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A look inside Granville Island’s bustling concrete plant

Industry and culture in the mix at Ocean Concrete’s annual open house


Lumbering trucks and hulking machinery have captured the imagination of both young and old for ages. It’s the reason some construction companies cut viewing holes into sheets of plywood around urban build sites, and it’s also why Ocean Concrete opens its gates for its annual open house at its Granville Island manufacturing plant every April.

“People are always walking by and wondering what goes on in here so this is the one time every year we open to the public,” said Ocean Concrete’s logistics manager Rob Slarks. “We do try to be a good neighbour.”

Rather than chasing people off its front yard, the oldest resident of Granville Island has changed to keep up with the times. Granville Island, once called Industrial Island as it was filled with factories that pumped out materials such as nails, barrels and chains, was born in 1886. Gilley Brothers, which eventually became Ocean Concrete in the mid-1950s, specialized in selling cement, aggregate and coal from its waterfront home on the peninsula. Heavy industry in the area faded during the next two decades partially due to economic reasons along with multiple fires that burned down many of the oil-coated factories whose owners either walked away or relocated from the cramped inner city industrial space.

City officials had a vision for the grimy industrial wasteland, and Granville Island began its metamorphosis into a hub of arts and culture during the 1970s. Ocean Concrete continued to go about its business except now surrounded by studios, gift shops, a public market and theatres. Plant owners decided to lessen the visual contrast between industrial and culture by using creativity of their own. Its Johnson Street garage, where the Earth Rangers set up a display table with barn owls and other wildlife for Saturday’s open house, is sometimes used for theatre. The drums on the mixing trucks are decorated in homage to the Granville Public Market a few doors down, cheerily painted to look like a bunch of asparagus, a strawberry, or a cob of corn. Most famously, though, its six concrete silos were transformed into a gigantic mural by Brazilian twins OSGEMEOS for the Vancouver Biennale in 2014.

It’s arguably the most artistic-looking concrete plant anybody has ever seen, and that’s why Ocean has to hire a security guard during tourist season to stop curious people from wandering into the yard, said Slarks.

It’s a busy place. An average of four self-loading barges a week are unloaded, which, according to Ocean Concrete, takes about 470 dump truck loads off the roads every week. Most of the plant’s concrete is used close to home -- customers include the downtown branch of the Vancouver Public Library, the footings for the Alex Fraser Bridge, the Vancouver Convention Centre and the Canada Line.

Saturday’s open house featured a giant sandbox, tours of the yard, Big Band music from the Vancouver Fire & Rescue Band and various educational booths. The painted mixer trucks attracted a constant lineup of children in yellow hardhats given out by Ocean Concrete –- a good indication of how well attended the 19th annual open house was.

“I would say we buy thousands those [hats],” said Slark who himself has been at Ocean for 29 years. “It’s hard to predict how many people come for the open house every year. Sometimes we try to guestimate on the amount of balloons we give out so, some years, we can have four to five thousand people come through here.”