Bellingham-based A1DesignBuild has been building homes for more than 60 years, and converted to a worker-owned cooperative in 2017. Its all-inclusive operation builds and improves homes, while also promoting environmental stewardship, sustainability and allowing homeowners to age comfortably in their homes. In the midst of the past year’s massive social movement—the largest in U.S. history—the co-op began working to promote the care of its neighbors, as well.

Rallies in the wake of the George Floyd’s murder sparked a need for conversation, and an attempt to learn and grow. Photo courtesy A1DesignBuild

When the reports of George Floyd’s murder made it to the A1DesignBuild’s offices and job sites, it couldn’t be ignored. “We were very distracted by the news—it was very hard to work,” says Maggie Bates, manager of the design department. “We got together as a board and said we’d pay for people to take the day off from work and go to a rally.”

After seeing the larger community pull together, they created an infrastructure within the workplace, as well. “We decided to form a Social Justice Committee to try to understand how we can help, and for that committee to guide the efforts of the board in making decisions about how we can use resources, and support groups in our community,” says Patrick Martin, A1DesignBuild general manager and president of the member board.

“[The committee is] what the membership brought to us and asked us to pursue. We opened it up to all employees and members, and people grabbed at the opportunity,” says architect Mike Feeney. “It incorporates a lot of concepts, especially social, racial, gender and economic inequalities—basically prejudice of any kind.”

The members funded the committee by agreeing that it would be a volunteer operation. “Every member of the committee decided that rather than get paid an hourly wage, which A1DesignBuild was willing to pay, to pool that money in a separate account,” says accountant Adriana Irvin. “We’ll vote on ways we can use that to help the community or buy materials for a project.”

One of the committee’s first priorities is in-house education. The plan appealed to Mark Albert, who once owned his own construction company, then taught high school English. “Speaking as a former educator, the more we know, the more we’re likely to do the right thing. We decided we didn’t know enough to do the right thing—here we are, essentially a bunch of white folks in Bellingham, that want to feel like they’re helping the world. So in-house education just became the obvious thing,” he says. “The intention is to have individuals go to job sites and open a discussion, to give us the opportunity to talk about whatever kind of issues.”

The Tiny Desks For Tiny Humans project gave school furniture to kids learning at home, and the designs are available for free on A1DesignBuild’s website. Photo courtesy A1DesignBuild

They’re also supporting education outside of the company by putting together an endowment for people of color studying the trades at Bellingham Technical College. “That started out of a Cohen Group podcast at the beginning of the pandemic, with Jenny Rae from Chuckanut Builders, Dave Brogan from Bellingham Bay Builders and myself,” says Maggie Bates. “We got into a discussion about social justice in our community, and [later] an e-mail came from Jenny saying, ‘Let’s follow up on that discussion.’ That started the idea of doing a scholarship over at BTC.”

“The focus is people of color because they didn’t feel, over at Chuckanut, like they connected with that group of people walking through the door,” says Bates. “And we echo that—we don’t have a lot of people of color applying for jobs. So we decided to put all our funds together and do an endowment. It’s called Building Diversity, and this is the first year that scholarship is available.”

Community outreach has also resulted in the chance to help part of the local Latino population. “Early on, the county and city held listening sessions, and there was another one held by the Quakers,” says Mike Feeney. The local non-profit Community To Community was a vocal part of the Quaker sessions, and A1DesignBuild reached out to see if it could help. “They came to one of our committee members with some opportunities to help a cooperative berry farm in Everson, rebuilding a 96-by-30-foot greenhouse structure that had blown down numerous times.”

Volunteers from A1DesignBuild went to Everson to donate their experience and share their knowledge—reaching across a cultural divide at the same time. Photo courtesy A1DesignBuild

The A1DesignBuild team was happy to volunteer their time to fortify the structure. “There was an average of 6 to 10 people onsite every weekend from February through April that it didn’t rain—maybe 300 hours altogether,” says Feeney. “We felt we could not just do it for them, but do it with them, and offer them knowledge as a partner. What came out of it was team building with the Latino group there.”

The committee is now thinking about another demographic they’d like to support: the LGBTQ+ community. “One of the conversations happening now is that Pride month is coming up in June. We have people in our families and in our employ and in our community that are part of that group,” says Patrick Martin. “Oftentimes we poke at the edges of these controversial issues, but we feel that the company needs to be much more direct and supportive.”

These free pantries have been placed around the city, giving neighbors a chance to do good and to receive a helping hand. Designs are available on the A1DesignBuild website. Photo courtesy A1DesignBuild

Other A1DesignBuild community projects locals might recognize are green food pantries that have cropped up around town, where people can give and receive food, and the Tiny Desks for Tiny Humans project, which put over 60 chairs and desks design specifically for little people into kids’ homes so they could better focus on remote learning.

A1DesignBuild has learned that educating its team members and helping its neighbors are two sides of the same coin—and that the rewards are very real. “The thing that’s meaningful about this group is that it gives the members and employees the opportunity to drive the values of the co-op. It’s not just someone like me, who has been here for a long time and has authority because of my position,” says Martin. “The co-op can open up the opportunity for people to participate in a real manner, to affect the direction of the organization they work in.”

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