Harv Sidhu of Build Smartr shares his insights on the benefits of building steel-framed homes, and Build a Box, a plug ‘n play one-room solution for added space.
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About the Speaker
Harv Sidhu, Founder and CEO
Harv grew up on construction sites as that was his family’s business since 1990. After receiving his Bachelor’s from Simon Fraser University, Harv started his own construction company and completed multiple projects in the Lower Mainland. Being witness to decades of construction, one item was clear, construction has not changed in a long time.
This idea grew into levering technology to build homes. Using first principles- combining steel, CAD and 3D printing became obvious areas of potential growth. From this, Build Smartr was created, a company that can take any architectural plan and make panelized recyclable steel frames for a quick assembly.
Homes are the biggest purchase of our lives. Harv is committed to making homes cheaper and recyclable. He believes in creating a circular economy that will result in a greener planet. Harv believes our construction technology can make a big impact as Build Smartr has the potential to fundamentally change our planet.
Here's the Full Transcript of this Episode
[00:00:00] Jennifer-Lee: Hey Mike. It’s great to be back in the studio for another episode of HAVAN’s Measure Twice, Cut Once.
[00:00:06] Mike: Yeah, it sure is Jennifer Lee. It sure is. And this is going to be another exciting episode in a season filled with exciting episodes.
[00:00:14] Jennifer-Lee: I still like, I’m so excited that we got to interview Brian Baeumler of HGTV fame on the show last week. I was truly impressed with him and our discussion around the value of working with professionals.
[00:00:26] Mike: Absolutely. Brian is an absolute powerhouse in this industry, but he’s so approachable and such a nice guy, and he’s got such a neat background too. He has a background in political science and business. And firsthand industry experience as a red seal carpenter. So, he brings precision, clarity, and a whole lot of other really cool elements in direction to our industry. And he’s moving very, very much in the right direction with high performance building as well. So, it’s really neat meeting someone who’s so humble and down to earth but is so forward thinking and looking so far ahead in our industry.
[00:00:59] Jennifer-Lee: And I know we’ve had them before, but I love having him on. But Graeme Huguet from my host design build team was also great. To have, along with Brian bringing the local perspective to the conversation.
[00:01:10] Mike: Absolutely. Jennifer Graeme is such a great leader in our industry and always loved talking to him.
[00:01:15] Mike: Speaking of conversations, I love having, I’m so excited about today’s conversation. Today we’re going to be talking with an absolute local gym, Harv Sidhu of Build Smarter fits into the trend of building smarter with smaller footprint in mind, focused on modular housing and prefab systems using recycled steel.
[00:01:33] Jennifer-Lee: I think we have a lot to talk about today. We do. So, let’s get to it. Welcome, Harv.
[00:01:38] Harv: Hi. How are you too?
[00:01:40] Jennifer-Lee: Hi. Good. And Harv, I always like to start off getting to know someone a little bit more, but also very excited because we share something in common. We are from building families. Do you want to talk about how that all started and where you got your start and where you are now today?
[00:01:56] Harv: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. So, like you said, my name is Harv Sidhu. I’m the founder and CEO of Build Smarter. So how that all started was actually a pretty interesting story. My family has been in construction as far as I can remember. I pretty much grew up on job sites. I wasn’t really intending to go into construction.
[00:02:11] Harv: I got my bachelor’s degree from SFU. Around that time, I kind of realized it’s a fairly lucrative business, especially in Vancouver. I started the family trade. Which is building houses. Worked on that data for a number of years, but as many of you can probably imagine, it’s not always easy to work with your family.
[00:02:26] Harv: Yeah, just like different of opinions, different strategies. No one’s wrong, right? Just different styles of, of working. Then I kind of branched off on my own, started building my own houses, mostly in burn, be North Vancouver and Vancouver itself. During that time, I realized there are a number of problems in construction.
[00:02:43] Harv: The first being. It’s quite costly. I kind of find that the materials cost and labor cost is always increasing. It’s extremely inefficient. The second I realized there’s so much waste being produced by the construction industry. In fact, one third of all landfill waste is actually from construction industry, which is a huge number and a problem that we need to solve in our lifetime here.
