Thursday, October 29, 2009

Habitat Systems Inc.

When you visit as many playgrounds as we do, it’s inevitable that you reach a point where you start to pay attention to details. Some time ago I began being able to differentiate between brands of apparatus, started to notice playground design trends and then I started to wonder about how a playground comes to be. This curiosity peaked after I first visited Victor School Playground in Victoria, a playground that impressed me in a multitude of ways and has become a firm favourite. Beyond the obvious attractions of Victor School; the fantastic colourful equipment, the engaging activity walls and universal accessibility, I was intrigued by a plaque on the wall that thanked a number of organizations for helping to fund the playground. It set off a train of thoughts in my head about how a playground gets built, who designs it and who pays for it.

After a bit of research I stumbled across Habitat Systems Inc.- a playground distributor in Western Canada based out of Burnaby, BC. Habitat was the consultant on Victor School- helping to plan the fundraising, and then designing and supplying the project. What I didn’t know was that about the same time I was Googling Habitat, they were excitedly reading the Swings and Roundabouts review of Victor School playground which they circulated around their office. Weeks later we started e-mailing, talking on the phone and bouncing around ideas that have led to a partnership.

Habitat Systems provides full spectrum consulting that can take a client from the start to finish of a playground project. It’s an exciting BC grown company (now in Alberta too) that chooses to put people first and the more that I talk to them, the more excited I get about the work that they do.

The company was founded in 1996 in Mark Bodie’s garage where he and partner Jeff Musson alternated using the phone-line over a kitchen table. They formed a partnership with Landscape Structures who are a leading provider of environmentally preferable playgrounds and whom exemplify best practices and going the extra mile to ensure that equipment is engaging and safe, that their people are treated well and that their business is light on the planet.

Fast forward to today, and Habitat has moved out of the garage and grown into a company where knowledgeable and empowered employees work to build community spirit by providing play spaces that inspire, engage and put smiles onto children’s faces.

During a conversation with owner Jeff Musson I asked him about the importance of playgrounds in this day and age and he cited examples of playgrounds that Habitat has built that have become safe gathering places in their community; school playgrounds that are packed on evenings and weekends where safe, fun play can be experienced by children of all abilities- outgoing or shy, high-energy or with no body strength. When he talks about these things he is enthusiastic and you can tell that Jeff loves what he does.

All of the Playground Consultants at Habitat Systems are ‘Certified Playground Inspectors’ which means that they know what they are talking about inside-out and, unlike many other playground providers, their team in not commission-based. This encourages hand-holding throughout the process because it is not about ‘the sale’.

“It’s a cooperative, collaborative process between the clients and us” Jeff explains. This approach is especially important when Habitat works with PAC clients- Parent Advisory Council Groups, because Habitat is in a fantastic position to walk the group through every stage.

“The benefit of working with us for PAC groups is that we can be there for them making sure that each stage of their project runs smoothly. We know the local surfacing requirements and regulations and we have already made local contacts so the process can be efficient-right through to providing safety tips and grand opening items after the installation has been completed.”

Habitat has a Playground Planning Kit that they use with PAC groups which provides comprehensive information on every step of the project. The Playground Consultants work closely with groups during the fundraising process, which might mean helping to plan the fundraising or it might mean that the Consultant is there at PAC meetings or fundraising events to help answer questions and brainstorm for solutions.

Habitat has its own installation team in BC which means that they control every aspect of the installation. This team already understands what Habitat is trying to achieve and they have a vested interest in the project being done right. That means that if during installation they see a way to do something better, they have the ability to do it better. It means that they are not driven by time, but by doing things right. It means that unlike contracted teams, this installation team has an on-going relationship, an investment in making sure that the installation quality is of the highest standards and that safety comes first.

Working so closely with Landscape Structures, Habitat has had high standards set from the beginning for seeking out ways to be environmentally friendly in their work. This attitude has seeped through every aspect of the business from the literature which is printed on recycled paper, to office recycling and composting initiatives, to the processes and products used during the manufacturing of the equipment- making sure that the kids who use the playground apparatus are going to be safe. The plastics contain no heavy metals, the paint is lead-free and there is even a line of equipment that has a 30% smaller carbon footprint. For every Landscape Structures playground sold, there is a donation made through Global ReLeaf to plant trees to offset the carbon dioxide production.

You always get a good idea about an organization by the people in it and when you talk to Jeff, he is so excited and proud of what Habitat does that it’s infectious. Whether Jeff is talking about the way that Habitat approaches business, the fact that the Habitat team is so connected that he says that he’s working with his best friends, or the passion he has when he talks about particular projects. “When my own daughter is going to meet friends at the local playground that we built- well what better compliment can I get?”

To find out more about Habitat Systems, their equipment and partners go to