My journey into consulting…
I’m Al Barnes, a “Multipotentialite”, “Polymath”, or Renaissance man.
For much of my youth, I was known as “the kid who takes everything apart”. I could most often be found in a scrap yard or junk pile. I disassembled things to figure out how they worked, and eventually how to fix or improve upon them. Early on I understood the function of hundreds of electric and mechanical things. Bicycles, appliances, tools, furniture, machinery, vehicles – anything I could get my hands on.
In school I excelled in; art, automotive mechanics, technical drawing, shop, music – and later, welding.
At age 15 I began training in the Residential Burglary Alarm Industry (in Montreal) a student of my Father – a technician from early-on.
He (and a handful of colorful older characters, who were extremely talented tradesmen) taught me the ropes. Alarm techs of yesteryear were generally electricians, carpenters, telephone men, engineers and some all-around handy guys. Fortunately I was one of very few youth invited to join the ranks at the time, and I reveled in it!
At the time, only the well-to-do could afford the piece of mind that electronic security services offered. Their opulent homes were by comparison, a world away from the lower-class apartment buildings of my childhood – an entirely new world for me.
“Wireless” systems didn’t exist, every individual device had to be hard-wired directly to the control panel, which was rarely an easy task. These houses were of the utmost quality – beautiful and skillfully built to last. There were rarely any unfinished basements or cold air returns available for wire-chases, and exposed cabling was definitely unacceptable.
Every system was designed by the technicians, who doubled as an on-site sales force. The “alarm company” supplied the leads, but the “techs” consulted with the customers and planned every aspect of the job. We asked questions to determine their use of the home, what they considered “worth protecting” and how best to do so. It could be the dwelling itself, the inhabitants, the goods – or a combination of. I guess you could say we profiled them, and adapted systems on an individual basis . Then, we’d call the office and have them draw up an estimate for approval.
The Job at Hand
Each system would take roughly 3-5 days for installation and approximately $1K per day for parts and labour (in the late 80’s). Priority-one was to plan cabling routes, checking for any existing damage or blemishes before we began. Anything abnormal was written down, shown to the client and signed-off, to prevent possible disputes, litigation or insurance claims after the fact.
Dad’s daily rant is still fresh in my mind. “If you have to put a tool or piece of equipment down anywhere, be sure to protect the surface first, if you can’t find anything use the shirt off of your back”. And, “Don’t let me catch you placing a rusty metal toolbox on any carpeted surface – it’ll make a stain!”.
Every home was a individual, uncharted territory. As a result, each required a great deal of imagination, time and skill to overcome. And suffice to say that our clientele generally weren’t the type to help move a grand piano, giant TV/stereo console or china cabinet full of priceless articles either – which was often required.
We used brains and brawn, carefully dismantling whatever necessary to get wires from point A to point B. When complete, every piece was re-installed, fastened, plastered, primed/painted to look as good or better than before we started – and furniture put back.
We had no mobile phone cameras for snapping pics of furniture location or shelved article layout, so we relied heavily on photographic memory. Details were crucial, because clients didn’t want to be moving things around after we left. When all was said and done, we would test and then train the users on how to operate their new systems.
Many of the “senior” technicians were just that, and/or of “comfortable” weight. I (being young and of slight build) was regularly chosen to explore the attics, crawl spaces and unsavory areas where cabling was often required. I swam in the dirt and insulation of hundreds of stately manors over the years. No matter how hot, cold, dark, smelly, bug-infested or unsafe some were. It was my job, and I did it well – no matter what.
I needed to not only know the products being installed and how they worked, but also general construction (foundations, framing/structure, electricity, plumbing, plaster, paint and carpentry). I learned where to drill holes, how to fish wires through walls/ceilings, and how to avoid electrical wires, pipes and other important stuff in the process.
The process was daunting at times, as was working with my father – who was a stickler for perfection. It took a number of years, but I eventually became a top technician in the field, running my own installations and training other would-be techs. I even taught some of the old dogs some new tricks.
