By J.P. Donaldson
What do three renovators from Toronto, St. Thomas and Barrie have in common? Well, besides being members of OHBA and their local HBAs, they’re all passionate about their business and have a fundamental belief in making a difference. They are also early adopters of the RenoMark program. Here are their stories:
As the sole owner/operator of a full-service renovation company for more than 30 years, Sandra Baldwin has seen a lot of changes in the business. Many have been both positive and forward- thinking, such as an increased due diligence towards energy efficiency and a movement towards sustainable retrofits. Baldwin has also seen a shift from almost exclusively residential single-family and semi-detached residential renovations to a larger ratio of condo unit renovations, an aspect of the industry she particularly enjoys.
“There are a lot of parties involved, from the condo owner and condo management to the building staff,” says Baldwin. “It requires finely tuned project management and strong communication skills—qualities that we pride ourselves on.”
Not all changes, however, have been positive. “In the past five years, there has been a major increase in average job size and a decrease in the number of projects handled per year,” says Baldwin. “We used to have many more small projects in the mix, but those highly profitable jobs are now going to cash operators, and we simply cannot touch their pricing. Regulations and taxation are polarizing the professionals from the underground operators: HST, College of Trades, WSIB regulations and premiums, the stringent requirements of a sound health and safety program—these are all driving administrative and operational costs up.”
One way to counteract the underground economy, Baldwin believes, is to promote and build on the RenoMark brand. “RenoMark offers the ethical and successful small business renovator a national brand to boost their image in the eyes of the consumer. Not only is it well established, it has raised the industry bar on this profession. Recently, EnerQuality developed a five-part course, the Green Renovator Project, to help RenoMark renovators understand and implement sustainable retrofits. Lifetime Contractor is among approximately 40 Ontario RenoMark-certified ‘green’ renovators who can boast this distinction. No cash operator is going to have that sort of specialized education.”
A firm believer in getting involved at every level, Baldwin has served as Chair of the BILD Renovator Council, is a past member of BILD’s board of directors and executive committee, and currently serves as Chair of the OHBA Renovator Council. She also teaches Project Management and Sustainable Rating Systems at George Brown College.
“I love the renovation business, and it has provided me with a good life,” says Baldwin. “But it’s also complicated; there so many hats to wear, from sales to understanding drawings to human resources and accounting. It’s important that those of us in this industry continue to share our knowledge and pay it forward.”
It takes a brave couple to move from Winnipeg to St. Thomas and start a new business in an unknowncommunity. Add a newborn son to the mix and you’ve got a serious set of new challenges. But none of that stopped Stefanie Coleman-Dias or her husband, John Dias, from starting Coleman-Dias³ Construction in 2005.
“John had a construction background; I was a clothing buyer for a major chain,” says Coleman-Dias. “We spent the first two years installing sunrooms and gradually evolved the business as referrals and our reputation grew. Today we specialize in creating fully functional indoor and outdoor living spaces. John handles all the on-site work; I handle everything else, from marketing to accounting to design and BCIN drawings.”
A Certified Green Renovator through EnerQuality, what sets Coleman-Dias³ Construction apart from a myriad of other small, family-operated businesses is the company’s commitment to education and building science. To that end, Coleman-Dias has retained BCIN, RASDT and thermography certification, and is also a Certified Energy Advisor for both the EcoEnergy and Energy STAR for New Homes programs.
Education isn’t the only thing the company embraced. Coleman-Dias³ Construction joined the St. Thomas & Elgin Home Builders’ Association (STEHBA) in their first year of business. In 2012, they also joined the London Home Builders’ Association. “Early on in our STEHBA membership, I joined their board as the subtrade director; I just finished my term as their president,” says Coleman-Dias. “The value of belonging to these associations is in the relationships we build with one another.”
Her involvement in association life hasn’t stopped at the regional level. A member of OHBA’s Board of Directors in 2012, she recently joined the Ontario Renovators Council and Technical Committee, noting that, “the experience of seeing the bigger picture from the provincial level is invaluable.”
Also invaluable to Dias³ Construction is the company’s membership in the RenoMark program. “STEHBA was one of the first local HBAs to get on board, and our company was one of its first members. The HBAs are working hard to promote the brand, but we still have a ways to go before it is widely recognized by the general public as a source for reputable and reliable renovators.”
Nonetheless, Coleman-Dias laments that there will always be homeowners willing to take a risk on their largest financial investment by hiring a cash operator. “We are definitely at a price disadvantage when quoting jobs for homeowners, as we have to pay for costly legislation, HST, mandatory WSIB and tough regulations. Unfortunately, these policies are written assuming everyone follows the rules. They don’t. But RenoMark helps legitimate contractors gain credibility, especially when it comes to educating homeowners on the importance of having contracts and getting permits.”
With 19 years as president of Prycon Custom Building and Renovations, and eight years as a contractor in a previous business, Matt Pryce has become a recognized name in a city that has grown exponentially over the same period. Along with his brother and partner Stephen, Pryce has seen many ups and downs in the economic cycle impacting the renovation side of their business. But both men are quick to point out that Prycon is “a full-service, high-end renovator that has been fortunate to feel the economic bumps less than other sectors.” Today, renovation accounts for about 50 percent of their day-to-day operations; the remainder is split between custom homes, waterfront redevelopment and commercial work.
Whatever the job, one thing remains constant. “We’re experts at problem solving and working with professional engineers and architects to find viable solutions,” says Pryce. “Years of experience have taught us to be very resourceful, and that includes being a member of RenoMark.”
It’s this combination of professionalism, experience and out-of-the-box thinking that Pryce sees as his company’s strongest selling point. “The competition has changed. Renovation used to be more of a craftsman trade; those in the business were trained in their respective area of specialty and knew what they were doing. Now there are a lot more unskilled, underground operators, tarnishing our trade’s name.”
Social media has also caused the industry to change dramatically. The days where the contractors sourced and supplied all of the product are long over. “With the internet, big-box retailers and HGTV, people are definitely more informed of what products are out there and where to get them cheap,” notes Pryce. “The difficulty is that although the products are being advertised and promoted, and may be very economical to purchase, many are more difficult to install and require increased labour time. Additionally, like the majority of contractors, Prycon does not warranty anything we don’t supply. Not every client understands this.”
It’s not just the customer and the competition that has changed. “Building science has changed dramatically, and the OBC has forced the builders and renovators to change with it,” Pryce notes. “But here again, you have to ask: Are the underground operators getting the proper permits? Are they following code?”
Pryce believes belonging to and promoting RenoMark is one of the first steps in further educating the public on the benefits of hiring a qualified professional, along with the risks if they don’t. “Every professional contractor should be a member—the professionalism, the knowledge, along with the warranty and after-sales service that all members subscribe to are the best peace of mind for our clients, the homeowners.”