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Seabird Island homes a First Nation first
Sponsors intend project as a demonstration of possibilities on reserves across Canada
Brian Morton
Vancouver Sun
Band council member Clem Seymour champions the Seabird Island homes as a showcase, a state-of-the-art sustainability project, the first of its kind in the world.
CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun
Bird motif is one of four carvings surrounding the herb garden area at Seabird Island sustainable community demonstration project.
CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun
Recycled telephone poles were used in the garage area.
CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

To get a feel for what will likely form a major part of housing's future on Canada's Indian reserves, spend a few moments at the centre of the spiritual healing garden of the Seabird Island First Nation's sustainable community demonstration project in Agassiz.

The garden is surrounded by four carvings or "house posts:'' an eagle representing strength and wisdom; a woman greeting residents and visitors; a bear with a fish representing food for people; and a wolf with cub to symbolize the importance of family.

At the centre of the garden is a wind turbine -- one of three wind generators in the project -- which not only produces energy on a very windy site but also represents the colours of the medicine wheel and Sto:Lo Nation.

The garden, with several plots for growing herbs, is augmented by stone-lined pathways for band members to tend their plants. It's also what's called a "drought-free garden," with plantings that require less water.

"This is showcasing a lot of things that First Nations can do," says band council member Clem Seymour of the state-of-the-art sustainability project, the first of its kind in the world. "Most of the construction work was done by us and this helps us take care of some long-term housing and maintenance needs. And this fits right into the Kyoto Accord. It lowers emissions."

The Seabird Island project, which officially opened in April, is a development that's a partnership between the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the Indian and northern affairs department and the Seabird Island First Nation.

It's meant to improve housing and community development for aboriginals living on reserves across the country -- where much of the housing is old, overcrowded and in need of repair or replacement -- although the technologies could also be easily adapted to other non-native communities, both rural and urban.

The project highlights renewable technologies including wind generation, solar and geo-thermal heating, "healthy" housing, flex-housing, rainscreen technology and sustainable community planning.

The homes, which will house a total of up to 30 people, are expected to last 100 years. Reduced maintenance, lower heating and electricity costs will be realized through advanced technology.

"We have experienced numerous challenges to providing healthy, affordable and durable housing for our members," says band council member Marcie Peters, who is responsible for housing on the reserve.

"This project has provided us with a unique opportunity to incorporate our traditions but in a modern way to meet our housing needs. For example, the flexibility of the design reflects the traditional way we lived, it allows for our families to be unified within one structure yet provides independence and private living space. The earth tubes and radiant floor heating and cooling system is far from new technology; in fact our ancestors knew this and built their pit homes in-ground where it was cool in the summer and warm in the winter."

The project itself is located in the middle of a lovely valley, close to other homes in the Seabird Island reserve.

To the north is Bear Mountain and to the south, Cheam Mountain. A 115-acre stand of hazelnut trees is directly across the street from the project.

The idea behind sustained community planning is to use land and design neighbourhoods in a way that reduces costs and minimizes environmental impacts, while creating a livable community.

There are 629 First Nation communities in Canada (198 in B.C.) and they are the fastest growing segment of Canada's population. It's estimated that First Nation community populations could grow three per cent annually to over 500,000 by 2008, creating greater demands for new housing.

The Seabird Island First Nation, one of the largest bands in the Fraser Valley, has seen its registered membership more than double since 1975, from 316 to 720 members. The band was selected for the project because of the site accessibility to major transportation routes, as well as their commitment to sustainable development and their in-house construction capabilities.

The federal government, through CMHC, will contribute more than $1.1 million towards the project. CMHC also provided a direct loan of $624,097 to the Seabird Island First Nation, as well as $200,000 for the demonstration component of the project.

Public Works Minister Stephen Owen says the project will provide individual families with "improved, energy-efficient housing by integrating renewable energy sources while remaining affordable.

"This initiative also works toward meeting Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Accord."