A new Direction
As technology advanced, systems got bigger and yet more affordable. My work now included dwellings of all types, from lavish mansions to trailer homes. From basic intrusion detection to closed circuit TV cameras, access control, intercom and telephone systems.
Eventually, my skills and rapport with customers lead me to some very high profile residential, commercial and industrial projects. I was often requested by some very affluent customers to protect their jewellery stores, banks and furriers. I even secured Police stations, adult & youth remand centers, government offices, casinos and the like – and worked directly for the Premier of Alberta (Ralph Kline) – twice.
Due to the physical nature of the more sophisticated systems, I started dabbling in the lock and hardware industry and eventually became a locksmith. I loved integrating both electronic and hardware security, and I was good at it.
I often collaborated with iron workers, welders and craftsmen who designed and built custom (decorative and secure) window and door gates. My interest in metalwork and construction flourished. Now and again I even had the opportunity to use the welding I learned in school.
In time, the knowledge of construction and security I garnered eventually lead me into the fields of communications (Telephone, Ethernet, Cable TV) audio-visual and “smart-home”.
People like myself were now in high-demand, but there were so few of us. Eventually, I started my own business, taking on projects in almost anything residential (and some commercial).
Not being one to shy away from a challenge, I would discuss and collaborate with my clients, planning and performing all the design work. Then I would strap on the tools and get to work – occasionally sub-contracting work. I did full kitchen, bath and basement renovations – among hundreds of other projects. All using the encyclopedia of information I had collected from the various professional tradespeople I conversed and worked with over the years. Wiring, plumbing, framing, drywall, paint, floor coverings, you name it.
I’ve learned to read and create floor plans and blueprints, about structure, architecture and décor. As lives and residential building and technology change (codes, laws, techniques, products, materials, etc), I strive to remain in flux along with them. My aptitude for reading people, combined with a few other key talents, allow me to integrate anything applicable to improve my clients’ living spaces and lives.
Although I have changed industries and hats on numerous occasions, it has always been for my personal benefit, and ultimately the benefit of others.
Positions I’ve held through corporate and self employ include but are not limited to:
Builder, Contractor, Decorator, Designer, Handyman, Inspector, Laborer, Marketer, Mentor, Project Planner/Coordinator/Manager, Salesperson, Supervisor, Trainer and Technician.
Philosophy & Mindset
I firmly believe that in life we should both learn and teach, exercising our brains and sharing our knowledge.
To further improve myself, I do my best to eat right, practice yoga and follow the 12 Universal Laws on a regular basis.
I’ve broken things and made mistakes but those instances have further developed my database and skills, as well as my drive to learn more.
I fully understand project coordination and management. Also, the materials, products, suppliers, methodologies, technology and intrinsic trades and professions involved in the construction industry.
Everyone lives a distinct lifestyle which is in constant flux. Varying geographic locations and differing budgets (in conjunction with a variety of arrangements for every individuals’ requirements) means that every home should be different.
My broad background, attention to detail and passion for client satisfaction makes my job as consultant a no-brainer. My Cognitive Dwelling Assessment System (CDAS) even further aids in manifesting your perfect home.
I do what I do because I enjoy it and it’s challenges. Regardless of who, what, where, when, how or how much, I routinely go to the mat for everyone, without exception.
I’ve always enjoyed passing-on what I have learned, mentoring, advising – and helping people. If I can achieve what I believe, so can you.
And I’d love to help you create the home of your dreams.
In early 2014 a friend inquired about security for the off-grid vacation home he was building in Belize, Central America. After some discussion and estimates, I was granted the job.
I followed the build through phone calls, email and photos to ensure that the requirements for my role in the project were well in order for my visit.
After months of planning and discussions leading up to the trip, my friend mentioned that he was having difficulty finding a caretaker for the place. It required someone trustworthy, capable of caring for the property and vacationers’ needs. As well, enough knowledge to operate and maintain all the high-tech systems the house contained.
