Inspired by the power-to-the-people activism of the Vietnam era, a group of young architecture-school grads at the University of Washington started Environmental Works on the very first Earth Day in April 1970. Forty years later, the firm continues to practice architecture in the public interest.

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ROGER TUCKER is in a booth at a White Center community summit, looking for votes. Not for himself, but for what color scheme people would like to see on an apartment complex going up nearby.

With a small dot, he records each person’s preference and asks them all why they chose what they did.

He’s especially impressed with the woman who likes the version where big sections of the buildings are dominated by different colors. If she lived there, she says, that would help her direct friends to her apartment. That’s a good thought, Tucker says, that no one else raised.

Most architects wouldn’t spend three hours on a Saturday talking paint with the public, but for Environmental Works, where Tucker is executive director, it’s part of the mission.

Inspired by the power-to-the-people activism of the Vietnam era, a group of young architecture-school grads started Environmental Works on the very first Earth Day in April 1970.

Forty years later, the firm continues to practice architecture in the public interest, decades after long hair went out of fashion and its architects could have made a lot more money building mansions for high-tech millionaires.

The group operates out of an old Capitol Hill fire station that it saved from becoming a parking lot, and quietly but steadily works with nonprofits and community groups to build affordable housing, community centers, shelters, health clinics.

If you know where to look, its footprints are all over the city, and the region. Playgrounds in parks and schools. Some of Seattle’s first P-patches and 21 child-care centers. Town houses at Klahanie in Issaquah — likely the first affordable housing built as part of a large, master-planned community in King County. The West Seattle Food Bank and Community Resource Center, and the original Wing Luke Museum. Hopelink Place in Bellevue for homeless families.

And Traugott Terrace in Belltown, one of a long line of Environmental Works projects that were green long before it was cool to build green. It was the first affordable-housing project in the nation to earn the prestigious LEED green-building certification, proving that sustainable design doesn’t have to come with a large price tag.

Environmental Works isn’t the only architecture firm to serve nonprofits and neighborhood groups. Developers say Seattle is fortunate to have many architecture firms that can design attractive, long-lasting buildings on very tight budgets. At least a few are just as good as Environmental Works — and some would say better.

But Environmental Works was one of the first, and one of few — if not the only — that focuses almost exclusively on projects for the poorest among us.

Since 1970, it has stuck to the belief that everyone deserves good design, that we all benefit from it. And that people should have a say in what’s built in their neighborhoods, sometimes down to what color those buildings will be.

WHEN ENVIRONMENTAL WORKS began, the Vietnam War and the protests against it were raging, and community activism of all kinds was on the rise.

A few years before, the executive director of the National Urban League stood before America’s architects at their annual convention and challenged them to take a more active role in shaping their communities.

At the University of Washington, some of the architecture students decided to do just that, opening a community design center in a UW building at Northeast 40th Street and University Avenue.

For their opening celebration, the students decided they wanted to recycle daffodils left over from a Tacoma parade and drove carloads of them to Seattle to hand out to passers-by.

Less than a year later, they moved into Fire Station No. 7 on Capitol Hill, saving that building from being demolished to expand parking for the grocery store next door. The students were looking for a new place to house themselves and a few other groups, including Country Doctor Community Clinic, and they couldn’t imagine letting such a cool, brick 1920 building go without a fight. City leaders were skeptical of these young men with their long hair and big dreams. But Environmental Works prevailed.

“Some of us got labeled as the reasonable radicals because we weren’t bombing ROTCs or that kind of thing,” says Dale Miller, one of the founders. “We were trying to do positive things, and we could always convince the president of the university and the mayor and the council that we wanted to use our energy to make something good happen in our communities.”

In the early days, they lived on the little they mustered up in grants and donations. Young architecture grads came for a few years, then left when they needed to earn more than grocery money.

But the organization grew over time, moving from playgrounds to houses and housing projects.

In the 1980s, it helped people on Seattle’s Beacon Hill and in the Central Area build their own town homes — much like Habitat for Humanity operates today.

And when King County was buying up, then selling or demolishing houses by the hundreds to expand Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Environmental Works purchased about a dozen cheap, loaded them onto trucks and drove them 20 miles to Algona, where the group refurbished then sold them to low-income families.

It’s also now probably safe to say that they were the ones who secretly installed Richard Beyer’s “Waiting for the Interurban” sculpture in Fremont in the late 1970s, and the pergola Environmental Works designed to go with it.

