Readers! I hope this post finds you well and not too snowy. As we head into the chilly depths of winter I'd like to spend a little time on a topic that never fails to warm my heart. That's right, folks, I'm talking about the reuse of building materials.
Salvaged materials have so many charms! They are beautiful, well made, and full of texture. They reflect the local building heritage, which, if you live in Chicago, is superior. They are cheap. Their manufacture has not recently generated any industrial waste, they are no longer offgassing any noxious fumes (if indeed they ever did), and they are otherwise destined for a landfill that is doubtless reaching capacity. Like anything worthwhile, they are somewhat challenging to work with, but this challenge can lead to all sort of wonderful design solutions.
Finding salvaged materials is sort of like finding a leprechaun. You can comb the alleys and garage sales, you can skulk around on Craigslist, or—if you have money to burn—you can go to some fancy salvage shops. The trick is not only finding the leprechaun, but finding him just when you need him, unless you have room in your basement to put him up until you are ready to start your project. We all know how hard it is to hold on to a leprechaun).
If you spend any time at all thinking about this problem you will quickly realize that it's a lot like world hunger: it's all a matter of distribution. We all know that people are constantly throwing away perfectly good doors, bathtubs, and lumber, just as people are constantly throwing away uneaten bread, cheese, and pate de foie gras. But getting that bathtub into the arms of a hungry person is no mean feat; for all it costs to ship it to Africa you might as well just write a check to the Heifer Project and donate a whole barnyard full of geese.
When I met Elise Zelechowski, Deputy Executive Director at the Delta Institute—she was grappling with this very issue. The Delta Institute, devoted to sustainability in the Great Lakes region, was getting ready to open a materials reuse warehouse. Elise had all kinds of willing donors—everyone likes the idea of giving away things they no longer need—but nowhere to put the stuff. She was hunting for someplace big and cheap and well-located so that she could hold onto enough materials and get enough customer traffic to make it a going concern, even as a nonprofit.
That was in the fall of 2008, and the ReBuilding Exchange opened in February of 2009. Oh readers, you should see it. Housed in a sunny warehouse at 3335 W. 47th Street, it swells the heart of the scrappy home renovator much as Saks Fifth Avenue does for Carrie Bradshaw.
The place is full to bursting with salvaged two-by-fours, kitchen cabinets, dishwashers, light fixtures, doors, window sashes, and yes, lots of bathtubs. These materials are donated, some by homeowners, but largely by contractors who haul them away from their clients' homes, offering them a tax write-off in return. Some portion of the materials come from full-scale deconstruction projects, in which a house is torn down piece by piece, with every possible item either recycled or donated for reuse. Deconstruction is a trend in its infancy that will likely gather steam with growing awareness and the rising costs of materials disposal. (See this 2008 article on the subject in the Chicago Reader.)
Who buys the stuff? Business manager Meegan Czop, who greeted me with her big, gentle dog named Boomer, explained that the customers fall into five categories: landlords, private homeowners, artists, furniture designers, and green building professionals. More than anything, it's a source of cheap materials for regular people working on a tight budget.
She told me the story of an older couple who bought a Southside fixer-upper for their daughter for $28,000. The ReBuilding Exchange (RX for short) became their go-to place for lumber and plumbing fixtures. "They redid all the floors with our flooring," she said. "It's a great source for homeowners buying into an affordable market."
Just how cheap are we talking about? Reclaimed lumber, for example, goes for half the sale price at Menards. Remember my raised garden bed? The timbers and stakes for that puppy set me back a good $400. Meegan showed me photos of some community garden beds built in Chicago by We Farm America, using salvaged lumber, to the tune of $13 apiece. True, the boards are more slender and may not withstand a hurricane the way mine surely would, but who am I kidding? We don't have hurricanes in Chicago. There's really no excuse for spending all that money; I should have bought my lumber at the RX.
As with any growing business, juggling the supply and demand is the name of the game. At the moment they have to be somewhat choosy about what materials they accept. While there is a nearly infinite supply of old window sashes, you can only devote so many square feet to the things when the only people who really use them are artists and gardeners building cold frames for their winter lettuce. So some of the windows get turned away so as to leave space for the beautiful old-growth two-by-fours.
Ultimately, the RX hopes to expand and increase its ability to keep a healthy and reliable supply of materials for a growing customer base. In the mean time, they are getting ready to celebrate their one-year anniversary party on Friday, February 12. The party will be held at the Exchange and will feature a silent auction in which, among other things, you will be able to buy lighting fixtures from the first annual RX Design Competition!
Can you say Valentine's Day present?