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Renovator of the Year (Ottawa Citizen, 1998)

Harold Kuehn is running out of room on his business card. Besides skilled carpenter, licensed plumber, drywaller and tile setter, the soft-spoken jack-of-all-trades can now add "Renovator of the Year" to his credentials.

Last Saturday evening, the slightly-built Mr. Kuehn bounded up to the podium at the 15th annual design awards at the Congress Center, and took away the Ottawa-Carleton Home Builders' newly-minted award recognizing professionalism in the renovation industry.

"It's really rewarding to be recognized by your peers," said the jubilant 41-year-old renovation veteran clutching his glass and marble trophy. "It's recognition for 15 years of business integrity and treating clients well."

The Renovator of the Year category made its debut at this year's housing awards which pays tribute to some of the best local builders, designers, architects and housing sales teams in the business.

Creation of the award is overdue, says awards chair Brian Sindall. The association's Renovators' Council put forward the idea for the new award "to raise the credibility of renovators in general," said Mr. Sindall, who is a principal in Technical Dimension Homes.

Originally, there was talk of introducing a craftsmanship award, but the category was too broad and virtually impossible to define, says OCHBA executive director Richard Lee. Guidelines for Renovator of the Year were more clear cut, he says.

Contestants were asked to submit a portfolio of four different projects, including coloured photographs and a description of the work. Reference letters from past clients were also required, as well as a 15-minute interview before a panel of six judges.

"The judges interviewed (Harold) behind closed doors ... he came out sweating," quips Mr. Lee of the question-and-answer period held in September. Mr. Kuehn, owner of Harold Kuehn Construction Ltd., which specializes in kitchen and bathroom makeovers, nudget out Gord Welma of G. Welma Enterprises Inc. for the honours.

Architect Shawn Lawrence, a member of the judging panel, says he was impressed by Mr. Kuehn's honest and straight-forward professionalism.

"It was the integrity ... here's a guy you can really trust. He's really down to earth. That's what I liked about him."

Fellow judget Gerhard Linse, owner of Gerhard Linse Design & Building, says he was impressed by a man who knows his market and doesn't try to branch out in all directions in a bid to be all things to all people. "He's not intererested in being a big renovator ... he's established a nice and he doesn't go out of that market."

The design awards were doubly sweet for the Ashton entrepreneur. Besides Renovator of the Year, Mr. Kuehn also took home the trophy for the best custom bathroom under 75 square feet. The friendly father of two confesses that he didn't always dream of being an award-winning renovator.

One time his sights were set on becoming a custom home builder. Those aspirations were dashed after he built a super-efficient R-2000 home for his family in rural Ashton. Though rewarding, the seven-month project was a financial disaster. Then Mr. Kuehn decided home renovation would make better business sense.

"The (housing) market is up and down like a yo-yo. I thought renovation would be more stable ... I like to work with what's already there." The contractor prefers to take on only one or two projects at a time. With so many skills to his credit, he hires few outside trades to help complete the work and says its rare to not find him on the job.

"I enjoy the diversity," he says of his labour of love. "I think I'd go out of my mind if all I did all day was set tiles." And he says it just makes good practical sense to limit the number of tradesmen in and out of a client's home. He realizes how stressful a renovation project can be for a homeowner and says squeezing three or four workers into a five-foot-by-seven-foot bathroom can only create mayhem.

Since opening his home-based business in 1983, the former chair of OCHBA's Renovators' Council has relied mainly on word-of-mouth advertising for drumming up new clients. Besides his wife Nancy, his only full-time employee is Ian Hastings who's been on his payrool for the past 11 years. Most of the projects they're hired to do cost under $25,000.

It's no multi-million dollar enterprise, but that's okay for the spunky renovator with the dark mustache and Donny Osmonde grin. "I just find I can keep on top of the details better than if I had five or six crews."

Ask him what his greatest accomplisment has been during his years in business and without hesitation, the amiable self-starter will tell you his excellent track record with customers.

"Not one client has stiffed me one penny. I have never been sued ... " he says with a beaming smile. What's the secret to his award-winning success? "Keeping my word and delivering what I was contracted to do without having to be chased."

By Karen Turner, published 1998 in the Ottawa Citizen