Pioneering Net-Zero Luxury

Claxton + Marsh
Written by Pauline Müller

Claxton + Marsh is a net-zero property development firm as out of the ordinary as the superb quality of its construction. Here, decadently upmarket design revolves around light, luxury, and the conscious use of line. From a choice selection of only the best next-generation technologies to European-inspired décor features, the elegance and contemporary value of this company’s buildings are simply sublime.

Continuous improvement. That is what drives the Claxton + Marsh ethos. Based in Guelph, Ontario, the company builds anywhere from eight to twelve net-zero homes annually, averaging anywhere from $24 to $60 million in revenue. Propelled by the talented pair of Eve Claxton and Shawn Marsh, the firm puts a fresh and sophisticated slant on the modern components of designer homes – such as the integration of alternative energy.

To name but one example, solar power does not need to be unsightly, with the Claxton + Marsh team obscuring the panels in the cleverest of ways. “Making everything we do better and more efficient the next time we do it has been one of our biggest keys to success,” says Marsh. The result of this approach is that the firm’s experts are not shy to develop new and improved ways of working. To illustrate, one staff member recently registered a patent on a brilliant new piece of carpentry equipment that significantly improves the way he works.

A leader in Canada’s design and sustainable building industry, the formidable husband and wife team is joined by their daughter, Tasha Claxton. Marsh admits to being sceptical about expanding the team at first. “I enjoy [construction.] As builders, we tend to think we know everything about custom building. But when I stepped aside and let my wife take over she took [the business] to heights that I never could have,” he says with a smile. He tells the story of their first meeting soon after putting his first custom home up for sale.

He met Eve Claxton, a new agent then, after the home spent two years on another agent’s books. Marsh allowed his future business partner and wife to market the property, and the rest is history. “Today, when somebody has a better way of doing things, we’re all ears. It’s exciting to watch,” he says proudly. Blessed with that rare x-factor and with a large number of awards attributed to her, Claxton remains the icon behind the visionary designs that have become synonymous with the sought-after Claxton + Marsh signature style cresting the region’s skylines. Today, Claxton continues to lead the company’s real estate department.

The firm’s sister company, Timberworx, is also often recognized by the local Guelph & District Homebuilders Association (GDHBA), the provincial Ontario Homebuilders Association (OHBA), and the national Canadian Homebuilders Association (CHBA) for its sterling contribution to the region’s homebuilding and high-end renovation quality. As a result, Claxton + Marsh has developed a great relationship with all levels of the national and local home builders associations. It is also a member of the CHBA’s Net Zero Council of Canada, with Marsh heading up the Guelph Homebuilding association as President in 2017. Today, he continues to represent the GDHBA on the OHBA’s technical committee.

One of the firm’s greatest claims to fame is building Canada’s first labeled luxury net-zero home, a project that landed it the glamorous Avant-Garde – Certified Net-Zero Award for homes completed in Canada in 2017. The 4,600 square foot marvel with its 73 “invisible” solar panels and a bespoke, first-of-its-kind furnace design, is set on one acre of private land in Heritage Lake Estates, Guelph, and offers superlative net-zero luxury living like never seen before.

And to ensure that their clients get only the best out of their new net-zero homes, the family decided to live in the first house themselves to get a feel for its merits and how the technology blends with the demands of daily living. “We wanted to understand how it works first, which turned out to be the best decision. It is a gorgeous house. We [received] a lot of recognition, a lot of awards. It was one of our proudest accomplishments. We decided to make it our base home,” Marsh says.

Initially, the net-zero concept was not as well-received as expected, with the cost of insulation and other sustainability factors often being prohibitively expensive for many, even for high-end buyers. Some of the original issues included the price of extra insulation, an extra layer of glass in each pane, improved heat pumps, and more. But now, after some time spent raising buyer awareness, and with prices beginning to come down, even the biggest sceptics in the industry become, as Marsh puts it, “the proudest net-zero owners you’ll ever see.” He also points out that to put solar panels on any roof still means having to plug into the main grid, which is challenging without the necessary infrastructure, which can also be a challenge at times.

Based on this stark reality, Marsh describes the company’s superb timing concerning adding service capacity to its sites for both past and existing net-zero projects as “very fortunate,” making all of these properties unique. They are also unique in the generous use of glass throughout and the HVAC systems that are zoned on each floor. “We don’t talk about heating homes anymore. [Our homes] are so airtight and energy-efficient, it has, to me, been ridiculously affordable. The expensive air in a home is electrically conditioned air,” says Marsh, who points out that Ontario’s hydroelectricity is heavily subsidized.

“[When the day comes that hydroelectricity bills run into four digits for normal households] net-zero will become huge because we’re able to eliminate those massive [monthly electricity charges]. The climate is changing. It’s getting hotter in southern Ontario,” he adds. And, as net-zero technology and insulation measures like triple-glazed glass panes are difficult to install post-construction, buying a net-zero home that comes ready-made is advisable.

