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From tram station to office building

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It landed him in the hospital twice, was three times costlier than he expected and took five times longer than anticipated to complete.

But Hugh Hull, owner and founder of Good Guys Builders Group Inc., said he's glad his little construction company spent the last three years and an undisclosed amount of money painstakingly redeveloping a century-old commercial building in Fort Rouge into a funky little office building.

The retrofit/redevelopment project included stripping down the 11/2-storey brick building's interior to the bare walls, pouring a new concrete floor slab, tearing off the old roof, adding two huge new dormers and installing new windows, doors, support beams, roof trusses, insulation, wiring, plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical systems. They also paid a specialty firm to strip away numerous layers of paint from the exterior of the brick walls and replace damaged mortar and more than 1,000 bricks.

"It's been a real labour of love and took a ridiculous amount of work," Hull admitted as he glanced around the second-floor space Good Guys shares with one of the building's other three tenants. The second-floor space boasts two large, timber-framed windows, exposed Douglas fir joists and support beams, exposed brick walls and new plank flooring.

Hull said he's been told the building, which is located at 308 Morley Ave. just west of Osborne Street, was originally a tram station for horses. Over the years, it also served as a bakery, a hardware store and an auto-glass repair shop.

Hull said the building had been unoccupied for about a decade and was full of junk when he bought it in 2009 with the idea of converting it into office space for Good Guys.

Good Guys specializes in building wooden fences, decks, gazebos and sunrooms. So this was its first restoration/redevelopment project.

"I started doing the drawings and I just got carried away," Hull admitted. "I thought I could add something here and add something there and rent out some of the space."

"I think it was probably better that I did it without knowing what I was getting into," he added with a laugh, "because if I had known, I probably would never have done it."

Hull said the first time he was hospitalized was when he injured his back trying to lift one of the huge, wooden beams they were installing. It was two weeks before he was well enough to return to work.

The second time was when he and project manager Sean O'Neil were spraying foam insulation into the wall cavities and discovered too late they didn't have the right safety masks. They were overcome by the fumes and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. They both laugh about it now, but it wasn't funny at the time.

Because they did the bulk of the work themselves, Hull said, the project proved to be an invaluable learning experience for him and his staff.

"We had to custom-make every single piece," he said of the building's new joists and beams, "and put them in one at a time."

And because he wanted to leave the ceiling joists exposed, they had to install all the mechanical systems in the walls. That also proved to be a huge challenge.

"This building is the result of probably 500,000 little decisions. Every time we wanted to do something, it was a problem. But I had a really awesome team of guys working with me."

While it was a huge pain, Hull said the retrofit project was worth it. And he isn't the only one who thinks that.

Andrew Boardman's graphic design firm -- Manoverboard -- shares the second-floor space with Good Guys. Boardman said he had been looking for office space in the area, stumbled upon Hull's building while it was still being renovated, and knew it was where he wanted to be.

He said he had to wait a year before he was finally able to move in.

"It was a long wait, but it was worth it. I really love it here. I couldn't ask for a better space. It's completely different... and when clients come here, they're always impressed with the building."

Veteran commercial real estate agent Graeme Rowswell, of G.T. Rowswell Realty Leasing Co., said he was dumbfounded when he saw the building during a recent visit.

"To have someone dovetail all of those big timbers and peg them all -- that's going back to centuries-old craftsmanship," Rowswell said. "When you see it, it really blows your mind because you don't see craftsmanship like that these days."

A law firm -- Fraser Law -- and a therapist's office -- La Loba Services -- are the two tenants on the main floor of the 2,770-square-foot building. Hull said there are two other small main-floor offices he intends to rent out as soon as they're finished.

The building, which he named the Summer House Business Centre after his wife, Summer, was part of a package deal that also included an adjacent one-storey strip mall fronting onto Osborne Street.

Good Guys is also in the process of fixing up the exterior of that building.

While Good Guys will continue to focus mainly on building fences, decks, gazebos and sunrooms, Hull wouldn't rule out tackling another retrofit project.

"I really enjoyed it and I'm certainly open to the idea, once I get this completed."


Know of any newsworthy or interesting trends or developments in the local office, retail, or industrial real estate sectors? Let real estate reporter Murray McNeill know at the e-mail address below, or at 204-697-7254.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2012 B5


Updated on Monday, November 26, 2012 at 12:19 PM CST: Corrects location of building.

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