Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County has come to count on Bellingham’s A-1 Builders as a Champion donor and partner as we continue work on the Telegraph Townhomes Project. Not only was A-1 a part of our Home Builders Blitz last October, they’ve had builders volunteering and helping on the Telegraph site more than a dozen times since last summer. A-1’s expertise is part of the story of how we’ve has been able to push Phase 1A at Telegraph as quickly as we have. Eight partner families are now planning to move in sometime in the spring of 2020!
“I think one of the first things we did at Telegraph was to help install the exterior rigid insulation. And then we came in and did a bunch of exterior trim installation and preparing for siding,” said Patrick Martin, General Manager (pictured on the left in the photo above, along with Shawn Serdahl). “So, we did a bunch of the weatherization. We installed almost all the windows and doors, and the waterproofing around all that, the performance-oriented stuff.
“We have a margin as a company for doing some nonprofit work,” continued Martin. “We do it simply for our burdened cost, which means that we do this work but don’t make a profit on it. A bunch of the work we’ve done for Habitat was totally free. The last two times we’ve been over there, we only billed Habitat for the burdened wage of our carpenters.”
A-1 Builders has been in the construction business since the mid-1950s, in the beginning mostly doing foundation work. Two years ago, the company made the unusual transition from being a sole proprietorship to being a worker-owned cooperative. The reason: to pass on a legacy and building tradition that had been serving the Bellingham community for decades.
“Five of us basically took over ownership, but instead of a conventional LLC, we formed the company as a worker-owned cooperative,” said Martin. “We currently have six employees who are on track to becoming members. Our hope is that by this time next year, we’ll have 10 members. There’s just one other construction worker-owned cooperative in town. There are maybe four or five worker-owner cooperatives of all types in Whatcom County, not very many.
“We were recently part of a public discussion that was held with Cascade Cooperatives,” added Martin, “which is a new, local cooperative business network. We did a presentation about our experience. There are a few other people in town who are in the process of similar transitions. It’s pretty unusual. We’re one of just a few construction worker-owned cooperatives in the entire country.
Being a small construction firm allows everyone in the company the chance to work directly with clients. “The likelihood of a client working directly with one of the owners of our company is really high here because all our clients interact with all phases of our company,” said Martin. “There’s an owner in every major department of our company right now.
“All the work that we do in the field is work that we’ve designed,” continued Martin. “And we don’t offer to hire on for design if a client wants to shop it with other builders. As a company, we have all aspects of what’s necessary to execute a project.”
The perfect fit between A-1 and Habitat lies in our mutual interest in the urgency of developing environmentally sustainable, energy-efficient building techniques. A-1 has for many years been interested in pushing the boundaries of sustainable design and green building.
“Our focus on every project, even if it’s a kitchen, has been on the performance elements we can integrate into that work. In the future, we’re hoping to do more small, new, high-performance homes. That’s our intention: passive houses. That’s another part of our connection to Habitat in helping with the Telegraph project, we want to increase our experience in that area.”
A-1 has increased their employee training over the past two years. The company’s focus now is on high-performance building, remodeling, and new construction. They also do a lot of historic renovation in Bellingham.
“It can be super challenging to add to or repair an old building, to make it consistent, and then ideally, bring that building up to what we would consider modern building performance standards,” added Martin. “Often, when you’re doing repair work, from a craft point of view, it can be difficult to fundamentally affect that building in a way that ripples out into the longevity of building, which in turn reduces the amount of resources used as well affecting the way that building operates.
“Ultimately, a building’s operation is a huge percentage of what we would consider adding to greenhouse gas emissions. The production of building materials, the shipping of those materials to building sites, and finally, the operation of those buildings.”
In 2020, Habitat will be doing even more exploration into energy-efficient, green building techniques, all in the service of bringing together greater energy-efficient building practices with increasing the supply of affordable homes to smartly address the current housing crisis in Whatcom County.
Why has A-1 joined forces with Habitat? “There’s obviously a pretty significant housing issue in this community,” said Martin. “That’s certainly important to all of us. A longer-term goal for all of us is to be building homes that are super high-performance that people can afford.
“Another aspect is Habitat’s relationship with the Kulshan Community Land Trust (KCLT). We’ve done work with KCLT in the past. I just really like the idea of the model that they’re trying to create in terms of trust ownership of the land. And the possibility of creating an alternative mortgage system.”
“Finally, we’re very interested in understanding Habitat’s building techniques,” said Martin, “in terms of moving home building toward higher performance. Working with Habitat is a chance for us to see another way of doing things.”
[Every cash gift we receive at Habitat, no matter how small, returns when each Habitat home buyer makes their monthly mortgage payments. This enables us to purchase more supplies for more homes. Habitat’s core value, “a hand-up, not a hand-out,” means that every penny is repaid. Please consider pledging $5 per month.]