2012 Builder of the Year, Denim Homes

If there were a rating we could give Denim Homes, the number would be zero. Too harsh? On the contrary – this number is the reason why Denim Homes was awarded the 2012 Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Peter Kohler Peak Award for Builder of the Year, and it represents the company’s goal – to build only sustainable net zero houses within the next few years.

Denim Homes is one of Nova Scotia’s premier builders of energy efficient houses and has a number of honours including two Peak Awards for Most Energy Efficient Home Design to back up this claim. They have found their niche in the Nova Scotia building industry and it’s a very good thing for the people, the industry and the environment here.

“Denim Homes knows what they are doing,” says Paul Pettipas, Chief Executive Officer of the Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Association (NSHBA). “When you can build a home that scores a 96 on the EnerGuide scale, you’re into the stratosphere. It’s good to see a company that wants to stay in the lead.”

Owners of Denim Homes, Steven Lockhart and Caleb Howden always aim for the best possible rating a home can achieve, based on home design and heating system selection. Their standard practice is not a common goal for an everyday builder. Above and beyond the high EnerGuide ratings for their houses, Denim Homes already has a handful of net zero houses in their portfolio.

“Our company goals are clearly aligned with Natural Resources Canada’s national goals of all new constructions built net zero by 2030,” says Howden. “That has also been our goal for the past five years.”

Building net zero homes is an attainable goal for Denim Homes, but there is also an educational component that involves the homeowner’s commitment to adopt an energy-conscious lifestyle in order to take full advantage of the home’s energy efficiency. For the homeowner, this doesn’t mean eating meals by candlelight or discarding all plasma TVs. Living in a net zero home simply means being smart and turning off lights or appliances when not in use and avoiding wastage of electricity.

Denim Homes currently has a home with 8.5 kW of solar capacity and the family of six is enjoying their beautiful new home, designed to be net zero having no electricity costs. For families across Nova Scotia, this could be a life changing opportunity that should no longer be seen as too expensive or unattainable. Over the past five years, the cost of solar panels has reduced by almost half and is making alternative energy sources more accessible to the general public.

Passionate Leaders from the Beginning

It’s easy to recognize that energy efficient building and living is a passion of both Howden and Lockhart. With more and more builders adopting good energy efficient building practices in Nova Scotia and across Canada, the industry as a whole will move forward with passionate builders like Denim Homes leading the way.

Being an industry leader is what the NSHBA looks for in a Builder of the Year recipient. They may not build the most houses or the most expensive or luxurious houses, but they are changing the industry in some unique way. For Lockhart and Howden, they are influencing the housing market and the building industry in a profound and meaningful way through their commitment to energy efficiency and their desire to
constantly learn, reflect and think ahead.

Their love for the industry is apparent and goes back a long way, despite both owners being only in their 30s. Since the age of 14, Howden worked in the construction industry on large commercial and residential projects. By 19 he was running projects in the United States as a framing foreman. When he connected with Lockhart, who also had his hands in the construction industry from a young age, their personalities and philosophies aligned and Denim Homes came to be.

Denim Homes started in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia where competition was high. Howden and Lockhart knew that they needed to find a niche quickly if they wanted to succeed. And succeed they did.

Having worked in 16 states and 5 provinces, they noticed the East Coast’s energy concerns were far greater than in other areas of North America. Making a decision of which heating system to purchase was an East Coast homebuyer’s main concern, whereas out West, this was low on the priority list. This indicated a big future in energy efficiency for the East Coast of Canada, which Denim Homes cleverly capitalized on and has helped grow over the years.

“I spent a couple years researching the impact of different systems and the impact they had on the energy efficiency of the house,” explained Howden. “If I wanted to be a part of the Nova Scotia industry, I would have to adjust to the concerns of the consumer and work to bring them the lifestyle and the heating bill they were asking for.”

Denim Homes stayed in the small community of Annapolis Valley for two years while they steadily built their business on work ethic, integrity and word of mouth. Then the requests started coming in asking Denim Homes to build in and around Halifax. They initially declined, but with the many requests they could no longer delay their expansion into the Halifax market.

“There is an air of professionalism to both Caleb and Steven,” says Pettipas.

This professionalism is what Howden says earns the referrals and positive feedback. It is also the interesting company culture that distinguishes Denim Homes from competition.

“We are a big family,” says Howden. “Everyone at Denim has lived outside of Nova Scotia, seen different construction industries which has expanded our horizons and given us unique perspective on building homes and lifestyles.”

The team is constantly sharing blog posts, articles and facts about the building industry and energy efficiency during their spare time and there is an ever-present energy and encouraging atmosphere at the office and on job sites. Howden and Lockhart understand the importance of continuing education and believe associations like the NSHBA and programs like Atlantic Home Warranty do a great job of promoting education even after the classroom.

