July 28, 2005

Turning waste into environmental, social good

  • Oregon's ReBuilding Center has expanded so it can divert twice as many building materials from landfills.
    ReBuilding Center

    Photo by Jennifer Jako
    One of the new warehouses at the ReBuilding Center in Portland has a band of salvaged windows that provides extensive day lighting.

    Imagine a big-box building material outlet combined with a thrift store. Then imagine that the customers, environment and community directly benefit from its operation, and you have The ReBuilding Center of Our United Villages, a nonprofit located in a developing area of inner North Portland.

    ReBuilding Center accepts and carries its metropolitan region's largest variety and volume of used building and remodeling materials. Much like the RE Store in Bellingham and Seattle, ReBuilding Center has become a great resource for its region to keep waste out of the local landfills.

    Everything from wood-framed windows to support beams to chandeliers are accepted as donations, if in reusable condition. Materials are sold to the public at 50 to 90 percent off retail value. Grants of building materials are provided to projects that enhance the local community.

    ReBuilding Center also offers DeConstruction Services, a sustainable alternative to demolition; and ReFind Furniture, which makes functional furnishings from castoff building materials and milled salvaged lumber.

    ReBuilding Center keeps 5 tons of reusable materials out of the garbage dump every day; it is anticipated that within three years this will increase to 10 tons per day. The center's annual capacity to divert materials from the landfills will go from 4.5 million up to 9 million pounds per year.

    Where to find used materials
    The ReBuilding Center

    The RE Store


    Seattle Building Salvage

    Second Use Building Materials

    Building Materials Reuse Association

    The increased capacity will be handled by two new warehouses, which increase the center to 65,000 square feet. Also, the center's existing facilities were upgraded.

    Now in its seventh year, ReBuilding Center was initially operated by four dedicated volunteers. Today, it employs 42 people who earn a living wage with full benefits. The expanded center will create an additional 17 to 20 local, livable-wage jobs over the next three years.


    From the kitchen cabinets from a residential remodel to a grain mill to an entire city block of houses, DeConstruction Services takes great care to yield materials in reusable condition, even de-nailing every stick of lumber, which is then grade-stamped at the ReBuilding Center and put up for sale.

    Deconstruction is a way to remove residential and commercial structures with maximum material recovery. Performed mostly by hand, this method can salvage up to 85 percent of a building's material.

    Deconstruction's benefits include:

  • Lower building removal costs

  • Reduced environmental impact from construction

  • Saved landfill space by keeping reusable building materials out of the waste stream

  • Creation of new, living-wage job opportunities in a developing field

    An important advantage to using Deconstruction Services is that one can donate the salvaged materials and get a tax-deduction. These materials make up over one-third of the inventory at the center.

    Widespread support

    The warehouse expansion ensures the center's self-sufficiency and increases support for Our United Villages' community enhancement work. Through neighborhood outreach, people of all backgrounds are invited to explore how they can work together on a grassroots level to address community concerns.

    Craig Kelley, an Our United Villages board member, coordinated the expansion project. R&H Construction coordinated incoming reused materials, from door hardware to lumber, and oversaw volunteers.

    The building's architecture is the creation of Mark Lakeman and Christine Yun of Communitecture. Both the contractor and architect donated some services.

    Support for the $2.7 million expansion of the center has been strong and wide. For example, hundreds of volunteers assembled window panels, moved building materials and helped with cob construction.

    The Portland Development Commission provided $1.25 million in low-interest loans, Portland Metro and the city of Portland granted $240,000.

    In a time when nonprofit funding has become extremely competitive, grants from Meyer Memorial Foundation ($200,000), the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust ($150,000) and Spirit Mountain Community Fund ($75,000) show their strong belief in sustainability. More than $665,000 has been received from myriad foundations.

    Promoting sustainability

    ReFind Furniture demonstrates reuse in a creative way with a product line that includes picture frames and mirrors made from molding scraps and small mirror and glass pieces, wall storage made from drawers, and sturdy tables crafted from milled clear vertical grain Douglas fir from the center's lumber yard.

    "It's the inventive reuse of things that would otherwise enter the waste stream," says Erin Piccolo, ReFind assistant.

    The new buildings are covered in recycled materials, including cedar shingles, windows and century-old dimensional lumber. They include the second commercial building code-approved earthen masonry or cob construction in Oregon.

    One of the warehouses has an open bay facing a sidewalk, providing a gathering spot for passersby. Inside, the public can sit down on a cob bench and learn about alternative building methods.

    Raised planting beds flanking the new buildings treat all the rainwater that falls on the added 28,000 square feet. Stormwater not managed by the planting beds is absorbed by a pervious concrete parking lot.

    With parts for the building salvaged from sources as diverse as a housing project, a downtown hotel, an old barn and even skylights from the local zoo's penguinarium, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate way to expand and support Our United Villages' community-building goals.

    Jennifer Jako is owned by an 1898 Victorian house, restored entirely with salvaged materials. She co-owns a furniture design business that focuses on recycled and sustainable materials.

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