By Kerry Turner
As a young man with a degree in industrial engineering Gord Cooke landed at the Saskatchewan Research Council where he met a man who would change his life. Rick Olmstead, a small manufacturer of heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) branded vanEE, was setting up manufacturing through a government contract. “I started working for him designing and building heat recovery ventilation systems in the early days when you had five or six farm hands, who when they weren’t out harvesting, were building HRVs. Rick used to bug me, that I didn’t even know how to spell ventilation.”
Gord worked at the factory for three or four years before returning to Ontario. “Bill Maddock, my mentor and an early rep in Ontario for vanEE, was ready to retire. I set up the rep agency to sell vane in Ontario. That was the start of the whole venture,” recounts Gord. “My dad was a sales agent in the chemical business and I liked the idea of an agency as opposed to being an employee.
“For years Bill did amazing designs for me; he had huge wisdom and experience in all things mechanical. Having your own business is kind of lonely and I could call him at any point and we could chat about the business.”
An interesting beginning to a career that would see Gord participate in standards committees and be on the leading edge of efficiency advancements. “We were growing an industry. Because Rick wasn’t in the province, I became his surrogate to visit CSA, the federal government and regulatory bodies. There was no standard for HRVs. As an agent I could sit on boards and not be directly associated with a manufacturer. That gave me opportunities to find other products.”
Gord quickly realized that in order to move the HRV line he would need to reach out to builders. His father offered him advice that would lead to his being one of the foremost IAQ and building science speakers in the country.
“That is the magic of my dad, he said ‘If the home building business is anything like the chemical business, they have chicken dinner meetings and they are always looking for after dinner speakers. You need a 35- to 40-minute presentation, about 15 slides, and you need to be respectful of the industry, don’t make it a sales pitch. Talk about trends or the industry in general, something a builder would find of interest.’
“I spoke at every homebuilder meeting, there were close to 47 locals in Ontario, every RSES and
HRAI meeting. To get started I sent out letters to homebuilder groups and the first to respond was in Sault Ste Marie. My dad said at least you will get a good dinner. It was liver and onions on the menu.
“You end up sitting at the head table. I knew it was a winning combination because the head of the association stood up and even though he had just met me, he said ‘We are pleased to have Gord Cooke here tonight − he is an expert on ventilation and air quality.’ I went from being a nobody to an expert in two minutes because I’d driven the seven hours.
“As a young guy I had to learn to be respectful of the relationships within the industry. You can’t get in the way of the relationship. Many times, showing that respect would mean I would lose a sale, but you have to try to be a good industry player.”
Another guiding principle Gord sticks to on the advice of his father is, “Only do work with people you enjoy doing work with.” Over the years his experience is that builders and contractors strive for the best. “There can’t be anything more noble than building new houses, when you turn over the key if you get to step back and go wow, that building is going to be there for 100, 200 years and five or six families are going to grow up in there − that’s got to be amazingly satisfying.”
In the current environment, families are reassessing how they view their homes, which have become work, play and living spaces. Gord notes that interest in IAQ is much like it was in the 1990s when mould in houses was a going concern.
“Here we are now in the pandemic and attention has once again turned to IAQ. Unfortunately, it takes a long time for this industry to learn. That said there is a growing realization, an amazing synergy, that the same things you do for efficiency also improve the health, safety, durability, comfort and affordability of houses.
“The leading manufacturers are all getting together. The pandemic has heightened the awareness. My concern is we all look for one magic bullet. This is about understanding the house as a system. It is not about one simple thing you put in your house and the industry is realizing that. I think it is going to have legs,” notes Gord.
A self-professed “terrible hockey player,” Gord nevertheless has two claims to fame on the ice. “I have been refereeing minor hockey for 40 years, I used to coach.” It was refereeing at the University of Toronto in the ’80s that led him to a cameo in a 7UP commercial, which featured Wayne Gretzky and Michel “Bunny” Larocque. Gord was refereeing and was asked by the producers to show up in case they needed a referee. Instead, he got to be a player. Gord still has that jersey.
The Cottage Project
When he was a child Gord often went to Southampton on the shores of Lake Huron in Bruce County, ON for summer holidays. The family recently completed construction of a Net Zero family cottage. To ensure it offered the resiliency Gord was looking for, Gord and the builder identified leading-edge products to be incorporated into the design. In the end more than 20 products made the cut. “I want to make houses that will truly last a lifetime,” says Gord. In the case of the cottage, he wanted to ensure that “it will be the Cooke family cottage for generations.”
The project was not without its challenges, although those weren’t unexpected since Gord had experienced some resistance over the years to new technologies over the years. “What you have to go through in our industry, we want to see progression but at the same time we are highly skeptical whereas … you get a new phone every six months, you never