“It’s easy to go on the internet and find information that is one-sided or written by a product manufacturer,” says Howden. “The Denim team is cautioned to investigate each source, figure out if the information is specific to a geographical location or climate. We are objective and that helps us build to the best of our abilities.”

East Meets West

Being cautious, professional and thorough is what has put them at the head of the building industry as energy efficient leaders, but they are also prime examples of savvy business leaders. Howden and Lockhart are smart business people who understand the importance of doing things the right way – even if that means building slower or fewer homes.

“Five years ago, winning Homebuilder of the Year was never even a thought we would have considered,” says Howden. “I came from the industry in Alberta where there were builders producing around 200 homes a year with Builder of the Year plastered across their truck. It seemed so far outreached, untouchable.”

Being awarded Builder of the Year goes to show that the number zero can overpower the number 200. And it is no wonder the Denim Homes team is careful to work with likeminded individuals who believe in their philosophy of education, sustainable practice and professionalism.

They believe that to advance the building industry, there must be an educational movement throughout and a push to energy efficient building amongst all trades and all types of builders – from commercial to residential, rural to urban. Instead of creating completely new trades to handle the energy efficiency demands of the future, the trades of today must evolve and adapt early to the quickly changing demands of the consumer and the environment. Denim Homes came from the industry in Western Canada where energy concerns were few and far between. However, they were able to evolve and capitalize on the energy needs of Eastern Canada because the education and business opportunities are plentiful and widely available through the NSHBA and other advocacy organizations. It is simply the desire to adapt that is needed to be a successful builder.

More and more Canadians are demanding higher standards in energy efficient building and Natural Resources Canada will continue to implement new nationwide standards that reflect those needs and wants. The onus then lies with the builders to band together, educate and empower one another in order to strengthen the saturated building industry.

“In any industry when more voices come together, the collective voice carries more strength than the voice of an individual,” says Howden. “The NSHBA does that very well on behalf of builders and consumers.”

The NSHBA and Denim Homes promote the same building practices including ageing-in-place design, energy efficient construction, and proper building. These core values instilled in the NSHBA by people like Pettipas and the same values instilled in Denim Homes by Lockhart and Howden make success in the changing landscape of residential building in Eastern Canada inevitable.

While the Western Canadian building industry continues to avoid facing environmental and energy issues head on, Eastern Canada will inch forward and pick up momentum in the coming years. When dissecting the East Coast building industry further, there exists a staggering comparison between rural and urban building.

Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) customers are often better versed in the concept of cost because there is more competition, more houses being built, and more advertising explains Howden.

From experience, Denim Homes encounters a range of budgets and a range of expectations when it comes to rural building. Things like acreage, desired house size and proximity to resources and amenities affect the overall pricing of the project but may not hold much weight in an urban build.

Whether urban or rural, Denim Homes strives to build using the most advanced and efficient systems and practices. And they go a step further to truly understand the why behind the application of those systems and practices.

Some homebuyers are involved, curious and eager to be a part of the process. For others, Howden says they want to know that their house is built to code and that it will cost $125 a month to power instead of $400 a month.

“For some consumers, knowing that figure is enough,” says Howden. “We always try to recognize how involved each consumer wishes to be with their build and we cater to them. If they don’t want to know the science behind energy efficient building then they won’t be bombarded with those details.”

Denim homes uses easy comparisons between traditional building techniques and the energy efficient techniques they implement. Even if the homebuyer is reluctant to delve into the science and numbers behind the technique, Denim is able to visually and verbally explain the differences and consequences with simplicity and ease. Even to the untrained consumer’s eye, it is clear what Denim Homes is doing differently and why they are able to save homeowners dollars and cents of their monthly energy costs.

Environmentally Friendly Future

Denim Homes is leading the way in Nova Scotia’s energy efficient building industry. They plan on continuing to involve the company in meaningful projects like the 2010 Efficiency Nova Scotia Demonstration Home, the QE2 Lottery Home, and the recently built Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) training house.

The NSCC training house is a 2,400 square foot house built on campus as a teaching tool. The house is fully connected electronically via sensors connected to a computer system and is used to teach valuable technique to emerging builders – what Denim Homes hopes will continue to propel the building industry forward and upward.

Howden and Lockhart are more than just builders. They are educators above all else. Their influence on current and emerging industries and trades in the East Coast is well deserving of the Builder of the Year award and will continue to challenge new and experienced builders throughout the market.


Mari Suyama

Mari Suyama

With a degree in Journalism and Spanish from the University of King’s College, Mari has turned her passion for writing, languages and travel into a career she loves. Diving into the world of freelance after university, she moved to Latin America