Seeing is believing.
Velo Renovations is a home reno company with a twist: instead of loading tools and supplies into a van or half-ton, employees rely on pedal power to get from one job site to another, 12 months of the year.
The business’s website doesn’t disguise that fact, openly charting how many kilometres workers have collectively covered to date — a tick under 15,000 — along with the estimated amount of carbon emissions saved by doing so (2.73 tonnes and counting). Still, clients who enlist them to paint a living room or patch a wall continue to be surprised when they arrive on two wheels, especially during a torrential downpour or January cold snap.
"To be honest, the fact we get around by bike is a big reason why many of our customers choose to go with us in the first place," says Nathaniel De Avila, who founded Velo, French for bicycle, in October, 2020. "But there have certainly been days when it was 30 below or whatever, when we pulled up and the person answering the door went, ‘I know you guys bike to work, but I didn’t think you’d actually do it today."
De Avila, 33, laughingly describes Velo Renovations as a "mid-COVID pivot." Around this time last year De Avila, a professional music producer who moved to Winnipeg from his native Iowa in 2016, found himself unable to work in his chosen field because of pandemic-related restrictions. He’d long been comfortable with a hammer in his hand; he toiled part-time for a reno company during high school and again while he was attaining a master of arts in music from the University of Iowa. To stay busy, he figured that might be an avenue worth pursuing.
Why bikes? That’s easy, says the veteran winter cyclist, tracing his environmental consciousness to a book he read when he was in junior high titled More-With-Less by Doris Janzen Longacre and, more recently, to a documentary called Freightened, which details nightmarish statistics in regards to pollution attributable to the shipping industry.
"Most of the world is doing things on bike, it’s just North America where it’s a bit of a novelty," he says. "Are we going to save the planet by having the eight of us pedal to work? Of course not. But that doesn’t make it unimportant, either."
On the day we met, De Avila and one of his associates, Maraleigh Short, were doing exterior repairs to a home in Fort Richmond, an hour-long trek from Velo’s home base in West Broadway. De Avila arrived on his personal 10-speed while Short took one of two official company "vehicles."
"Colin Bock from Freedom Concepts (a Winnipeg firm that designs and builds special-needs bicycles and mobility devices) helped come up with this, based on an Xtracycle (an elongated, load-carrying bike developed in the U.S.)," De Avila explains, running his hand along the frame of a two-metre-long contraption that joins a full-size chromoly mountain bike to a chopped-up, 20-inch BMX model.
"It has a rechargeable battery unit that slides out, but is designed to be pedal-assist. There’s a running board on the back for tools and such but lots of times we’ll attach an extension ladder on wheels, upon which we can load even more stuff." (Not present is a custom-built tricycle-and-trailer unit, canary yellow in colour, that always draws stares — and occasionally requests for a business card — when motorists pull up alongside it at a red light.)
Short, sporting sweats and sneakers speckled with white primer, says one of the factors that attracted her most to Velo, more a co-op than a company, is its people-first approach. Not only do workers set their own hours and pick and choose job assignments, they also determine their individual rate of pay and are afforded the opportunity to view the business’s finances as a whole. It’s a model De Avila came up with long before Velo was even a "thing," based on conversations he had with a university professor well-versed in businesses that place people and planet ahead of profits.
"It could be a gendered thing, or it could be my personality, but I probably wouldn’t have sought out working in construction or reno if I hadn’t found (Velo)," Short says, seated on an empty, overturned paint bucket. "Initially, I didn’t bring a lot of skills to the table, nor did I have a ton of confidence, but because there’s a strong teaching structure in place here, I’ve been able to learn so much from Nate and the other people I work with. Now I really feel part of a team."
Velo Renovations tackles the same projects as most so-called, conventional reno operations, namely, painting, drywalling, restructuring and tiling. At the same time, it’s not like you’ll spot them hauling a kitchen counter or panels of sheetrock behind them any time soon. Knowing their limitations, they obligingly work with in-place delivery systems when it comes to larger items, De Avila says. He adds it’s certainly not a condition of employment that employees must pedal to work, and a few of their sub-contractors do not. That said, if any certified plumbers and/or electricians reading this aren’t averse to hopping on a bike, feel free give him a call, he says with a grin.
Another manner in which Velo differs significantly from many of its counterparts is that it’s not uncommon for on-staff designers to talk potential customers out of jobs that would probably net the company a bigger payday if they feel there are better options available from an environmental standpoint.
"‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ or ‘Is there a way to consume less?’ are questions we ask all the time," De Avila says. "For example, somebody might want to make their home’s footprint larger by putting in an addition. To which we might suggest changing a couple existing walls, thus avoiding having this bigger space you’re now going to have to heat for the next 50 years, draining valuable resources.
"When we’re doing consults with clients, we try to provide them with all kinds of alternatives, whether it be using reclaimed building materials from ReStore or plant-based or sustainable products. Lots of renovators will say after they fix your home it will be worth whatever amount of money more. But as soon as you spend that money, you’re indebting yourself to a structure more so than you already have with a mortgage, which forces you to work X number of hours to make X amount of money, all of which goes against our general philosophy."
Finally, with the bikes, in the last 12 months De Avila, who also owns a car, says he’s noticed a discernible difference in his demeanour on days when he’s biked to work versus those when, for whatever reason, he was forced to get behind the wheel.
Whenever he’s snarled in traffic due to lane closures or a mishap, he finds himself getting short or angry more quickly than when he’s pedalling here and there.
"That makes me wonder if the actual mode of transportation fundamentally changes the way I interact with others," he says, adding another benefit of biking to work with co-workers is that it affords everybody the opportunity to discuss the day ahead, where they left off yesterday... the same type of things they probably would have spent the first 30 minutes deliberating had they gotten there separately by car.
"So if I compare the two, I’d much rather get on a bike at the start of the day. Plus it’s pretty hard not to be awake and alert when you arrive for work, especially when it’s on the chilly side."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.