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Turning trash into treasure with Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse

Illinois nonprofit Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse shares how its “sustainable deconstruction” model—taking buildings apart and repurposing their parts—not only conserves resources but also empowers people with barriers to employment to find their niche as home contractors.

Key business takeaways

  • Success doesn’t always look like starting from scratch—building on the work of others can save money, time, and resources 
  • Consider collaborating with local nonprofits to reduce landfill waste
  • Employee mentorship can have ripple effects for your business, community, and economy

Pipe from an old sprinkler system, wooden two-by-fours, drop ceiling tiles. At Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, these forgotten materials get another life as a cash register and wall insulation. This repurposed retail space is just one way that the Illinois nonprofit aims to give both buildings and people a second chance. Through its workforce training program, mentees who have faced barriers to employment are trained in the art of “deconstruction:” dismantling a building and recycling or reusing its parts. Then, the nonprofit sells the repurposed gems back to the community at discounted rates. 

The team has deconstructed entire kitchens, homes, and even Masonic Temples—preserving local history and the environment in the process. Demolition and construction generates 600 million tons of waste in the United States each year, accounting for more than 75% of landfills in Illinois. By rescuing pieces that would have ended up in the trash, Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse not only reduces waste but also helps create jobs for its graduates, many of whom go on to full-time positions crafting beautiful spaces for their community. 

We spoke with Annette Stewart, Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse’s marketing and ecommerce manager, to learn more about how the nonprofit is empowering the next generation of home contractors to promote sustainability and economic justice. 

How did Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse start?

Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse was founded about 10 years ago in 2011 by our amazing founder, Lou Dickson, who’s been a local contractor here in Evanston for over 20 years. She saw material after material, dumpster after dumpster, full of things that could have been used again, just to be thrown away. That’s when she founded our organization with the purpose of saving some of these materials and getting them back into homes and preserving Chicago’s and Evanston’s local architecture and history, instead of just wasting and throwing things away and building everything new again. 

That’s what we do in our retail warehouse. We take donations from people who have a lot of things that now they’re updating, they no longer need, or they’re changing their home, and instead of throwing them away, they can give them to us. We resell them to our community and people who need them for a much discounted price than they would find in a big box store, or we give them an opportunity to find items that no longer exist or aren’t made anymore. 

What are the benefits of deconstruction? 

There’s a lot of things that we can save and reuse—things that are just beautiful or that they don’t make with that type of craftsmanship anymore. And instead of just throwing them in the garbage, we can preserve them and share them with people who want to appreciate them. I think that’s really the beauty of deconstruction, outside of monumental environmental benefits. 

There’s so much waste in making the new, no matter what. There’s so much wasted time and labor and money and resources and materials in making something new that we’re going to turn around and tear down in five years when we need to make something else. Instead, we can take something that already exists and repurpose it to make it better or in a way that looks good in its existing state. That’s really what deconstruction is about. It also creates an amazing amount of jobs in the industry. When you’re not just tearing something down, there’s a lot of skill involved in deconstruction and finding and reusing these materials. 

Why is it important to promote sustainability in the construction industry?

Everybody’s mind is on progression, on moving forward, and up, up, up. They want to tear down what’s old and build something new, sleek, and modern. But when you’re tearing down what’s old, there’s a lot of dust, debris, and other particles that come with that and create environmental hazards. Where our organizations are located, cities are not taking care of the cleanliness of those areas. So then you’re in an area that’s already harmed by dust, debris, toxins, and other environmental hazards, and you’re accumulating more and more, while we’re packing more people into the living space. It’s just not healthy for any of us. 

That’s what comes along with choosing to tear down and throw away as a means to progress, instead of taking our time and preserving and doing something that’s going to be safe. Maybe it takes a little bit longer, but in the end, how many people are healthier? How many lungs do you save when you deconstruct versus doing demolition? 

How have you connected with your local community?

Evanston has a very lively business district, and everybody here works together. I saw that when people rushed to donate materials and money, to come out to our fundraiser [for a new warehouse space]—even with COVID, and we have to stand six feet apart in the cold outside—they still want to come and celebrate with us.  

We also have a lot of partnerships with the city of Evanston to help place our job trainees and find them contracting and subcontracting roles. So our community is intertwined in literally every single thing that we do, and we try to make sure we’re there to give back to it as well. In the height of the pandemic, we did a couple of different PPE distributions for early childhood centers. We’ve donated a community fridge to be placed here in Evanston, so people who don’t have access to different food and resources can come and get food for free without question, without red tape, without fear of judgment.

What does the workforce training program entail?

Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse’s workforce training program is an opportunity. People who have any kind of barriers to employment—that could be educational, financial, or background-related—can come to join our 20-week training program. It’s hands-on and also curriculum-based learning, where they’ll learn a bunch of different skills about the building trades and the construction industry to find what’s right for them. We provide a lot of professional readiness, job training, mock interviews, and other services that are about barrier reduction.  

Our training program is a very interesting dynamic because it’s a mixture of hands-on learning and book learning but also just general mentorship. Some people who have been in our program haven’t held a traditional job or held it for long, or don’t know what it’s like to be on a team or to have a supervisor. They get to model that here in our small cohort that has typically six to eight people in it and work in that group and learn those skills.

How do you create opportunities for growth at work?

A person can come in, find their niche here, find their interest, and then get the training that they need in that particular interest to grow in it. But they can also find support where they can talk to their peers, mentors, supervisors, our HR reps—really any of our staff—about what’s going on with them in their lives, what they may need additional assistance with that may not be strictly job related. 

We provide daily meditation for our trainees as well, just to help people refocus, learn to get in  a new mindset, try something that may be a little bit different. We do a group stretch every morning with our trainees to get people limber or loose, opening up the day. We share daily gratitude, so we’re always in a positive mindset. We’re trying to foster a community and a feeling amongst each individual person, but also as a team, that we’re all in it together, that we’re going through the same thing, that we are here without judgment, that we are all equal and ready to work together to strive to get to one goal. And I think that provides that person not only with the feeling of empowerment—knowing that you have the skill—but you also have somebody who has your back.

What kind of impact does the program have on trainees and their community?

People leave feeling that they have what they need to go on to that next step or that they’re ready to move on to something bigger and achieve these goals that they’re setting for  themselves or that they might have had all of their lives.

The effects of that ripple out far beyond what you can see. It’s even economical because there are more people in the workforce that weren’t out there before that are now taking that money that they’re making and then putting it back into their communities—spending and spreading  that forward and creating more. When we’re opening the avenues for deconstruction and showing people the benefits of it, we’re creating more space and more jobs for them.

Photos from Yelp of Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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