A-1 Builders and Adaptations Design Studio were awarded the prestigious
FOUNDERS OF A NEW NORTHWEST
Award in 2003, presented by Sustainable Northwest and Oregon Solutions
With support from:
Compton Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Skylark Foundation, Weeded Foundation
“In recognition of your innovative work to build a sustainable economy in the Northwest. For refusing to sacrifice the good of the land for the good of the people or the good of the people for the good of the land – finding a new path which honors both. For giving of yourself to a vision of the human community working together – able to think beyond itself to embrace the entire biological community and from one generation to many.”
Here’s our story, as written by Ingrid Dankmeyer…
A-1 Builders may have been named back in 1955 to secure a top spot in the Bellingham yellow pages, attracting the undiscriminating or harried client. But Rick Dubrow has made it worthy of its top billing, blending remodeling and custom home services with a strong environmental ethic.
When Rick moved from the east coast to Bellingham in the 70’s he chose the small city for its size and nearby wilderness. He had a background in science and environmental activism and had decided to teach biology. But when jobs in that field were not forthcoming, Rick joined friends who were doing home remodeling.
Rick learned by doing and asking questions. He called A-1 Builders one day for some advice on a foundation repair project. He got advice, and also a job offer in the course of that first phone call. When he called back to accept the job, the owner asked if he would be interested in buying the whole business. Six months later, Rick paid $5,000 for the business.
That minor investment has paid off nicely. Rick altered the focus of A-1 Builders from foundation and repair work to remodeling. “It was difficult to retain quality employees while asking them to spend so much time under a house!” A-1 Builders began to thrive, but Rick felt internal conflict. “Here I am, a deep ecologist and environmentalist, doing more and more projects that felt incongruous: $100,000 kitchens with two dishwashers and three sinks; three car garages. As A-1 Builders became more successful, my personal values and my business values spread further apart.”
“I came close to deciding to sell the business just because the incongruence was too strong. Then someone asked me: ‘Why don’t you bring those two together? Why don’t you start walking your personal talk? You have a great opportunity to do that because you are a well-known builder in the community and builders don’t talk about sustainability.’” Rick took the advice to heart, and about a decade ago A-1 Builders took on a new dimension.
“I started questioning everything. Where does this wood come from? I started learning about certified wood that is being sustainably harvested. That led to me approaching the lumber yard I was working with to say ‘Will you bring in certified wood?’ They said ‘No, we don’t believe in it.’ So I went to another lumber yard and said ‘If you bring in certified wood, I’ll bring all of my business to you.’ They decided to do it.”
But encouraging clients to undertake environmentally-responsible construction, or “building green,” requires a gentler touch. Rick weighs customer interest in environmental stewardship before he proposes more durable or energy-efficient measures. Sometimes he will decide to use environmentally-friendly building materials or strategies even if it means reducing his bottom line.
Rick does not believe bigger is better, and he’s willing to turn down jobs that counter his values. “I’m a firm believer that a McMansion isn’t green. Yes, you can use all of the right products and high efficiency this, and high efficiency that, but for me, a 6,000 square foot home by definition is not green. So I wouldn’t build it. Our specialty in new construction is, therefore, small, efficient, green, responsible homes.”
“The biggest no-brainer for sustainability is to build things right the first time. The majority of this industry is basically building so that it lasts 366 days: get past the one-year warranty. More and more of our work has been repairing new construction. The environmental and economic cost of such short-sighted behavior is simply staggering.”
Most remodeling projects start with demolition; the A-1 crew is trained to sort used building materials into several categories. “If there is anything that we have been known for, it is how we deal with waste,” says Rick. “I am sorting from the minute I meet a client. ‘Have you thought about what you’re doing with that stuff?’
In 2001, A-1 Builders reduced its landfill bill by an average of 80%. Rick was instrumental in starting a local used building supply store, the RE Store (see Founders 1999 profile), which receives the best of A-1’s salvaged materials. The rest of the usable building materials are recycled or set out in the parking lot with an invitation for scavengers. “Whenever we have materials in the ‘absolutely free’ holding area, our sandwich board goes up and the neighbors appear out of nowhere.”
