Bird Construction

A Canadian institution

Construction has already reached the top floor for Toronto’s new affordable rental housing project for senior citizens. This is one of the many new additions to Canada’s development of which Bird Construction is at the helm. Whether they realise it or not, every day, hundreds of thousands of Canadians are in buildings built by, or using services facilitated by, one of Canada’s largest and most successful general contractors.

Bird Construction is encroaching upon the status of a Canadian institution—surpassing some of the very institutions they have joined their name to.“We started in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1920. It started off there as a partnership, and eventually the founder, H.J. Bird, bought out the partners and was on his own from the 1930s onward,” explains Mike Knul, Marketing Director of Bird Construction.

It was initially due to Bird’s “drive and business acumen” that the company started to grow. He expanded the company in the 1940s into Manitoba and Alberta, where the company was strategically positioned to best service the military construction program, which was being built at the beginning of the Second World War. Bird Construction is heavily involved with military support to this day. On the strength of the first expansion, the company continued to widen its perimeters with the opening of the Vancouver and Toronto offices in the 1960s.

“Just recently, in 2008, we purchase a general contracting company called Rideau Construction. That was the only acquisition we have ever made; before that, it was all natural growth due to the business sharpness of the founder,” says Knul. Today, Bird Construction has seven branches from coast to coast, with the specialty areas tending to vary according to location. “One of the unique branches, for example, would be Edmonton. It has a very industrial focus and a large presence in oil sands construction. Its focus is different than the Toronto branch, which has been focusing on institutional facilities, such as education and infrastructure projects. And Vancouver has a tendency towards healthcare facilities,” he continues.

In the past few years, with the predominance of public-private partnerships (P3), a number of Bird branches across the board have been successful at procuring those sorts of projects (education and healthcare, for example).  Public infrastructure is vital to a vibrant community, which is why Bird Construction is involved in the number of P3 projects that they are. Bird Construction is a leader in helping public projects be designed with the least amount of risk, the greatest access to alternative financing and ability to take greatest advantage of private sector services at efficient and effective cost structures.  Because of this, today, with annual billings exceeding half a billion dollars, Bird Construction is a highly respected company, operating in both Canada and in the U.S.

Key to longevity

With about 50 projects concurrently underway, it is clear that Bird Construction has built on its decades of experience. With many construction companies struggling to stay afloat, what is the key to the success at Bird Construction? Business Development Manager Mark McLaren postulates, “There are a few fundamentals that we have adhered to over the last couple of decades. The company is run by construction people—not by accountants or managers. Everyone who is running the company has come up through the construction ranks.” McLaren also believes the company unwavering focus on their core business has served it well. “We are builders. We don’t have other business ventures like land development or any other ventures that distract us from our core business. That is one of our tenants, that we stick to our core business.”


The underlying philosophy to every successful business is an investment in its people.  Far from being an exception to this rule, Bird Construction exemplifies it.  “Construction by its nature tends to be a very itinerant type of business,” says McLaren. “People don’t always necessarily look at construction as a career with a company—a certain component of the industry looks at it as a job by job type of employment. Our focus at Bird is on creating an environment where people can spend a career.” Low turnover is a key to the continued quality and reliability of Bird Construction, be it of small buildings or multimillion-dollar projects. “Most people have been working here for over 10 years, or 20 years in some cases,” he continues.

“We are creating development roles in each of our branches, which has been a factor in growing the business and creating a pipeline of work that is continuous. This is a big part of our business. We have a major focus on creating a lasting environment for people and on training and professional development.”

 As such, the company’s in-house training program is second-to-none and is accredited by the Canadian Construction Association. “Our courses are now sanctioned by the Canadian Construction Associations Gold Seal program (a national certification program for construction Project Managers, Superintendents, Estimators and Owners’ Project Managers) and our people can get accreditation with the CCA through our programs,” says McLaren.

Knul ads, “We have a tight-knit organization and we do pride ourselves in what we call a ‘25 Year Club,’ and there are a number of employees who have been with us for that long (or more—even 50 years).” Currently, there are no less than 165 members of the 25 Year Club, with many approaching the 40 years of service milestone. To celebrate these achievements, the company holds a banquet in their honour for family members, colleagues and other members.

