Alumnus James Dawes thrives in sustainable contracting and remodeling business with focus on reclaimed materials

A double major at UC Santa Cruz helped him prepare for a rewarding career

(Merrill ’89, modern society and social thought and environmental studies)
James Dawes's company, Placemakers, uses reclaimed materials, and saves as much waste as possible. Dawes attributes his business model to the mindset he developed through his environmental studies classes at UCSC.

UCSC alumnus James Dawes (Merrill ’89, modern society and social thought and environmental studies) has one regret about his time as a college student: not learning how to surf. “I lived on Beach Street for two years and woke up every morning looking at Cowell’s!”

He has no reservations, however, about getting a contractor’s license and launching his successful business PlaceMakers in 1995. PlaceMakers provides general contracting services and has three divisions: construction, deconstruction, and materials. The business provides turnkey ground-up development, custom home remodeling, and more.

Its standout business approach: using reclaimed materials, and saving as much waste as possible. Dawes attributes his business model to the mindset he developed through his environmental studies classes at UCSC. After graduating in 1989, Dawes started working in the construction industry. 

“It fit my lifestyle and had what I felt was an immediate relationship to my environmental studies education, which focused on urban planning and resource use.”

In the early 1990’s he applied to a master’s in architecture program, and although he was unsuccessful, today he’s grateful for that rejection. Five years later, he founded his company, Placemakers.

“PlaceMakers was formed in response to the waste of materials that I knew had value, and that people wanted,” says Dawes. “The daily stream of “waste” in the form of demolition debris contained vast amounts of assets. The business became solving, or as [UCSC] Professor Jim Pepper would say, ‘resolving’ difficult logistics and marketing problems. It was work that needed to be done, and I felt compelled to do it.” 

His first paid demolition and salvage job was fulfilling in many ways. It was at the Carolands Chateau in Hillsborough, a 65,000 sq. ft. residence built in 1916. “I was paid to remove the purple Vermont slate roof. I crated it up, craned it down, and sold it out of the parking lot. Not only that, but I got to roam around one of the country's landmark estates for a month, and I somehow landed a date out of it. She is now my wife!”

Other professional projects he cites as major accomplishments: salvaging 4,000 decorative tiles from the original Steinhart Aquarium in 2004, craning a two-ton marble bathtub out of a 10th floor apartment in San Francisco in 2015, and recently rescuing historic bronze doors from the Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco.

“Creating something beautiful, whether a newly built ground up construction or a modest piece of furniture, out of our salvage material inventory is extremely rewarding,” Dawes says.  “When surveying a new demolition job, the creative process begins immediately, ‘where can this go, or what can this be?’"

In his free time, Dawes participates in service opportunities in his community. He is the treasurer of the San Carlos Industrial Arts Business Association. He also sits on the Redwood High School Build and Construct Advisory Team, and participates in mentoring at the Green Academy, a part of Woodside High School in Redwood City. 

Pivotal experience through UCSC

In the winter of 1989, Dawes traveled to Jamaica for three months to perform field research for two thesis projects, one focused on ecotourism and the other on small business development. This journey had a profound impact on his life. While there, he started helping a friend build a small house. 

“What was supposed to take weeks, took years,” he says. “After graduation, I worked for a general contractor in Palo Alto for four to six months and earned enough money to go back to Jamaica and do more work on the house.” 

It took about 10 or 12 trips to finish. By the end, he was shipping crates of salvaged building materials to the island. 

“While in some respects the house-building project seemed to eclipse my formal study program, it was wholly informed by it, and really provided me with a “true north” for my future career: don’t throw valuable stuff out. I haven’t changed my basic approach since.”

Today, at PlaceMakers, customers can utilize the company’s large variety of repurposed heritage materials and can integrate premium salvaged resources and historical architectural artifacts into new or existing buildings.  

More UCSC memories

Dawes has fond memories of college classes and assigned reading from professors, including an Environmental Studies course with Professor Jim Pepper. He is also glad he enrolled in Intro to World Religions with Professor Noel King, audited Professor Bettina Aptheker’s Intro to Women's Studies, and took a cultural ecology course.

Dawes is grateful for what he learned through his modern society and social thought studies. 

“Mod Soc, like Environmental Studies, was a great major, integrating all the disciplines of social science and some humanities,” he said. “Reflecting on issues from all of the different angles was a crucial paradigm for me to develop. For instance, when I decide whether or not to salvage a particular material or item, I need to assess a complex mix of metrics, including embodied energy, historical merit, artistic brilliance, scarcity, even code compliance and warranties. These days people are mostly focussed on how much materials weigh, and how much carbon it captures, but all these other attributes are equally as important. I am also very aware of the cost of measuring all of these metrics, which can be quite significant."

Reflecting on his time at UCSC, Dawes says a significant accomplishment is completing two thesis projects. He remembers being proud that a paper he wrote was read out loud to his classmates in Third World Film. It was “a commentary on Gilo Pontecorvo’s Burn!  Marlon Brando at his finest. I was also much better at Javanese puppetry than I would have ever thought. Thank you, Kathy Foley!” 

Dawes also has praise for other UCSC faculty. “Bryan Farrell was my advisor for my ES thesis and encouraged my project in Jamaica.  He was more influential on my trajectory than he ever knew. Another high point for me was my independent study class in Humor, with Jon Parmenter.  We spent quite a bit of time with Henri Bergson, Arthur Koestler, and Gary Larson.” 

Dawes enjoyed participating on the sailing team while he was a student and appreciated the campus itself. He is grateful for the time that he had at UCSC.

“I believe ‘place’ is something that matters, and the campus and environment at UCSC are world class. I couldn’t have imagined a better place for me.”