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Neil Summerfield: What’s Past Is Prologue

A fourth-generation builder with Scottish roots, brings 50 years of construction experience 
back to the city where it all began for him
Author: Matt St. Amand
4 months ago
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The empty shell of the forty-eighth-floor penthouse comprised the entire top level of the condominium in downtown Vancouver. It was 11,000 square feet of bare concrete, never built-out, one of the largest blank architectural canvasses in the city. It was also the only penthouse at the time to offer a breathtaking view of the city on all four sides. With a substantial renovation budget, the owners of this colossal space had only one chance to see it reach its full aesthetic and market potential. They needed the best construction manager available to complete the job. The person they chose was Neil Summerfield. After a dozen years away, Neil has returned to Windsor, bringing five decades of peerless home-building and large-project construction experience, back to the city of his birth. 

Vancouver is a long way from Scotland, where Neil’s great grandfather, Henry Somerville (whose surname changed to Summerfield when he and his family moved to Lincolnshire, England) lived in the early 1800s. What would Henry make of the projects his great grandson has managed? There is a chance that he would not be surprised. After all, building has always been in the Summerfield blood.

“I’m the fourth generation of Summerfield construction builders in Canada,” Neil explains. “My ancestors in Scotland and England were stone masons and farmers. In 1873, the Dominion of Canada offered parcels of land to immigrants. My great grandfather came with his young wife, and their first born, my grandfather, Amos Summerfield. They came as farmers to Chatham, and soon began lumbering and milling, and then building barns and structures. My great grandfather eventually joined the military and was part of the Army Corps of Engineers in Chatham.” 

Neil’s father, Frank, was born in 1908.

“My dad was fifty years old when I was born,” Neil says.

Frank was raised in the family construction business and became an avid carpenter. In the years before World War II, Frank had moved into the Windsor area where he worked as a heavy equipment operator and home builder. 

“I accompanied him to job sites,” Neil remembers. “I was his runner for tools, back and forth to the car. I was raised with him, surrounded by the experience of building things.”

Neil continues: “I was fortunate—we lived in a very old single-story house on Bruce Avenue. As a small child I went through the house with my dad’s tools, fixing things. Nothing in the house was square, nothing was level. My dad was busy working, and I would sneak his tools—hand-sharpened tools: hand planes, chisels—and use them to do little repairs. We didn’t have any power tools.” 

As Neil grew more familiar and confident with tools, he developed into a creative, artistic, athletic youth. 

“I grew up with a tremendous love of school and sports,” he says. “I excelled in all my sports, but I really had a drive for judo. By the time I was fourteen years old, I was teaching judo to adults, in Windsor and even to police officers in Detroit. I trained with the Canadian national judo team with an eye toward the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal but didn’t get my chance.”

By 1978, Neil had married and was completing his studies. The passion he felt toward sports was matched by his drive in the classroom, with a particular focus on architecture and engineering.

“I received my master’s degree in architectural engineering in the States,” Neil says.

Following graduation, Neil established a design studio in Windsor. Among his earliest projects was building the first homes in Russell Woods. 

“I was fortunate enough to design and build some of the largest homes in the Windsor area,” Neil says. “These were personal homes—designed with the input from the homeowner. One of the first people who came to me was Mike Veltri from Veltri Stamping. He had purchased a lot on Victoria Avenue in South Windsor and engaged Summerfield Construction to design and build the house. Mike lived in it for years and then sold it to Barry Zekelman—the first home he owned after he got married.”

Although he enjoyed great success in home-building, Neil wanted more exposure in the commercial and industrial sectors. He worked for a local contractor designing industrial buildings, high schools, and commercial buildings.

“That took me to a higher level,” Neil says.

In 2004, a Toronto firm hired him to work on renovations at Casino Windsor.

“I wanted experience building a hotel tower at the Casino,” Neil says. “In 2007, after the successful completion of the project, I was laid off.” 

Undaunted, Neil ventured to Toronto and within a week, he found a job in the high-rise industry in Toronto. 

“I commuted back and forth between Essex and Toronto for twelve years,” Neil says. “In between out-of-town projects, I worked for families that needed a private construction manager. Opportunities grew and I worked on significant buildings in London, Kitchener, Waterloo, Toronto, and Barrie. Then a very large developer found me in Toronto and brought me onto a two-tower project going up by the water.”

As that project wound toward completion a wealthy Vancouver developer hired Neil to be Director of Construction. By this time, Neil’s five children were grown and educated, so he and his wife decided he should take the job and make the move.

“We moved there to see what the west coast had to offer.”

As it turned out, it had quite a lot to offer.

Among the projects Neil oversaw for this developer was the 11,000 square foot, forty-eighth floor penthouse with the four-sided view of Vancouver. 

