Building Community One Block at a Time

The Local, August 4, 2022

Dale Merrill’s life has taken an adventurous turn in recent years, one he likely never could have imagined.

He has been a design and build contractor for 40 years, building luxury homes in the U.S. and Canada. Along with his wife France, and two daughters, Amelie and Angelique, he has lived in our neighbourhood for about half of those years.

Some locals fondly refer to our end of Four Mile Creek Road as little Jamaica, since there are about 100 men from the Caribbean who live and work in our neighbourhood for six to 12 months of the year. Dale’s relationship with Jamaica has gone much deeper than the occasional wha waan (what’s going on?) with his neighbours, and has taken community-building to a new level.

Recently we reminisced about a casual visit three years ago when he popped over with his pickup truck, and I noticed an unusual-looking concrete block in his back seat. “Pick it up” he suggested. I laughed it off. I wasn’t going to throw my back out in the middle of gardening season.                                                                                                                                   He convinced me to try and I was astonished I could lift it so easily.                                                                                       Dale enthusiastically explained to me that the building block was known as ICF, a type of insulated concrete form.    He relayed the story of how he had met his future business partner, Jerrold Johnson, when Johnson moved to Toronto from Jamaica in 2011.

Jerrold was well-respected in the banking industry as well as the director of the Jamaica National Building Society in Toronto. Over the next few years, Dale completed renovations at their corporate offices. Ongoing conversations with Johnson grew into a desire to use their skills and business experience in a deeper, meaningful way. The topic of the housing crisis in the Caribbean often came up in their conversations, and together they set upon a quest to find some way to assist with Jamaica’s affordable housing gaps.

“After a summer road trip to New Brunswick with my mother and my daughter Amelie, I was saddened to see that every home I had ever lived in as child had been demolished, victim to the harsh eastern climate. It was an odd feeling to have no generational homestead to visit, and it gave me an interesting point of perspective,” Dale continued.

He heard news of people losing their homes to hurricanes in Jamaica, so had a real sense of empathy for them. He began researching alternative building methods that were more climate and disaster resistant.

Jerrold and Dale consulted with Aaron Eames, a US contractor who developed and patented a building block made of lightweight aerated concrete.

E-Z Block ticked all of the boxes. It had the ability to withstand the punishing force of hurricanes and provide greater insulation from the heat, both necessary considerations when dealing with the growing effects of climate change. It was energy-efficient and straightforward to install.                                                                                                                        EZ block is also an eco-friendly building product that uses 2/3 less concrete than poured-in-place builds and 1/3 less concrete than the regular concrete block thus making it more affordable.

The two men joined forces with like-minded, passionate, experienced business partners in Toronto and began plans to open a factory on the island to manufacture the block.                                                                                                      Together Dale and Jerrold’s team purchased a license for Jamaica and E-Z Block Manufacturing Jamaica Limited was born.

It’s been a slow but steady process to launch the business, especially while navigating the challenges of start up during a worldwide pandemic. In May 2021, their first manufacturing plant began producing blocks in the little town of Tucker, near Montego Bay.

They speak of their vision with great pride and confidence and of the progress made in only three years.          Maintaining a workplace culture of respect and dignity is a priority for the entire team. The company is becoming known for their “purpose before profit” culture, in turn creating more opportunities for all team members to live meaningful, purpose-driven lives.

Employing 15 men full time, they have manufactured blocks for the first 170 affordable homes for the National Housing Trust with contracts to supply over 200,000 blocks more. Plans are underway to expand regionally across the island, sourcing local materials whenever possible.

EZ Block continues to gain respect in the business community as well, collaborating with the Faculty of Built Environment at The University of Technology (UTECH) and the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at The University of The West Indies (UWI) in Kingston, Jamaica.

Dale’s pride and enjoyment in training skilled professionals and the close camaraderie of the team is evident in our online conversations. Impromptu BBQ’s sizzling with the fresh seafood are often the shared reward at the end of a productive day.                                                                                                                                                                                     “I’ve been blessed to make many friends in the time I have been here.” Dale states. “The Jamaican culture is comfortable to me, and having a great friend like Jerrold has made the transition easy.”

He adds “It has taken the love and patience of both our families to get where we are… They have all been here to visit, and see exactly what we are achieving, so they share the vision as well.”

Like many of the Jamaican men working on farms in his Niagara neighbourhood, he has come to appreciate the necessity of reliable wifi to stay close to his family here.

“What’s App is the lifeline” he emphasizes. Thanks to What’sApp he can have face to face conversations, keeping a close connection with family and making the distance more bearable.

The sense of purpose over profit to provide affordable, well constructed homes to people who would otherwise not have the opportunity is what drives this unique partnership. The benefits have flowed both ways as deeper friendships across the cultures have flourished.                                                                                                                                                Both men agree, that it has truly been a team effort, with a dream of making a difference in the lives of Jamaicans, with eyes on the entire Caribbean.

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