This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: ReBuilding Exchange rides growth into bigger HQ

Contractors and homeowners looking for reclaimed building materials will soon have a new, more central location in Chicago to find aged window fixtures, doors, bathtubs and much more.

Next week, the ReBuilding Exchange, an affiliate of the non-profit Delta Institute, is relocating from its two-year-old home in Brighton Park on the southwest side of Chicago to a 30,000 square-foot warehouse in Bucktown/Wicker Park a couple blocks off the Kennedy Expressway. The move and doubling of its space comes in response to a spike in demand for the used materials they receive as donations from homeowners and contractors tearing down all or part of their buildings, says Elise Zelechowski, executive director. Donors get a tax deduction and buyers gain access to affordable building supplies that are environmentally friendly, too, she notes.

A growing number of homebuilders and owners are renovating homes or starting from scratch using sustainable practices. Re-using materials that would otherwise go to landfills is a part of that trend, says Ms. Zelechowski, who also worked for the City of Chicago’s Department of the Environment. She launched the program at the Delta Institute in 2009 with the help of city and state grants, as well as corporate sponsors that include Boeing Co. and the Polk Bros. Foundation. She discovered there were few centralized resources for anyone interested in re-use and landfill diversion in the building community. Ms. Zelechowski, 32, estimates the program has so far prevented more than 3,000 tons of building materials from ending up in landfills.

Revenues have grown, too. Ms. Zelechowski estimates the ReBuilding Exchange will report about $300,000 in revenue for fiscal 2011, ending in June, compared to the year-earlier period’s revenue of $160,000.

Crain’s met with Ms. Zelechowski this week in the cavernous warehouse on the corner of Webster Avenue and Ashland to learn more.

Crain’s: Why did you move the warehouse from the Midway Airport area to Bucktown/Wicker Park?

Ms. Zelechowski: Initially we thought we’d be attracting customers who were working class, immigrant-born, and near a stable housing stock. We attracted a lot of folks from the neighborhood, but a lot of our customers were coming from Ukrainian Village, West Town, Albany Park, Logan Square and the Bucktown area. We realized our customers were coming from north, west and south, so we wanted to be somewhere more centrally located. We also outgrew our space.

We also added a job training program that has a shop component. It’s funded by the City of Chicago in a grant program. It’s deconstruction, building material and reuse and it’s designed to give people with criminal records a leg up on this emerging green collar field.

What kinds of materials do you sell at the ReBuilding Exchange and who are your customers?

We have everything from two-by-fours to old growth two-by-tens, to sinks, dishwashers, tubs, lighting fixtures, cabinets — everything that would come out of a house. We get beautiful old growth timber from 100-year-old houses we’ll never find again. Unlike Architectural Salvage, our materials are much more utilitarian and not just high-end. Most of it comes from donations from small renovation projects through our pick-up program. We also work with deconstruction contractor partners who take buildings down and bring the materials to us.

Our customer base is really broad. Homeowners who are doing projects on the weekends, small contractors and artists, who buy the darndest things. We have discounts on things here and we’ve got items you’d never find at Home Depot.

How has the difficult real estate market affected your business?

Ms. Zelechowski: Because people aren’t building new as much and aren’t tearing down as much, we saw the source of our supply really change. In 2008 it was a lot more full-scale deconstruction. In 2009 and 2010 we saw more renovations because people weren’t building new homes. Business is growing, but what we’re getting is different.

People in times of economic crisis are trying to be more resourceful and looking for ways to be more creative with their dollar. When it comes to renovation, this provides a really great opportunity for people to stretch their dollar and be more creative with their projects. We have done well in this economy because people are thinking more about being economical.

I’ve been told the cost of new materials continues to go up because we’re competing with fast-growing economies and fuel prices to ship things here are going up. If we can harvest from what we already have in the built environment, there’s a huge opportunity to control costs.

Is there a downside for homeowners and builders who buy reclaimed building materials?

