Each award is an honour. But just as ‘Best Picture’ is the most anticipated award at the Oscars, ‘Renovator of the Year’ and ‘Builder of the Year’ are the Peak Awards’ crème de la crème.
“The Builder of the Year and Renovator of the Year are probably the most prestigious of the awards because they not only encapsulate the recipients’ workmanship they do with their houses in the run of the year; they also encapsulate the work they do in the community, their activity within the NSHBA, and how they bring professionalism and advancement to the industry,” says the NSHBA’s CEO, Paul Pettipas. “Our Association depends on strong leaders, and that’s often identified through professional awards like Builder and Renovator of the Year.”
“I think you look at everything as a package, and what Whitestone Developments is doing within the industry, they’ve really stepped up to make the NSHBA and their community a priority and that shows within the work that they do,” says Pettipas, reflecting on Whitestone’s win.
Husband and wife, Andrew Watson and Tamara Barker Watson started the home and renovation company nearly 20 years ago and continue to own and run it today. Whitestone has grown to impressive proportions and yet still maintains that family business feel through its interactions with customers, staff, the industry and the community.
Building a Company
While they were dating, Andrew was mainly renovating as opposed to building new homes. Tamara was selling properties for another builder, but she just wasn’t satisfied. She felt what she was selling was “cookie-cutter” and subpar.
Tamara remembers feeling then that there was a real niche to be explored–one of quality building that went against the grain. This motivation fuelled the creation of Whitestone Developments, which was founded by the end of 1995.
Together, Tamara and Andrew are complementary business partners.
As CEO of Whitestone, Tamara handles a whole gamut of roles from purchase agreements and contract negotiations to budgeting, advertising, public relations and supplier dealings. An adventurous spirit – she has a pilot’s license and also rides a Harley.
“I like knowing how every aspect of our business works and it’s important for me to be able to do the things our team does,” she says. “It’s not fair for me to ask them to do something that I wouldn’t do.”
As Whitestone’s President of Operations, Andrew is also multi-talented. He has a portfolio of skills and specialties, from energy efficient building to interior and exterior design. He is also passionate about each build and reno Whitestone undertakes.
This excerpt from Wayne and Sharon Pickett’s testimonial about their home renovation shines a light on Andrew’s dedication to the company and his clients:
“Both Andrew and Dale gave the design their personal attention, and made sure that every square inch of the addition on the house would add something to the space that would make our lives easier… Even after we had settled on a design, they put our minds at ease by assuring us that if we changed our minds about anything that they would work around this… Andrew was a hands-on supervisor, devoting much of his day to overseeing our job, and many times working right along with the crew up on a ladder…Truly, we are not sure if we have met a more obliging individual and we consider him a friend. We cannot thank Whitestone enough for our beautiful renovation. The house functions better than we could have hoped for. And we have our dream kitchen and breakfast nook.”
Andrew reflects on how the company has evolved. “We have grown a lot since we started the company back in ’95,” he says. “We started with one employee. Now we have 26 and together we complete about 40 projects a year. Our staff are amazing. They’re highly-skilled and multi-talented. I’m proud to work with them every day.”
Green from the Beginning
Whitestone Developments is known for being ecologically conscious, and for good reason. They are pioneers. They started incorporating environmental best practices and products in their building and renovation projects “before green was gold.”
“We started employing eco-friendly practices from the get-go,” says Tamara. “It was just better for the planet. When you put people and the planet first, the profits will follow. I’m not a fan of taking the easy road, especially if it’s not the moral one.”
From the beginning, Tamara and Andrew were continuous learners. They travelled to observe what other builders were doing and consistently experimented to figure out which products had the best energy efficiency performance.
This philosophy of always discovering, studying and improving on building and renovation projects is consistent today, and Whitestone continues to specialize in energy efficient homes. Some of the energy efficient products Whitestone incorporates are air source heat pumps, insulated sheathing (its use also reduces construction waste) drain water heat recovery systems, raised heel trusses, heat recovery ventilation systems and many more.
Furthermore, all their homes are solar ready, says Tamara. This means if a homeowner is not ready to invest in solar technology right away, they still can down the road, as the required logistics–like unobstructed space on the roof that is structurally able to accommodate the system, among other criteria–are already in place.
Whitestone’s designs also incorporate the natural properties of the sun through positioning windows to get the most out of the heat (passive solar gain) and light (daylighting) that it provides during the day.
If clients have novel ideas on how to make their homes more efficient and environmentally sound, Whitestone is all ears, and will work with them to have them incorporated.
To Whitestone , not only are environmental and energy-efficiency practices the keys to their success – the needs and desires of the people who will be or who are living in the homes they build or renovate are just as important, or more so.
“We are 100 percent custom builders so it’s whatever the client wishes and everything is as they request and require,” shares Tamara. “We’ll work with them closely to figure out their style, budget and needs. We listen to them and keep the lines of communication open throughout the entire building or reno process.”
Throughout the years, Tamara, Andrew and their team have built a wide range of homes, big and small, from bungalows to two-storeys, from Arts & Crafts and saltbox to contemporary, from townhouses to vacation homes and cottages.
