Profile in Innovation: This article is one in a series that will highlight new and innovative technologies and profile people making a mark in support of the passive house community’s efforts to decarbonize buildings.
The Ironman race has a motto: “Anything is Possible.” It’s an apt one for Chris Hill, founder of BCollective and a former triathlete himself. Triathlons are not for the faint of heart. The sport attracts restless, need-a-challenge personalities hellbent on proving hundreds of hours of training pay off in the long run. That’s Hill to a tee, a trailblazing innovator in a notoriously slow-to-change construction industry who discovered a sustainable, cost-effective way of building high-quality, carbon-zero homes that has minimal impact on the environment. While the Vancouver resident may not train for high-endurance races anymore, the lessons he learned about commitment, focus, and pursuing long-term goals carried over into his professional life, and it’s the reason why BCollective is inspiring change across the entire home building industry.
Hill’s home office, made of reclaimed wood with a digital whiteboard installed on the wall, is a hybrid of modern tech and reusable lumber that speaks to the old and new worlds he straddles. After completing his BA in Economics at the University of Victoria, Hill worked as a lumber broker in the Okanagan before launching his own construction company with his brother. “I didn’t grow up building houses,” he says. “I got in late. I don’t have a lot of those old ideas.” Hill was a sponge, however, educating himself about high-performance building methods, STEP Code, and Passive House standards. At the same time, he studied to become a chartered accountant, an invaluable skill set when working with clients to keep cost overruns down.
Learning about progressive and innovative new ways to build homes inspired him, and five years ago, Hill struck out on his own and opened BCollective, where he’s the founder and VP of Finance and Strategy for a small team in North Vancouver creating one-of-a-kind, energy-efficient heirloom homes in the Lower Mainland. He considers himself a “blue ocean” kind of guy. “I’ve never been someone that does well in the red ocean side of things, which is full of competition.” Hill says, referring to corporate accountants and big developers. “You’re just competing against the next person beside you.” He preferred the idea of collaboration — BCollective is a group of industry partners — and carving out a niche in the sustainable construction industry, which is finally seeing government buy-in in the form of grant funding and policy changes that support innovative businesses and create “clean economy” jobs, as Brenda Bailey, BC Minister of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation, put it this past November.
Building efficiently at low cost while remaining dedicated to Passive House standards is the ultimate goal for green builders, especially in Vancouver where construction and demolition account for 40% of the city’s waste. Hill’s landed on an environmentally conscious model that serves both old and new ways of thinking. “We saw an opportunity to innovate and progress as an organization. With the change in the STEP code and policy clearly laid out in front of us, there was an opportunity to fill this gap and do it well. We started to get into the idea of repeatable prototype off-site construction at this time,” Hill says, and he is especially proud of one project. “We received a grant from the CleanBC Building Innovation Fund to develop BOSS — Building Offsite Sustainable Systems. That was a fun two-year project where we got a crash course in offsite construction with a number of consultants. It’s hopefully something the entire industry can use.” It’s more than that — sustainable prefab is a game-changer and serve to reduce on-site construction costs and waste, while increasing energy efficiency in climate neutral, zero-carbon buildings. Proof of concept occurred on the very first BOSS project. “All that work culminated in a house going from foundation to lock up in two days.”
Sign-off from regional and provincial governments, Hill adds, is the strongest it’s ever been. “I think there’s an aptitude for sustainability and climate change. BC has become very progressive for the change needed from a policy point of view.” The elephant in the room — the housing crisis — accelerated the appetite for change, but it required both first movers like BCollective, a certified B Corp, who already rely on a trusted, cost-effective regional supply chain, and local and provincial politicians to believe in carbon-neutral development. “We’re not doing single-family homes. We’re building rowhouses, townhouses, and building the missing middle.” “The secret of our success is staying small and nimble.”
All, of course, are Passive House certified, and Hill cites his five-year stint as a board member with Passive House Canada as formative in his career. “One of the parts of the Passive House community that was so positive and rewarding was the collaboration and the knowledge sharing, the building each other up versus being secretive and competitive.” Hill’s educational path mid-career was intentional. Not only did he want an accountant’s perspective on building sustainably, but he also had a bigger picture in mind for the industry at large. “The poison pill I took was education, to see that you could build better. It’s very difficult to build to code when you know the damage it’s doing to the occupants’ health,” Hill says.
Future plans for BCollective involve scaling up, but Hill is realistic about the pitfalls. “Our intellectual property is in process. The actual product we make open source. We want everyone to use it and that’s how you bring the industry up as a whole,” Hill says. One day he hopes to grow his small team to include research and development. “I hope we can have a really cool R&D department that can start to innovate. To build bio-based mycelium tree grown structures is fun to talk about, but the reality of implementing that in any sort of scalable cost structure is unrealistic.” That doesn’t mean he won’t dare to dream, however.
“If [those of us] in prefab and passive house can show that it meets or exceeds expectations and we can do it affordably, you’ve got a massive opportunity. It’s bigger than my little company.”
The father of three may not be a triathlete anymore, but with the 2024 Ironman Canada happening in his hometown of Penticton, B.C., this year, maybe it’s time to pay a house call. Turns out, that’s his forte.