill and time and brains and creative problem solving. Tools allow us to manifest our ideas and understand the world we live in.

This project is the result of several things: hands-on restoration work via a career in historic preservation, a local repair clinic a friend and I co-founded last year, and Sears, which has afforded the opportunity to buy a heck of a lot of tools and write about them. Most of those tools will be given away to people already doing interesting and important things with them, or to people who want to teach others to use them. In a nutshell, here are the goals of ToolMade:

1. Shine a light on people and organizations doing hands-on projects that are education and/or community focused.

2. Help revive dying trades that deserve a renaissance and dig into their history and why they are so damned awesome.

3. Demystify tools so that people who might accidentally create a Texas Chainsaw Massacre scene with a power saw can become more comfortable with tools in general, understand how they work and how they can make their lives a whole lot easier (and more fun).

4.  Encourage everyone to step away from the virtual and spend some time in the physical. There are a crazy number of physical, psychological, sociological, and environmental benefits to getting your hands dirty.

Over the next year, I’ll be visiting the homes and workspaces of folks to hear about what they are doing, why they like hands-on work, and to ultimately explore the broader context of how the American style of work has impacted us as a society. And yes, I’ll be giving free tools to these crews whenever possible. So this is a call to mechanics, electricians, masons, pre-post-apocalyptic survivalist movement enthusiasts, and all you folks in the Preservation, Building, Maker, Hacker, and Fixer movements—I’d really like to feature what you do. This is also a blog for those who don’t know what a Phillip’s screwdriver is and would really, really like to build a coffee table or make that extra bedroom not look like an extension of Buffalo Bill’s basement. Basically, screw automated machinery and flimsy $20 replacement fixes from big box stores—let’s get our hands dirty.