[00:03:06] Harv: The other thing, being at the job site, it’s just so inefficient. So much time is wasted. Also, on top of that, there’s a huge shortage of labor. What I’ve kind of realized is that none of my friends, no one that I know is really going into trades. And when we look at the data, there’s not many young people going into trades. And this is a huge problem that we’re facing right now for us. Right now. It’s easy for us to hire people that are in a more of an office role, but hiring people on site is extremely difficult. It seems like no one wants to work outside anymore,
[00:03:33] Jennifer-Lee: which is so weird to me because you can make some really good money in some of the different trades too.
[00:03:37] Harv: We’ve actually offered employees a higher wage to work outside, but the pushback that we always get is, is just easier to work indoors. And that’s why I think this whole prefab kind of movement that’s happening. Whether it’s steel or wood or even concrete, it just makes a lot of sense. It’s easier to hire people, it’s more efficient, and the onsite time is greatly reduced.
[00:03:57] Mike: Do you find your staff turnover is less when you go to this building methodology as well, because people are just happier in their working environment?
[00:04:03] Harv: Yeah, definitely. It’s relatively easy for us to retain employees for a longer duration just because we’re able to give them a nice, clean working environment at the same location every single time versus having to kind of jump around from different job sites to different job sites.
[00:04:17] Mike: Absolutely, and it’s a controlled environment as well. I’m absolutely intrigued with prefabricated construction. It’s to me, one of the coolest ways to move forward and evolve as an industry. Can you talk a little about prefabricated and engineered wall systems and talk a little about your processes specifically?
[00:04:34] Harv: Yeah, definitely. So, with pre-fabrication, there’s a couple of points. Number one, a lot of the decision making has to go in advance. So, the pre-construction phase is longer. But the benefit of that is that everything can be predesigned. All that decision making can be front-loaded. And when that decision making is front-loaded, your site time can be greatly reduced. And that’s for the most part where a lot of those, like mortgage payments and kind of payments for the builders come, come into play, right? So, when the plans are being submitted during that stage, you have two, three months to really kind of front load all your decision making. And when you do that, it can be way more efficient, and you can save time and be way more cost effective too.
[00:05:15] Mike: And do you find that it’s just an easier process putting the house together on site versus banging out for three or four months in framing? Like is it just an easier process for deployment as well?
[00:05:24] Harv: Yeah, it’s, it’s kind of a, a double-edged sword because if your decision making is correct, it’s extremely more efficient, as much faster. But during any of that process, if you make any mistakes, it’s twice the work to kind of fix that mistake. Right? And what’s happening with over time, us as a company and just the prefab industry as a whole is becoming more and more efficient. And even with architects and engineers, everyone is becoming a little bit more efficient with that prefab process now we find.
[00:05:46] Mike: And can you talk a little about some of the environmental impacts of making some of the decisions that you’re making right now? Because obviously not having to run 20 trucks to a job site for three or four months has an impact, but it’s a lot bigger than that. Can you expand on some of those things?
[00:05:59] Harv: Yeah, definitely. So, the first thing being, we have to create a circular economy for construction. So, when we use recycled steel, we’re able to source 99% recycled steel. It’s the most recycled material in the world by weight. So, it seems like an obvious starting point for building material. So that’s kind of key.
[00:06:19] Harv: So, every time we do that for, imagine a single-family house that’s around 3000 square feet, we can save about 30 to 40 trees. So, 30 to 40 trees that would’ve been harvested and used in that house are now not harvested and are still able to convert CO2 to O2, which seems like the best carbon capture technology we have is actually a tree. So that’s kind of step one. Step two is during the end of the life cycle of that house, all the material can be recycled again and again. Steel is infinitely recyclable, which is kind of a key for a sustainability perspective. Moreover, a house built out of steel just lasts longer, so we need to build products that last significantly longer. So, have a longer shelf life, a longer life expectancy, which brings down their cost. And also from a sustainability perspective, it is much better for the environment. On top of that, a house built out of steel is also non-combustible. So, with global warming and the environment kind of changing here, we’re having more forest fires and more flooding issues. Deal building just performs better in both those environments. So, it’s a non-combustible building. It can also it’s hydrophobic, so it won’t absorb any water. That’s kind of the ideal building material. You want it to be more resilient. And with steel, that’s what we’re able to achieve.