 “In some cases, Bird Construction is the first and only job some employees have ever had,” continues Knul. “That includes the CEO and COO. They were both interns here over 25 years ago and they stuck with the company—so did our chairman of the board, for that matter. There is a real sense of commitment, family and growth opportunity for individual pursuits.”
“Certainly there is evidence of flat line management and the ability to take ownership. A lot of us hold shares in the company, so you can take that literally, but we have a sense of belonging, accountability and taking responsibility. We’re given a fair bit of rope and we run with it. Also, at least one executive is readily available for questions—we have a great open-door policy,” he says.

Employee share program

Knul is referring to a unique employee share program extended to Bird Construction employees. This allows employees to contribute a capped percentage of their salaries on a monthly basis to purchasing units of the company, which will then be matched by the company.

“If someone has ownership in the company,” adds McLaren, “we believe your attention to success is that much greater. Your motivations change significantly when you own a stake, it gives an enhanced level of attention and responsibility. We believe it is a key fundamental.”  The program is mutually beneficial to the company as well, McLaren believes, because it is an incentive to attract and retain the brightest and best in the industry.

Nevertheless, a challenge facing the construction industry is the demographic shift which is creating a deficit in skilled trades in the industry. “A lot of the tradesmen and women are nearing retirement, yet the influx of new tradespeople in the last 20 years really hasn’t been enough to fill the void that will be left when these people have retired. There is a strong emphasis now in encouraging programs at the college level to try and replace those skills in the industry,” notes McLaren.

The best and brightest have made quantifiable contributions to the Canadian business and construction landscape and the Canadian defence industry. The list of undertakings by Bird is long: multi-trade civil; industrial; commercial; institutional; retail; restorations are a few examples. Bird Construction offers management services to provide cost, schedule, constructability and operation input to clients during the project.  Its pre-construction services work in coordination as well to influence ultimate cost, schedule, efficiency and functionality of the entire project from the onset.  Again, the company credits its staff for the reliability, saying Bird has a great deal of experience working as part of a design team to develop the best possible facility at the most reasonable cost. The considerable database of cost information the company has the ability to facilitate the rapid evaluation of various design alternatives. This ability encourages a creative, cooperative attitude during the design development and review process.

The actual design and build process of the projects are backed by decades of experience and are well-proven. In the experience of the Bird Construction team, collaboration between builders, sub-contractors, manufacturers, architects, engineers and anyone associated with the many moving parts of building projects achieves the best results time and again. A team effort reduces resources such as time and money needed to complete multiple stages of construction and gets things completed quicker and more efficiently. This is the basis for Bird Construction’s reputation and the reason the company gets the contracts it does.

LEED design

Never one to become stagnant, Bird Construction has taken on the industry’s awakening to reducing environmental impacts within the construction industry. “Design and construction in the last 15 years has been very focused on creating sustainable practices for sustainable building and minimizing environmental impacts,” notes McLaren.
Bird Construction adheres to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, which is designed to provide a suite of standards for the environmentally sustainable design, construction and operation of buildings and neighborhoods.
Sustainable building design and construction techniques are becoming focuses across the spectrum of both public and private development. Buildings that incorporate design, construction and operational practices that combine high-quality and high-performance advantages with reduced environmental impacts are in demand. Bird Construction has broad experience in the design and construction of building projects that have demonstrated a commitment to sustainability by meeting higher performance standards in environmental responsibility and energy efficiency “LEED,” McLaren continues, “is a non-profit program that is directed at creating a scorecard (you can look up the Canadian green building council for more information)—it’s the most recognised tool for governing how a building’s design and construction performs from a sustainability standpoint. It has become a way of life in our business.”

Recently, Bird Construction, has begun working closely with architects at the Kinnear Centre of Creativity and Innovation located in the beautiful setting of Banff, Alberta. The new centre is part of the campus redevelopment project at the Banff Centre in Banff National Park, Alberta. Any building within Banff National Park is regulated within the thinnest of margins to ensure the protection of the natural beauty, wildlife and environment within the park. The $44-million project is being entrusted to Bird Construction to meet guidelines set by Parks Canada and is targeting LEED certifications.

Bird Construction is finding more and more of its jobs are being done to LEED specifications. When St. Francis Xavier University wanted to restore five, century-old buildings on their campus into educational centres, they called on Bird Construction for the task. The $14-million construction involved the infill between aged buildings, which unearthed many previously undiscovered architectural and structural challenges, which the contractor team were able to navigate. To add more degrees of difficulty to the project, old mechanical and electrical systems throughout the building were upgraded, as well as windows, roofs and masonry work. All work was done according to LEED standards.

