Cynthia Main


RX Made: How We're Upcycling Building Waste and Creating Jobs

Rebuilding Exchange saves building materials from the trash and turns them into furniture under the line RX Made.


Living in Chicago, especially on the west side of town, it's impossible not to notice the number of empty, derelict buildings haunting the city. When these buildings are demolished, it creates more than just holes in the urban landscape; around 40 percent of all trash sent to the landfill is building waste from either demolition or construction. If these homes head to the dump, it's the end of story for all the materials that went into making them.
At Rebuilding Exchange, we're creating a different end to the story. In 2009, we started a retail warehouse dedicated to keeping these materials out of the landfill. After a lot of hauling, a lot of cleaning of old sinks, and a lot of educating the public on how to reuse older materials, we’ve kept more than 8,000 tons of building materials out of the landfill, and made over $2 million of quality materials available to the public.

We've been looking at more ways to keep materials part of the story, using reclaimed building materials to make furniture and home goods under our own label, RX Made. The line evolved out of our job training program for adults with barriers to employment. The original goal of the job training program was to create a skilled workforce in the growing field of deconstruction and materials-reuse management, but what began as a training program for making simple, beautiful, upcycled furniture has since evolved into its own thriving enterprise.


The RX Made shop is always humming with the sounds of wood being re-sawn to make different pieces. Skilled woodworkers work alongside graduates from our training program to bring out the hidden beauty in these materials. But we thought there might be even more potential to create pieces with a broader appeal, and a stronger sense of design. So we reached out to Strand Design, a Chicago-based ecologically-conscious firm that designed and prototyped three products specifically for us, taking into account the material resources and the production capabilities of our (mostly donated) shop.

Strand Design came up with three beautiful, simple designs that utilized the reclaimed material, but had a great modern aesthetic. They also helped us domestically source all of the components for this project that did not come directly from the waste stream. Most of the parts used are coming from Chicago and the Great Lakes Region. The wood comes both from buildings deconstructed here in Chicago, and urban lumber harvested from downed trees in the city.


We turned to our community through Kickstarter as a way to raise money for the initial manufacturing costs, and to see if the community at large wanted to support this project. The response has been amazing. People understood that this was a project that was not only creating new opportunities to reduce waste, but also creating jobs and building the local economy at the same time. This is a community effort: we traded with stores for our rewards, we bartered for space for our events, we worked with contractors to salvage the flooring we wanted for the project, and forged relationships with local manufacturers to help us make this happen. It feels like a community coming together to retell a story of these abandoned buildings the way we wanted to, providing the material for creating the kind of change we want to see.
As of Friday, December 7, the campaign has been fully funded. Please visit our Kickstarter page here.
Images 1, 4, and 5 courtesy of Sharon Burdett; image 2 courtesy of Jennifer Martinez, image 3 courtesy of Agnes Starczewska\n
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