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Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity Helps Salvage Reusable Materials

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Susan Bence
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Milwaukee Public Radio
Volunteers extract kitchen cabinets at deconstruction site.

Habitat for Humanity is known for partnering with Milwaukee families to build or improve the places they call home. A few years ago, volunteers created a program to help fund those homes - a deconstruction crew.

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Credit Susan Bence
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Crew begins with morning meeting to divide into small work teams.

The crew salvages reusable items from residential and commercial buildings and then sells them at Habitat's ReStore - a discount furniture / hardware store.

At an old factory on 4th and Hadley in Milwaukee, a team is pulling out carpet squares and other valuable items.

Jake Weiler is the only one being paid around here. He’s the Milwaukee Habitat ReStore deconstruction manager.

“You saw how much fun they’re having together. We’re able to get together every week, once or twice a week, to salvage things and keep them out of landfill,” Weiler says.

It’s his job to scout out projects, which are usually scheduled a month in advance.

“In a perfect day, we have 20 volunteers on a whole house or a whole construction site. We pull everything we can get our hands on; take it to the ReStore, raise money there so we can build homes in the area,” he says.

Weiler considers himself handy with a hammer, but says he learned the rest of it from the volunteers around him.

Cindy Gear and her husband Ken were the instigators. She started volunteering for Habitat when she was still working. “And then when Ken and I retired in 2012, we were at a fundraiser, when somebody at Habitat, said we’re going to help deconstruction a lake home,” Gear explains.

The Gears helped with the three-day project. “And we realized how much we could do to organize and instill a process that’s repeatable and sustainable,” she says.

Nothing escapes her trained eye, even as Gear helps other volunteers meticulously remove a set of kitchen cabinets.

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Cindy Gear and her husband Ken got the deconstruction crew going in 2012. She says these cabinets will probably sell before they're unloaded from the ReStore truck.

“First of all we take pictures of the kitchen before and we measure it. We deconstruct piece by piece and then label them. So we know we have a twelve-piece set of cabinetry. We gently clean them,” she explains.

Gear says the set will likely sell before the truck unloads later today at ReStore.

“Sometimes people are hovering about. They know today is deconstruction day and they stand at the dock and wait for the truck to come in,” she says.

Many of the buildings the crew works on are ultimately demolished, but not this 1915 complex.

Architect Corey Lapworth designed the rebirth of the Nunn Bush Shoe Factory. 

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When it comes back to life, this end of the Nunn Bush complex will feature apartments topped with a community room.

“Right now it’s all offices.  They’re going to switch it into residential and offices. So the three-story section we’re looking at now, that will be offices; and then the five-story piece will be 59 apartments,”he explains.

The project holds special significance for Lapworth. He took urban planning courses during his student days at UW-Milwaukee. Lapworth drew inspiration from one instructor in particular - Welford Sanders.

“He worked with the Martin Luther King Economic Development Commission for quite a few years and really redeveloped this neighborhood.  So this project is in honor of him,” Lapworth says.

 

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Architect Corey Lapworth and project manager Dave Rhoda on the 6th floor of the Nunn Bush Shoe Factory. It will be restored and be used by people who will live in apartments on the floors below.

Apartments will  fill the old factory floors, all but its top floor. Lapworth says those 8,000 square feet are historically significant.

“What really makes it historically significant is that [the Nunn Bush Shoe Factory owners] were the first ones to develop a community space, or common space. So up on the 6th floor, there’s a big open space that used to be for the employees, on the weekend and that sort of thing for them to gather and socialize,” Lapworth says.

Elegant steel trusses stretch across the sun-filled space.

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Original bench from employee Smoke Room.

Long benches still occupy the original smoking room. Across the way, a door reads Ladies Parlor.

“It was a really nice space back in the time and I think with the rehab we’ll do, it’ll be another great space. This will be the main community room, we’ll have a little kitchenette in here,” Lapworth says.

You can almost see shoemakers gathering for weekend feasts and dances.

Habitat ReStore volunteer Cindy Gear is focused on any items tagged for her deconstruction crew.

“There is so much of a win.  Our crew, has been doing this once a week since 12, 12 of 12 (December 12, 2012), the infamous start date.  We have brought in over one million dollars in product to the Habitat ReStore.” Gear adds, “So look at the number of houses we’ve helped to build.”

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Truck waits for deconstruction crew's harvest at 4th and Hadley.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with theLake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.