In 1992, Bruce Watt was a home designer and Vince Campbell was a carpenter. Both men had one thing in common: a passion for client-specific, unique, custom homes. This dream, and their compatibility in working together, led them to found Habitat Studio.
There are many custom home builders in Edmonton. What makes Habitat Studio different?
“A lot of companies say they are custom builders, but then they invite you to pick a plan that they “customize.” Habitat Studio designs from scratch. We build from a blank piece of paper. We don’t have specs. We choose everything together with the client, and you won’t find anyone that can build a more energy efficient home in Canada,” says Trevor Hoover, president, director and senior designer. Hoover joined the company shortly after the two founders retired, and he wakes up every day eager to go to a job where creativity, customer service and environmental responsibly are so highly valued. “When you go to another builder, they will show you their products. We don’t have a product. We don’t build a house. We build a home and provide a service while doing so. That’s what makes us stand out. We provide true designs, true builds, and are truly transparent. Our clients see where every penny they spend goes. There is no guessing. Everything is transparent month to month and week to week.”
He pauses to smile about another advantage Habitat clients enjoy. “The energy efficiency aspect really pushes us over the top.”
When Peter Amerongen joined the company in the mid-90s, he knew that energy efficiency in homes would become increasingly important, and he spearheaded the initiative for Habitat Studio to incorporate as many green elements into their designs as possible. Habitat’s green building leadership has earned it many awards from the Net-Zero Energy Home Coalition, along with environmental awards from the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, for more than five consecutive years.
Hoover explains how net zero homes work: “In a single calendar year, a net zero home will have produced as much energy as it uses. On a sunny day, the home’s solar panels and electrical metres are spinning backwards. They are making money. In the dead of winter, when the home needs to use energy from the grid, it uses up the credits it ‘earned’ in the summer. When you add it up year after year, the energy consumed versus the energy produced come to zero. (This does not include service charges from the utility company.) Our first net zero home needed just 1,500 watts to heat the house in the dead of winter – that’s like the energy output of a hair dryer! If the power went out, the home would remain heated for up to five days. In our climate, that’s amazing.”
A net zero home isn’t desired by every client, but each home built by Habitat Studio incorporates the fundamentals of outstanding energy efficiency and leaves the option open for more eco-conversions down the road.
“If you make a tight, well insulated house, you are 80 per cent of the way,” confirms Hoover. “Our homes are extremely well insulated. They are airtight. There is no leakage of air or heat. We also try to use as many local products as possible so we can be as carbon neutral as possible.”
The clients are thrilled with their beautifully crafted, custom, energy efficient homes, but they aren’t the only ones happy with the way Habitat Studio operates. The employees also enjoy a corporate culture that keeps their wellbeing in mind.
“Our company culture is very important, and we have spent a lot of time building and refining it,” Hoover points out. He counts communication as their most important tool, in the office, on the jobsite, and among the staff.
“Communication is a big deal. Even when you screw up, and we do screw up! We are human. We will make mistakes, especially since each house is different. It’s how we deal with the mistakes that counts. We will be the first to say if something doesn’t look good, and we’ll make it right. For example, 10 years ago, a project didn’t go well. It happens. It was a case of a client insisting on one way and us, from a design build perspective, wanting to go another way. I am constantly surprised how many times that same person has referred us despite the job not going smoothly, like most of our other projects. The fact that we could disagree with a client and still have them happily recommend us speaks to our communication, transparency and service.”
Habitat Studio sheds some light on an issue that has strong options on both sides – infills.
“Ninety-five per cent of our projects are infills, and we have been working with the City on the nature of infills for 25 years. There have been a lot of positive changes, but the negatives, sadly, outweigh the positives. When the City developed the mature neighbourhood overlay, they didn’t take into consideration the unique characteristics of individual communities. Now it’s changes after changes, mandate after mandate, rather than doing it right. The City needs to look at each community separately and what its infrastructure can handle. Right now, it takes me up to six months to get a permit for an infill. In suburbia, that permit takes just 4-6 weeks! It’s frustrating!”
However, the frustration is offset by what he loves about his work.
“We do so many great projects and work with so many great people. Most of our staff and clients come from referrals. In 25 years, we have never designed or built the same house twice. Never! We have designed homes all across the country – in fact, all across the world! The furthest I’ve designed is in Argentina. Habitat has also designed homes in Vancouver and on some of the islands out there. We’ve designed a home for Peggy’s Cove.”
When the company is not busy helping to save the world one eco-friendly home at a time, and amazing clients with one-of-a-kind builds, they turn their attention to the community. Habitat Studio is a strong supporter of The Mustard Seed, a non-profit humanitarian organization. The company also supports local initiatives that help the homeless and hungry, locally and abroad.
“For eight years, we flew to Central America to build a house in five days,” smiles Hoover. “Each house has two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, plumbing and electricity. What we did in five days would take a local crew up to a year.” The houses went to deserving families in the region.
It’s not all work and no play for Hoover. He’s relishing his new role of grandpa, and he loves spending time with his family, at the curling rink, riding his motorcycle, travelling and adoring his beautiful wife.
“She’s awesome!” he sighs with contentment about his wife, Michelle. “Back when I first started here, and for many, many years, I worked 12-hour days. She looked after our children, our life and me. She never pressured me to stop moving forward with the company. They say behind every man stands a great woman, and in my case, that is absolutely true.”
This year, Habitat Studio added two Tomato Kitchen Design Awards to its list of recognitions, a good complement for the company’s plan to move forward with constant, projected, steady and controlled growth.
“Our decades of success are not to be credited to any one person,” Hoover concludes. “It’s our culture. It’s our team. We all work hard and we all work together. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
To learn more about Habitat Studio and to see their award-winning, custom, eco-friendly designs, visit www.habitat-studio.com.