While the basic concepts of sustainable planning can be tailored to most community's needs, the SeaBird Island project had specific needs for natives living there.

The include affordability, durability (high quality materials with a long life span), energy efficiency [using wind, solar and earth energy to save on heating and lighting costs], achievability (easy to change and maintain), flexibility (barrier-free floor plans to accommodate families and elders), healthy living [the use of healthy building materials for better indoor air quality], environmental responsibility [conserve resources and use recycled materials with a low environmental impact], and community-oriented design [reflecting the culture and needs of the community].

"This is really important," says Richard Hall, CMHC's technical resource officer for the assisted housing centre. "The First Nations communities are fascinated by what they're seeing here. And it's just the tip of the iceberg as to what can happen for Canadian and First Nations communities that don't have access to power and resources."

Hall likes to think of the project as a natural energy source combining the powers of "earth, wind and fire"; the earth being geothermal energy, fire from solar heat, and wind generating about 15 per cent of the energy needs.

Hall says the concept will soon be expanded -- not just at Seabird Island, but in other native communities, especially more remote ones. "Everything is recyclable and durable. We can use the power to supplement low income families."

In 2001, it was estimated that there was a shortage of about 8,500 houses on reserves and that 44 per cent of existing homes required renovations. As well, many communities are remote and have no access to the urban power grid or other infrastructure.

The seven homes in the project consist of two single family homes [with four to six bedrooms each], one triplex and one duplex.

Walk into the project's demonstration home and you know immediately that it's far different from other housing.

The hallways are much wider and light switches are lower for barrier-free design.

The main floor bathroom has a low-flow toilet that's a little higher (for elders), a very wide shower that's nearly flush with the floor so elders can enter it directly in a wheelchair, a floor that's pure concrete (tinted and polished to a marble-like finish) and large holes in kitchen cupboards instead of handles so elders with arthritis can open them.

The countertops are made of wood -- no gaseous emissions -- and century-old telephone poles have been stripped and prepared to provide decorative log supports for ceilings. A solarium facing south captures heat from the sun and a hot water tank is hidden under a window seat.

The drywall is mould resistant and floors have heating elements underneath provided by geothermal heating ducts.

The second floor is pre-framed for the installation of an elevator at a future date and contains a second kitchen. Ceiling ducts circulate heat gathered from stored solar heat retainers in a membrane beneath the roof, which is made from recycled metal.

As well, each home has a continuous ventilation system and a building envelope, [including large roof overhangs and a cavity behind the cladding that drains water from the walls] that handles moisture effectively and prevents mould growth. Finishes and furnishings reduce off-gassing and don't release harmful vapours such as formaldehyde.

The dark green metal roofs collect solar heat, with the roofs applied to strapping that creates a cavity from the eaves to the peak. As solar-heated air rises in the cavity, an opening in the framing captures the hot air, which is ducted down into the solarium with a high-efficiency fan. The hot air is drawn to the concrete floor slab, which then radiates heat into the home. The solar heat is also used to heat water.

As well, earth tubes buried near each home are an easy and inexpensive system to install. They capture the earth's geothermal energy and reduce space heating costs in winter and provide cool indoor air in the summer.

The high performance building envelope, combined with the renewable energy systems, are expected to result in a 75 per cent reduction in energy consumption.

And in keeping with CMHC's principles of affordability, constructions costs were kept to about $75 per square foot.

Meanwhile, Seymour believes the project sends a great message to environmentalists, both native and non-native.

He says he's particularly impressed by the clean air in the units. "The air is always moving. And that's very important for air quality.

"The environment to me is very important and we have to look after saving things. Where's the balance? We have to put back what's been taken out.

"This is where our culture and traditions reach out to new technology to take care of the long-term goals of our community."

CMHC's On-Reserve Housing Program has a portfolio of more than 23,000 homes on-reserve across Canada, with 5,200 in B.C.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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