Their permit application was denied because they didn’t have the money for the required engineering analysis, explains Steve Johnson, who was executive director at the time. But they were confident they knew what they were doing, he said, and went ahead anyway, pouring the concrete base at 2 a.m. one day, bolting down the sculpture and the pergola in the wee hours of the next. The only response was a short, anonymous call on Monday from someone Johnson thought he recognized.

“Good job,” the voice said.

For a while, Environmental Works ran a workshop in Fremont where volunteers came to borrow tools and get help on any number of community projects. It also helped nonprofit and community groups make sure their proposals fit into zoning laws and had realistic budgets.

“People came to rely on us to vet capital-development grants for a large number of nonprofits,” Johnson says. At one point, he says, the city required groups that wanted city money to undergo Environmental Works review.

After a 1997 merger with a private firm, Gleason and Associates, Environmental Works focused more on architecture and started doing more big projects.

But always for the same types of clients — mostly repeat customers. And always on tight budgets.

How tight? On one recent senior-housing project in Federal Way — Senior City — Environmental Works went to Target for some shelves.

Needless to say, the projects aren’t full of fancy finishes. Baseboards, for example, are usually rubber, rather than wood.

The money that’s available mostly goes into durability — exteriors and heating systems, and features that will reduce maintenance and heating costs. But its architects look for ways to add a special touch or two. They get kudos for creating low-cost buildings that don’t look cheap. They want their buildings to fit in — even enhance — the neighborhoods around them, in part to ease worries that a homeless shelter or low-income housing will depress property values.

“It takes courage to work with such simple materials and create buildings that are going to be around in 50, 60 years that we all have to live with,” says David Hewitt, a prominent Seattle architect.

“They do it with a keen sense of color and massing and proportion — far better than some firms do with much larger budgets.”

AT THE WHITE Center summit, the paint-opinion booth was the third time Environmental Works gathered the public’s ideas about the building, which will include subsidized housing for families and a few units for people who’d otherwise be homeless.

At the first meeting, Tucker and others handed out pens, asking participants to sketch how they’d like the units to be laid out and what should go in the courtyard.

Where to place the kitchens was one hot topic. Some wanted that room to be closed off from the living and dining areas. Others wanted the kitchens smack in the middle and wide open.

The opinions fell largely along cultural lines. In the end, Environmental Works decided to use shutters and doors that could be open or not.

Other people focused on the courtyard between the complex’s three buildings and the parking lot.

At the Saturday paint session, Patricia Velasco proudly pointed out that the final design included a figure-eight-shaped bike pathway for kids, an idea she’d hatched with another potential resident.

Architecture is a social art, says Tucker, a tall, quiet man who joined Environmental Works in 1997 and recently became executive director.

He says he likes the social as much as the art.

Then he pauses.

No, he says, he likes the social more.

IN 2010, Environmental Works completed four of its biggest and best projects to date: Bakhita Gardens in Belltown, a six-story building with stores and offices on the first floor, and housing and a shelter for homeless women above. Lewis Family Housing in Centralia, aimed at low-income farmworkers and their families. And two projects for low-income seniors — the Korean Women’s Association’s Senior City, a five-story apartment building in Federal Way, and Shepherd’s Garden in Lynnwood.

Late in 2009, it also finished Neighborhood House High Point Center, a community center and demonstration site for the benefits of green building. Neighborhood House estimates that together, the green features — which include 400 solar panels on the roof — have reduced its energy costs by 25 to 30 percent.

Then late last year, Environmental Works started to feel the effects of the economy and reduced its staff from 18 to 10. The public financing that for decades supported affordable-housing projects is drying up fast. But the firm survived other busts in architecture’s boom-and-bust cycle. It plans to seek more grants and other private support, and hopes to start a revolving fund to do the kind of consulting work it used to do, helping nonprofits put together realistic building plans and budgets.

In a sense, says Tucker, today’s challenges are similar to the ones Environmental Works faced back in the ’70s.

“There are a lot of needs,” he says, “and not a lot of ways to address them.”

Bill Singer, another longtime staffer, says he’s sometimes a little envious of a good friend who designs fancy houses in Hawaii.

But not for long. Environmental Works’ projects may not make Architectural Digest, but Singer says he gets more satisfaction from making a big difference in people’s lives.

Before Bakhita Gardens was finished, Catholic Housing Services had some housing and a shelter for homeless women in a smaller building on the same site. The shelter, in a converted parking garage, was open only at night, and the women slept on mattresses on a concrete floor.

Now, in the new building, they have cubicles with beds, bookshelves and locked storage for their belongings. They can use a community kitchen and living room, and can stay all day.

And rather than having to enter through the alley, the women now walk right in the new front door.

Linda Shaw is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.