[00:07:31] Jennifer-Lee: That’s so great. And I just want to take us back to the fact that you said we are saving 30 to 40 trees, which is super powerful. And I think something else that we witnessed in the last few years is the fact that lumber costs are going up so much all the time. And so, is this a great way to kind of keep those costs down?
[00:07:48] Harv: Yeah, exactly. Right now, the industry has no alternative. So, either you build with wood, or you don’t. I think it’s in the best interest for everyone to have multiple options. So, whether it’s steel, wood, or concrete or some type of ICF panels, everything should be in the market. The market should decide kind of what makes the most sense for each project. Because not one material will always be more beneficial, right? So different materials have their pros and cons. The more options we can bring to our consumers, I think the better everyone wins in that equation.
[00:08:20] Mike: And we’re one of the last areas where wood is the predominant building material in any case. So, this is really shifting ahead to what the rest of the world is doing. Are there other benefits to somebody as a homeowner? Like if I’m looking at my next home, and I’m still not subtle to what we’re going to do for that, but looking at all options, because there’s some great innovations out there. What would be some of the benefits to me in looking and investing in this type of home compared to, say, a conventional home?
[00:08:43] Harv: Yeah. There are essentially two main benefits. The first being your insurance cost is less since you have this non-combustible home. We’re working with Square One Insurance, uh, which is pretty large here. They’re able to give lower insurance rates for a house that’s non-combustible, built out of steel. And the second thing being, when you do go to sell your house, you should have a higher appraisal value. There were homes built actually in Calgary out of steel maybe about 30, 40 years ago, and they actually had a higher appraisal value versus all the wood homes in the same neighborhood. So that’s kind of two main benefits for a homeowner. And also, you’re actually buying more resilient buildings as well, right? So, if there were, you know, by any chance your basement flooded, all of that structure would still be intact. Wood would obviously absorb that water. You need to dry it out and it might not be structurally intact anymore. Plus, steel you’re not going to have that issue and obviously fire is not going to combust.
[00:09:31] Jennifer-Lee: I love what you’re saying because obviously no secret. We live in a rainforest here and it is very wet a lot of the time, but I think that’s something we don’t think about here. Of course, we build with wood, but like there’s a lot of older homes too that have been around for a long time that have mold and rot issues, which is not good for our overall health as we’re living in these homes.
[00:09:53] Harv: Yeah, exactly. So, this is all galvanized steel, so it is never going to rot, rust or mold, and obviously it’s not going to have any termite issues. It’s all these additional benefits with working with steel.
[00:10:03] Mike: Can a home built to that specification, say 20 or 30 years from now? Because typically we build a home 30 years from now, we plow it, we put a new home in. That’s some of that landfill that we’re talking about. I see industry moving to more sustainable homes that are longer elastic. So, if we build one of these homes in 20 or 30 years, if we decide to want to do an addition or make some changes, how hard is it to renovate relative to a conventionally built home?
[00:10:27] Harv: Yeah, great question. So, it’s easier to cut wood. There’s no secret to that. At the same time, you can easily cut steel and move some walls around. It’s just that the tools are a little bit different. So ultimately, we’ve had homes where during the framing stage we’ve had to move some walls around and make some adjustments. It can be done. It’s uh, it’s not really a big issue. And ultimately, we’re also giving our clients like a 3D model of the home. So, you, you really know where all of your load bearing points are on all your walls are. That’s something that we provide our clients, just because we have to make a 3D model of the home when we’re building it.
[00:10:59] Mike: Are these homes typically quieter than a conventionally built home?
[00:11:01] Harv: So, in terms of noise, really what’s going to stop the noise is your insulation or your concrete. So, the actual wood or steel, I mean wood, probably performs better for noise, but the difference is really negligible because the insulation of the concrete is really acting as your kind of like noise barrier.
