Published on Thu, Mar 9, 2006 by Tara Nelson

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Home Improvement

By Tara Nelson

When Rick Dubrow purchased A-1 Builders in 1976, it was a dwindling home repair business that brought in only around $50,000 a year.

Dubrow, who had moved to Bellingham earlier that year to obtain a teaching certificate from Western Washington University to teach ecology, said he fell in love with Bellingham because of its proximity to national parks and great hiking.

“We wanted to be on the west coast near some national parks, near some big cities, near some great hiking,” he said. “With those kind of parameters it was here or Eugene, Oregon. And Bellingham has better mountains than Oregon.”

Dubrow had already earned a bachelor of arts degree in business management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston in 1973 and a masters of arts in aeronautics and astronautics with a specialization in airport noise and management in 1974 from the same institution. But a month-long stint as an assistant airport manager at Logan International airport that coincided with a runway crash that killed 92 people left him disillusioned about the industry.

“For about 2,000 feet there was a broken up airplane with body parts and wallets and kids dolls. And it was overcast, dark and foggy with remote lighting set up, and I walked that runway,” he said, adding that airports often create ghettos around them because of the noise. “To make things worse, people from surrounding low-income neighborhoods were arriving on makeshift boats in an attempt to scavenge wallets and jewelry lying scattered across the runway. The whole scene took me from being enamored with the field into a place where I was asking, ‘Is this really what I want to be involved in for the rest of my life?’”

It was then that Dubrow decided to take a break, traveling around the country in a van with his wife, hiking and taking backpacking trips in the national parks, a decision that changed his career direction permanently, deciding that he would rather teach ecology to high school students than clean up dead bodies and talk to the families of crash victims.

Finding a teaching job in Bellingham was difficult, however, even with Dubrow’s credentials, so he decided to wait out the market, taking on small construction and repair jobs with a group of his friends.

Around that time, he got a phone call from a friend who wanted some help with some foundation repair work. Dubrow concedes he knew nothing about foundation work at the time but he was enthusiastic about learning, so he called the first remodeling contractor in the phone book pretending to be a potential client and asking what the procedures were.
“I went to the phone book and found A-1 builders, so I called them and said, ‘Hey, I got this house and I need some foundation repair, so what do you do?’”

At the end of the conversation, the owner asked Dubrow if he would go to work for him. When Dubrow called him back to confirm, the owner asked if he was interested in buying his business. In six months, Dubrow had purchased A-1 Builders for $5,000.

At that time, the business specialized in foundation repairs but Dubrow soon found it difficult to retain quality employees while asking them to spend so much of their day under a house. So when one of his employees suggested the company focus more on remodels, Dubrow jumped at the idea.

“We started doing less and less foundation work and more remodel work,” he said. “In five years, we were doing no foundation work at all, and as we got more and more successful doing remodeling work, we were being asked to do nicer and nicer projects.”

It wasn’t long until Dubrow was dealing with the problems of his own success. In fact, he started feeling like his work was conflicting with his values. So when a close friend suggested he take a stand as a builder and start talking about environmental issues, he agreed. Dubrow claims that strategy made A-1 builders even more successful as they started winning environmental awards and attracting more like minded people and clients.

“Here I was, Rick Dubrow, the ecologist, the minimalist, the person feeling like development is destroying the planet and here is my company that was good at it,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Yeah, what a great idea.’ And it’s brought success to us, it’s brought us the spotlight, and it’s allowed me to feel more fulfilled about my work whereas before I was feeling allergic to it.”

Today, A-1 Builders and their joint design operation, Adaptations, specialize in the re-design of existing structures, but they have evolved towards improvements and space additions. The company brings in approximately $1.3 million a year and employs 22 people. They have also won several awards for environmental stewardship and sustainability, including the Waste Wise Business Award from the Whatcom County Waste Reduction and Recycling Program in 1994; the Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling Award for small businesses from the Washington State Department of Ecology in 2000; the Environmental Hero award from RESources in 2003; the Founders of a New Northwest award from Sustainable Northwest, a regional non-profit organization; and the Washington state Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Practices from former governor Gary Locke in 2001. The business was also voted “Best Home Builder” by the readers of Bellingham Business Journal in 1999 and the “Most Environmentally-Responsible Business” by the readers of NW Business Monthly magazine in 2004 and 2006.

Dubrow attributes his success to a triple-bottom lined approach to business, which includes the traditional economic bottom line as well as measures for environmental sustainability and social equity or community.

“That means, how are you treating your co-workers, how are you treating society in general?” he said.

Dubrow’s sustainable approach doesn’t end when he clocks out from work at the end of the day, however. When he had built his home at 516 Ridgeway Drive in Bellingham, his design goal was to build as small as possible, minimizing the ecological footprint and free up funds to maximize the energy efficiency of appliances, heating components, insulation, among other things.

