Environmental Works is a nonprofit Community Design Center that empowers the US State of Washington’s most vulnerable communities to create the spaces they need to succeed. Their commitment is to honor the dignity of all people, regardless of income, through their architectural and planning services to those underserved by the profession. Their services include site analysis, programming, evaluation of needs, budgeting, and more, which lead to quality design and high performing places to live, gather, and work. Their motto is People and Places Matter, by making buildings that make people feel good.
The organization was inspired by the power-to-the-people activism of the Vietnam War-era. Over forty years later, Environmental Works continues to practice architecture in the public interest and prides itself on doing the most they can to help society in establishing social equity and environmental stewardship.
Environmental Works has achieved national recognition for their work and are regarded as leaders in the field of sustainable architecture for low-income communities. We had the opportunity to connect with Executive Director Roger Tucker to learn more about this amazing organization whose core value is that everyone deserves resilient communities with decent, affordable housing and vibrant, enriching places to work and play.
What is the founding story for Environmental Works?
Environmental Works was founded on Earth Day in 1970 as a cooperative effort of 64 University of Washington students and others to “make the earth and the Northwest livable, through environment preservation and community development.” Initially located in the University of Washington Architecture School Annex Building, they relocated to the surplussed City of Seattle Fire Station No. 7 in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. During the height of the Vietnam War and Urban Renewal, Environmental Works staff were known as "reasonable radicals" because they used their counterculture ideas and positive energy to make lasting change in low income communities. In the early days, the volunteers who worked hardest to bring Fire Station 7 (dubbed Earthstation 7 by the group) back to life and set Environmental Works on a path of sustainability were Dale Miller, Larry Goetz, Jerry Arbes, and a newcomer, non architect Brad Collins. Working with the Seattle King County Economic Opportunity Board, the four secured two one-year grants for the 1971-72 and 1972-73 fiscal years with HUD and HEW respectively. The primary purposes of the grants were to develop environmental awareness in low-income communities and environmental education curriculum for the Seattle Public School District. This early work set the tone for the organization and helped develop the core values that the organization still lives by.
What type of underserved organizations and communities has Environmental Works helped?
Environmental Works’ clients include nonprofit organizations that have limited financial resources and time to consider facilities improvements. We help them to determine facilities improvements so they can better serve their clients and help them leverage funds to make it happen. We also work with nonprofit housing providers, encouraging them to include potential residents, who wouldn't usually have access to architectural services or a voice in the planning process, in the design of their new homes. The organizations we work with typically serve people who make 30%-50% of median income.
We continue to work with organizations that we have partnered with throughout our 45-year history, and we are always engaging with new organizations. In the past decade our work has included:
· More than 40 new affordable housing projects, creating 1,200 homes for more than 2,500 individuals
· More than 40 childcare centers for low- and moderate-income children
· Dozens of public facilities including homeless shelters, food banks, clinics, and community center
How can proper design change people’s lives?
Here are some examples:
Noel House Women's Emergency Shelter - Formerly located in a converted basement parking garage, the new Noel House shelter in downtown Seattle provides a dignified space for chronically homeless women to get back on their feet. Indeed, 78% of clients now find permanent housing solutions within a year, up from just 43% in the old space.
El Centro de la Raza Community Center –Over more than 20 years, EW has worked with El Centro de la Raza to improve their historic former school building (now a community resource center). We provided a master plan of improvements such as energy, plumbing, and seismic systems, and then helping to implement the work over time with our services. El Centro de la Raza’s staff have been able to remain focused on their organization’s core values of inclusion, outreach, and community solidarity–not having to learn how to become facilities experts for an aging structure.
Unity Village Low Income Housing – Inclusive, hands on design workshops with residents led to a development that was welcomed by the neighborhood. Residents feel ownership of the place and continue to respect and maintain the homes that they helped design. With input from the workshops, we created flexible design features that allow people from 12 different cultures to adapt their apartments easily for their own cultural preferences. The design included outdoor recreation space, parking, bus lines, and easy access to a local park.
How can proper design make people feel good?
I would say it is twofold - providing a connection with the natural world and providing opportunities for community gathering. Many of our projects have central open spaces that provide a place for social activities in a secure natural setting. As an example, at One Community Commons, a low-income family housing project in West Seattle, all of the apartments are accessed through a central, south-facing courtyard that is planted with edible plants such as figs and strawberries. It provides a safe place for kids to play while parents do laundry, visit with neighbors or use the common meeting room. The project is located at a busy intersection and the courtyard, located above the street and surrounded on three sides by apartments, is a quiet and secure respite.
What is considered a high performing place?
To us a high performing place is both environmentally and socially resilient. Socially high performing fosters community and provides opportunities for social interaction and support. Environmentally high performing has minimal impact on the earth and reduces energy and operating costs for owners/residents.
What is sustainable design?
Sustainable design is a term that has been diluted by overuse. In its best meaning it refers to design that is resilient and relevant, having minimum long term and short term impact on our planet - a design that is a healthy and invigorating place to live and/or work and ideally has a symbiotic relationship with our ecosystem. Achievable? Yes! Easy? No!
What is a current project of Environmental Works?
We are happy to be working with a private nonprofit resource center for families who are at risk of becoming homeless. We worked together from the start to raise donations for design services and are currently working with the organization and contractor on donations of construction services, materials, and labor. The key project elements were defined through a hands on community design process in which all members of the organization were able to express their vision for the center with drawings, images, and words.
What is Environmental Works’ biggest issue in being able to meet their vision?
In the past grants have been available that allowed us to provide no cost design and planning services to local social service agencies. We are working to restore this funding so we can continue to provide low cost or no cost design services to nonprofit social service agencies. We would love to be able to provide free services for all of the communities and organizations that we serve.
If you could change one thing in this world, what would it be?
The current income inequality and over-demand for resources is leading to an imbalance in our world. A simpler, more equitable culture would lead to a happier and healthier society.
Consider donating to Environmental Works by visiting eworks.org or purchasing a copy of Thought Notebook Journal Issue 4 - 10% of sales go to support this organization.