Learning How to be Unstoppable at Bricks & Bread

The event I attended on 13 July (accompanied by Isabel Hankart, our project architect from Architecture for Humanity) could hardly have been better tailored to answer the questions we are currently grappling with.

Matter-of-factly named “Starting up a Community Reuse and Resource Centre” (that’ll be us, then)… it was the subtitle Making Ourselves Unstoppable: Overcoming the Challenges that really caught my attention, instilling a sense of potential that here we might discover the magic recipe to turn BRC from a promising mix of ingredients, into a fully-baked and perfectly risen cake (err, that is I mean a fully developed, successful business model. I just happen to have cake on the brain since our last Design Day, mmm!)

The first heartening thing about it was simply walking into a room that contained 15 other people in the same boat (or at any rate a range of similar yet unique, heroically hand-built reuse-rafts)! They had travelled from far and wide – Bicester, Peterborough, Coventry and Northern Ireland, as well as several from London and the south-east – for this opportunity of mutual support and learning. Their work had a variety of different focal points – including furniture reuse, wood recycling, reused insulating materials, retrofitting, recycling waste from music festivals, organising a Zero Waste conference, work with schools and businesses, and a Re-Store project with Habitat. It was good to know they are all out there and sprouting into life, or in some cases already going strong. I begged our facilitator Katy Anderson (from the Local United project, who’ve produced a handy Action Pack for Community Led Reuse) to organise more events like this – the importance of feeling “we’re not alone in this” is not to be underestimated, and knowing what else is out there reduces the chances of reinventing the wheel.

Above: me giving a short talk about the partnership support we’ve received from LRN and other networks; the delicious spread of food laid on by Trudy was as important a part of the event as the round-table discussions!

The second heartening thing was finding out more about the venue we were in. Based in suburban Aldershot, Hampshire, Bricks and Bread looks deceptively like any other warehouse building… but behind the low-key exterior is an innovative, dynamic business on a mission to “make it easier to live, work and build sustainably” – and it looks set to grow rapidly through a network of franchises.

The founder of Bricks and Bread, Trudy Thompson – a gutsy, inspiring entrepreneur who ended a lucrative career in motorsports to run a successful eco-building practice for 8 years, before founding this “Sustainable Living Centre” – took us on a tour around the building and talked us through the key elements of the business.

Its three main services are:

Some interesting facts and figures from Trudy included:

Above: Trudy Thompson (far left, first photo) shows visitors around the Bricks & Bread warehouse; products on display and for sale range from salvaged church pews, reused furniture and eco building materials, to delicate jewellery made from cans

The cornerstone of the business is the knowledge of its founder and her network in the field of eco-building and sustainability. Described as a “hub for experts”, Bricks and Bread hires out members of its network to advise on eco building projects, and hires its space to organisations running sustainability events. Weekly advice sessions offer the public free access to impartial expertise on which eco-building specialists and products have the right credentials.

Its growth seems to be happening organically. Two new businesses, focusing on eco kitchens and children’s furniture, are being incubated in a wing of the warehouse. A scrap store where disabled school students get work experience sorting the beads and fabric has led to some of the parents rediscovering their sewing skills, and starting to run sewing workshops and sell hand-made products locally and online. Reused materials move rapidly through a network of thousands of donors and customers (with Linked-In and Twitter key tools of communication), and a network of temporary storage sites allows flexibility of scale.

And importantly, it’s making money – though being a Community Interest Company, all profits get reinvested in expanding its services. Trudy explains the business model this way in her RSA Fellow Profile: “Our construction-waste reuse area enables us to generate an income from selling recycled products to local suppliers. In addition, we charge suppliers for advice on sustainable techniques and materials: it’s worth their while because we’ll subsequently promote them via our Sustainable Business Network. We plough all the income we receive (excluding the salaries we pay our interns) into providing services for the local community, from free training and advice sessions on sustainable living to work experience for young people from nearby schools.”

Above: a large room in the warehouse is dedicated to educational activities – including inspiring kids by revealing the monetary value of the materials used in packaging; brainstorming with school groups on all aspects of sustainability and resourcefulness; business networking, career advice events, and eco building advice sessions

Bricks and Bread is a model BRC can learn from – whether through simply observing, or perhaps by becoming part of their franchise network (which offers a “modular” approach, meaning each franchisee can choose which services they want to offer). I’ll update on this in a few weeks time, as I’m hoping to take members of the BRC Steering Group to visit Bricks and Bread to explore this possibility.

After Trudy’s tour, we heard a presentation from Kelvin Hughes of the Community Furniture Project in Newbury – a more “traditional” type of reuse organisation, but one that is also thriving and expanding. That, however, is another story (spanning several more pages of my notebook)! What struck me most was that its core motivation was emergency provision for people in real, urgent need, often in dire circumstances – it began operating from two garages to provide furniture for women moving out of a women’s refuge where they had escaped domestic violence. Still today many of its customers and trainees are referred by social services. While at BRC our starting point has been different – based on a wish to make better use of wasted resources and cultivate skills – I felt moved and humbled by this example of reuse as an “emergency service”. I hope that BRC in its own way – as an incubator of social enterprises, and a training provider, as well as through selling affordable reused products – will be able to bring support and open up new possibilities for people in need.

Thanks to Isabel Hankart for all the photos used in this article