Everyone who walked into the ReBuild Warehouse in Springfield thought it was just a great idea, a great place. A place where discarded building materials — doors, windows, sinks, flooring — could be recycled rather than trashed. A place where residents could take weekly workshops on how to remake their homes and communities into green, sustainable spaces. A place that provided jobs to folks who otherwise had a hard time finding work.
Hughes hopes they can find a new space, or a new source of funding to keep ReBuild alive in some way. He plans to keep offering the workshops and training workers. But unless a savior steps up soon, the best non-Home Depot place to go for building supplies will mostly vanish.
In less than three years, ReBuild has been “a trailblazer in the region,” said Joan Kelsch, Arlington County’s green building programs manager. She said ReBuild raised “awareness for recycling and reuse and provided real options for people looking for affordable building supplies.”
In 2004, the former federal administrator was looking for a way to help the environment, fearful of the damage done by global warming. “You can’t sit around and do nothing,” So he launched a “deconstruction” business, carefully tearing down buildings and salvaging the good stuff.
Except then he had no place for the good stuff.
Here’s Hughes talking about the rise and fall of ReBuild, and more details are after the jump.
Hughes’s first business, Deconstruction Services, took off. He also offered to hire and train people who were often classified as unemployable: folks emerging from drug rehab or jail. Folks who knew this might be their last good chance. Hughes said he has had great success helping these people rebuild their lives.
But he found that as his crews tore down older houses, to make way for new houses, places like Habitat for Humanity and other builders couldn’t use all the windows and light fixtures and stoves they were rescuing. In March 2009, he opened ReBuild Warehouse as a non-profit corporation. Homeowners doing their own work could make a donation and get a tax deduction, or they could buy and reuse vintage or often new, surplus materials that landed at ReBuild.
In addition, Hughes staged workshops on things such as creating an edible, sustainable yard out of nut and berry plants, or building window platforms for growing earlier and longer, or efficient home remodeling. He had no money for marketing — he didn’t even have the ReBuild name on the warehouse truck — but he slowly built a fan base of more than 2,000 people who discovered ReBuild and joined the mailing list.
“I wish I had a dollar for every person who came in here and said ‘Wow, what a great idea,’” Hughes said.
The recession came at exactly the wrong time. Hughes said sales almost precisely tracked the consumer confidence index. People stopped knocking down houses, renovating them instead. Money for home projects, or home buying, from banks slowed to a trickle. Contractors were reluctant to reuse parts, fearful of what clients might say.
Where Deconstruction Services might be working on three properties at once, now they work on one at a time, if that, Hughes said. His 14 person work crew is now down to eight.
With another year, Hughes believes ReBuild would have made it to the break even point. But he had poured about $250,000 of Deconstruction Services’ money into ReBuild, with no end in sight.
“What ReBuild needs is a subsidy,” Hughes said. “You watch state and county officials fawn over Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman, and they do bring in jobs. But our jobs are local.” He said other cities, such as Portland, Ore., or Austin, Texas., support sustainable businesses, but Fairfax County’s economic development agency “is doing nothing for small businesses. This doesn’t rate highly with foundations and government agencies.”
Penny Gross, the Mason District supervisor, said she wasn’t happy to see ReBuild go but subsidizing private businesses is “not something we would do. It’s sad that such a good idea has become a victim of the economy.”
So ReBuild will close to the public after this Sunday, and then distribute its remaining stock as best it can, and try to resurface in the spring in a different form, Hughes said. He wants to stay near the Beltway, and in Northern Virginia, to be most accessible to the folks who need sustainable products.
Robyn Carter, a Springfield resident and local historian, said she was heartbroken by the news of ReBuild’s closing.
“The most heartbreaking aspect,” Carter said, “is the loss of all the rescued vintage architectural items that were finding homes at ReBuild rather than ending up lost forever at the landfills. With the horrendous amount of vintage and historic homes that have been destroyed for ‘progress’ or rampant McMansionizing, at least there were some salvaged items being made available through ReBuild that have helped people in the restoration process and at an amazingly affordable cost.”
Carter called the warehouse “a veritable smorgasbord of anything from early 1900s interior doors and hardware to 1970s light fixtures.” In my short time there this week, I found a glass dome for a light fixture in our 1960s house that we could not find anywhere on the planet. Snatched it up. Two bucks. What a great idea, this place.