And for another example of their leadership in environmental stewardship, this past August saw Bird Construction unveil the Engineering Technology Building at McMaster University, This first LEED Gold building on campus. Enclosed in a glass curtain wall, the six-storey, 130,000-square-foot academic and research facility demonstrates leadership with the best in sustainable design and construction practices.

2010 Vancouver Olympics

It is fitting, seeing the stature of Bird Construction’s contributions in construction, that the company was awarded the winning bid to one of the nation’s most visible new buildings: the UBC Thunderbird Arena. In July of 2008, completion of the building (the first indoor competition venue to complete construction) was announced. UBC Thunderbird Arena was developed in collaboration with UBC Properties Trust and Bird Construction. The arena was designed to be highly accessible for athletes and spectators with a disability, and was designed in accordance to Bird Construction’s careful attention to sustainability and energy conservation. Built to be equivalent to LEED (silver certification), highlights of the venue’s environmentally friendly design include the use of an Eco-Chill system (which, somewhat ingeniously, recycles waste energy used to maintain the ice to heat the building) and the use of energy-efficient lighting.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games reported that “construction was completed on budget and four months ahead of its originally scheduled completion date of November 2008.” Somewhere, H.J. Bird is proud.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” beams McLaren, of his company’s legacy. “We’re a Canadian company. We’re listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and we have been around for 90 years. Anything that we can do that will create something valuable and lasting and will improve people’s lives, we think it’s a great opportunity.”

Specifically of the Thunderbird arena, he says, “We were proud to see the arena being used at the Olympics and the Paralympics—where they held the finals of the (Paralympic) hockey game. It was a great experience to know we were a part of that.”

Keeping Canada Safe

Bird Construction has kept its partnership with the Canadian military since that first military construction project for World War II and its work for the Ministry of National Defence. “We see this participation as a very important part of our contribution. We have working with them for decades; we started by building what were known then as the commonwealth training facilities in WWII and have been working with them ever since. We recently built a new helicopter complex at Shearwater, Nova Scotia, for the new naval helicopters that are getting delivered to replace the Sea Kings.”

The project is one of the largest on the Bird Construction roster. Shearwater underwent a massive $105-million retrofit to accommodate new CH-148 Cyclone helicopters, completed in 2009. (It was not only big for Bird Construction. The DDC said it was the largest contract ever awarded). Overall, the project consisted of three major buildings done using Bird Construction’s design-build approach. One of the buildings was a 70,000-square-foot administration and warehousing facility, a 22,000-square-foot warehouse and a 36,000-square-foot workshop. The second of the three buildings was a maintenance facility with 62,000 square feet of work space, and the third building was the maintenance hangar.

A challenge for the job was the special fire protection system which was installed in the floors of two facilities, which acts as a sprinkler system that rises out of the floor. It was the first time using this well-established technology in such a big space and under concrete, but it worked. As an added bonus, water used in this fire protection system is less impactful on the environment than previously used foam.

The company’s experience with hangars made the Bird Construction the ideal contractors for a project of such proportions, but it was the company’s long history of working with the DCC (Defence Construction Canada) that made them the only company for the job.

At CFB Borden, a training base, construction on two quarters buildings was also done by Bird Construction, for an $18-million project, which was completed in 2005. Bird Construction also built the $20-million design-build structure that was fit with a new electrical system. This is part of a $90-billion NORAD upgrade.

“These are projects where we have a leading edge in the market—take border crossings for example; we’re the largest builder of border crossings in Canada,” says McLaren. “We are one of the largest national defence projects in the country. We are also one of the larger participants on the design and construction side for 3P projects in Canada.”

Border crossing projects by nature are complex and multi-faceted. “Typical” crossings will see Bird Construction building 60,000-plus-square-foot facilities for inspection and office space, along with equally huge facilities for food and animal inspection. To facilitate projects of this enormity this month (March, 2010) the company integrated Viewpoint V6 Software to augment its financial and operational systems by using document management.

It is difficult to list all the projects that Bird Construction has built, but chances are very high you have patronised, visited or passed through one. As the company approaches its twentieth consecutive year of profitability and expansion in sales, Bird Construction has reached heights of business success seen by only a few companies. As both new and repeat clients continue to seek out the company for its excellence, Bird Construction well deserves this success.