The Reconstructionists: The ReBuilding Exchange salvages and resells parts from old buildings

(Rebecca Kilberg)

The first thing to notice when walking through the halls of the warehouse that lodges the ReBuilding Exchange is the smell. It’s an unexpected scent to find in the middle of a busy city, in a building sandwiched between two storage centers. It’s the smell of sawdust. The odor is just a clue about what’s behind the doors of the Exchange. Rows of sinks line one wall, doors of all shapes and sizes lean stacked against another, and various cabinets serve as a bulky divider along the center of the room. And, of course, there is a massive amount of wood.

The ReBuilding Exchange offers a unique service to the people of Chicago by selling pieces of old buildings on the cheap. The Exchange engages in something like large-scale home recycling. They send their workers and volunteers to deconstruct properties that would otherwise be demolished, taking the houses apart by hand, piece by piece. It is the brainchild of Elise Zelechowski, a Chicago native, who first saw the idea in action at the ReBuilding Center in Portland, Oregon. With hopes to create a similar project in Chicago, Zelechowski signed on to work with the Delta Institute, an organization that works to create a far-reaching environmentally-friendly attitude. In its first eight months, the ReBuilding Exchange was responsible for saving seven hundred tons of reusable material, according to business manager Meegan Czop. The Exchange is approaching its one-year anniversary on February 12 with considerable success; though not always flooded by would-be renovators clamoring for assistance, the Exchange has a stable influx of customers from all over Chicago. Czop even says that they hope one day to work as a distribution center, filling orders for contractors.

The location of the ReBuilding Exchange–the middle of Brighton Park–is crucial to its mission. The Delta Institute did most of the heavy lifting when it came to finding a good location to introduce Zelechowski’s idea. Delta was looking specifically for a community that could benefit from having low-cost building materials nearby, and found that Brighton Park was an excellent match. Since it opened its door last year, the ReBuilding Exchange has found volunteers from Brighton Park’s schools, community groups, and a fair number of walk-ins from the neighborhood. They also collaborate with the ReUse People, a nonprofit organization that trains people with criminal records to work in deconstruction efforts.

The ReBuilding Exchange offers more than just materials, however. Customers often come looking for information, inspiration, and sometimes a bit of help. The Exchange offers advice about renovation, and will recommend various specialists who can help with particularly difficult projects. Czop says that the best part of her job is seeing what people do with the materials on hand–she cites turning old timber framing into a dining room table as an example. She says that customers can often discover real finds, such as 150-year-old Douglas fir wood known as “old-growth lumber,”which would otherwise be extremely expensive. “I use the materials in my own home,” Czop admits proudly.

Two women from Orland Park walk in looking for some information about refurbishing. They had heard about the ReBuilding Exchange on the news, and wanted to check it out for themselves. Although they said it was really a hit-or-miss situation with the Exchange (Czop had just regretfully informed them that there were currently no air conditioners available), they found the idea of the Exchange very intriguing. Certainly, they were impressed by the recycling effort, and found the various oddball pieces hanging around the warehouse amusing. After all, the ReBuilding Exchange encourages people to experiment with turning a few odds and ends into something extraordinary.
ReBuilding Exchange, 3335 W. 47th St. Tuesday-Wednesday, 10am-6pm; Thursday, noon-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-6pm.