Partnership looking at sustainable construction

Jason Kerr
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Northern Saskatchewan residents should re-think how they build and operate their homes.

That’s the message coming out of the Prince Albert Model Forest board meeting.  The non-profit organization is dedicated to finding and building sustainable communities while protecting Saskatchewan’s forests.  With that in mind they invited local resident Thomas Porter to give a presentation to them about alternative building and energy sources.

“It links in really well with the Prince Albert Model Forests mandate,” general manager Susan Carr says.  “It brings people into the process of building their own homes.”

Porter, who lives just outside Prince Albert, says he’s “off the grid”.  He built his own home, a straw bale timber-framed house, out of local materials.  He also grows his own food, collects rainwater for use, and draws power from his own solar panels.  His house is seen as a type of role model for the north, because the traditional methods aren’t getting it done.

“Typically, houses in our society and our culture are built not for sensibility, not for comfort, they’re built for profit,” Porter says.  “We’re in a climate that needs something a little bit more thoughtful, so let’s build things with materials we have, build it for our climate, lets use our head and our hearts rather than be so concerned about making money.”

Porter built his own house and began operating his own power supply when he became frustrated with the excessive costs associated with owning and operating a house.

He stresses that he’s not against businesses turning a profit.  In fact, he thinks constructing these type of homes using local materials and energy could be quite profitable.  He just wants to get the ball rolling.

“I’m not saying that what I’ve done is the be all and end all either,” he says.  “I want people to start exploring other options and avenues, using what we have.”

Another reason Porter was invited to the board meeting was to help facilitate connections.  He’s passionate about helping First Nations communities, as is Prince Albert Model Forests.  He works with Frontier Foundations, a group that helps aboriginal communities build affordable housing, primarily in Manitoba.  They put him in contact with Beardy’s First Nation.   The are currently trying out some of those ideas. 

“People need to understand that there is more than one way to build a house,” Porter says.

Beardy’s residents are cutting down trees from nearby forests and renting out a mill to create timber to build their own houses.  They’re hoping this new type of construction can help the environment, and also save them a bit of money.

“There is a lack of affordable housing within the First Nations communities,” says Beardy’s forestry representative Alfred Gamble.  “What we’re trying to do is find alternative methods of acquiring those houses for the people that are in need.”

Beardy’s is ideally located to try out the new type of construction.  It straddles a small area with access to both farmland and forests, which is ideal for constructing the straw bale timber-frame houses.

Gamble says they have only constructed one house so far, and it doesn’t use alternative energy, but that will change in the future.  Right now, it’s just about getting things going.

“It’s just to see if we can actually do it and we did,” Gamble says.  “Our next challenge is finding the dollars to purchase our own mill and incorporate training programs.”

Gamble and Porter both tout the environmental and economic benefits of the new type of construction, but there are also social benefits as well.  Aside from the training and new skills Beardy’s residents receive, they can also take a certain amount of pride in what they are doing.  After all, they are the only First Nation in Saskatchewan trying out the ideas.

“We need to show the people that they can own their own home,” Gamble says.  “It leads to other benefits because they appreciate their home more when they own it.  When somebody else owns it then they just don’t care about it.”

Gamble says they want to build a minimum of two houses a year in the community.  He hopes that once everyone sees the first few houses go up that more people will start believing in the program.

“I would like to see every single member who wants a home to have a home,” Gamble says.  “That’s the goal.”

It’s also the kind of thing Prince Albert Model Forests wants to be involved in.  They don’t have any concrete plans right now, but they’re hoping to get involved in similar projects sometime soon.

“It would just be a matter of bringing together funding from various partners and finding people in the community that are willing to do the work, become trained and then share their skills with others, potentially,” Carr says.  “Not only in their own community, but also to go to other First Nations and share their skills there, and kind of have a snowball effect.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, First Nations, Frontier Foundations

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Manitoba

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