New Internationalist

PHOTO ESSAY: Remaking lives, one recycled item at a time

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How a block of derelict garages became the hub of a south London community. Sylvia Rowley reports.

Strewn with rubbish and blackened by fires, the space where the Brixton Remakery now stands was once a derelict block of garages set to be blocked off by the local council. It was a grimy tomb for dead foxes and a place to dump burnt-out cars and beer cans.

Today it’s a bright, busy series of workshops, where unwanted planks of wood are being turned into striking table-tops and everything from scaffolding poles to pianos are treated to a new lease of life. The Brixton Remakery is a pioneering re-use and refurbishment hub that stops valuable resources being sent to landfill and instead uses them for the benefit of local people and businesses. Based in one of south London’s most deprived boroughs, it’s almost entirely run by volunteers.

‘It’s a unique concept that we’ve come up with, which is a space for making things out of waste materials’, says Remakery co-director Rebekah Phillips. ‘Whether it’s carpentry, bikes, IT, metal work… But we’re also using “remake” in its broader sense: we’re remaking people, so we’re teaching them new skills and helping them change their lives for the better.’

The team’s first job was to remake the garage block. When I first visited in the summer of 2013 to film for Al Jazeera’s environmental series, Earthrise, building work was in full swing. Former homeless plasterer Ben Jackson explained why he enjoyed taking part in the refurbishment: ‘My normal life would be, you know, maybe go down the shops to get a beer in the morning and hang about in a park. But here things are very different. I really feel like I’ve accomplished something.’

The refurbishment is being carried out with reclaimed materials wherever possible, and it’s shocking what the team have rescued. There’s a stainless steel kitchen worktop, brand-new bathroom units, sash windows and part of a wooden gym floor.

Relying almost entirely on volunteers means that it has been slow going at times, but the building is coming along well. The gym floor now serves as wall cladding that covers a whole stretch of the old garage block, and the space has been cleverly partitioned using screens made from assorted old windows. Co-director Hannah Lewis says that once the Remakery’s lease is finalized by the council, they’ll receive a US$83,000 grant from The City Bridge Trust to pay contractors to finish off the work – hopefully by summer 2014.

Meanwhile, the first tenant has already moved in. Joie de Winter (pictured above) is co-founder of Tree Cycle, a wood-recycling project, and she has set up a workshop and office here. I find her sanding down unwanted chairs from a church. ‘We want to help people rebuild their connection with nature,’ she says, ‘and to find ways of giving back life to discarded wood. It’s upsetting to see it left on the streets.’ She makes and sells go-karts, sledges, swings and garden geo-domes from reclaimed wood, as well as running a course for a local women’s group.

It’s infectious, the idea of building something – whether it’s furniture or a sense of community – from stuff that would have been wasted. And through thousands of hours of hard, unpaid work the team has created an amazing place for creativity, green enterprise and for properly valuing the people and resources around us.

Hannah Lewis’s advice to others interested in taking on the challenge of remakery is to be flexible and responsive. ‘Things have their own rhythm and it depends on everybody who’s involved,’ she explains. ‘You need to learn to dance with it, rather than control it.’

Earthrise is Al Jazeera English’s award-winning series exploring solutions to the environmental challenges we face today.

Read the other photo essays in our series on local community projects.

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