The Craft of Reuse
Discarded building materials represent a remarkable portion of the waste stream in the United States—as much as 40 percent of the total volume. The nature of construction materials—wood, metals, and minerals fastened to one another—often makes their recycling or reuse dauntingly cost-prohibitive. Rebuilding Exchange, a Chicago nonprofit founded in 2009, has nevertheless discovered a niche, extracting usable materials from both condemned-area buildings and the waste stream of manufacturing companies like Horigan Urban Forest Products, Central Steel & Wire Company, and Vermont Natural Coatings.
Rebuilding Exchange’s new RX Made initiative took root during a 2011 job-training program for professionals and those with barriers to employment, to educate them in building deconstruction and the reuse of construction materials. Other Chicago-area designers and builders joined the initiative, resulting in a furniture-production shop with tangible results—their benches, tables, and shelves are available for purchase online.
Last December, RX Made raised $42,000 with a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund larger-scale production of three products that it developed in collaboration with the Chicago-based firm Strand Design: a modular bench/shelf system, a wall clock, and a beer opener, all made from locally reclaimed wood and domestic hardware. Working with a design firm has been instructive. “Our biggest challenge has been keeping within the narrow tolerances of Strand’s designs,” says Blake Sloane, Rebuilding Exchange’s workshop manager. “We are using calipers and engineer’s squares more than ever before.”
Through RX Made, Rebuilding Exchange has also deployed reclaimed materials in custom interiors around Chicago—seating and storage at the Rebecca K. Crown Youth Center, coun-tertops and seating for a gelato shop, and shelving and work surfaces for a stationery store. The nonprofit’s “Make It/Take It” program allows budding crafts-people to walk out of a single-day workshop with a mirror, coat rack, or record crate that they made themselves out of reclaimed materials. RX Made’s programs have recently been expanded to include materials management, retail merchandising, and general carpentry, with more offerings to come.
The movement toward deconstruction as opposed to demolition is gaining steam, and RX Made is proof that the potential exists anywhere that ready labor and disused buildings can be harnessed through design.