For construction practice, candidates are building a tiny house in the ERW parking lot.

This is the house that Lou Dickson built – the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse, 2101 Dempster St. (next to the UHaul lot), best known as a treasure trove of salvaged building materials and a model of sustainable construction practices.

Ms. Dickson says ERW was “born out of frustration that there was no place to take things” that construction companies like hers removed during home renovations or demolition. Reusable materials now find new life at the Evanston warehouse rather than burial in a landfill. Savings on the cost of a project and in energy and resources for the environment result.

But entwined with ERW’s ecological mission is a cause with a human face. Ms. Dickson has dedicated ERW to helping low-income community members, at-risk youth, and ex-offenders rebuild their lives.

Since opening the warehouse in May of 2011, Ms. Dickson has assembled a volunteer organization and warehousing business that support a workforce training program where unemployed or underemployed individuals can learn construction and life skills.

“The unemployment rate for African American males in Baltimore is lower than in Evanston,” Ms. Dickson says. She says she is convinced the building trades are “the best way to get people out of poverty. …We’re training them for an industry that will pay a living wage.”

The Dempster Street warehouse hums with activity five days a week. Some 16 employees make order out of chaos as they unload trucks full of items salvaged from buildings anywhere from Lake Forest to Lincoln Park. They shelve door hardware; hang chandeliers; stack bathroom tiles; position high-end, Subzero refrigerators; pile reclaimed wood. The public is encouraged to peruse and purchase the constantly changing inventory of items donated rather than dumped.

All this effort is directed to the training program. “Every dollar they raise [in the warehouse] goes to workforce training,” Ms. Dickson says.

Candidates for workforce training at ERW, 50% of whom have spent time in prison, take varied paths to the door. Of the six present trainees, Terry, 21, heard about ERW from the Youth Job Center and Kurtis, 20, from an uncle at Ebenezer AME Church.

Joe, 35, got out of prison in 2009 and knows the pitfalls: Once released, he says, “you’re on your own.”  He found work as a prep cook at Maggiano’s but says, “The routine was the same every day. I didn’t see myself doing it as a career.” A friend introduced him to the ERW training program in 2011. Having “stayed in touch with Lou,” he says, he is back, hoping to earn four certificates through the newer, revamped program.

Ms. Dickson’s first two workforce trainings focused on warehousing skills such as driving a forklift, but the pay for jobs in that field turned out to be too low. The newest trainees are working through a specific curriculum in “deconstruction” developed by the Building Material Reuse Association. Under the supervision of trainers Michael Montenegro and Tom Reinfranck, they took down a Glencoe house by hand, working toward a BMRA certificate that is the only one of its kind in the country.

Deconstruction is a “more surgical and delicate” procedure than demolition, and therefore much slower, Mr. Montenegro says. “It’s more of a ‘team sport’ than carpentry,” Ms. Dickson says, and is accomplished more safely and efficiently with more than one person. By employing deconstruction techniques like “soft-stripping,” 25% of a home’s materials by weight can be reused instead of landfilled and the majority of the rest can be recycled, BMRA says. Homeowners who donate salvaged materials to a place like ERW can recoup some or all of the added costs of deconstruction through tax breaks.

It behooves ERW trainees to learn these strategies. Sustainable construction methods, long a matter of conscience, are increasingly becoming a matter of law. Since 2012, Cook County has had a Demolition Debris Diversion Ordinance stating that residential buildings must divert 70% of debris by weight from the waste stream and reuse a minimum of 5% of materials by weight.

On-the-job training teaches participants how to budget, do (construction) math, and use safety tips and gear, Mr. Montenegro says. On days when deconstruction work is slow, they practice construction skills by building a tiny house in the ERW parking lot. Mr. Montenegro designed the house to fit the dimensions of reclaimed wood and windows found in the warehouse.               

Thursdays, the group meets at the warehouse for instruction made possible by Ms. Dickson’s ties with other Evanston organizations (“I love the idea of collaboration, because you can do so much more,” she says). They catch up on math and English with Youth Job Center tutors; take sex education from an AmeriCorps employee; learn fiscal literacy with the Center for Economic Progress; undergo drug testing and counseling with PEER Services.

“Teaching the ‘hard skills’ is relatively easy and will get them in the door,” Ms. Dickson says, “but it won’t keep them there.” She works with them on “soft skills” like “work ethic and proper decorum” she says she hopes “will make them stand out.” Terry says Ms. Dickson is helping him “not to get so angry. She says, ‘Take a deep breath,’ or helps if your family is having trouble. …Lou is a very good lady.” 

 As the former head of her own VanVleck Construction, Ms. Dickson knows “you have to like [the construction business] to stay in it.” She says she asks only two things of her trainees: that they like the work and remain drug-free. Terry echoes his teammates’ reactions in saying, “I love it…working with my hands.”

Ms. Dickson says she also knows firsthand that construction can be “an unforgiving industry.” There is no tolerance, for example, for being 10 minutes late to a job site. “A lot of behavior change” must occur during the training, she says, “a getting used to changed habits,” from “being here on time to pants not [worn so low they are] falling off.” What she conceived of as a seven-month training program can easily stretch into more time.

But with the program, she says, “The reinforcements are huge.” One is the $10 an hour she pays them from the beginning. “They have to feed their families. They have to get used to getting a paycheck every week, to paying Social Security,” she says. Then there is the “sense of accomplishment” she says comes from construction work. “You can see what you do each day.”

ERW trainees have their eyes on the prize, the certificate(s) at the end of their training. Joe says, “With credentials like this I can earn a very decent wage and someday work for myself and pass my skills on.” Kurtis is more concise. “I’ll be able to go places with this,” he says.