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Manitoba renovation firm prioritizes employee care, energy efficiency

By John Longhurst

Plates were filled with bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast. A buzz of comfortable conversation filled the air at Wannabees restaurant in west end Winnipeg as owners and employees of Roost Custom Builders gathered for breakfast one early March morning.

The weekly get-together, held every Monday until the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to eating out, was part social gathering and part staff meeting — very much woven into the fabric of the small company of eight.

“It’s 80 percent social, 20 per- cent business,” said Roost co-owner Myron Martens, 43, of the breakfast gathering. The company pays for food and time spent eating it.

During the hour together, staff talked about their families, what they did on the weekend, current events and casual banter. Near the end of the meal, plans were rolled out and the discussion turned to the week ahead.

“It’s a good way to start the week, a small investment in good relations and a positive workplace culture,” said Martens. “It’s a good way to catch up on each other’s lives.”

Creating a positive workplace culture is a high value for the company, which was founded by Martens and Jonathan Fast, 36, in 2011. Jaron Friesen, 32, joined as a co-owner two years ago.

In addition to the unique weekly breakfasts, Roost offers something else unusual — a four-day workweek. The idea came from Jeff Thiessen, 44, who joined the company in 2014. When he came to Roost, Thies- sen asked if it would be OK to work only four nine-hour days, not five.

“I had been working for myself, juggling too many things,” said the father of three children. “When I asked, I thought it was pie in the sky. But they said yes.”

The result, he says, is he feels “really cared for” by the company. He likes how it gives him more time at home with his kids.

“Three-day weekends are wonderful,” he said. “It makes doing things as a family so much more do-able.”

Others agree.

Josiah Brubacher, 29, likes the shorter workweek. “I really value the time I get to spend at home.”

The father of a one-year-old says he “never felt work should be only about making money . . . I don’t want work to take up my entire life.”

For Jotham Penner, 33, also with a young child, it’s about establishing a new way of living.

“You hear a lot about millennials not wanting to work, being lazy, not knowing what hard work is,” he said.

“But we saw our parents live that way every day, and we saw where it got them — debt, houses they can’t afford, only now living the lives they wanted when they retire,” he went on to say. “That’s not worth it, at least not for me.”

Penner likes how Roost shares those same values.

Jaron Friesen Jeff Thiessen Tim Dueck Jotham Penner Josiah Brubacher Jonathan Fast Myron Martens Rob MartensRoost employees gather for Monday breakfasts to discuss life and business, before the Corona virus pandemic.

“Work is not everything in our lives,” he says. “I like working for a company that considers our personal lives as important as our working lives.”

Martens, who has two older teens, is happy to hear those sentiments. “It’s crazy we didn’t think of it sooner,” he said. “Everyone likes it. It’s a way to keep people healthy and satisfied. It’s just like we want to work ourselves.”

Co-owner Jaron Friesen, a father of four, feels the same way. “We all just want to be happy in our work,” he said. “For our employees, it means they can be fresh, not burnt out.”
It also grows out of the vision the three owners have set for the company.

“Our approach flows out of our faith and values,” said Martens. They want to create a workplace where employees feel valued and where they can all put into practice their deep concern for the planet.

“We live in a harsh climate and should be building better,” said co-owner Jon Fast, a father of three.

Roost’s specialty is refurbishing and upgrading older houses, making them as energy-efficient as possible.

“It’s a small way we can address climate change,” Fast added.

This includes addressing the technical challenge of building for Winnipeg’s extreme climate—one where temperatures can range from minus 31F in winter to over 90F in summer.

“Many houses in Winnipeg aren’t well-suited to the climate,” said Friesen. “They use tons of energy for heating and cooling.” Roost utilizes a practice called “deep energy,” which can be broadly described as retrofitting older buildings so they can achieve peak energy performance. They also use environmentally friendly building materials, such as non-petroleum- based insulation, and reducing energy use in the building process.

“We think about the materials we use for when the building is no more,” says Friesen, of what happens when a house is torn down and the detritus heads to the dump.

“We want to have regard for the next generation,” added Martens, noting that caring for the environment “is a Christian virtue.”

“We ask ourselves, ‘why wouldn’t we do it this way?’” said Friesen. “It makes sense economically, ethically and environmentally to build in such a way that is appropriate for the climate. It’s the right thing to do.”

“We all just want to be happy in our work. For our employees, it means they can be fresh, not burnt out.” — Roost co-owner Jaron Friesen

They also want to build homes that people enjoy and want to live in.

“It’s exciting to think through someone’s ideas, and to come up with a plan to help them use space more creatively in a way that will contribute to a better day-to-day life,” said Friesen.

“We’re not super interested in just doing facelifts. We want to make a home better, more livable and efficient.”

Added Martens: “We want to build something that the customer fits into, and that fits them.”

Another way they show their commitment to caring for the environment is by using a small car with the company logo on the sides for business calls — something that stands out in a sector where every- one in the business drives a truck.

“It fits with our image, reflects our values, and the customers like it,” said Martens.

Back at breakfast, the food is finished, and the last cups of coffee are gulped down. As plans are inspected, discussion turns to talk about the work week ahead—who needs what materials and supplies, how things are progressing, which customers need to be called.

For Friesen, it feels good. “Roost feels like an extension of me. It’s all interconnected—faith, relationships, the environment,” he said.

Although, Martens joked, what does it say of them as owners if they “have to pay our employees to have breakfast with us?”

With a smile, he headed out to the work week ahead.

John Longhurst is a freelance religion reporter and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.