Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Peter Sephton who runs Levelit Canada out of Smiths Falls, Ont.
What is Levelit Canada?
We raise cottages and boathouses off the ground in order to relevel and restructure them. We try to repair cottage structures back to their original state or better. Most of the buildings we work on were built in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. The blocks that they’re sitting on have tilted or degraded to the point where they are no longer structurally sound. So, we go in and we raise the cottage up on aluminum beams and repair the structure to original or better. We do economical work for an economical price.
We also are occasionally asked to construct new foundations, even full basements. My son and I went out and took the ICF Nudura course, and we got certified in the Eljen septic system and stuff like that because we were tired of waiting on other people. In around 2018, 2019, we had to deal with flooding and I had 18 places up in the air and nothing was coming down because we were waiting on a foundation or another trade. So, now we’re certified to do all of that, but it’s not our main business.
How did the business get started?
We pretty well started out in the late 80s, early 90s working in the mobile and modular home industry. We worked with many American manufacturers, right up until around 2007, 2008, when their housing economy went for a dive. At that point, our business was primarily modular. Modular has been a big thing for the cottage industry since the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. Companies used to sell kits for cottages, and we were some of the installers.
Then in the late 2000s, we got associated with a company called CDS Building Movers out of Ottawa. Their jobs were getting bigger and bigger. So, in 2014, the owner, John Sweetnam, and I sat down and he said, ‘Look, I’d like you and your sons to do all of our cottage work for us.’ They didn’t have time for the little jobs. So, now re-levelling and restructuring cottages is our forte.
And we do it all as a family-run business. Five of my six kids are on crews right now. Even my mother-in-law helps. She and my wife babysit the grandkids because two of my daughters are out on the crews daily. It’s a real generational thing here. We are a four-generation family business.
What inspired the name?
The idea for Levelit was when someone went onto the internet and was looking for somebody to raise their cottage, I didn’t want them to confuse me and CDS, because at one point or another, we were almost one and the same. If CDS went and looked at a small job, they turned around and got me to do it anyway. If I went and looked at a bigger lift that I didn’t have the equipment or the time for, CDS would do it.
So, the entire name of Levelit was really meant as a distinction because all I wanted was that cottage market of work. Not that I need the extra work, but being a family company, we’re looking at succession and a legacy here, something we can pass onto our children, so the name of the company means more to us than anything.
What’s the largest structure you’ve raised?
In 2013, we helped CDS Building Movers move the Horticulture Building in Ottawa for Ottawa Sports and Entertainment. It was 1,600 metric tons. It took us seven and a half months to get the building ready to move, and it was moved about 465 feet in a day and a half. It ended up within the thickness of a quarter to where the surveyors wanted it.
We’re members of the International Association of Structural Movers, and that move won an award for the largest rubber tire move in North America that year.
What’s the most common structural issue you see in cottages?
I would say erosion. In 2016, we got about 72 relevels, and the very next spring, I had four of them that I had to fix. That was the biggest warranty year I ever had. And it was because of rain. It wasn’t our pads that were the issue. It wasn’t our blocks or our new running beams. It was the integrity of the soils that we sat on.
And it’s progressively gotten worse. I went from almost non-existent warranty claims to a couple in 2016, and then two or three more the following year. It doesn’t sound like a lot, we never hit 10 per cent warranty, but for me, one per cent warranty is too much.
And what’s causing the erosion is climate change. I don’t care what people say, all over Ontario we’re having micro storms that are causing erosion.
How do you raise a cottage?
Every building is completely different. There is no one process for lifting a building, but the essence of it is you have to grab the entire building. So, if there’s a porch or addition, you have to raise it all together.
Under the structure, you install beams perpendicular to your floor joists for the length of the building. We invested in much lighter equipment. We bought aluminum beams and aluminum jacking equipment to shrink the size of the equipment involved in lifting the cottage. We try to avoid using heavy machinery, like backhoes, that can sink into the ground this time of year. It gets down to what you can get into the site. I will not cut a tree. I tend to try not to dig a lot unless we really have to. We’ll usually use airbags to raise it if we’re really tight to the ground.
But when I drive away at the end of a job, I fully expect you to be able to use your cottage right away. We try to leave a minimal footprint.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
The biggest issue we’re having with COVID-19 is that you really can’t quote work because prices for materials are changing so drastically. Three-quarter plywood, I’ve seen an increase of about 252 per cent in the last 11 months.
When I quote jobs, normally I like to give a worst-case scenario price, but it’s getting so much harder to carry the prices even a week, let alone a year. I have one job that was priced last fall with the assumption of going ahead this year, and we were priced at about $100,000. Now, it’s $255,000, and counting daily.
I’m also very hands-on. When you send a request into my office, I’m the one who calls you back, and I’m the one who goes out and meets with you and discusses what you want. I’ve always been a people person. I meet the person. I do the quote. And when we’re working, I love it if the people are up there. We had one client who didn’t know how high she wanted to go, so we would lift her cottage up four feet in the air and every night I’d tell her to go sit in the kitchen and look out the window and tell me how far down the lake she could see and tell me how much more she wanted to go up.
But COVID-19 has killed that degree of passion where I can’t sit with the people. A lot of our clients are American and the border’s closed. Some of them I’ve never met. That’s the thing I miss the most.
Do you have a local business in cottage country? Fill out this survey for your chance to be featured.