While Claxton + Marsh homes may be pricey for most, the designers are conscious of curbing cost while upholding the highest quality and value. One of the firm’s most interesting and unique approaches is how it dealt with glass in its first net-zero build. Due to very high cost, not every window in the house has triple-glazed glass. Instead, the team uses highly engineered panes and a scientific approach that considers several factors including the orientation of each window, coating options, as well as different gasses, considerations that saved around $100,000 on the final cost. “I call myself a fiscal green,” says Marsh. “We’ve always had a philosophy that we will not do anything in a client’s home that we wouldn’t do in our own. Fast forward a few years and triple glaze is more mainstream [and cheaper as a result.] Now everything we do has triple glazed glass.”

These truly ingenious pioneers contributed hugely to Canada’s luxury net-zero building methods as the necessary materials and furnace designs were not readily available when they started out. Every game-changing element had to be custom designed and often invented. And Claxton + Marsh took an active leading role in the process. Now, as a result of rising adoption rates, costs are coming down, making net-zero a lot more affordable and therefore, attainable for more people. “It’s wonderful. My hat’s off to all the smaller builders that went out there and got this going. With one more price drop – which I see coming – everybody will do it. Why wouldn’t you?” Marsh says. “A lot of people, like CHBA members, builders, and the energy advisor spent a lot of time figuring out how we could get [here]. They were passionate about it,” he adds.

The company works very closely with the CHBA and the Net Zero Council, and Marsh praises the association’s contribution to identifying and solving issues in the industry alongside the government. As the field of building regulation is becoming increasingly complex, its work toward streamlining the administrative side of construction for those in the industry is indispensable – even for larger firms.

“I’m a big fan of the association. It’s one of few places in life where you get more out than you put in. The depth of knowledge and expertise is top-notch, and the willingness to share in formal and informal talks is inspiring,” Marsh says. “There’s a joke in our association that says ‘you won’t live long enough to make all the mistakes by yourself,’” he adds, laughing.

The company gives its staff members (presently around 30) the space in which to think and contribute to its constructions creatively – which explains their long tenures. Leadership also understands the value of apprenticeship and training young talent. “We have really creative people here. I ran our framing crew for [around] twenty years,” Marsh tells me. “The young fellow who is running the crew now [started with us as an apprentice] when he had just turned sixteen. He has [now] taken our framing so much further than I did – and I thought I was sharp! Watching this guy go, I’ll be the first [one] to shake his hand,” he adds, describing the simple yet ingenious 12 foot long and 40 inch wide coverings said framing manager designed to save time and protect staircases during construction. The company is proud of all its employees because it knows how hard they work and that they excel at their jobs.

For young people looking to make a good living, Claxton + Marsh recommends joining the construction industry – despite being all but ignored by student advisors. Because, as Marsh points out, its merits were most visible during COVID-19 with work continuing as normal, albeit with advanced safety precautions. “With the decline of gas and oil [in Canada], construction is the number one employer in this country. We still build the best homes in the world because [we] have to. We’re still a polar country,” he says, highlighting the need for a national strategy for tradespeople to protect and continuously improve the standard of Canadian workmanship.

In terms of house prices in the overall market, the construction expert says he is sad to see how unattainable property has become for most young people. “I don’t like to see what we’ve done to our children. [High house prices are] a big problem for this country,” he says, referring to 2017 when house prices started climbing and the government did not support youngsters with home loans. The result, Marsh tells me, was that investors took the gap, buying what would have been starter homes for the next generation of private homeowners. He describes how investors are now renting out the same properties to the same would-be buyers for more money than the original down payment would have been, creating a downward spiral for aspiring first-time buyers.

“At the same time, nobody’s really complaining about it because two out of three Canadians own a house. But what about when the system is broken, you don’t have a first-time starter home? That’s what starts the whole chain reaction. It’s so bad, we’re at the point where the kids have just about given up,” Marsh says, further referring to the opportunity his generation was given by the one before.

“We are the government. We messed this up. And it’s on us to fix it. I look at my parents in the sixties. They raised hell. The Vietnam war, segregation, women’s rights – they didn’t take it. They went out and demonstrated. And they made big change and became the most successful generation in history,” he says. “We have to find the political will to fix the situation. And that all comes down to education, I believe. It’s vitally important to the country,” Marsh says.

As Claxton + Marsh moves forward, the team is looking toward developing net-zero commercial properties and condominiums. “Our success is not a magic formula; we come in and we work harder and smarter. Continuous improvement always seems to get us to where we want to go. There are not too many days in my life that I have worked. I enjoy myself so much,” says Marsh, pointing out that his career has been a lot of fun – especially working with many incredible craftsmen and other great folks. Having all the knowledge needed to shine in a commercial net-zero environment, this brave and stalwart leader looks forward to the next chapter in the incredible Claxton + Marsh story. And frankly, so do I.

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