[00:11:20] Mike: Because as I understand it, when we have concrete on the outside of the house that does have a substantive R value, but it’s not measured in in the overall calculation. So, it might only be, say, an R20 insulation in the wall. The house is rated R20, but if we put several inches of concrete on the outside, all of a sudden, it’s actually rated R40, but we can only rate it at R20.
[00:11:39] Harv: Are you referring to like thermal bridging?
[00:11:42] Mike: Yeah, so how do you get around that?
[00:11:44] Harv: So, there’s a couple of schools of thought there. First thing being, we need to make all of our homes net zero, which just seems like the obvious thing to do. The best way to achieve that and the way the installation strategy should be going is we need to have rigid installation on the outside of our buildings. It’s just much more efficient and it kind of eliminates any thermal, more bridging issues, uh, that we have with steel. That’s the direction we should be going. That’s the direction the industry is moving as a whole. Anyways, at the same time, we can still use your regular bad insulation in our steel studs. The good thing being that cavities are a little bit wider, so we’re actually able to have more insulation in a completed steel wall assembly versus a wood wall assembly. So, the performance is, is almost the same way our process really works, we make a 3D model of any type of house or building. So that’s kind of step one. So, we can take any type of architectural plants. We make a 3D model, which is intended to be kind of like a 3D replica of the house. During this stage, we value engineer it, and by that, I mean we engineer that building as efficiently as possible. So since we’re the engineering company and the supply company, We’re really incentivized to try to save the builder money, try to engineer it as efficiently as possible, because one kind of problem we have is over engineering right now, which kind of costs the homeowner and the end money because the builder is now paying more to build the same product. So, that’s kind of step two. During this process, the client can actually come in and we have a meeting with them, and we can kind of go over the entire 3D design and with their, all of their trades, whether it’s electrician, plumber, HVAC, anyone can have input and modify that 3D model. Once that 3D model is made, we panelize it. We make all of these panels in our facility. We number them off, and we send these numbered panels to your job site, and these panels are installed as efficiently as possible. They’re essentially like big Lego blocks you can put together. Actually, the first house I built myself and I have zero construction experience, but it was like putting together like a big like Ikea house essentially. So, what we’re able to do is, in terms of pricing, we’re really focused on panelizing a project. We’re not really focused on making these prefab buildings. So, there’s kind of two different strategies. There’s one focus is trying to make modular pods. Our focus is just trying to make as efficient panels as we can. When it comes to pricing, we’re generally able to price our panels, which replace your standard wood. Two by four, two by six s and your joists we’re typically about to be about 5-10% less than wood, so that’ll be just your supply cost, which is coming in a little bit less than wood. That’s kind of like how the pricing strategy kind of works.
[00:14:16] Mike: Awesome. Harv, this has been an awesome discussion so far. Really enjoying the conversation we’re having about prefab and panelized systems. And the benefit to the homeowners. It’s intriguing. I know that Build Smarter also deals with modular rooms too, and I want to get into that because is there anyone who doesn’t like backyard living?
[00:14:35] Mike: But before we do that, we do have to take a 32nd break to thank our sponsors.
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[00:16:18] Mike: All right. We are back and it’s about time to start talking about outdoor living and there is another part to what you do as well called. Build a Box, which are outdoor plug and play rooms. Can you tell us a little about what they are and how they might benefit someone like myself who already has a home in a yard and wants to get a little bit more out of it?
