A modular housing company has put its first units on the market in Cambridge Bay. CHOU Consulting and Development was founded by Amanda Doiron and Stuart Rostant.
During an interview with Nunavut News, they shared challenges they have faced since the creation of their enterprise, their goals for the future, and they painted a picture of the housing crisis in Nunavut as they have experienced it. This is the first in a two-part series.
Doiron: We moved to the Arctic 12 years ago, to work for the GN. We wanted to buy a house because we weren’t very content with the GN housing. The problem was that housing was simply not available on the market, so we started trying to find a way to get a house by ourselves. At first we tried a Nelson Homes package, which consists of a package of panels directly shipped to create housing units.
We realized that constructing the houses instead could be better suited for the Arctic. We added insulation and added a few things to make it Northern ready but it still wasn’t what we felt it needed to be.
We secured a double lot in Cambridge Bay which we’re on right now. We’re now using another system of instant panels: foam metal panels. We realized it was a better way of building, better efficiency and it’s quick to build. We did three projects using that system; a fourplex, the commercial building (for) Kuugaq Café and a fiveplex. That was already a better way to put homes up.
We were then approached by Greenstone Panels which is another foam and metal building panel company, developed in Canada, manufactured in Brandon, Man., and that is what we are using now.
Then we wondered if we wanted to ship housing pods pre-made or build them on site. We tried comparing three of our house projects to decide. One of them we built as a modular right from Manitoba and shipped it up in two pods, and the other two buildings we built on site to spread the cost of the project. It was a success, the pre-made pod cost us more in shipping but we saved on time and we had access to resources in Manitoba to build them.
When shipping a house, most would think volume is the most important aspect in the equation because of the cost of shipping, but because of the time of the barge arrival, winter being so fast, the lack of qualified labour in the North, and the limited access to materials, we realized there is way too much risk in doing the whole construction process in the North. At the end of the day, it takes more time and money to do so.
Later on, we did another project: four pods connected to a mechanical room, which was modular as well, and created this first-time homeownership opportunity sold as one-bedroom units.
Rostant: They’re bigger than tiny homes, they’re proper one-bedroom, 630-square-foot units.
Doiron: When you build in the North, you have to think of everything that is going to be inside of the unit. When we sell our units, they’re already completely furnished because we don’t have access to small-scale furniture. We need to have furniture that is adapted to the small space of the unit.
Rostant: We designed all the projects we’ve done. Modular made so much sense in the Arctic due to the short construction season. We arrived here in September and we saw people trying to build outside during a blizzard and we thought it was madness.
With our first strategy of Nelson Homes with pre-cut walls shipped by sea containers, we were able to put up a 5,400-square-foot building with windows in two weeks. Before snow even came, we didn’t have to deal with anything outside.
Building in the Arctic is different from building anywhere else for so many reasons. Living in the Arctic for 12 years gave us the experience we needed to know what aspects of the buildings had to be adapted.
Doiron: We had to start designing from scratch because southern concepts didn’t work in terms of setting up heating, electricity or plumbing, but also to maintain and operate the units.
Rostant: It is easy to build modular housing, but the big logistical nightmare is how you get it from a yard in Manitoba to a site in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. We don’t have cranes in Cambridge Bay, most communities don’t even have a 52-foot flatbed to carry the pods from high water to the site.
We designed these pods to be light enough to move, so they’re pretty much 22,000 pounds. They’re structured so we can lift them with one loader right from their centre, pick it from a flatbed and put it onto a pile foundation or a jacked foundation, which we used this year.
We want to work on the transportation aspect. We would like to be able to hydraulically jack these pods into place with a system integrated in the base of the pods, instead of relying on the help of contractors, which can add days to the production time.
Doiron: We do our planning and designing based on where it is the most remote, the most difficult, the place with the least amount of resources, this is where we want to go. This way our design can work in any community. We all need housing.
Next week: Building the local workforce, financing challenges for customers and plans for future projects.