Recently I took a stroll through Chicago’s Rebuilding Exchange, at 1740 West Webster Avenue. It’s a place where you can spot the remnants of old homes, cathedrals, and other structures.
If I needed some plinth blocks, an assortment was available starting at $2 each. I could also have taken with me a church pew or old radiator, although that might not have gone over too well with the driver of the #9 Ashland bus.
The Rebuilding Exchange is a non-profit salvage organization. Its noble goal is to match up reclaimed building materials with architects and builders in search of a unique look. More often than not, that look will be weathered or distressed — such is the nature of lumber that’s been harvested from decades-old buildings. It includes sought-after hardwoods like old-growth pine, a dense material offering a rustic design element.
Since its inception, Rebuilding Exchange has created over $2 million in reusable materials.
For the past couple of months, Rebuilding Exchange has called the 24,000-square foot space in the Sheffield Neighbors neighborhood home. It’s been in business for four years and has already moved three times due to rapid growth and increased demand.
When I was there, the place was hopping at the close of business on a 10-degree afternoon. A bunch of wood cabinets were on their way out and one of the incoming pieces was a mustard-colored, vintage commode.
“The success we’ve had I attribute to the architecture community,” said Elise Zelechowski, founder and executive director. “We want architects to think more creatively about using materials.”
Zelechowski knows a thing or two about environmentalism. She used to run the Chicago Center for Green Technology. After that, she worked at the Delta Institute, an organization that helps promote better environmentally practices.
“Delta saw a need to redevelop and clean up old industrial sites,” Zelechowski said. “The result was Rebuilding Exchange.”
The facility gets most of its inventory from donated flooring, doors and windows brought in by individuals. About 20 percent of the material is from large building deconstruction projects.
That’s where most of the lumber comes from, which is Rebuilding Exchange’s biggest seller. Restaurant owners looking to create a distinctive look and feel are frequent visitors. They include hot spots like Big Star, La Sirena Clandestina and Black Dog Gelato.
“They’ll buy cladding for really interesting projects with flooring, that really showcases the material in a very public way,” Zelechowski said.
An area being pioneered by Rebuilding Exchange is education and training. A fully-equipped wood shop is the laboratory for classes. The organization holds more than one hundred public workshops each year.
The education division and one of its products, a line of furniture bearing the RX Made brand name, is run by Cynthia Main.
“This may look like your high school wood shop,” Main said of the building area at Rebuilding Exchange. “That’s because most of our tools were donated from high school wood shops.”