Cardinal House: a healthy, resilient, mass-timber home for First Nations communities

In 2012, a report by Indigenous Services Canada (formerly the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) estimated that 130,197 new housing units would need to be built on reserves between 2010 and 2031 to accommodate household and family growth, plus an additional 11,855 units would be needed to replace existing, deteriorated stock, and major renovations would be needed for up to 10,861 existing homes.

Although it is true that housing supply is a concern for all jurisdictions in Canada, the shortage disproportionately affects Aboriginal people living on-reserve. Lawrence Dedam, a resident and spokesperson for the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, estimates the need in his community is about 500 homes. “Our community has a peak of 4,000 residents, but we’re in a backlog of maybe 500 homes. Our families are housing other families, friend’s families, in one house.”

In Elsipogtog, and elsewhere, the shortage isn’t the only housing concern. Many existing homes were poorly built and are not able to withstand the harsh environmental conditions experienced in many communities. This durability issue has several negative outcomes: (1) high humidity levels in homes designed with inadequate moisture management have resulted in the growth of black mould in many homes, a situation that has serious health implications; (2) families are not able to pass their homes down through the generations because the homes are not lasting long enough to do this; and (3) banks are reluctant to mortgage homes that are not expected to maintain value for the length of the amortization period.

The issue of insufficient and sometimes unsuitable housing is one that has plagued Canada’s First Nations for decades. It is a complex problem beset by environmental, logistical, infrastructure and governance challenges. It’s clear that innovative ideas and new ways of thinking must prevail.

Ultimately, better homes must be built. Going forward, new homes must be designed to meet the specific needs of First Nations peoples and constructed to withstand the harsh climates where their communities are situated.

In a recent interview, renowned architect, Douglas Cardinal, described a meeting he had with Community Elders from the North who asked him to design a better house for their people.

“They brought me into a standard house that was stick-built with drywall and they said: ‘These houses do not work for us at all… Mould is creating real health problems for our children. We can’t continue to build unhealthy houses and raise our children in them. It’s not right. We want you to design a healthy house that is long-lasting so we can pass it on to our grandchildren.’”

Committed to developing a real solution, Douglas Cardinal, along with a skilled team of construction professionals, designed, prefabricated and assembled the first Cardinal House, a mass timber prototype that was completed this October for the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick.

The 2-storey, 1,100 sq.ft., 3-bedroom home is a robust, prefabricated wood building. Manufactured off-site to exacting standards in a controlled indoor environment, then shipped to the site and assembled in just a few days, the Cardinal House is an affordable mass timber solution that successfully addresses many of the key issues contributing to the housing crisis. Cardinal House is a durable, energy-efficient, mould-resistant, high-quality, sustainable home that can be quickly assembled during a short construction cycle.

Idoya Arana-Beobide, Managing Director, Douglas Cardinal Architect, explained that Douglas Cardinal’s vision was to create a healthy, beautiful, lasting home for the Indigenous Peoples. “He, guided by the Elders, wanted to have a house that was all wood, because wood is the only renewable building material that we have. Wood is a live material; when you are around wood you feel good, you feel nurtured.”

he benefits of mass timber construction go far beyond their aesthetic and environmental attributes. Mass timber offers a versatile, high-performance building solution that can meet even the most demanding requirements. The innovative, affordable, energy-efficient home is built out of cross-laminated timber, with high-performance cross-laminated insulated panels (CLIPs) for the building envelope. Prefabricated in a controlled factory setting off-site and shipped on a single truck, the structural panels and roof for the prototype Cardinal House were assembled in a fraction of the time of traditionally built, light frame homes.

The housing needs across the country are as diverse as the First Nations communities affected by the crisis, so there is no single solution. Many infrastructure and governance challenges also need to be addressed for all First Nations communities to have access to healthy, well-made housing. Yet the prototype Cardinal House, developed by Douglas Cardinal Architect in partnership with the Elsipogtog First Nation, Maisons Chicoine Homes, and Element5, offers a promising solution that addresses the central concerns of the homes themselves, and delivers a safe, affordable, healthy, sustainable, well-crafted home that will last for generations.