[00:16:40] Harv: Yeah, definitely. So how this kind of all came about was we had a client come to us who had this problem of, they wanted more space in their house, which is a pretty common issue. They didn’t want to renovate because it just ends up being a huge mess. And they also didn’t want to move. That’s also obviously a big change for them. All they needed was one more room, right? And that’s a problem that we can all kind of understand. And they kind of came to us saying, okay, what’s a solution? And looking at like different building codes and bylaws, we figured we can make like 108 square foot outdoor living space that can be used as an additional office or kind of solve this client’s problem, right? So, they came to us. What we did was we fully finished a108 square foot outdoor space. So, we’re talking about a space that has your drywall, your window, your door, LED lighting, all your plugs, your heating hardwood floor. It’s a fully finished box that we made, and it just simply plugs in to any standard outlet into your house. So, what we did was we put the entire thing in our facility, we put it on a truck, and we just craned it to their backyard. And we have these foundations that we can adjust. And we left it there and this client was able to use it from day one as an outdoor office. We were able to build this office or this backyard, Build a Box extremely efficiently, because the entire thing is built by us in a facility. And it’s just much more efficient, much cleaner than trying to build these outdoor rooms in your backyard. Having multiple trades kind of come back and forth. We’re able to build these extremely cost effectively and we can actually ship them anywhere in Canada.
[00:18:20] Mike: I like it a lot and I like the fact that in most cases it’s a simple addition. Now, we also want to make sure you’re checking with your local municipality about permits and bylaws and stuff like that. And every builder should be, but it is essentially plug and play. I don’t have to hire an electrician to come in. I don’t have to hire a lot of people to come in. You can just drop it in my home and instantly I’ve got more space. Let’s talk a little about some of the different uses for that, because I can think of about 17 or 18 off the top of my head. Talk to us about what some of your clients are using them for and what are some of the potential uses for this? Having the flexibility of adding space to your home easily.
[00:18:55] Harv: Yeah. The biggest use so far has really been an office, a home office. Or some clients have like a home business that they’re able to kind of run out of this location. It can be used as a kid’s playroom or a storage space. What it cannot be used for, according to the bylaws, is like a sleeping arrangement for most municipalities and it can’t have plumbing. So as long as you can avoid those two things, you should be pretty good to use it for whatever else you want to use it for.
[00:19:21] Mike: Okay. And I know I’m dominating the conversation. Sorry Jennifer. I just love the outdoor living thing and now I want one. How about the foundation? How does the foundation work on one of these? I just pour a cement pad and go or pop it in my driveway? Can you chat a little about that? Yeah. Ideally you want to have a cement pad, but for not able to do that for any reason. We actually have adjustable foundations. So, they’re just adjustable by about eight inches. So as long as your area is relatively flat, we can actually adjust that foundation and make it work.
[00:19:47] Jennifer-Lee: And what is considered an adjustable foundation,
[00:19:50] Harv: like hard plastic foundations that we’ve sourced from Europe.
[00:19:55] Jennifer-Lee: And then you just place the box on top of it after you
[00:19:57] Harv: Yeah, well, yeah. It actually, it comes with this like built inside it and then once you go site, you’re actually able to adjust them and kind of put them in place and use a level and.
[00:20:05] Mike: Roughly what would somebody, I mean, let’s look at a very basic, very basic version of that. What are we talking about? Are we 30, $50,000 to add one of these rooms? Like what sort of price range should we expect?
[00:20:16] Harv: Much less. So, we’re able to sell these for around $18,000 as long as we can scale up, which is the plan. We’re also able to sell them for even a lower price. We want them to be affordable and cost effective. We’re not trying to build this high-end outdoor living space. There’s lots of companies that can make that work.
[00:20:34] Jennifer-Lee: And what is the aesthetic of it though? Does it look nice or are they all the same, or is it just this box that you put in the back or can it match your home?
[00:20:41] Harv: Yeah, I mean, we could make it match your house for, in terms of color from the outside, it’s all metal clotting. It’s made to look like a modern type of office, like backyard space,
[00:20:54] Mike: And it’s easy to add. I mean, there are some municipalities around here. If you’re using it as an office, you require a permit, but the vast majority of municipalities across Canada don’t require any permits, so that makes it a very scalable, easy solution. Now, depending on where we live, can you make them in larger sizes or are you only making one size footprint right now?
[00:21:10] Harv: Uh, right now we only have one size, but ultimately, we can make larger sizes. It would just take us a little bit longer to kind of work with the client to see kind of what size they want, and the cost might be a little bit higher, but typically we’re trying to obviously keep them under 108 square feet because that is typical like building bylaw.
