Forging productive long-term relationships with clients, architects, engineers, subcontractors, and employees has been the hallmark of Halse-Martin Construction Company Ltd. since its formation 75 years ago. It continues to be the driving force behind its development today.
“It’s all about relationships,” Rory Waterson, President and Co-owner of Halse-Martin tells us. “It’s the principal component of our company. It may sound cheesy but it’s true.”
The Vancouver company was formed in 1944 by George Halse and George Alan Martin. Halse studied forestry at the University of Washington before heading to British Columbia where he met Martin while working on an airport construction site. With Martin’s background in architecture and engineering at the University of Manitoba, they set out to start a construction business of their own. Their earliest projects included trolley lines, substations for B.C. Electric (now B.C. Hydro), and gas service stations.
During the post-war economic boom clients were often government institutions or large, well-established private-sector businesses. Through these fundamental relationships the company performed thousands of projects over the next half century.
Today public and private sectors in the lower mainland continue to seek out Halse-Martin to bid on their work both as a construction manager and general contractor. “Technically challenging projects are what we excel at,” says Waterson. “We try to focus on the trickier projects in the industry where we have the most expertise.”
“One reason we’ve been able to do this, other than our experience, is the relationships we’ve developed within the industry. This provides an environment of trust in the construction process and allows everyone to focus on producing the best possible product for the client,” adds co- owner Dan Robbins.
Another factor contributing to the company’s success is long-term staff, who provide cohesiveness and institutional memory. “Since the company’s inception,” Robbins says, “every generation of owners has come from inside the firm.”
Previous owner Roy Reichgeld, the third ‘generation’ of owners, was just 22 in 1984 when he joined the company as an estimator and project manager, before moving on to eventual ownership. He retired this past summer after 34 years, “but he is still involved as a consultant and in client development,” says Waterson, discussing the loyalty and longevity of staff. “Our superintendents, carpenters and labourers have been with us for many years, some as long as thirty-five years.”
Adds Robbins, “We appreciate the loyalty and professionalism of all of them, because the company’s reputation depends on the wonderful work, skill, and effort of our site crews.”
Like their predecessors, Waterson and Robbins also have a history with the company. Robbins came to Canada 17 years ago from the UK where he’d worked as a joiner, obtained a Red Seal in carpentry and studied construction management at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. “I’ve worked at everything from digging holes in the ground to superintending and project management at Halse-Martin for the past eight years,” he shares.
Meanwhile, Waterson, originally from South Africa, came to Canada in 1992. “I had known of Halse-Martin’s integrity and reputation in the industry when working in competition with them, so when there was an opening eight years ago, I jumped at the opportunity.”
“We liked the company so much we bought it,” adds Robbins.
Approximately 60 percent of the company’s work is completed under construction management models “It’s a model we like,” Waterson explains. “It is a collaborative model, working with the clients and consultants from start to finish. One of our strong points is that the project manager will stay on the project from pre-construction phases, through to the project’s completion. Unlike most other construction companies this size, we don’t have a separate estimating department; our project managers estimate and tender their own projects. This means there is no handover of the project from one phase to the next and our clients have a single point of contact throughout the process.”
Exactly how difficult are the difficult projects Halse-Martin undertakes? Sometimes it’s a matter of working in a confined area, with only a few feet to spare on either side of a glass and steel structure sandwiched between two stone buildings, after going down five levels to provide a solid foundation beneath.
That was the situation Halse-Martin faced two years ago as construction managers working with Henriquez Partners Architects and landlord Kingswood Capital to create a glittering metal and glass jewel box for Van Cleef, Arpel’s and IWC Watchmakers to display their wares at 1069 Alberni Street, in Vancouver’s downtown diamond district.
“There was extremely limited space,” Waterson explains. “It was a very tricky and technical project. We had to start at the fifth level parkade with the foundations and come up to squeeze this jewel of a building between two existing structures with only a few feet on either side to spare. The reflective stainless-steel panels were installed by Keith Panel Systems who said these were the largest and most challenging panels to bend that they had undertaken. Each of the bullet resistant glass pieces is four inches thick and weighs 2,400 pounds. These had to be squeezed into position with only millimeters to spare.”