It does require more labor because these items aren’t plug and play. You need to be a bit more creative. Our clientele is either thrifty and they have more time than money, or they want the creative challenge, or they’re willing to spend a little more for the aesthetics of the materials we have here. We carry an old-growth framed mirror here that was made by our shop program that sells for $100 and we’ve seen it in a Pottery Barn catalog for five times as much. Lots of hip restaurants in Chicago, like Longman & Eagle, also use our materials.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Helping institutions ‘green up’ their food services

Greg Christian

Greg Christian became a food sustainability consultant for cultural institutions quite by accident. His original plan was on the other side of the equation: help food-service providers green their operations so they could get more institutional clients who were looking for sustainable food vendors.

Mr. Christian, a Chicago-based chef and caterer for close to 20 years, was concerned about the stressful impact the food supply and distribution system was having on the natural resources of our planet.

Mr. Christian targeted food purveyors as a good place to start educating others about sustainability issues. He was convinced most food-service providers, restaurants and caterers — even the ones that say they follow green practices — really weren’t doing much in that regard.

Mr. Christian set up a consulting firm in Chicago to offer his expertise in helping food-service operations change the way they source food, use resources when preparing it and dispose of the waste that’s left over

He started pitching a program to operators based in Chicago and elsewhere. To his surprise, companies told him they already had that figured out and weren’t interested in his services.

Undeterred, he switched gears and found a new audience that was keen on tapping his knowhow to boost their own sustainability profiles: the institutions that hire the food-service providers to feed visitors and workers on their premises.

Earlier this month, the Field Museum announced it was teaming up with Mr. Christian’s firm to launch a 10-year food sustainability program. The program, “Beyond Green: Sustainable Foodservice for Cultural Institutions,” will be part of its contracting process to hire in-house restaurants. Requests for proposals for new food-service contracts the Field Museum is sending out this month incorporate requirements recommended in Mr. Christian’s program. Restaurants that are awarded new contracts will have to prove they are delivering their sustainable promises.

Crain’s met up with Mr. Christian to learn more about the program he developed and who else he’s hoping to inspire to care more about food sourcing and what happens to the leftovers.

Crain’s: What makes this program you developed so unique for institutions that want to be more conscientious about going green?

Mr. Christian: Right now, the food-service companies lead the sustainability initiatives. They tell the new customer what they’re going to do. This program reverses that, where the institution owns and designs the sustainability strategy that gets into the contract and forces the food-service company to execute. It’s new thinking. Everyone battles for the bid, so why not have an institution-led sustainability strategy?

What are some of the strongest elements of the program?

There’s 100 different goals in this program we designed for the Field Museum, all with measurable data that can be monitored. The food-service companies will have to send in sheets proving they’re following the sustainable requirements and hitting the goals. There’s a lot of goals around food sourcing — 65% of their supply has to be sustainable food and 25% of the total has to come from local sources. We ease them into the 65% over the 10 years.

Why are you targeting cultural institutions with your program?

Cultural institutions are adding “green” to their mission, and once the energy savings stuff is in place, they don’t know what to do next. So they’re open to the conversation about sustainability in their food, but they don’t know anything about it. They’ve been letting the food-service companies dictate to them what green is.

Signing a contract to make a vendor go green is attractive to them. They can tell the board they’re working on going green, and they’re not using their own resources to do this.

How rigorous is your program? And will organizations save money with the contracts you design?

The food-service providers have to measure stuff every year. We set up a monitoring system, and we deliver a quarterly or annual report card to the institution that tells them how the food-service company is doing in all the different categories, including recycling, sending compost to the compost services, donating food, and how much waste they’re really diverting from landfills.

They should save money with better monitoring of energy and water consumed in their kitchens. One of the goals is zero waste so nothing will go to the landfill. They won’t have to pay companies for waste removal that they’re paying for now.

Do you intend to expand this program to other types of institutions?

I’ve talked to some universities, but they don’t think they need any help. Very soon we plan on targeting hospitals, convention centers, schools and more universities. I’m talking to a few school systems in Illinois, Iowa and Arkansas.

Do you think food-service companies will come back to you for consulting once they have to comply with these tough contracts?

Yes, we’re already talking to some of them. A lot of these companies really don’t know how to do it. We’re crushing the planet with the food we serve. People think it’s the planes and cars, but it’s really the food system. Embracing this truth is hard for these companies, but we’re here to help them out.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: South Bronx eco-activist talks green jobs in Chicago


Majora Carter’s presentation at the TEDxMidwest conference in Chicago last October.

