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Construction techniques employed at the Canadian Museum of History could help replace shoddy, mould-ridden homes in northern indigenous communities with durable, healthy residences.

history-museumDouglas Cardinal, the renowned Ottawa architect who designed the history museum, has designed a prefab three-bedroom loft-style house using cross laminated timber, made by gluing two-by-fours together at 90-degree angles.

Douglas Cardinal, the renowned Ottawa architect who designed the history museum, has designed a prefab house to be used in northern communities.

The result, Cardinal says, is a solid slab of wood that’s as strong as concrete, more fire-resistant than steel and far more energy efficient than houses made with traditional stick-frame construction.

A key aspect of the design is that the insulation and vapour barrier are on the outside of the house – not inside the building, packed between studs behind dry wall, as in most houses.

Traditional stick-frame construction is ill-suited to the north, Cardinal said in an interview. “The housing is terrible. It’s not designed around the people’s needs or culture.”
When the warm moisture inside often overcrowded houses reaches the cold air outside, it condenses in walls and ceilings, creating a breeding ground for mould. “These moulds are silent killers,” Cardinal said. “They really are detrimental to people’s health.”

Cardinal, 81, used the same approach when he designed the history museum nearly three decades ago. Because humidity levels need to be kept at around 50 per cent to preserve artifacts, he wrapped the insulation and vapour barrier around the inside walls before covering them with stone.

At present, most houses in northern communities only last about 10 years before they need major repairs. Drywall tends to deteriorate quickly and howling winds can penetrate walls.

Cardinal said his design eliminates all of those problems. The cross laminated timbers – used on interior walls, floors and ceilings – last for decades and keep the house cozy, reducing energy bills. And because the vapour barrier and insulation are outside the living space, moisture from inside drains away outside.

Cross laminated timber, known as CLT, was created in Austria. “It’s replacing concrete in Europe. They’re making high-rises out of cross laminated timber,” said Cardinal.

Because it’s relatively light, Cardinal thought CLT would be an ideal product when he was hired to design the history museum’s new history hall, now under construction. The hall’s now-completed mezzanine level, and the circular ramp leading up to it, are entirely made of cross laminated lumber.

Eager to use CLT to build houses for indigenous communities, Cardinal met last August with Josh Dewar, president of Guardian Bridge, a Stratford, Ont. company that was using laminated beams to build bridges.

“He had some designs,” Dewar said. “Our team sat down and, using his concepts and our manufacturing background, we were able to provide a fully built home for aboriginals.”

The components of the houses are made at Guardian’s plant, complete with plumbing, electrical, heating and a full kitchen. They are then shipped to a community and assembled in four or five days, using long stainless steel screws to knit together the four-inch-thick wooden walls, floors and roof.

Fully assembled, the houses cost $250,000 – about the same as native communities now pay for houses that quickly fill with mould and fall apart.

So far, Guardian has an order for 31 of Cardinal’s houses from a Cree reserve near Grand Rapids, Man, which will be assembled this summer. Other communities have expressed an interest in 80 more, and Dewar expects demand to grow rapidly.

In 2011, aboriginal communities needed an estimated 85,000 housing units – a number that has now risen to nearly 100,000, according to the Assembly of First Nations.

Cardinal, whose father was aboriginal, said he made a commitment long ago to serve First Nations. “When you see people suffering in terrible conditions, you can’t turn a blind eye to it.

“I’m hoping to be able to provide the best housing I can, and healthy housing, so the children will be able to grow up in proper conditions and be able to not only survive, but thrive.”

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