Breaking Down Buildings, Building Up a Neighborhood

The suicide economy is all too ready to cast off used material, disadvantaged people, and troubled neighborhoods. These living economy entrepreneurs are turning throwaways into gold

When Shane Endicott was 27, he wrestled with a crisis that haunts many adults. He'd spent his early years amassing skills and was now ready to embark on a profession that would define his adult work life. He wanted to make a living that would support his new family, but he didn't want to spend his life making rich people richer. He believed in doing work that would provide benefits for his neighborhood as well as himself. He wanted to work someplace where everyone had an equal say and similar values. And he especially wanted to avoid producing anything that would create more dangerous wastes or use up more natural resources.

Anthony Dance, one of thirtysix workers, prepares used lumber.  Photo courtesy of Rebuilding Center

Endicott's work ethic sounds not just idealistic, but positively quixotic; it flies in the face of every rule society teaches us about business life in the modern world. But today, Endicott and his work crew are grossing nearly $2 million a year supporting their families and watching their dreams turn into reality. In a business Endicott and his partners have built from the ground up, the Rebuilding Center in Portland, Oregon, is living up to all the demands he had about work. They are also doing it within a well-established but under-used business model—the nonprofit.

Endicott had always been interested in the construction and demolition business. But he and his partners did not want to emulate demolition as it is usually done. He says he didn't want to “crunch and dump, grind up all that useful wood, metal, and brick and dump it in a landfill, then go out and chop down more trees and mine more iron to build something else.” Instead, the Rebuilding Center demolishes, by hand, wooden or brick houses, guts entire apartment buildings, or removes built-ins like old kitchen cabinets for reuse. The Center renews the used building materials and sells them to the public at half the cost of retail or less.

Rebuilding ideas: economy and community
Endicott and his partners understood that one of the first steps toward being a socially responsible business is to have ties to the locality. They were located in an economically depressed area of northeast Portland. While the neighborhood needed job opportunities, it also needed a sense of itself as a viable community.

Starting with a $15,000 private loan, Endicott, his partners, and several volunteers worked for a few months out of a garage. Now, after four years, they're still in the neighborhood. They've expanded to a half-block-long building, stuffing it with recycled building materials. Humming with the activities of 36 full-time employees, it attracts customers from all over the city who come to get good deals on everything from toilets and light fixtures to roofing and door frames.

About 80 percent of the Rebuilding Center staff comes from the surrounding neighborhood. Because no expensive, oil-demanding machines are used, the Center employs three to six times more people than mechanized demolition companies; and they still do the job for less money while paying their employees considerably higher wages. Wages start at $10 an hour for the most unskilled labor (like shifting bricks or pulling nails) with regular reviews and wage increases, plus full medical and dental coverage. “We didn't want [to be] the kind of nonprofit that appeals to people's ideals and then doesn't pay a living wage,” says Endicott. “We also didn't want the kind of inequalities you find in many businesses. One of our goals was to raise the bar for unskilled labor and lower the bar in management to level out the inequalities found in most pay scales.”

Workers are treated like full business partners; everyone, including the director, gets the same single vote on work-related issues, and potential workers are hired by the people they'll be working with. With principles like these, the employees and their families aren't the only ones who have felt the effect. After just two years of existence, the Center was being hailed by the local neighborhood paper as“an anchor that's revitalizing the local economy.”

Environmentally friendly
Besides revitalizing the economy, the Rebuilding Center's key tenet for social responsibility is to help protect the Earth. They've adopted a closed-loop cycle for building materials that reuses everything down to, as Endicott says, “a two-foot length of nail-studded two-by-four.” Because of this, they've diverted millions of pounds of still-useful materials from overflowing landfills every year, and they prevent more raw materials from being extracted.

“And even more importantly, we value the energy in that porcelain sink, even the gyprock,” says Endicott. “We help that energy, that was once alive, to go on giving.” Although the Center is now so successful it could ship high-end items like oak doors or repaired stained glass to distant markets, the staff has refused to do so, believing that burning fossil fuels for shipping out of state would negate the point of their enterprise.

Uniting the neighborhood
After everyone's paid a decent wage and all the bills are paid, there's usually money left over. If not needed to improve or expand the business, the money is paid out to the public. “With our surplus, we try inspiring various community projects, which is what Our United Villages, does,” says Endicott. The inspiration for Our United Villages (OUV) started with Endicott (before he'd even established the Center) when he and a few neighbors met to discuss a local 12-year-old who was stealing in the neighborhood. They discovered that the youth badly needed braces, which his family couldn't afford. The whole neighborhood decided to chip in and buy them for him. Now, the youth not only abstains from acts like stealing, but prevents other youths from doing the same. “It's not that we aren't having things stolen from the neighborhood anymore, but that we have a different relationship with him and the community,” says Endicott.

With that, the neighborhood started discussing other ideas. Neighbors could learn how to make jam from the older folks. Kids might perform odd jobs such as mowing a neighbor's lawns in exchange for locally-donated funds from a tax-deductible scholarship trust.

While ideas were flowing, locals found that they weren't easy to implement. “I realized that there was an amazing amount of ideas and passion but no cultural outlet for them,” says Endicott. To create this outlet, he helped establish an organization that would foster community dialogue and activity—Our United Villages. Endicott had always envisioned the Rebuilding Center as the means for creating OUV but only recently have profits grown enough to get it going. Endicott is optimistic that with OUV now established, many ideas can finally be realized.

“We used to think we could attain quality of life individually, by making more money,” Endicott says. “But with our water and air increasingly polluted and so many people isolated and unhappy, the only way we'll get that quality of life is to evolve new ways to do business and to live together in communities that are value-based, not money-based.”

Holly Dressel is co-author of Good News for a Change and From Naked Ape to Superspecies. She has been a writer and researcher for television, film, and radio for 20 years. <
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