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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