By Gordon Wornoff
Creative Eye: Smithwood BuildersCanadian Contractor Basement editor pick editor's pick
Jim Smith, of Smithwood Builders, recently earned three separate National Awards for Housing Excellence at the Canadian Homebuilders’ Association Awards Gala –for Best Detached Custom Home under 2,500 square feet, Best Custom Kitchen, and Best Basement Renovation.
Smith’s award-winning basement is in a Vancouver neighbourhood of 1960s homes. Beneath the original green stucco bungalow is a basement design that makes so much sense when you see it, you wonder why the country isn’t full of these. Jim offers up the details in this feature interview.
The following is an interview between Gordon Wornoff and Jim Smith. It has been edited and condensed.
How did this project launch?
We were lucky to work with a great architect on this project, D’Arcy Jones Architects. We had done a couple projects with them in the past, and they knew we were quite capable of the modern aesthetic and refinement they were after. They introduced us to the homeowners – a family with two young kids. The family had been in the house for a while, loved the neighbourhood, and wanted to change things around to better accommodate their family’s present needs while also planning for their future.
The architect had a great idea to move the main living area down to the basement and then put bedrooms and an office on the main floor. When these 1960s era Vancouver homes were built, the living space was usually upstairs and then you had this basement that didn’t really fit in. Maybe you put some bedrooms down there, but the ceilings are not really high enough.
We removed an addition someone had put on the back, and we opened up the backyard and put in a recessed space with huge glass doors. The backyard has a southern exposure, so when they’re down there in the kitchen or living room area, they have so much natural light coming in through those doors.
Now each of the kids can have their own bedroom. The husband works from home, so a functional home office is integrated on the top floor. There’s flexibility for them to stay in the neighbourhood they love, and for their family to live comfortably and to grow together in that home.
What were some of the main challenges and successes on this build?
It’s a bit to wrap your head around living downstairs like that. The work required was substantial because you’re changing a lot of the mechanicals like the plumbing and the electrical. But we had those conversations early on and it made sense from a budget standpoint to go that route.
We wanted to maximize the ceiling height in this space, so we dug down as far as we could. In Vancouver, the setbacks between this era of houses is minimal. Excavating from the outside presented too many challenges so we installed new perimeter drains on the inside to manage water. In the end we gained four inches of headroom and added a well-insulated slab with radiant heat.
Of course, we had a few point loads to transfer from a couple of steel beams to hold everything up. In the past, we’ve lifted houses on steel beams and wiped out the foundation and built fresh, but in this case the budget didn’t allow for it. So, we had to get the steel into the house and into place in pretty tight quarters.
It was another challenge to keep enough head room in the space. The architects had done this before, where they didn’t drywall the ceiling, so you see the joists and the diagonal shiplap fir subfloor above and it feels more open. When we’re putting steel beams in there and running mechanicals and cutting this old material, we need to make sure it stays nice and appealing. This was one of the first times we worked with a company out here called Unbuilders, and their sister company, Heritage Lumber. They rescue old lumber and resell it. It’s a demolition, salvage, and resale business. We bought some old lumber that matched the joists and blocking and patched in where we needed to keep that consistent 1960s look. It’s not an easy process, making something look both old and really good.
We beefed up the insulation everywhere, thickened the walls up. By no means is it a passive house, but it’s probably 56 times more insulated than a typical house from that era.
Now they have a very dry, comfortable, well-insulated space with radiant heat.
You’ve won multiple awards this year. In the Vancouver market, there is some stiff competition. Tell us about that.
We’ve won a bunch of awards this year, including three on the national level which was a huge honour. We also won a number of awards from our local Homebuilders’ Association in Vancouver (HAVAN) – including Custom Home Builder of the Year. We were also nominated for eight provincial home builder awards called Georgies. We didn’t win any of those unfortunately, but it was still pretty nice to be nominated, especially in the category for Custom Home Builder of the Year. It’s been a great year for us and I’m pretty proud of the work.
There are some amazing builders here that we know through the Home Builders’ Associations, and we see them around and chat with them. We appreciate each other’s efforts to build sustainable, high-quality projects that will last a long time. We’re lucky to be part of this community and lean on these guys for knowledge and experience and there’s enough work that we can share ideas and cooperate to some extent.
How big is your company? How many projects a year do you complete?
Right now, we’re 22 people. That includes myself and all the carpenters, project managers, and apprentices. Typically, we have seven to eight projects on the go at one time, although we’ve recently slowed down to ensure we’re doing a good job and not spread too thin. We’ve found in the last few years a lot of guys are moving away from Vancouver for cost-of-living reasons. We have awesome trade partners – electricians, plumbers – and they’re experiencing the same thing. We don’t want to spread them too thin either. Moving forward, we’re looking at five or six projects a year that run really smoothly and efficiently without waiting on another trade or anything.
What are your goals for the business?
For the next ten years, we are going to focus on building high quality homes as sustainably as possible. We’d like to be doing net-zero builds, LEED certification, passive house, taking advantage of all these certifications and associations so that we’re building homes as healthy and as clean as possible. We want to build a house that will stand up for 100 years and its high quality and high performance. We want our homes to stay out of the landfill. Even if the client doesn’t want solar panels or geothermal, we can still ensure sustainable materials go in the wall assemblies, windows, and we use correct installation practices.
My wife and I had the chance to build our house about seven years ago. We were able to incorporate a lot of high-performance components. We’ve lived through it and seen where maybe some extra costs upfront can pay off later, when your bills are low in the dead of winter and your house is still quite warm.
We want to keep thriving with our trade partners as well. I want to stress that it’s not just Smithwood. We consider our trade partners an extension of our team. We try to work with the same guys, the same crew on as many projects as we can because they know what to expect from us and vice versa. And so, it’s everyone working together to create a top-notch project. We’ll have plumbers, drywallers, and electricians giving us a heads up about a small deficiency somewhere or something that could go unnoticed because we’re all pulling in the same direction. I always tell prospective clients it’s not as easy as ‘get three quotes and pick the lowest one.’ Sometimes you’ll pay a little bit more for a sub trade, but if you look deep down at the cost-effectiveness of having a strong, unified team, the value is exponential sometimes. We all want to keep working on these kinds of projects, so we’re all invested in doing a good job.
We have a new hire who joined us from the UK this year. He knew one of our guys and wanted to come and join the crew. Of course, I zoomed with him a couple times before he came to help get him set up. Once he got to Vancouver, I mean, it’s a big city and it’s difficult to find housing. But he was chatting with an electrician on our site – another young guy – and they were looking for a roommate. And next thing you know, one of our guys is living with a bunch of guys and one is an electrician we use quite often. The guys are all trying to help each other out as much as possible. It’s pretty cool.
It’s a cooperative effort to build these dream houses for clients, and our main strength is our team who reinforce our common goals.