“That project occurred in 2019 and took ten months to complete,” Neil says. “When the penthouse was fully built-out it was listed on the market for $38 million. It was furnished and ready for occupancy. The first residents of the penthouse were actor Ryan Reynolds and his family while he was in Vancouver making a movie. This is the type of clientele I was exposed to out west, and the significant types of projects I was a part of.” 

Another unique, high profile project Neil managed for this developer was the renovation of one of Vancouver’s most historic landmarks: the Lord Stanley penthouse at the hundred-year-old, twelve-story Rosewood Hotel Georgia. Following its grand debut in 1927, the hotel hosted royalty and legends of Hollywood, including John and Ethel Barrymore, Marlene Dietrich—and her forty suitcases—Errol Flynn, Sir Laurence Olivier, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper. Among the hotel’s earliest guests was HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, and his brother George, the Duke of Kent who stayed in 1927 while in Vancouver for the Seaforth Highlander’s Ball, which was celebrated at the hotel. 

“The core of the renovation I oversaw was the Lord Stanley penthouse,” Neil explains. “It is 1,200 square feet and the owners put $1.2 million into the project.”

Neil and his wife lived in Vancouver for seven years.

“The west coast market is very wealthy,” he says. “I developed for them in a range of cities: Vancouver, Calgary, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood. Some of those homes were in the richest real estate neighbourhoods in North America.” 

Now, Neil brings his decades of experience and knowledge back to Windsor. Working with his son, Jake Summerfield, Neil has his eye on multiple sectors where he knows he can make a difference:

“I’m interested in building new homes and doing renovations in Windsor,” he says. “I also meeting with developers in Windsor to design and build six- and ten-story new rental buildings throughout the area. Summerfield Construction brings a construction management practice that can save developers substantial dollars. I have all the sources and experience to put the building up for them in a timely, cost-efficient manner. There are three developers, right now, with whom I have connected. We can also build much higher than six-level structures, which dominate this area. I’ve built up to thirty-five stories and would like to do that in Windsor-Essex.”

Another area in which Neil has great experience is retirement campuses.

“In the year 2030, Canada will have more citizens sixty-five years old than at any other time in history,” he explains. “We have engaged with some Toronto developers interested in buying/investing in the Windsor and Kent area. There is no question that we need retirement campuses to facilitate the needs of people retiring over age fifty-five. State-of-the-art retirement living. All maintenance taken care of for them, but without spending seven or eight hundred thousand dollars. They’ll even have auto bays so car enthusiasts can store and work on their cars. There will be golf and pickle ball clubs. It’s affordable in comparison to what other retirement campuses offer.” 

Neil says this area is in dire need of more hotels. Existing hotels are filled with people newly arrived in Canada, sponsored by the government. Windsor-Essex needs hotels for the visiting sports teams: hockey, baseball, basketball. Neil is in talks with hotel operators and major flag operators to build these much-needed hotels.

“It all relates back to my desire to expand my experience,” Neil says. “I had to move to different areas in the country to learn what I needed to know. This sets me apart from the average guy who stayed here. And I’m bringing this knowledge and experience home.” 

For all his travel and vast construction experience, the roots of Neil’s skill and inspiration come back to his family, whether it’s the memory of using his father’s tools, his mother allowing him to perform repairs around their Bruce Avenue home, and the love and support of his wife Catherine. Their children have also built good lives for themselves: daughter Jennifer Merkel is a vice principal in the Toronto education system. Her twin sister, Dr. Jessica Summerfield, is a physician. Scott Summerfield is vice president of a construction company. Chad Summerfield is a consulting structural engineer in Windsor. And youngest son, Jake, works with Neil at Summerfield Construction. 

When Neil reflects upon his life, looking at the people with whom he grew up, he marvels at how well the “downtown kids” did for themselves.

“I went to W.D. Lowe with Mike and Don Brkovich who played basketball at Michigan State with Magic Johnson, and won the 1979–80 NCAA Championship,” Neil says. “There is Vesna Bailey who wrote the award-winning Before You Go… children’s book series. One of the city’s most successful urban planners went to Lowe. My high school friend, Hal Kersey, lives in Windsor and is working with me on developing my property in Essex for sixteen town homes. The downtown guys… I’m really proud of them.” 

Although he has accomplished much during his career, Neil’s eyes are firmly set on the future.

“We’re not done yet,” he says. “I go to my grandson’s house to babysit him, and we sit on the floor and he’s there, hitting nails into a board with his hammer—the sixth generation of Summerfield building in the making. There is so much more to do. I wake up every morning with excitement in my blood.” 

To learn more about Summerfield Construction, visit www.summerfieldbuild.com.  

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