One of the most standard elements of green or sustainable construction is advanced framing. This procedure reduces wood usage by about 15 to 20 percent. Dubrow purchased salvaged wood from the Duluth Timber Company in Edison, which he used for 2” x 4” framing, 2” x 6” framing, 3x and 4x beams, as well as the front door; interior window sills; living room picture rail trim; stair jacks and treads; kitchen floating shelves; passageway jambs and other jamb details.

Forest Stewardship Council-certified sustainably-harvested wood was used for the roof sheathing, interior and exterior wall framing.
He also attempted to maximize the life expectancy of key components by using long-lasting and low-maintenance materials such as Rastra exterior walls. Rastra is a cement-based building material made from insulated, recycled concrete, reducing the need for new cement and creating superior insulation. It also lasts longer because it is extremely resistant to rot, as well as insect and rodent damage. An added bonus is its 4-hour fire rating, which is twice that of commercial construction. Rastra can be quite affordable, too. The installed price range is approximately $7 to $11 per square foot of surface area, which Dubrow says is competitive with standard construction materials.

To minimize future repair and reconstruction costs, Dubrow used life-time roofing and double-pane, aluminum-clad wood windows, which tend to last longer than conventional windows. He improved air quality by using direct venting for the water heater and gas fireplaces so that indoor air would not be used for combustion air.

Outside, a rain garden was constructed to capture all the home’s roof and other drainage. The rain garden filters and then absorbs runoff and decreases overall off-site flow.

Geographic location and lot placement, are other large determinants of sustainability and Dubrow said he found a building lot as close to downtown as possible, thereby reducing the need to extend roads and services and subsequently fights urban sprawl.

Dubrow said, however, that determining what is green isn’t always easy because it varies given the situation. Sometimes, it can be as simple as building less or simply finding new, efficient ways to use the space you already have

In addition Dubrow asks his builders to do a lifecycle assessment with all building projects. That means installing a project so well that it will not require major future repairs that generate waste.

“The greenest thing you can do is that no matter what it is a product is that you install, you install it really, really well so that it lasts for ever,” he said. “And even if it’s not the greenest product on the planet, if it lasts for ever, that’s a green thing to do.”

Another tip Dubrow suggests is to pick a company that matches your values, not just in terms of the materials they use but how they handle their construction waste.

“If you are interested in doing remodeling that is lighter on the earth, find a company that’s lighter on the earth,” he said. “It’s not just the materials they’re putting in, it’s how are they handling their debris. Construction generates a lot of debris and most of our awards have been for how we handle our debris.”

To keep costs down, Dubrow suggests building or remodeling from the standpoint of a minimalist. He says his clients will often claim they need an addition to their home because they have run out of space. But Dubrow says that problem can often be solved by more efficient space usage.

“The typical consumer says, ‘I want the biggest house I can afford for $300,000 and they go out in the market and they buy the biggest house possible,’” he said. “Typically, however, it’s pretty crappy building methods with pretty brown materials. Our style is more ‘Why don’t you build it as small as possible and put the money you saved on space into quality materials?’ So you build small and you build better. Also, if you build small, you start to pay less on heating, so your monthly costs will go down. If you build small, you don’t need as big a furnace or as big a lot. So smallness is a big one.”

Another strategy is dematerialization. This means using less materials and more efficient materials to conserve resources and save money. Advanced framing techniques are an example of this, and they use 20 to 30 percent less wood than typical framing.

“So even if it costs a little more per unit of wood, you can take the money you save by using less sticks and perhaps buy sticks that were sustainably harvested,” he said. “That’s a combination of both dematerialization and environmentally-sensitive products. Realistically, you’re home is a business. Every step of the way can be more sustainable or less sustainable.”

More information on sustainability:
Dubrow recommends reading Ray Anderson’s book, “Mid-Course Correction.” Dubrow also said individuals who are interested in learning more about sustainable business practices are invited to attend Sustainable Connection’s third annual spring business conference from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday, April 21, at The Majestic event hall on North Forest Street in Bellingham. Tickets are $99 for members/$119 non-members and includes a light breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack provided by Ciao Thyme catering. Early bird registration is $79 for members/$109 for non-members and ends March 31. For more information about the conference or Sustainable Connections, visit www.scconnect.org.

In Washington state, all contractors who advertise, work or submit bids for projects, must be registered with the DLI, maintain a bond of $12,000, and carry general liability insurance. A contractor is also required to provide a disclosure statement to the homeowner if the project’s estimated cost is more than $1,000.

If you are thinking about remodeling your home, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (WDLI) recommends that you do your homework before hiring a contractor to work on your home.
• Plan your project carefully and have a clear idea of what you want done.
• Interview several qualified contractors and solicit written bids.
• Verify registration at www.contractors.LNI.wa.gov.
• Ask for references of suppliers and check the contractor’s payment records.
For a more information, visit www.contractors.LNI.wa.gov.