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Spotlight on Amy King and Square Peg Development

By Kelsey Brokaw, Built Green Coordinator

Square Peg Development isn’t your usual construction business. It’s a social enterprise that strives for both profitability and positive social change. But it didn’t begin that way.

According to Amy King, who co-founded the business with her husband, Brady, “The mission of our company happened to us.” So what was the catalyst and why are we at Built Green so proud to count Square Peg among our members? The short version is that Amy has proven that a successful business can also substantially ease the reintegration of those with histories of incarceration, addiction, and homelessness while simultaneously training the next generation of construction workers in the green techniques they will need to thrive.

The long version? Keep reading.

Even in booming Seattle, the construction industry faces a substantial labor shortage. Four and a half years ago, that reality hit the Kings full force when Brady was set to build 11 homes by himself and couldn’t find any laborers to hire. Eventually, Square Peg connected with a company that employed individuals with a criminal background. Hiring those first six men was the start of something new. Now, 90 percent of Square Peg’s employees have had a history of incarceration, addiction recovery, and/or homelessness. Making that first leap was initially a bit intimidating but it’s clear that Amy has no regrets. She now frequently speaks about re-entry with other business owners and has visited almost every prison in the state.

How does Amy help her employees transition into the workforce while still cultivating a successful business? It helps that her employee pool is essentially a pipeline of people that can fill the industry’s labor shortage. It helps more so that most of those people come to work as though they have something to prove. Amy describes her reintegrating employees as “Very, very conscientious, very hardworking … in a lot of ways they’re better than most employees.” Amy very deliberately aims to provide the kind of supportive community that is needed to maximize that work ethic, for the good of the individual and the company.

Photo courtesy Square Peg Development

Amy has learned through her own extensive research that conditions like prison or addiction are “Very sterile, dark, and lonely place(s) to live.” She tries to make her company a contrast: creative, lively, and supportive. One way of accomplishing this is with a very intentional family model, which, in addition to a nurturing community, also provides a sense of ownership, giving employees even more reason to connect to their work beyond a paycheck. In the end, Square Peg employees are conspicuously more loyal than most in the industry and, Amy will gladly tell you, exceedingly less likely to relapse into a life of crime, addiction, or homelessness.

Amy’s goal is to be the conduit that connects marginalized populations to opportunity. It isn’t uncommon for such populations to make up a considerable number of construction laborers. What is uncommon is Square Peg’s transparency about their workforce. In Amy’s words, “We want to advocate for our population and educate the community about who these people are and where they come from.” In a place like Seattle, that doesn’t drive clients away. In fact, it has them lining up at the door.

Nor does Square Peg’s employee pool hinder typical business operations. The family model, and its resultant allegiance, ensures that employees are ready to step up and help when the company needs it. If that means sometimes scheduling enough staff to cover a meeting with a correctional officer, so be it. When it comes to business ownership, Amy points out not an obstacle, but instead a benefit that she thinks every employer should take advantage of: the Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit. The process is simple and employers get a sizeable tax credit at the end of the year for every eligible employee. She can’t emphasize enough, “It is phenomenal.”

Square Peg’s family model isn’t just about the employee community; it is also a reflection of a changing industry. The traditional ways of family trade and apprenticeship have lost ground to new sectors and university education. Amy found a new source of recruits to fill the construction industry’s labor shortage and paired it with the traditional idea of a family legacy. Because of her employees’ nontraditional path and her company’s culture, Amy has a collection of blank slates on which to draw her vision of the industry’s future.

So what does that future look like?

As Amy points out, businesses today must take steps to stay relevant to the demands of the market or else risk “Find(ing) yourself without a job at some point.” In Seattle, responding to the demands of today’s market means building green, which is more than fine by us! To date, Square Peg has enrolled more than three dozen units with Built Green and had 11 units certified as 4-Star Built Green. Amy knows that environmental sustainability and sustainability of community go hand in hand, which is why Square Peg goes green when given the chance.

Photo courtesy Alabastro Photography
Photo courtesy Square Peg Development
Photo courtesy Square Peg Development
 

This starts at the foundation of the company. The goal of connecting her employees to opportunity and a productive future relies on training. In other words, Square Peg isn’t just a social conduit, it is also a practical education for a career in construction. All employees learn the practices and methods of green building and because Square Peg builds both green and traditionally, all employees can see the difference. The benefits of green homes stand out whether they relate to air quality, safe materials, or energy efficiency. Some employees are even lucky enough to work extensively with the Built Green checklist and carry that experience on to their own companies.

But green requirements aren’t the only ways Square Peg employees see environmentally-friendly techniques in action. Part of the company culture of ownership and creativity invites employees to explore new styles and put the ‘Square Peg Stamp’ on the homes they build. Sometimes, like when one worker came across shou sugi ban, a Japanese method of wood preservation, design choices turn out to be smart green choices too. That firsthand experience highlights how good building and sustainability are complementary. That may go against an unfortunately common narrative, but experience is the best teacher—and Square Peg is where to get it!

Not all Square Peg homes are Built Green. We get that, but even Amy knows that “If construction is going to continue to be a viable industry, it has to come up to speed in terms of waste management and environmental sustainability.” The construction industry has a responsibility to address its own issues of sustainability, housing affordability, and labor. That is why Amy so actively shares the success of her company; it proves that you can do all three at once. She hopes her achievements can encourage and even inspire other business owners in any industry to take up the mantle and work toward a business model that will bring about economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

Square Peg is showing Seattle that building an inclusive community isn’t a sacrifice, but a key to success. In the green building community, we’re familiar with the idea that a little planning and investment up front is well worth it, even half a step down the road. If we keep thinking that way and continue to share examples of leaders like Amy, we can make a world of change.

Thank you, Amy, for sharing your experience with us. Keep up the great work!

 


Want to hear Amy talk more about her experiences? She will be presenting the final session of our Bettering Community track at the upcoming Built Green Conference, September 13, at the Lynnwood Convention Center. Her presentation, Building a Sustainable Labor Force, will further reveal how she has used second-chance employment to move the industry forward. We can’t wait to see you there!

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