[00:21:27] Mike: Now how much can we fit in there? I mean, uh, how big a space does that really correlate to?
[00:21:31] Harv: it’s a 10 by 10 room, essentially about a hundred square feet. And you can have. A like office desk with maybe two chairs or a really small kind of like sleeping like arrangement if you really wanted to do that. But that’s kind of roughly what you can have is one office desk with two chairs typically.
[00:21:49] Jennifer-Lee: I feel like your wife would like one of these for you, like Mike’s man cave and then she just puts you out there. Yeah.
[00:21:54] Mike: Either that or she’ll go out there and escape me and the kids. Either way, it’s probably going to make our marriage go another 10 years. I’ll take it.
[00:22:01] Jennifer-Lee: Is there any way to expand them eventually that they would join up of our house, or no? Is it always meant to be a separate structure?
[00:22:08] Harv: Yes. Well, this Build a Box is meant to be a separate structure because just by the building bylaws for the most part, as soon as you add it to your house, it kind of goes in this like renovation, kind of like different permitting kind of stage. We’re trying to avoid the builders or clients having to take out any permits, and that’s kind of our workaround to make it work.
[00:22:27] Mike: Some municipalities will limit the number of sheds, but conceivably I could put two or three of those in my backyard if I really wanted to, couldn’t I?
[00:22:34] Harv: Yeah. It really depends on the city and where you live. Yeah. You can have as many as, I mean for us, you can have as many as you like. Right. It just really depends on the, the city bylaws or wherever you are.
[00:22:44] Mike: Awesome. Well, Harv, it’s been an absolutely enjoyable, inspiring conversation. It’s been great taking a dive into prefab building systems and modular rooms. You’re definitely a trailblazer in our industry. And so today we talked about so many different things. We want to summarize a few of them. Definitely. I was intrigued by prefabricated wall systems and the benefits of building with recycled galvanized steel. As you said, it’s an infinitely recyclable product, which is really exciting. Building with steel increases durability and resiliency, and because it’s infinitely recyclable, there is an environmental benefit to it. And with Build a Box, you have an option for up to 108 square feet with no permanent required, literally plug and play. There are so many ideas running through my head. I think this summer’s going to be really great with one of these in my backyard actually.
[00:23:31] Jennifer-Lee: Maybe one for each kid. I feel like you’d be up for that, but, uh, better check with, uh, Pam First Harv, I like to close each episode with asking everybody. I know you’ve given us so much wisdom already, but what is one more tip for that homeowner that you wish they would know Jennifer-Lee: Either about Build a Box or just about building prefab panels, anything?
[00:23:51] Harv: Yeah. I think as the homeowner, you should really consider the structure of your house. Everything else in the house can be replaced. You can replace your tiles, you can replace your cabinets, you can replace everything else inside the house, but you will not be able to replace the structure of your house. Probably the most important feature of the house, because as it is the structure of the house. So, when you go on the market to try to purchase whatever type of project you want, really be informed as to like what. Type of structure are you purchasing? Ultimately, that is what’s going to have the longest impact on the life expectancy and the resale value of your purchase. Ultimately, you want that purchase to be protected, whether it’s from forest fires or flooding, or any potential issues like that. So, I think that’s one aspect that always gets missed by homeowners. When we kind of go look at a house, we try to see all the fancy kind of bells and whistles of the house and normally talk about the structure, right? So, if you can take that into account next time you make a purchase, think it’s just in your best long-term interest to value that as well.
[00:24:52] Mike: Well, thank you Harv. That’s great insight and great information and indeed a great conversation to date. Hey, to our listeners, if you enjoy this podcast, please like, follow, share, tell your family, tell your friends. The more followers we have, the more people will find our podcast and the excellent resources our guests like Harv are sharing.
[00:25:08] Jennifer-Lee: And for notes and links to everything mentioned on today’s episode, including resources shared by Harv, go to havan.ca/measuretwicecutonce. See you next week. We will be joined by Perspective Homes by Pacific and their client sharing their experience, building a high-performance home for the first time. It’s going to be interesting to hear how the process went and how they managed the steep learning curve. Thanks for joining us.