The decline of once-bustling urban industrial centers, new mandates by municipalities nationwide for contractors to recycle demolition waste, and a sharper focus on materials sourcing by third-party green-building certifiers are just a few of the forces driving the market for architectural salvage. In October, we went behind the scenes at Community Forklift in Edmonston, Md., to trace the paths of reclaimed products as they passed through the nonprofit and into local projects. Last week, we took a break from the AIA National Convention in Chicago to visit the Rebuilding Exchange, a nonprofit located in the city’s Bucktown neighborhood that retails reclaimed building materials and interior products to approximately 16,000 customers annually while providing job training for individuals including non-violent ex-offenders, the homeless, and those with limited education.
The 24,000-square-foot warehouse is the company’s third location since it was started in 2009. It houses old- and new-growth lumber, windows and doors, cabinets, tile, and other building materials pulled from commercial and residential projects in the Midwest—including the Chicago metropolitan area in Illinois and Indiana, as well as Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. “The big business interest in Chicago is tearing down buildings as quick as possible to put new ones up,” says Blake Sloane, director of the Rebuilding Exchange’s RX Made product line. “We have to convince people to gently deconstruct.”
The Rebuilding Exchange is a project of the Delta Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit whose initiatives include sustainable deconstruction, brownfield redevelopment, and creating a market for felled, diseased urban Ash trees. The Rebuilding Exchange sponsors a formal job training program that currently sources participants through The Cara Program in Chicago and schools them in warehousing, customer service, OSHA and lead-abatement requirements, and woodworking as they rotate through the warehouse and fabrication shop. Laura Jackson, shown in the photo above, is in her fourth month of the Rebuilding Exchange’s current program, which lasts six months. Four of the company’s 14 full-time staffers were hired out of the training program. Eighty-two people have completed the program since its start in 2009.
In December 2011, the Rebuilding Exchange launched RX Made. The majority of the product line is crafted in-house and its three flagship products—a bottle opener, a clock, and a modular bench—are designed in collaboration with Strand Design in Chicago. Metal components are fabricated locally. The latter item was featured in ARCHITECT’s June issue. RX Made also fabricates custom tabletops and kitchen islands for homes and restaurants in the region.
During the last two years, Sloane says, the competition among retailers to source high-quality salvaged materials has increased as designers seek out the products for use in interior finishes, furniture, and other decorative products. “Everyone with a barn in Wisconsin now thinks they can make a ton of money selling wood,” he says.
But the reserves are growing. In November 2012, Cook County, Ill., which includes the city of Chicago, enacted the Midwest’s first demolition debris ordinance. The rule applies to the county’s suburban and unincorporated regions and requires demolition contractors on nonresidential projects to recycle 70 percent of the waste (by weight) and for residential contractors to both recycle 70 percent of the waste (by weight) and reuse an additional 5 percent of the debris (by weight) for a total of 75 percent of the material either recycled or reused. Chicago’s city ordinance requires at least 50 percent of recyclable project waste to be recycled.
Lumber currently accounts for approximately 50 percent of the Rebuilding Exchange’s sales. The company supplies its reclaimed lumber to Chicago-based Icon Modern for use as furniture and fixtures in Whole Foods and Starbucks (projects) in the Midwest. Visitors to Chicago can find the shop’s custom wood tabletops in local restaurants including Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits, Hamburger Mary’s, and Black Dog Gelato. “[We’re] trying to convince people to take that extra time to use our material,” Sloane says. “[It’s] the same as taking that extra time to deconstruct something rather than tearing it down.”
Do-it-yourselfers make up the majority of the warehouse’s customer base, say Sloane and executive director Mary Trieschmann. In addition to finished products and raw materials, the Rebuilding Exchange also offers woodworking, canning, composting, and other workshops to the public. But Trieschmann, who was hired in April, is eyeing the architecture and design community as she learns more about the market for architectural salvage in Chicago. "Five years out, we don't know what the Rebuilding Exchange is going to look like," she says. "We need to investigate what this region's reclaimed market has and what it needs."