Majora Carter, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award winner known for fostering eco-entrepreneurship in the South Bronx and elsewhere, was the star attraction at a Blacks in Green-sponsored event this week in Chicago. She came to inspire potential entrepreneurs and environmental activists in economically-challenged communities about creating opportunities in the green economies within their own neighborhoods.

Blacks in Green, a non-profit group that focuses on green community economic development in Chicago, invited Ms. Carter to share her perspectives alongside a panel of speakers representing local organizations, including the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the Center for Urban Transformation and Claretian Associates.

Majora Carter

Ms. Carter is recognized for her work over the last decade-plus as an environmental and social activist and founder of Sustainable South Bronx in 2001. She’s credited with encouraging individuals in economically depressed areas to start their own businesses in the green sector and train unemployed people to show them a way out of poverty and help others avoid returning to prison. Ms. Carter currently is president of Majora Carter Group LLC, a “green-collar” economic consulting firm. She’s also been named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.

More than 100 people braved the sub-zero cold Tuesday to show up at the event, which took place in the Loop at architecture firm Gensler.

Crain’s sat in on Ms. Carter’s pep talk. What follows are excerpts from a handful of themes she touched on:

What she has in common with the Tea Party:

I have a confession to make to you all: I have something in common with the Tea Party. I too want to see a smaller government. How I want to do that is by creating jobs for our most expensive citizens. They are the people who are using an enormous amount of our social-service dollars in this country. They’re people who are generationally impoverished, they’re people coming back from our oil wars, often more broken than when they left, and they’re the folks that cycle in and out of our criminal justice system. I’m from a place where there are an awful lot of very expensive citizens.

Creating green space, jobs in her community with local workers:

Some guy who was born and raised in my community worked for the (New York) Metropolitan Transportation Council and told me the federal government was giving out grants to do Greenway work. I figured out this could be the way to create some economic development opportunities along it. It could be greened up to do beautiful things, like attract storm water that helps cool your cities and lower your energy cost.

Our city kept bringing people in to do the work when we had a 25% unemployment rate (in the South Bronx). So we started one of the country’s first green-collar job training and placement programs designed specifically around wetland restoration and urban forestry. Then we moved later into green roofing and learning how to clean out contaminated lands, of which we have many in urban areas around the country.

People told me you’re not going to find a welfare mother or an ex-con who’s going to be interested in doing this stuff. You give people a reason to feel as though they have a reason to be involved and you will be surprised at the beautiful things people will create. We also wanted to see local dollars staying in our community. One way you do that is to employ the people that are there. That’s happening here in Chicago too.

Communities must find their own green markets:

There’s been a lot of talk about climate mitigation. But are these the kinds of jobs that are going to be coming to the ‘hood? Probably not. I’d love to see folks installing solar panels, but chances are those jobs are going to go to folks that are walk-overs from the construction industry.

We know the climate is changing, and are we coming up with ways to adapt to that? Anything that absorbs water is good for our cities.That’s urban forestry, green roofs, wetland restoration. Those green vegetative surfaces also lower the ambient temperature of a city, which means you’re running your AC less in the summertime. You can train people to be horticultural engineers of the future, and those are jobs that can be done by some of our most expensive citizens.

We need to keep our money local:

We have lots of money in our local communities, and right now it all goes out. That’s not how to create wealth and well-being in our community. We can look at the food system, climate adaptation strategies and building real strategic businesses around those models and allow people to thrive right where they are.

I’ve been around the country. What I’ve seen is that people around us are all working to solve really big problems with local solutions. I call that home town security because I do believe if we act locally and think locally, we’ll all be fine.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Home remodeler re-invents his biz with green-energy focus

One traditional home remodeler on Chicago’s North Shore is positioning himself for success in the emerging green economy.

Ron Cowgill, who owns D/R Services Unlimited Inc. in Glenview, last August formed a new company that promotes his newly acquired expertise as a renewable energy systems seller and installer. The new enterprise will focus on solar and wind power systems, as well as setting up charging stations for electric cars.

