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This 197-year-old former stagecoach inn had to step aside for a new subdivision.

Who: Laurie McCulloch, founder and owner of Laurie McCulloch Building Moving

What: Specializes in moving heritage homes and buildings. Staff of 14, which falls to eight during the winter months

Where: Whitby, Ont.

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Laurie McCulloch may be the only man in Canada capable of lifting 950 tonnes. The 71-year-old has spent the past 35 years moving heritage buildings from one site to another. We're not talking about the old, rundown house next door. These are weighty, fragile, historically significant structures that are in the public eye.

While Laurie McCulloch Building Moving relocates dozens of edifices each year, there was no precedent its owner could return to for guidance when he agreed to relocate the 127-year-old James Cooper mansion in downtown Toronto. He was first contacted about the job in 2007 by a developer who wanted to move the 7,000-square-foot structure some 18 metres to the east, where it would no longer impede the progress of a 32-storey condominium complex.

McCulloch was able to pull off the year-long, record-breaking manoeuvre thanks to a lifetime of experience in the business. As a five-year-old, he had seen neighbours moving a structure up the road using pulleys, ropes, planks and horses. "I looked at my grandfather and said, 'I'll do that some day,' " says McCulloch. "Every morning when I'd wake up, he'd ask me when I'd get around to moving a building. He died when I was 11, so he didn't live to see the day."

After a career of moving heavy machinery (he was a millwright at the time), McCulloch launched his business in 1973 by purchasing 27 buildings from what was destined to be an airstrip. The techniques he used to get the structures offsite weren't that different than what he had witnessed all those years ago in his neighbour's field.

The first step in any move is to get rid of the furnace, stairs, piping, ductwork and the like. This is a straightforward job, but given the size of the Cooper mansion, it took more than a month to complete. Then it was time for some precision cutting: McCulloch's son Jeremy and his crew cut one-metre-square holes in the building, through which they could insert the two main steel beams. Each beam held six jacks, which eventually would be used to lift the building onto 24 rollers capable of supporting 100 tonnes each (smaller holes allowed other steel beams to be laced through the structure). First, the movers pulled the mansion six metres to the west using a winch. After transferring it onto a slab that was one-half-metre thick and reinforced with some 80 tonnes of rebar, they moved it to its final resting place on the eastern edge of the property.

It's delicate, public work. Make a mistake and the media will immortalize your slip - like a car race that everyone watches to see whether something will go wrong - permanently tainting a reputation built over decades.

"Oh, things can and do happen that you'd rather didn't happen," says McCulloch, adding that he's never lost a building. "I've seen problems with moves, but on the other side of the coin, you must remember it isn't one mistake that gets you in trouble. It's a series of mistakes that keep compounding until you get yourself into a mishap."

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He's kept the same engineer on the payroll for more than a decade, and has two sons who work with him. He belongs to trade organizations, and often visits other work sites to volunteer his time in exchange for a chance to learn more about his craft. "All of my experience and 50 cents will get me a cup of coffee," he says. "The key is having the engineer who is comfortable with us - comfortable enough that he can use his stamp and put his reputation on the line. If you have the right people, any job is much easier."

The mansion move cemented McCulloch's already-solid reputation as one of the most trusted and respected movers in Canada. About 200 Canadian companies can "move a building up and down the road," but his is one of the few busy enough to operate year round. "As a member of the International Association of Structural Movers, we call ourselves the world's largest recyclers," he says. "My company has moved over 70 historic buildings in the province, and the heavier the better."

He doesn't plan to rest on his laurels, however. "I hope to keep going until these boots are wore out and I fall over in them."

Wisdom from the road

  • Do your research: There's never an excuse to make mistakes, says McCulloch. Regardless of the type of business, chances are someone has already written about an error you are about to make. Research every little detail of a new job ahead of time, and be sure to keep up on industry journals to save yourself the headache of an avoidable problem.
  • Retain your staff: While McCulloch's hands-on experience is extensive, he knows the jobs would dry up if he lost his trusty engineer. The best way to keep staff is to encourage them to develop their skills (his engineer didn't know much about moving houses when he started, but is now an industry expert). It's like a built-in loyalty system.

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