In 1990, the design division of A-1 Builders was created, called Adaptations. Rick explains, “One of the things Adaptations does is take out a whole markup level. So it has been a technique to hold our prices down.” The showroom features sustainably-sourced building materials. “At first glance it looks like a normal showroom, but it is incredibly green. We don’t want it to look so green that it will scare mainstream people away.” Having design services in-house also improves project efficiency, and helps Rick educate his clients further about green building principles.
“Often, a potential client will say, ‘We need an addition because we don’t have enough space.’ One of our goals is to say, ‘Are you willing to explore using your existing space more efficiently? We want to build the smallest addition possible, or no addition at all.”
The A-1 Builders’ office and showroom exemplify this approach to remodeling. A modest residential bungalow has been transformed to an efficient and stylish multipurpose structure. The grounds are all xeriscaped, virtually eliminating the need for irrigation, herbicides and pesticides. A noticeable sign offers quotes that make clear where the company stands: “Things you throw away do not just disappear – recycle, reduce, reuse. Just do it!”
Being the head of a prominent local building company has given Rick a unique platform for addressing the environmental issues close to his heart. “We are real edgy in public testimony, asking, “Why are we doing business the way we are doing business if it is destroying the earth?””
In addition to serving on the board of RE Sources, the parent of the RE Store, Rick formed Sustainable Connections, a business alliance to promote ‘green’ commerce. Sustainable Connections recently put out a Bellingham green business coupon book modeled after the Chinook Book (see profile of Celilo Group).
When Rick bought A-1 Builders in 1976, gross sales were around $50,000 a year. Now the company brings in about $1.3 million a year and employs as many as 22 people. But that doesn’t mean he plans to keep growing the business infrastructure. “I don’t want to grow out of our present location. I want to be better, not bigger. I want to stay right here. Instead, I see us growing in gross sales, which we can do by simply having additional lead carpenters and more sites. The result: more and more work in this community will be greener.”
Where most construction outfits will show up to bid on a project in a big fancy truck, A-1 Builders arrives in a sporty Honda hybrid Insight they purchased on Earth Day 2000. It is four times more fuel efficient than the Ford Explorer formerly used for the job, and besides, Rick seems to delight in helping people see homebuilding in a whole new light. Not only has he changed people’s minds, A-1’s projects have transformed the face of Bellingham.
Preface to Volume 5
Governor Gary Locke convened the Sustainable Washington Advisory Panel in September 2002 because of the widening gap between our state’s current reality and a Washington that is equitable, healthy, and prospering. The Panel concluded that it is imperative to initiate significant changes now if we want Washington’s quality of life to improve, not diminish, over the next generation.
In February 2003, the Sustainable Washington Advisory Panel issued its plan for “A New Path Forward: Achieving Long-term Economic, Social, and Environmental Vitality.” Our vision is to achieve a fully Sustainable Washington within one generation.
We will need people like the Founders of a New Northwest to make this vision a reality, and we are proud to be a part of highlighting their efforts.
The Founders from Washington profiled in these pages are directly contributing those needed changes. From small farmers to urban retailers and sustainable forestry programs to community celebrations, these individuals and organizations are creating the kind of future we want to see in our state and in the region.
And indeed, we recognize regional sustainability as vital to helping Washington achieve its goals. As you read on, you will find undeniable parallels between the work of ranchers in Montana, farmers in Washington, and poultry producers in Oregon. You’ll find similar business ethics and community initiatives spanning the four states represented here. As these connections develop and mature, our region becomes ever more influential in leading the nation toward a healthier, more equitable future for us all.
Constance W. Rice
Executive Director, Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation
Co-Chair, Governor’s Advisory Panel for a Sustainable Washington
Dean Huxley College of the Environment, WWU
Co-Chair, Governor’s Advisory Panel for a Sustainable Washington