Mr. Cowgill, 48, launched WinSol Power Co. last August after he installed two solar photovoltaic systems and one solar thermal unit for homeowners on the North Shore. That might not sound like much, but Mr. Cowgill is spending the cold winter months taking orders and so far has lined up 25 to 30 projects for the spring, when it’s safer to get back onto rooftops.

A residential solar panel array installed by Mr. Cowgill’s company

Aside from solar installations, he’s also a distributor for WindTronics, a wind turbine division of Honeywell International Inc. Mr. Cowgill is also installing wind turbines manufactured locally by Balanced Wind LLC. He’s targeting homeowners, commercial properties and institutions, including schools.

Reinventing himself to participate in the anticipated growth of new technologies in wind and solar wasn’t complicated. Mr. Cowgill enrolled in training programs run by Solar Energy International. Once you’re already in the business, the learning curve isn’t very steep to understand how to install and operate these new systems, he notes.

Mr. Cowgill also educates homeowners and others about renewable energy during a weekly home-improvement radio show that he hosts Saturday mornings on Talk Radio WCPT (820 AM and 92.5 and 92.7 FM).

Crain’s recently talked to Mr. Cowgill about his efforts to get ahead of the pack before renewable energy systems become red hot and every installer in Chicago tries to get a piece of the action.

Crain’s: What inspired you to launch a new company that highlights only renewable energy systems?

Mr. Cowgill: We survived the last few years of this tough economy because we offered full-service remodeling and didn’t focus on any one thing. As part of that, we started doing solar and wind installations. Then we saw that there’s growing interest in these areas, driven right now by federal and state tax credits, which are lowering the buy-in price. Also, rising oil and gas prices — and expected hikes in electricity prices, too — have a lot of people thinking about hedging their bets by installing wind or solar to produce their own heat and electricity.

Crain’s: What’s the major benefit of turning this segment of your services into a separate business?

Mr. Cowgill: By creating a separate entity, we can market just wind and solar so those services will stand out. Before, we were doing renewable energy work with all our other remodeling and it got lost in the mix. Now we have a separate website for WinSol and we’ll be going to the home shows this spring and summer. We plan on taking a wind turbine with us, set it up and spin it so people will come and talk to us.

Crain’s: Who do you envision as your target market to buy these units?

Mr. Cowgill: Twenty percent of the people we’re talking to are the Chicken Littles who say “the sky is falling” and they want to be able to generate their own electricity. Many of our clients are people that just hate the utilities. They think the utilities are evil corporations that suck their money away and they don’t want to be reliant on them. Then there’s a few that say they think it’s cool to move away from fossil fuels and they want to help the environment. We need all three types of those people to get the market really going so the costs can eventually come down.

Crain’s: These renewable energy systems cost more upfront compared to traditional heating and cooling units. Is it tough to sell the concept of wind or solar power?

Mr. Cowgill: Once you buy wind or solar and install it, that’s pretty much all you’re going to spend over the life of the unit. Here’s my analogy that I tell people: If you went out and bought a car, and included in the original purchase price all the oil changes and gas you’d ever have to put in it, it would be pretty expensive. People look at solar panels and think it’s too expensive. But if you think about it, that money you spent upfront is constantly producing electricity or heat without spending any more money. The maintenance costs are minimal.

One of Mr. Cowgill’s wind-rurbine installations

Crain’s: From your initial orders, what’s more popular — wind or solar?

Mr. Cowgill: Right now, we’re looking at more wind than solar, mostly because it’s a spinny thing and it looks cool. It catches people’s eyes and they want to know all about it. People like things that move and I honestly think the wind products are going to move more than the solar.

If some sites aren’t great for wind, then we can introduce the solar energy systems.

Crain’s: What’s the competition like right now in your field for the renewable sector of the market?

Mr. Cowgill: There’s a lot of people in our business starting to get certifications for renewable energy systems. The reason we’re doing it now is to get the training and some installations under our belt.

I’ve been out there talking to the Chicken Littles, the utility haters and the people that just care enough to do it. There’s a pent-up demand for this.  What’s really kicked it off are some of the tax credits and incentives, which are bringing down installation costs and making it more affordable for more people. We know that wind or solar can be done on 60% to 70% of buildings in the Chicagoland area.

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