The History of The Bower


The Founding Folk

On a Sunday morning, back in September 1996, a group of five determined inner Sydney residents met in a park in Randwick to discuss the possibility of establishing a re-use and repair centre in inner Sydney. They had attended an Earthworks waste minimisation course together, where they learnt about these practices in relation to the local environment. All were dedicated urban scavengers who canvassed back lanes and council cleanups for re-usable material. Just over two years later, on the last day of 1998, the straw bale warehouse that is the Bower Re-Use Centre home base was a reality. But not without dramas. The group of five first formed with others the Bower Advisory Committee in early 1997 to seek funding and a location for the project. They were successful in winning a grant from the NSW Environmental Protection Agency to establish a location for a re-use centre. In February, the group employed the Bower’s first coordinator, Jane, who’d been running a waste re-use type shop in north-west Sydney, and set about creating the structure of the Bower organization. In March 1998, the group called the inaugural meeting of the Bower Re-Use and Repair Centre Co-operative, adopted a constitution, and elected a Board of Directors. Around 50 local residents formed the co-operative.

The Building

The Board elected to build their own warehouse on a site within the Addison Road Community Centre, located in Marrickville, Sydney. The Centre was originally an Army camp, the site the ruins of a burnt out stores room. The idea of re-using such a utilitarian site had great appeal. The ARC was supportive, and the proximity to Reverse Garbage (a reuse centre focused on industrial waste) was deemed complementary. One of the co-operative members, Shane, suggested a low-cost, alternative technology building that could become an educational showpiece here in the heart of urban Sydney. The idea was to create a straw bale warehouse to carry out The Bower Mission. The plans were drawn up, and work commenced on clearing the site and putting down footings in July 1998 following a supportive Marrickville council’s approval. Meanwhile, The Bower had set up temporary premises across the car park, and started to gather householders’ re-usable waste items from surrounding areas. By late August, the site was ready to bring in the straw – two semi-trailer loads all the way from Cowra in the state’s west. They arrived with a large number of local helpers around to offload, and two straw bale building consultants waiting to give a training workshop that would put up the walls. And then it rained. And rained. And rained with a passion. It rained in August when Sydney is usually dry. So up went tarpaulins and everyone struggled along underneath. And then the money went. And went. And went. The budget overshot, and the delays eroded the reserves. Without trading to rely upon, the Bower was almost broke before it opened. At the eleventh hour, when all looked lost the Southern Sydney Waste Board came to the Bower’s aid.

The Beginning of Something

And on the last day of 1998, it came to pass that the final touches to the Bower were made (at least to occupation stage). The sigh of relief was heard as far away as the carpark. The Bower opened its doors on 13 March 1999, with 3 staff, some tools and a few old sticks of furniture. Few of the original workers are left now, many have moved away, some have drifted back, but it was these founding folk who laid the foundations not only for the building, but for the future. News of The Bower spread by word of mouth, and by 2001 was appearing on several TV lifestyle shows, including Groundforce and Big Arvo. Following a long and harrowing appeal from Bower Directors, The Bower was acknowledged and registered as an environmental charity in 2001. This also lifted the imposition of GST from our scavenged items. Staff and members set about producing innovative items from salvaged and preloved materials. Tables were formed from bike rims and cogs, Toys fashioned from old tin cans, records up-cycled to fruit bowls, and fridges were turned into worm farms and billeted with local primary schools.

Since Then

The centre continued to develop, all in the name of increasing the amount of resources the team could recover from landfill for reuse or repair. The backyard has been terraced and increasing sections are paved and shelved to better store greater amounts of salvaged building, plumbing and gardening supplies. Three workshops were built from salvaged building materials, and relocated as demand grew. The timber workshop was relocated to the rear awning to minimise the noise and dust from production, and became a community resource, now housing a host of people who use our resources and tools – Resident Artists and the Marrickville Men’s Shed becoming the most frequent. A timber mezzanine was built to house an office space, and in 2009 a second mezzanine was unveiled to house our ever increasing range of products. Next time you’re in, check out our huge range of books, dvd’s and kitchenalia. We received an amazing donation of a solar array in 2011 from a Marrickville based ethical solar company who promote not only the benefits of solar but also buying fair and sustainable products for long term environmental impact. This now provides all our energy needs and excess feeds into the rest of the Addison Road Community Centre. In late 2012 we finally finished work on our staff area two story extension. This now provides staff kitchen facilities, storage and a third workshop/sorting area. It’s a hidden jewel so do ask to have a look when you visit – made of entirely of ‘rubbish’, broken tiles for mosaics on the floor, broken pallets got refinished for window frames and even the windows are a collage of odd windows we found on the streets. It’s a shining example of reuse. Staff numbers have fluctuated with the market, but membership has continued to grow steadily, with many extended members contributing to an in-house department for the display and sale of member restored/resurrected/refurbished goods. The Film, Theatre and Television industries have embraced us for our quirky collection of preloved, worn and authentic goods, and we’ve developed a prop hire scheme to love them right back. The Rehoming and Collection Service has been running for many years. The service extends the reach of The Bower throughout Sydney, and acts as a conduit, connecting donors with charitable, environmental and second hand initiatives to minimize waste ending up in landfill. The Truck was run on Bio-Diesel for a year – an experiment in partnership with NRMA, until demand for greater collections and deliveries required the purchase of a larger truck. Workshops and demonstrations have featured throughout the past decade, contributing to The Bower’s goal of educating the public on repair and reuse. The Bower has a long relationship with SCRAP and links with councils and TAFE Outreach are allowing us to run workshops all across Sydney.

Looking Forward

Still going strong with many years under our belt, enthusiasm and confidence are running high in the team of nine local residents employed to maintain daily operations. We have formed strong relationships with a number of Councils throughout Sydney, who are working with us and the Collection and Rehoming Service to maximise our potential for the benefit of the broader community and the Sydney environment. We have increased the number of workshops on offer and their regularity, and are returning to a focus on repair and reuse in the community through a number of initiatives and partnerships with other community organisations. We are always looking to improve our social media and spread the word. You can follow us on Facebook, post pictures to Instagram and tweet to hear and see all the latest things, and even Google have been supporting us with free advertising, allowing us to better serve a greater number of people and we are enjoying the increased connection to the community that this has brought. Many councils including Marrickville, City of Sydney, Leichhardt, Auburn and Ashfield, along with many other enthusiastic sponsors and individuals have been generously working with us to look at future projects and we are always jumping on new opportunities and looking to spread the word of reuse, repair and sustainability.