Added to that is the largest self-supporting cantilevered glass canopy erected anywhere in North America. All this had to be installed with pedestrian traffic coming and going from the adjacent buildings through the job site.
“Now and again, I’ll take a detour down Alberni Street just to drive past it,” he says. “It’s an impressive building — a work of art. There are a lot of hidden details. The hoops we had to jump through were extensive which caused a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but it’s our baby and I’m proud of it.”
Sometimes the issue is one of time constraints, such as having to complete a critically important seismic upgrade to a school during the two-month summer vacation period.
During this past hot summer, Halse-Martin performed a seismic upgrade at Bear Creek Elementary School in Surrey. “On a project like this there’s no summer breaks for the whole team, the engineers, architects, the school district team, our on-site guys – it’s all hands on deck because every single thing we install has to be inspected and signed off by the engineers before we can move on,” Waterson says.
The project involved pulling apart a significant portion of the school to get into the wall assembly, foundations and roof to perform structural upgrades, based on municipal codes and engineered load calculations, then putting everything back for the students and faculty when they return in September.
Sometimes the challenge is logistical. Five years ago Halse-Martin partnered with Gustafson Wylie Architects Inc. and Kingswood Capital to convert 142,000 square feet of industrial warehouse into training facilities and classrooms for the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) Motive Power Centre of Excellence. In nine months, the team had to complete $11 million worth of work to upgrade the building, install major ramps, exterior upgrades and additions, including new railway lines – but the biggest challenge of all was bringing in a 20-foot high, 120 -ton MAN Marine engine (such as found on a cruise ship) and then construct a building around it.
“Because it was so large and heavy, we had to barge it in from Delta, put it on a special trailer brought in from northern B.C., and slide it onto the foundation and construct the building around it,” Waterson recalls. “It was quite a feat. Because of the significant time constraints, we started construction with the working drawings at only the 60 percent stage. We had to work closely with the owners and consultant team, who were still designing the project while we were building it.”
And sometimes it’s a matter of life and death – literally. “If things go wrong in a normal project you can fix them, because the consequences are usually about finances and deadlines. But when working in a hospital and dealing with life support systems, vulnerable people are at risk, so you have a whole other layer of responsibility. As project managers we must consider public health and safety in a very direct way when we’re working on those systems,” says Robbins.
Such was the case when Halse-Martin worked with electrical contractor Status Electrical on a highly detailed and technical project that involved replacing four 1250KVA generators at St. Paul’s Hospital, a world-class acute care, teaching and research hospital in downtown Vancouver. “Parts of the building date back to 1903,” Waterson says, “and we replaced all the emergency power generator equipment, associated switch gear, and electrical power system in the hospital. You can imagine how challenging it is to change the entire electrical system while keeping the hospital fully operational. It was another successful project, and it took nearly three years to complete because of its complexity.”
“The key to its success,” he says, “is a seamlessly functioning team. There are so many parties and departments involved. We were working on systems where there could be a huge impact if even one thing goes wrong.”
What does the future hold for Halse-Martin? “One of the things we are dealing with as a firm is embracing the influence of new developments in the tech industry,” Robbins says, speaking of a current two-year, $15 million project the team is undertaking as construction managers to redevelop the emergency and other departments at the Eagle Ridge Hospital in Coquitlam. “In this environment, the production of dust is something we want to avoid, so we are sending senior members of our crew to DIRTT in Calgary, a company that makes pre-manufactured wall systems – including the electrical rough-ins and circuitry – brings them on-site and installs them like furniture,” he explains.
“Their designs are rendered in 3D format and are extremely accurate and detailed. We spent time in their facility to better understand their processes and integrate them into our work in hospital construction. New technology is infiltrating and changing the way construction happens and it’s part of our process to advocate for that.”
Like the industry nationwide, Halse-Martin is dealing with the challenge of replacing older workers as they retire. “We are addressing it, “says Robbins, “through bringing up and grooming our younger carpenters through a process where we can train them to become superintendents. We bring people in and our goal is to have them with us for life. We want to encourage a culture of growth and learning. The process is lengthy and expensive, but from our perspective it is the only way to maintain the level of quality and reliability we need for our firm to continue to excel.”