By Francie Healy

First-class renovators are so much more than you might think.

They’re patient. They’re good listeners. They’re empathetic. They’re generous with their time. They’re mind-readers. They understand human nature. They’re pleasant. They’re polite. They’re passionate about the quality of their work. They care about you, and they care about the way you want to live.

Hugh Trueman, owner of two Ottawa companies – White Vale Construction and Reno Rescue – is a top-drawer renovator-designer-builder, and a RenoMark™ member. He has these qualities.

Like most people who are great at what they do, Hugh believes you have to put everything you’ve got into your work.

“It can’t just be a job,” he says. “It has to be a passion, a craft. You have to want to do it at a much higher level than just getting the job done and getting out of there.”

Hugh knows the other end of the scale, when unskilled contractors botch up a job. Reno Rescue gets called in to clean up their mistakes and finish the job properly.

Reno Rescue also specializes in smaller renovations such as bathrooms, kitchens, and basements.

Hugh’s newer company, White Vale Construction, in its second year, takes on extensive, high-end renovations and additions. It’s a design-build company and will soon be creating custom homes as well.

Hugh enjoys both kinds of work, but admits White Vale is his passion. He especially likes helping people figure out what will allow them to better suit their space to the way they live. Although he uses designers and architects, he loves doing his own design work, too.

Design has been part of his life for more than 35 years. He began his studies in civil engineering, but realized it wasn’t what he wanted, so he switched to design, and that turned out to be his life’s work.

When he was a teenager, he’d spend many an evening at his drawing board, listening to jazz and sketching “fictitious houses”. Now he says he’s “fortunate and privileged to be able to do this at this level”.

White Vale Construction was named after Hugh’s birthplace, The Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire, Southwest of London, England. It’s a place, to Hugh, that speaks of lasting traditions and craftsmanship; and although he has spent much of his life in Canada – Ottawa in particular – he feels strong ties to the traditions and ethics that are part of his heritage.

He’s a high-energy person, but Hugh says it’s what you have to be in this business. He has a construction co-ordinator and a team of six, but he also does hands-on work, management of the business; care of customers; estimating; marketing.

He spends an enormous amount of time with clients, and it’s one of his favourite parts of the job. He loves helping them create a space that can actually improve their lives in dramatic ways.

“Sometimes I’ll spend months helping people develop an idea about what they want to do with their home, before a contract is even signed,” he says. “I help them to envision their dreams, to manage their expectations – to digest it all.”

He knows it’s a difficult process for them, especially if it’s the first taste they’ve had of construction or renovation.

“It’s stressful,” he says. “I understand that, and it’s part of my job to be there to help them with it.”

He has a kind of intuitive sense about living spaces. He says he can walk into a space that, for whatever reason, isn’t working well for a homeowner. He sees very quickly how the space can be transformed into a place of joy and comfort.

He says he’s most interested in clients who love their homes and who want to stay there for a long time – more so than clients who are looking at their home as something they plan to sell in the near future.

His relationship with clients “becomes almost personal”, he says. He tries to keep an appropriate “businesslike” distance and yet at the same time to know them well enough that he can help put them back on track when needed – to gently remind them, perhaps, about what they wanted in the first place.

“I always try to come up with something exceptional,” he says. “Of course, there’s the reality of physical limitations, budget and time, but that’s my goal.”

It’s a busy job that demands physical and mental strength, but Hugh doesn’t let it overwhelm him. He limits the number of projects he takes on at a time, and he recognizes the importance of a good work/life balance.

“I try very hard to work as close to a normal work-week as I can,” he says. “I try to keep weekends to myself.”

He encourages his employees to do the same thing – not to work beyond “normal” hours unless it’s necessary. But he adds such a situation is rare.

“All members of the team need their rest,” he says, “so they can go back each day fresh and with a clear mind.”

On the other hand, if there’s something that needs to be done and there’s no one else to do it, Hugh takes it on.

“It’s part of what you have to be willing to do in a business like this,” he says.

There’s another important quality best renovators possess: the ability to instill trust and confidence in their clients. This is critical, explains Hugh, because there’s so much at stake.

“People often put more money into a big remodelling project than they paid for the house,” he says. “They’re giving us a heck of a lot of money to do something they know very little about.”

He is aware of the importance of honouring that trust and doing everything in his power so clients aren’t let down.

“This is not like you’re selling somebody a pair of pants,” he says. “We’re messing around with their homes. We’re tearing them apart and putting them back together again, or we’re creating them in the first place. There’s a lot of potential for pitfalls.”

He says this is why the quality, skills and experience of a renovator are so crucial.

“If contractors don’t know what they’re doing, if they go into a project that’s bigger than what they’re capable of, they can get into a real mess in quite a hurry.”

He adds there are legal implications for homeowners to consider. If they don’t hire contractors who have all the required knowledge about materials, building codes, structural concerns; if they don’t have a good team of support trades and professionals; if they don’t have all the insurances and proper safety training, and if someone gets hurt, the homeowner is responsible.

Hugh still loves to listen to jazz, in particular to trumpet player Chris Botti and the late-great saxophonist, Stan Getz. He “dabbles” with the sax himself (“I’m trying to get myself to a respectable level”), and several months ago he took up the ukulele. It’s a relaxing activity, he says – “a great stress reliever.”

He also likes to read, but he even does this energetically, with anywhere from four to eight books on the go at one time.

With years of experience behind him, Hugh enjoys being at the top of his game.

“There’s no other way to be,” he says.