No sleep yet

Local contractor working around the clock to "make a difference in this town"

Tyson Houle is tired, but he can't rest yet. There's just too much to do.


Any small business owner will tell you of the many hats he must wear, and Houle is no exception. As co-owner of Bullitproof Construction Ltd. in Slave Lake, Alta., with his brother, Todd, and Devon Phelps, Houle might begin his day on site checking on the progress of the company's latest project before heading out to drum up business with potential clients and then moving on to line up suppliers.

There just aren't enough hours in the day to get it all done. A recent trip to Edmonton to pick up construction materials-all part of the job-ended with Houle arriving home at 3:30 a.m. The trip takes six hours both ways, give or take a roadside nap (or three).

When the fire hit Slave Lake in May, destroying half the town, Houle was on vacation in Cancun, Mexico. He returned to find his home-including Bullitproof's offices in the basement-burned to the ground. Now he is struggling with his insurance company because the house was not reassessed following $80,000 in renovations.

For a family man with an 18-month-old son and an expecting wife, those are a lot of reasons to lose sleep at night.

On the day he talks to Alberta Construction Magazine, Houle admits to running on just a few hours of sleep. Not that he's complaining.


FOCUS IS ON WORK

"We're fortunate we're busy," he says. "Because of what we're doing now, we're not dwelling on it. We're focused on getting people into their homes."

The Bullitproof team built the first new home in Slave Lake after the fire. It's a modest-size structure by most standards-2,100 square feet of finished space across two levels, with an attached garage-but that's not the point. What matters for Houle is that the rebuilding process has begun.

"We're going to make a difference in this town," he says. "We have a chance to rebuild our town."

That excitement and enthusiasm shows in the speed with which Bullitproof completed this first home. The foundation was poured on August 23, with the owners moving in by the end of September. All told, Houle says it took 39 days from digging the basement to laying the sod.

The key, Houle explains, was that the company "had pretty much everything in line before building the first house." The owners had picked out their fixtures and other features, allowing builders to move quickly in pulling everything together.

Not that there aren't problems along the way. Labour remains a major stumbling block in the Slave Lake recovery process, and Bullitproof has wrestled with it like everyone else in town. The company has rented three houses in town to accommodate staff and is already looking for a fourth.

Local builders are also discovering the challenge in drawing upon the same limited pool of skilled tradespeople, such as plumbers, drywallers and electricians. Houle says the town is home to four plumbing and heating companies and four residential electrical companies. On top of that, his company has developed an exclusive relationship with one of the two drywall companies in Slave Lake.

With so many jobs for so few tradespeople, it can be tough getting that plumber or electrician to squeeze in your project when you need them. But this is a small town, and good relationships go a long way. "Treat them good, pay them fast and maybe they'll give you consideration," he says.

Where he can, Houle will bring the talent under his own roof. "We're moving everything in-house except for plumbing and heating. It makes it easier to get things done quicker," he says, before adding, "We're not going to bite off more than we can chew."


YOUNG COMPANY

That may be the greatest challenge of all for the young company. Bullitproof formed in 2004 when all of its founders were in their mid-20s, and even today it still feels like a young company, brimming with energy and ambition in spite of everything they've faced.

Yet the company will have to grow in order to face the massive task of rebuilding Slave Lake. Bullitproof's usual workload is a mixture of oilfield camp construction with residential building. The size of the company has fluctuated between 11 to 30 employees over the years, with around 30 people currently on staff and more on the way. They've seen highs and lows, but this is something entirely different.

"In a really busy year, [the town] might build 15 houses," Houle says. Of those, Bullitproof might handle two or three.

For the fall, the company had 12 new homes lined up, with more expected next year. "If we get all were looking at, that's more than all the houses we've built in Slave Lake," he says.

"It's going to be hard on us all the way through."

They're bracing for the challenge. Bullitproof is almost a month into construction on its second house, which is expected to take around 50 days to complete.

And there's no plan to let the momentum slacken. The company wants to start a new house every 10 days, and so far it seems to be keeping pace with that plan. Speaking in mid-October, Houle says the fourth foundation has been poured, with the fifth almost ready to begin as well.

"We're not afraid to grow," he says. By the time everything is done, he expects Bullitproof will have 40-50 employees. "This is a huge step for us."

And even if Houle has only a couple of hours of sleep behind him, it's impossible to discern any exhaustion beneath that enthusiasm.

"I'm not going to slow down," he says.


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