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© Copyright 2007 Work-4 Projects Ltd.

"We Can Do It"
Father-and-son builders differentiates themselves in Brighton, Ontario.

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian


When Stephen Tobey started working at his father's home building company in 1990, "we were building good houses but not great houses," he says. "Another builder came into town with big lots, plans and money. I went down to their site and looked around." Tobey recalls a salesman telling him about their special radon windows. "We avoid that! I realized they weren't really technically minded. So, I said, if we're going to do this, we're going to do it better. We changed our focus to a more quality house, a more technical house."
Tobey custom designs every home built by Gordon Tobey Developments Inc., which was established in Brighton, Ontario, about 90 minutes north of Toronto, in 1976 and was one of the first (and still among the few) builders in Canada to build exclusively to R-2000 standards. "We upped our luxury features, tubs, and ensuites," he says, "and changed from more traditional designs to more up-to-date ones (like great rooms, rec rooms, etc.) We also added more architectural features outside."
Tobey Developments wanted to differentiate itself from other home builders by not only offering the highest technical quality but also achieving the highest level of customer satisfaction. Though the business started in a small town that saw only a handful of new homes built each year, Tobey says that there's a pull away from the big cities, which translates into more demand for homes... and growth for the company.
"Our focus here is You want it, we can do it,'" says Tobey, who handles all the pre-construction design work, from conceptual sketches to CAD and living 3D, while his father, GORDON, the company president, manages initial point of contact with customers and overall operations. "Other places have 10 standard designs... We have some standard designs but we can branch out from there. When customers asks what we can do, we ask them what their budget is."
A typical project for Tobey Developments, which builds 10 to 12 homes a year, is a 2,000- to 2,100-square-foot upscale brick or stone house, with or without a basement, for an empty nester couple. Tobey says these customers tend to have a long list of wants, which the builder incorporates into the house plan, whether for in-town or country lots. "They choose a lot and we build according to their needs and wants."
According to Tobey, home buyers look for two key things in a new house. First, they want quality. "They want what they want," he says. "Everyone has the Internet so they have a lot of questions. If you didn't want what you want, you'd buy the house across the street. People who are cost-focussed do that more."
Secondly, they have high expectations for energy efficiency and look for "green" homes, smaller environmental footprints, and less carbon emissions. Tobey Developments used to sell energy efficiency to its customers by telling them they'd save money, "but after energy crunch in the 80s, saving money wasn't such a big deal, so then we emphasized the benefits to their level of comfort," Tobey explains. "Comfort relates to quality, and that sells the house."

"It's the Little Things"
Tobey believes that building energy efficient homes benefits not just the customer but the home builder, too, especially when there's a focus on quality. "Everyone knows how to put in insulation and windows," he says. "So it's the little things. ECM motors, DC motors that reduce electrical consumption, concentrating in getting the last bit of electricity out of the house, gas fireplaces without standing pilots, bringing hot water up to snuff, and getting 90+ efficiency on heating and hot water. We want to extend beyond the little things we keep banging away at, such as drain water recovery and renewables."
Tobey, who serves as the Ontario representative on the national R-2000 committee, admits that it's not "just that it's better for the environment, but it's better for you and your pocketbook, too."
And all that relates back to design. "We build R-2000 houses that really focus on quality. Our houses are well trimmed, insulated and framed."
Among at least 20 prestigious awards Tobey Developments - the only R-2000 builder in Brighton - has received is a Certificate of Recognition "for outstanding commitment to building energy efficient houses" by the Conservation Bureau of Ontario in October 2007. The CBO gave particular attention to Tobey Developments' Mill Pond Woods EnviroHome, one of just 10 such homes built across the country in 2007.
The 2,289-square-foot all-brick barrier-free home boasts an EnerGuide for New Houses rating of 84 and energy savings of 68 per cent below Ontario Building Code houses. It features solar pre-heat on domestic hot water and radiant floor heat, solar pre-heat on incoming HRV air, an ECM/high-velocity air handler system, a high-efficiency condensing natural gas boiler, high-media air filtration, building materials with ultra-low volatile organic compounds ratings, energy-efficient lighting, dual-flush toilets, and an eco-friendly landscape.
Phase II of Mill Pond Woods is currently underway and Phase III is expected to start this fall.

Feeling the Pinch
As with most other Canadian home builders, the labour shortage presents a challenge for Tobey Developments. "We have on-site crews and 11 staff members who do construction," Tobey says. "That has made a huge difference in quality as opposed to running a whole sub-trades show." He concedes that it means more work but "when I ask for it to get done this way, it gets done this way. The guys work with the sub-trades more closely and there's a commitment back and forth between us."
Tobey points to the shortage of affordable land and available lots as an additional challenge. "The Ontario government has really put a pinch on things."

Still, this home builder is optimistically moving ahead with its projects. "Our new phase this spring has 31 new homes. They're great lots so they fit our focus," says Tobey, adding: "We're not looking to grow huge. I believe that we work to live... not live to work."

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