In addition to their clients’ personal styles, budgets and energy concerns, Whitestone helps them create spaces for the long term.
As part of their “Build Smart” process, Whitestone incorporates “flex home design” to reflect homeowners’ changing lifestyles with time. A den that can be easily transformed into a children’s bedroom or making hallways wide enough for possible wheelchair users in the future are just some examples of their “universal design model which makes everything in the home accessible to all people with or without functional limitations.”
Whitestone can also help renovate homes cost-effectively to make them accessible for older adults or those whose mobility has been restricted. “We’ve been doing more and more Certified Aging in Place homes and renovations,” says Andrew. “People want to stay in their homes as they get older. It’s nice to be able to provide these accommodations to give folks and their loved ones that comfort that they’ll be in a safe and relaxing environment.”
Strategic throughout Housing Market Cycles
In June/July, PROFIT Magazine (ProfitGuide.com) released its 26th annual PROFIT 500 which lists the 500 fastest-growing companies, from all sectors, from across Canada. Whitestone Developments made the 2014 list. Ranked 488th, the 2014 PROFIT 500 listing states Whitestone’s revenue grew by 51% from 2008 to 2013.
Tamara says the fact they build new homes and also do renovations, business is always busy. “When the housing market is slow, the renovation market will often go up,” she explains. “Also when the housing market slows down, we try our best to be strategic, like buying land for future developments. That gets us ready for when the market improves.”
This season, Tamara says, they are busy doing both new builds and renovations to get homes ready for Christmas.
In Touch with the Community
As if Tamara and Andrew aren’t busy enough, both are very involved with their colleagues in the industry and the community at large.
At the NSHBA, Andrew has served as co-chair of the Technical Research Committee, and Tamara currently serves as 1st vice president and chair of the Marketing Committee,. Both have also participated in various projects with the NSHBA’s Homebuilders Care Program, which assists non-profit organizations and families in need of renovations.
Elsewhere in the community, Tamara is a founding member of the Women Presidents’ Organization’s Atlantic Chapter, has served on the Centre for Women in Business’ Advisory Board and mentored female entrepreneurs, and Andrew has been coaching both their children Hunter and Miranda’s hockey teams.
An Overflowing Awards Case
The prestigious Renovator of the Year prize was not Whitestone’s first Peter Kohler Peak Award. In fact, they picked up several in 2013 and in years past, in such categories as custom home, outstanding new home, most R-2000 homes built in a year, marketing excellence, membership recruitment, consumer choice, community service and TechReady, as well as being the Builder of the Year recipient in 2003.
Additionally, in 2011, Whitestone won a Canadian Home Builders’ Association SAM Award for best single detached, under 2,500 square feet custom home.
Tamara herself has also been recognized numerous times for her entrepreneurial and environmental prowess, including winning the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards’ TPH Sustainability prize, and consistently ranking among the top 100 Canadian female entrepreneurs in PROFIT/Chateleine’s W100 listing.
Whitestone has come a long way since it started nearly 20 years ago with a $5,000 line of credit. According to PROFIT, their revenue last year was in the $10-19.9 million range. While Whitestone Developments is their main company, the couple also runs five additional businesses, including a storage facility, land holding and real estate property holding companies. All of them are yielding profits.
“Andrew is not only my husband, the father of my children and my business partner; he’s also my best friend,” says Tamara. “I look forward as we continue to grow our companies together and to develop custom homes.”
But for Tamara and Andrew, genuine gratification still comes from creating spaces that enhance quality of life. In the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards video (2013) featuring Tamara, she shares: “When we’re handing over those keys, we’re handing over comfort, safety and reliability and we’re not just building homes, we’re making friends along the way.”
Andrew Watson and Tamara Barker Watson, owners of Whitestone Developments, feel all of their customers are like extended family. However, a recent project was a bit closer to home.
Tamara’s sister Peg, who is in the navy, bought a home when she was transferred back to Halifax. Peg knew her sister and brother-in-law were going to make some updates to her new abode, but she had no idea how elaborate or stunning the renovations would be.
“The only thing she wanted was a new, fresh kitchen,” smiles Tamara. “When she went out to sea, we decided we would surprise her and do an extensive makeover while she was away. Now her home is virtually new, inside and out.”
“To start with, we added spray foam insulation in the attic and in the new walls,” notes Andrew. “As well as 2-inch foam sheathing on all exterior walls for energy efficiency.”
On the outside, the home was widened by 8 feet, allowing for a new garage. New trusses changed the pitch of the roof to adjust the look, and a new front porch was created. This, along with all new siding and stone, give it a craftsman-look.
The changes continued inside. In addition to the new open-concept kitchen, hardwood floors and stairs, the new space above the garage allowed for a walk-in closet off the master and new bathroom featuring a custom shower.
“Inside, it is now wide open with all new floors and two new bathrooms, plus ultra-efficient mini-split heat pumps to cool and heat the home. She was shocked when she got home,” says Tamara. “She couldn’t speak! She was amazed with the transformation!”