These systems comprised of a 14,000 gallon water collection, storage, filtration and purification. Solar and wind power generation with battery storage and DC/AC inverter. Solar pool circulation/filtration and lighting, as well as wireless audio and internet distribution systems. None of the known locals were up to the task.
I had dreamed of one day living off-grid, living in the tropics too, and here was a perfect combination of both staring me in the face!
After plenty of thought (and research) I prepared for what would become an incredible, life changing experience.
I notified my clients, closed-up shop, sold pretty much everything I owned and prepared for the biggest adventure of my life – the drive to Belize!
Accompanied by an acquaintance and my 100lb Doberman, we traveled from Ottawa, Ontario, to Central America. My friend’s older and poorly maintained vehicle no doubt gave us troubles along the way. We bedded down in some pretty sketchy places and had a few close calls, but we made it nonetheless – 10 days and many hard-earned miles later!
At long last, Placencia.
Quickly evident, was that living and working in a developing, tropical country was extremely different from what I was used to. I would need to gain a completely new attitude towards life, other cultures and the planet as a whole.
Plan Every Detail
The house was designed by a Canadian, and built by locals – myself being the only exception.
Though the plans were made well in advance, I was brought on site late on the project’s time-line. Security equipment is expensive, not replaceable locally, and easily damaged from construction mishaps. And like everything else – prone to theft.
Within a few weeks I discovered that the entire project was behind schedule. Much of its afflictions due to insufficient planning and collaboration among all parties involved. Minor, and major details had been ill-conceived and/or omitted altogether. Some of the contractors were also somewhat new to the technology they were using.
I’m unaware if the designer had ever physically been to the site or understood the challenges of the locations’ climate. The sun, heat, salty ocean air and precipitation during the rainy season were huge factors that seemed overlooked in the design. Also apparent was the builder’s lack of grasp on the owners’ lifestyle requirements.
I contacted my friend to inform him of the deficiencies and was immediately entrusted to oversee the project to completion. As a hands-on player, in time (with determination and perseverance) the basic priorities were met. However, due to the initial cost overruns, change orders, etc, completion would be a few years yet. It just goes to show that one can’t plan enough. Every detail must be determined in advance.
I have conversed with dozens of people who’ve built their own homes, who recounted horror stories about the ordeal. Builds in Belize, Mexico and Trinidad I visited have left me gobsmacked with the lack of foresight and poor design. 75% of homeowners had presumed that their designer/builder (both Local and/or North American) would know and take care of everything.
Many builders, contractors/subcontractors fail their clients miserably (IMO). Some charging 50 to over 100% more than the original agreed price (however most ranged from 40-75%). Moreover, the finished products left much to be desired.
Some homeowners lost their shirts due to overages and lack of available financing/time to complete the work. This allowing Mother Nature to wreak havoc on unfinished structures. Not to mention the health and relationship issues directly related to many of the ill-fated projects.
For most of my stay, I wasn’t able to keep groceries, cook, do laundry, or connect with the outside world, because the house wasn’t complete. So my cash stash dwindled quickly.
Along with delays and added costs for the project, came a lack of marketing funds and rental income (from which I would have benefited). Of course there was also the matter of my legal residency (which can take years to achieve). So, my tropical semi-retirement would not last, and I had to return to Canada.
Nevertheless, everything happens for a reason. Mine was to return with greater experience and insight, which lead to my becoming a consultant. And, as much as I enjoyed almost everything about Belize, I discovered that beach life isn’t my cup of tea. I much prefer to be near or in the forest, with a small pond, river or stream nearby.
Q: Are there projects that go smoothly, with no grief?
A: Yes, but honestly, it’s a rarity, they are few and far between.
In the developing countries I have been, I have personally witnessed numerous unfinished projects sitting on vacant lots with “For Sale” signs. Concrete structures crumbling due to the salty air rotting the inner steel skeletons and untreated wooden structures collapsing from termite infestation. Regardless of the fact that local labor is cheap and that there are plenty of raw materials available, tearing down and re-building can be quite expensive – not to mention time consuming and frustrating as hell.
