Breaking Barriers and Building Careers in Construction

This Atlanta nonprofit is training community members in deconstruction and sustainability.
By Jimmy Mitchell
July 27, 2023

Training people to work in the sustainable construction industry has become increasingly important in an age when reducing the carbon footprint of buildings and the building process are major goals. It requires teaching the workforce ways to minimize the environmental impact during construction and to optimize a project for energy efficiency and renewable resource usage. Other key sustainability construction strategies on the rise are deconstruction and the reuse of materials from existing buildings.

In the United States, construction and demolition waste accounts for upwards of 40% of the waste stream. In addition, building materials are among the biggest contributors of carbon emissions. Deconstruction presents a huge opportunity to create healthier environments while recovered materials find renewed life. Efforts are expanding in communities all over the world to make buildings more circular and support local economies by developing a strong workforce and community-based construction opportunities.

In Atlanta, the nonprofit Lifecycle Building Center (LBC) teamed up with community organizations, academic institutions, government agencies and industry partners to form a coalition called ReBuildATL to empower disadvantaged communities through programs that expand Atlanta’s circular economy, build sustainable career pathways and reduce energy costs. The coalition used an Environmental Protection Agency grant to create the Breaking Barriers Through Deconstruction (Breaking Barriers) workforce-development program, which offers Atlanta residents training in deconstruction and sustainable building methods and gives them a significant advantage when seeking employment in construction, deconstruction and other related industries.

Learn It Best

In construction, one of the best ways to learn is a hands-on approach allowing workers to gain the skills they need and then apply these principles successfully. The same holds true for deconstruction. Field-based training such as this can equip workers with the knowledge and tools that will enable them to contribute to sustainability goals.

As part of the 20-day Breaking Barriers program, participants received hands-on deconstruction training through LBC’s partner Re:Purpose Savannah. Participants disassembled a 100-year-old barn on the site of the new Roswell Community Masjid (RCM) facility. Skanska is currently supporting RCM's efforts to design and construct its new building to meet the Living Building Challenge standard, and materials salvaged from the barn will be repurposed in the new RCM structure.

The training cohort also deconstructed a stage in a historic theater owned by Grove Park Foundation (GPF), with these deconstructed materials to be reused in GPF’s affordable housing projects. “The industry is in need of skilled workers who can identify materials that are safe and suitable for reuse, and possess the skills for reconstructing with them,” says ReBuildATL coalition member and Breaking Barriers project manager, Garry Harris. “Sustainable construction projects create jobs, increase the property value of an area and make use of reclaimed materials that would otherwise be thrown away.”

Climbing the Ladder

To ensure that program participants are ready for the next step in their careers, leaders from Skanska and its many partners, including 2M Design Consultants, the Center for Sustainable Communities, Veterans Molding Minds and JE Dunn Construction, also provided OSHA safety training and GPRO certification, residential energy efficiency training, financial management education, career advancement skills, construction plan review instruction and much more. The first Breaking Barriers cohort graduated in April of 2023.

“We are so proud of our Breaking Barriers graduates, who have dedicated themselves to learning new skills and building a strong support network within and beyond the cohort,” says Shannon Goodman, executive director for Lifecycle Building Center. “The power of this program has been the individualized approach to enable students to overcome obstacles, bring out their unique strengths, and connect them with our committed partners who are eager to help them achieve their goals. In partnership with our ReBuildATL coalition, our graduates are assisting us in improving the program for future cohorts, and we look forward to delivering an even stronger Breaking Barriers program in the years to come.”

As part of the program, trainees participated in a job fair where they met with residential remodeling, commercial construction and facility management employer partners. They were also given the opportunity to tour the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design—which has 28 reuse-material installations currently on display.

What Comes Next?

Upon completing the Breaking Barriers training program, graduate SimoneDanielle Rio was hired as a deconstruction and donations associate with Lifecycle Building Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit dedicated to strengthening disadvantaged communities through access to affordable reclaimed building materials.

Rio had this to say: "The Breaking Barriers program was an opportunity for me to seize the moment, as I saw great value in gaining new skills, knowledge and the application of sustainable deconstruction. The reuse of building materials has now become my platform for building a new career path. This program also made me aware of the construction process which was very insightful to me during my journey. I was honored to have been chosen from among many applicants during the interview process to be a part of the inaugural class. I now have a wealth of knowledge and techniques that will help me build a sustainable future for myself and the Atlanta community.”

The core members of ReBuildATL include Lifecycle Building Center; Grove Park Foundation; the Center for Sustainable Communities; West Atlanta Watershed Alliance; Southface Institute; 2M Design Consultants; Groundwork Atlanta; Build Reuse; and the Georgia Institute of Technology Serve-Learn-Sustain.

One of the chief organizers of the Breaking Barriers program, Georgia Tech student and LBC intern Jackie Zong, has this to say about the program: "Breaking Barriers is at the forefront of making the construction industry more sustainable. Trainees in the program learn how to carefully take apart buildings, identify materials that can be reused or recycled, and properly dispose of hazardous materials. Graduates are equipped with the knowledge and skills to make a positive impact on the environment and the construction industry as a whole."

At a time when workforce development is paramount to sustaining the construction industry and growing economic prospects in the community, Breaking Barriers provides an underserved population in Atlanta with a myriad of opportunities and the technical skills necessary to focus on reusing and, in many cases, preserving building materials.

by Jimmy Mitchell
Jimmy Mitchell - Skanska

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