Cleaning up construction "in
Leaky condos. Sweatshops. Unfulfilled
warranties. Numbered companies. Laundered money. Poor workmanship and
low quality. Unpaid wages. Injuries and lack of safety. Unaccountable
Unfortunately, these horrors often come to
mind when construction is mentioned in BC. But not everyone in the
business abides by these rules, and some firms are making a real
difference in the way the construction industry operates in this
One such firm, Concert Properties, not
only defies the all-too-familiar trends in the construction business,
but also debunks many long established mis-beliefs about union labour,
worker-managed money, social responsibility and market competition.
The firm is run by a cooperative of 15
BC-based union pension funds, hires union labour and local contractors,
uses union made ethically produced supplies and focuses much of its
efforts on building moderately affordable housing for both sale and
rent. How can a firm with such a philosophy and practices survive in the
cutthroat and turbulent $20 billion a year BC construction business?
“The success of Concert Properties shows
that well trained highly productive skilled labour is the real value in
the market,” says Wayne Peppard, executive director of the BC and Yukon
Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, most of whose 14
affiliated unions are both employees of and investors in Concert. “Union
pension funds just aren’t as greedy as private developers, and look to
long-term sustainable development and returns, instead of short-term
He adds that long-term low growth
investment and economic strategies, preferred by union pensions and
other socially responsible investment agencies, lead to overall better
and more stable rates of return than standard capitalist practices of
maximizing profits as quickly as possible at the expense of working
conditions, social and community concerns and the environment.
In addition, he says the economic benefits
of this are far greater overall, as the dividends for pension-funded
ventures go back to worker in the form of retirement benefits, instead
of into the pockets of an elite of corporate investors and executives.
Skilled labour and innovative design and
construction methods are another factor in Concert’s success, as the
firm has won numerous awards from both trade associations and community
and consumer groups for some of its projects, according to CEO David
“We can compete quite effectively in an
open market, including in the residential sector,” he said, adding that
one of the firm’s advantages is that it does much of its financing
through local credit unions and Mortgage One, a union pension-funded
financing agency set up as an alternative to the major chartered banks.
“We have a talented team, good design discipline and efficient skilled
labour. We invest in moderate risk projects, buying land and building
on it. And we’re fairly fiscally conservative in our management. ”
Podmore, a former city planner from
Alberta, was asked to spearhead Concert Properties, along with former
developer Jack Poole, in 1990, then known as the Vancouver Land
Corporation, which was a joint venture between the Telecommunications
Workers Union pension fund, looking to invest in ethical real estate
development, and the City of Vancouver, suffering from a dearth of
affordable rental market housing for middle and low income earners.
Soon after, “guaranteed rental”
developments, offering long-term no-increase rental contracts and
rebates for long-term tenancy, began appearing around the city. Since
then, the firm has grown well beyond Vancouver and into major residential,
condominium, commercial and community developments across BC, Alberta and Ontario.
It has become one of the largest
residential construction developers in Western Canada. The firm also seems to have
weathered the storm of the leaky condo crisis with little trouble.
While many sources attribute the crisis to shoddy workmanship and
unaccountable contractors and developers, others point to what are
often seen as poorly developed, and in many cases poorly enforced,
building codes, which do not address the realities of building in a
humid west coast climate.
“We have experienced some problems,”
Podmore says. “But they are not systemic.”
SO, while many construction lobby groups
call for rolling back employment standards and enacting repressive
labour laws making it harder for workers to organize into unions or
negotiate their working conditions, Concert uses fully union labour and
abides by its agreements.
While some corporate lobbies, as a
cost-saving measure, are supporting the Liberal government’s
replacement of apprenticeships with a “modular skills” development plan,
Concert participates in union apprenticeship programs.
And while numbered companies and defaulted
warranties for defective construction remains a major problem in the
industry, Concert abides by its warranties with few problems.
Finally, while the trend of “fast
money and get out” still prevails among many development circles,
Concert sticks mainly to buying real estate, developing it over time
and, in many cases, managing the projects, especially in residential
SO, does it work? “We started out with $27
million. Now we are a $260 million a year business, with over $600
million in assets,” Podmore says. “We have properties in 17
municipalities. We could have a billion dollars in assets over the next