There are far more skilled North American and European builders available in tropical areas nowadays, and the local builders are upping their game. However, many still aren’t up to snuff on local building customs/techniques, materials and technologies. And many projects still suffer from “Island time”. If you’ve ever been to the Caribbean you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
Some retirees/buyers have even had to deal with lengthy land title disputes because on numerous occasions, various real-estate firms/people had claimed title to the same properties, which had lain dormant for years. Without a doubt, the governments in many developing countries seem to have difficulty keeping accurate records of property ownership. Bribery is often a way of life here, but it’s shortsighted and affects many.
Setbacks and issues don’t just happen in the tropics, they can be a part of any project. The onus is definitely on the owners to do their own extensive research and get seriously on-board with everything/everyone. If not, they need to outsource that work to experienced, competent consultants if they want smooth sailing and a gratifying outcome.
Sure, you can leave it all up to someone else, but who’s house is it anyway?
My years in the Construction Industry have made me realize that North Americans (typically) are very wasteful. I was too.
Far too often I have gutted portions of peoples’ homes that were (more often than not) in perfectly good condition/working order, just because they didn’t like the style/color/age of something or because they wanted to “keep up with the Jones’s”. Load, after load of perfectly good materials destroyed and taken to landfill.
Sure, occasionally some of it was recycled but not nearly often enough. Energy and resources are wasted at an incredible rate. The clearing of natural flora and fauna on properties (which require next to no maintenance/water) to put in grass – which requires incredible amounts of maintenance and water, is extremely wasteful. Not to mention it destroys natural habitat of much needed insects and wildlife.
Having visited (and lived in) a few developing countries to date, I have seen how terrible North American habits are rubbing off on other countries and cultures, and how the beautiful, vibrant and natural lands are quickly being raped, pillaged & polluted.
"We travel to tropical locations to enjoy the climate, breathe clean air and stand in awe of the natural beauty. But we want comfort, and are quick to demand the natives adapt to our wants and needs. Unfortunately, those demands destroy local nature and culture in the process. Sustainable habits which have been around for hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of years - disappear. Our technology rarely makes better lives. More often than not, it pollutes, expends resources, decimates species and lengthens our lifespans. The result is overpopulation and the continuance destruction at an exponential rate".
I’m now a huge proponent of sustainable living, an Eco-friendly, low carbon footprint lifestyle. Every year I do more to reduce my negative impact on the our planet, the source of everything we need to survive.
Although it can be more work, it’s a return to a more basic, less stressed and healthier life (for me anyway).
To help further offset our carbon footprints and promote sustainability, my wife and I purchased a small farm in south-eastern Ontario. In 2018 we had 2400 coniferous trees planted (as part of Ontario’s 50 Million Tree Project). To assist in balancing climate change and reestablish homes for birds and many other displaced critters. Beekeeping and organic, Aquaponic farming are also in our future. Solar and wind power generation also be added, in an off-grid type of installation.
My suggestion: do something for yourself and generations to come – build (if not, at least live) sustainable live – and help slow the destruction of the planet that (if current trends continue) will eventually bring an end to humanity as we know it.
Each of us have our own beliefs, dreams, values and reality. No matter what mine are, I’ll always do my best to put yours at the forefront of your project.
If you want something special, individual/different but haven’t a clue where to begin, contact me.
Let others’ past steer your future
For further information, insight and incredible real-life stories on the topic of Building a Dream Home, visit:
CBC Television/Grand Designs – Hosted by designer and writer Kevin McCloud. He takes you through the trials and tribulations – physical, financial and emotional – of those trying to create their dream homes.
And below are a couple of noteworthy articles as well…
Proper advice can minimize/prevent mental and physical stress, heartache, danger and cost overruns. All things that can (and usually do) arise from this kind of undertaking.