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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Community Glue Workshop and the very real need to shift our focus to the 4th “R”: Repair.

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Over the past decade, the environmental movement has had a resurgence focused on the production of more “eco-friendly” products than you can shake a recycled bottle cap “stick” at. Here’s the thing: for the most part, it’s complete rubbish. (Applause for the pun.) Recycling takes a tremendous amount of carbon intensive energy and often involves shipping goods overseas to be broken down, mixed with additional materials, and shipped back to be sold in a form that is a downcycled piece of cheap nonsense as compared with its original form. I know this is hard for folks to hear, but recycling, while often a better alternative to throwing something into a trash can, is not a really a sustainable practice. Period.

Often if something isn't working, the entire thing doesn't need to be scrapped! Don't be afraid to "look under the hood" and tinker. It's already not working, so you may as well give repair a shot!

Usually, if something isn’t working, the entire thing doesn’t need to be scrapped! Don’t be afraid to “look under the hood” and tinker. It’s already not working, so you may as well give repairing it a shot.

We also have “repurposing,” which has become incredibly popular in recent years because it’s fun, creative, and keeps materials out of the landfill. It’s something we all should certainly do, but often times it also results in downcycling. Someone will repurpose an existing item that has a broken part—say a toaster with a broken spring—and turn it into a flower pot. Your standard toaster is comprised of hundreds of parts and complicated methods of metal extraction and other processes that are labor intensive and often manufactured in other countries under questionable employment practices. You know what else can be a flowerpot? A leaf. A cupped hand. A single piece of fired clay. Your brother’s gaping mouth if you shove a plant into it. Any simple thing, really.

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Image from The Toaster Project. That there’s the insides of a very basic toaster. Those parts took a lot of energy to create and came a real long way to make it to your local Target.

My point is: let’s just fix that toaster and not waste the kabrillion pieces that do work inside of that sophisticated little heat trap, people. In 2012, my friend Ally and I started Community Glue Workshop in Chicago because, quite frankly, we were pissed off at the fact that the environmental movement had in no way embraced one of the most obvious and abandoned part of sustainable living: REPAIR. It even starts with an “R,” so why it was never promoted is beyond me (P.S. “Reduce” is totally legit). Producing and consuming more materials is the opposite of the solution—“green” or no—and not fixing what we already have only leads to more consumption. Maybe you have a flowerpot now, but you’re still in need of a toaster and will go out and buy a new one anyway, and waste all the embodied energy in that original toaster, which is a big old shame and not doing the planet any favors.

That's a mighty pretty toaster that we fixed. Definitely a more sophisticated piece of machinery than any old thing that can hold dirt.

That’s a mighty pretty toaster that we fixed. Definitely a more sophisticated piece of machinery than any old thing that can hold dirt.

Not able to order replacement parts? That’s absolutely a problem, yes. Manufacturers intentionally don’t sell those parts like they used to in an effort to force you to buy new items. To get around this hiccup, Community Glue has used an inexpensive 3D printer to make simple little new parts when needed. Don’t have access to a 3D printer? Honestly, most of the time we can find another fix that doesn’t require the production of a new part. There are many ways to skin a cat, and that’s why fixing is indeed a creative and innovative process.

Fixing, fixing, fixing. Most of these humans have never met before, by the way. Much more interesting than going to a big box store, wouldn't you say? Also, I know that you can buy a new lamp or headphones or skirt for a reasonable amount of money, but most of the time, fixing is FREE. Beat that, Walmart.

Fixing, fixing, fixing. Most of these humans have never met before, by the way. Much more interesting than going to a big box store, wouldn’t you say? Also, I know that you can buy a new lamp or headphones or skirt for a reasonable amount of money, but most of the time, fixing is FREE. Beat that, Walmart.

Community Glue is comprised of about 10 regular, dedicated volunteers who come together once a month to fix anything folks can fit through the door, from broken table legs to vacuums to bra straps. It doesn’t matter if we have never seen anything like it (in fact, those are the most fun projects), repairing is also a collaborative process and we can almost always figure out a fix or at least diagnose the problem. There are exceptions: perhaps your exploding microwave from 1984 is accidentally cooking your brain through a cracked something-or-other and needs to be disposed of. We get that. But more often than not, the materials we consume are repairable.

Folks meet, mentorships happen, stuff gets done.

Folks meet, mentorships happen, people without resources get some help.

Next month I’ll be posting more on Community Glue Workshop and featuring our October repair clinic. I’m not gonna lie, I’m very excited to finally give some props to our amazing volunteers, curious, smart, generous buggers that they are.

If you're in the Chicago area, check out one of our fall repair clinics. Can it fit through a standard door? Let's have at it!

If you’re in the Chicago area, check out one of our fall repair clinics. Can it fit through a standard door? Let’s have at it!

The organizers. We got mad about the misinformation regarding "green" goods and practices and decided to do something that is actually useful for our community. Folks don't look that happy taking a pile of stuff to the recycle bin. Nope.

The organizers. We got mad about the misinformation regarding “green” goods and practices and decided to do something that is actually useful for our community. You can, too. People are into it.