Evolve Builders Group: Bringing Foresight, Flexibility, and Ecological Focus to Building – Canadian Builders Quarterly
by Jennifer Kirkland
Ecological construction and renovation company Evolve Builders Group, Inc – working mainly in Ontario – has increased annual sales by a staggering 50 percent each of the last seven years. When asked to identify the source of the company’s steady and ever-growing success, founder Ben Polley says, “As we hope to communicate with our name, we are always evolving. We can handle mainstream projects and seamlessly combine them with alternative building practices, and we have no single direct competitor. Others do elements of what we do, but not all.”
Evolve Builders Group is the parent company to Harvest Homes, which got its start in 2000 building custom straw bale structures primarily for owner/builders. “We quickly found that we were the only contractors in the area interested in incorporating alternative materials.” says Polley.
In 2006, the company reorganized and formed Evolve Builders Group, a full-service general contractor and building company with its own in-house crews and project managers. Offering Tarion new home warranty approval, Polley explains”We are the first truly alternative builder in the province that offers the same warranty approval and credibility that conventional builders provide.”
Many of the products and methods Evolve Builders Group offers have actually been around for decades, but fell out of favor with home owners until recently. “Hardwood finishing with natural oil as opposed to a polyurethane coating, for example, was common 100 years ago, and is gaining popularity today,” says Polley. “This application is more technical, but it lasts longer.” Evolve Builders Group has incorporated wind and solar power, water collection,and energy efficiency systems into a wide spectrum of residential and commercial projects. A recent project near Huntsville, ON showcases numerous alternative features, including:
• off-the-grid electrical system, with all power generated on-site;
• solar power contributing significantly to heating and hot water;
• building envelope designed for energy efficiency;
• increased interior mass, with straw inmost exterior walls, producing R-value of 40 (two to three times what is required by Ontario building code);
• polished, unsealed concrete floors
The interior mass of the building, along with the unsealed concrete floors, absorb humidity as well as heat, enhancing the cooling effect during summer.
A project in Ayton, ON includes similar features, as well as a composting toilet system and an extensive green roof, which are not typical in homes.
“Green roofs are not common in residential applications,” explains Polley, “but they provide the same benefits on a smaller scale: they reduce water runoff, provide direct shading to the roof, insulate naturally, and release moisture through evapo-transpiration. In the winter, the earthen roof collects snow, which functions as a huge insulating blanket on top of the house.
Polley describes the composting system as “very low-maintenance,” and explains that the grey water system is directed to a pair of planter beds,one exterior and one in a built-in greenhouse, which gets 100 percent of its water supply from the grey water system. The owner of this home, Chris Vander Hout, was such a conscientious owner-builder that Evolve Builders Group actually hired him as production manager. “He and I are taking the business forward,” says Polley, “and setting up an entire division in Ayton, an hour away from the rest of the crew.”
With a background in business management and marketing, rather than construction, Polley says with a laugh, “I hire people who know much more than I do. “The company has adopted a number of management techniques from the prefabrication industry: even-flow management, in particular. Instead of hiring separate crews for each stage of the project, “We have a crafts person on site from start to finish,” says Polley.
Building crews from scratch and maintaining a highly talented nucleus of staff helps ensure that clients are confident, time-lines are firm, and errors or redos are minimized. “We keep more people with management experience on-site,” says Polley, “which imparts more foresight to the entire process. Everyone has to direct and take direction, so there’s no room for ego.”
Keeping everyone involved at every stage also gives staff a greater sense of fulfillment, since they see the big picture and have the opportunity to overcome challenges and learn new techniques at every step. Each year in early spring, Evolve Builders Group offers staff in-house training on new products and methods. A recent topic was earthen floors, which allow many different finished textures and colors.”We’ve installed a few trial floors, and a year from now, we should be offering them commercially,” says Polley.
In the future, Polley hopes to begin more partnerships and broaden the geographic reach of the company. “My favorite part of my work is converting people to natural building,” he says. In collaboration with Everdale Environmental Learning Centre, Evolve Builders Group offers hands-on educational workshops for builders.
“I’d like to spread the word about natural building to as many people as I can.”
EVOLVE BUILDERS GROUP, INC AT A GLANCE:
AREA OF SPECIALITY: ECOLOGICAL CONSTRUCTION AND RENOVATION
ANNUAL SALES: $1.5 MILLION
SALES GROWTH IN PAST YEAR: 50%