A First Nation-declared housing emergency in the Far North community of Attawapiskat may be a watershed event in rethinking social housing on reserves.
Steve Marshall, vice-president of the Sudbury-based Morris Group of Companies, watched last month's flurry of media reports of deplorable housing conditions in the James Bay coast community and the federal government's frantic efforts to find shelter for its residents.
“We're certainly following it very closely because it's not something unique to just Attawapiskat...it's not all that different across most First Nation communities.”
In early December, he was meeting with representatives from seven First Nation communities in Ottawa, all interested in partnering up on modular home products that his company produces.
“It's a hot topic,” said Marshall. “The irony behind it is we're dealing with the situation in the communities as a whole. Attawapiskat has rekindled the whole housing conversation regarding First Nations.”
A subsidiary, Morris Modular, has started a housing company with the Moose Cree First Nation in building a manufacturing plant in Cochrane.
The company struck an earlier deal with the Moose Cree to build an 800-person camp with containerized units at Ontario Power Generation's (OPG) Lower Mattagami Project, north of Kapuskasing.
Once the camp is folded up, the plan is to deliver the units to the Moose Cree for refurbishment into two- and three-bedroom homes for the community.
“Morris Modular will teach them how to retrofit them so that they can produce their own containerized housing,” said Marshall.
The First Nation-created jobs range from eight at startup this year, to 25 at full production.
The plant will also double as a manufacturing site for a new insulated wall panel system for modular homes, ArmourWall, a technology that Morris has picked up the distribution rights for.
Morris has a track record for manufacturing purpose-built containers that are fabricated for living accommodations at industrial sites.
“We just use the shipping container module, the same general concept. A standard shipping container is eight feet wide...ours are 12 feet wide with reinforced floors and ceilings.”
The company's container-building operations are in Shanghai, China where it's built a CSA-approved plant form which units are shipped worldwide.
Marshall is pushing for more First Nation partnerships to enable communities to build their own housing, and eventually become majority owners in the plants.
Marshall said it's a self-sustaining approach to housing with employment, training and social benefits to the community.
He was hopeful of signing letters of intent with other communities this coming year. “We're aggressive on it, that's for sure.”
Providing First Nations with the tools to build their own homes gives them pride and a measure of self-sufficiency.
“One of the core issues is that they're reliant on government dollars and contractors to supply them with housing and it just hasn't worked. Our model is unique is that we'll support the First Nation by showing them how to use new technology to produce homes that are adequate for that region.
“Instead of having someone else build them, they'd built it themselves, and they would profit by it.”
The modular units intended to be built in Cochrane will be durable for shipping, and will be more mould- and fire-resistant than conventional stick-frame homes.
“The homes that (First Nations) get, from what I've seen, have been substandard, considering where they're located. The modular homes that are being shipped up there aren't anywhere close to what they need.”
Marshall said the international media attention surrounding what's happening in Attawapiskat may twig government into exploring the full range of alternative solutions in housing.
He acknowledges there is a negative consumer perception about containerized homes. But nothing that can't be overcome with some personal touches.
“Our system can make it look like a log cabin or brick home. You're not living inside a tin can. All we're really doing is we're building in modules.”
After reading an article about a northern Quebec First Nation community where the cost to build a 1,000-square-foot home was $580,000, Marshall said, “at some point, the alarm bells have to go off.”
Although Marshall is reluctant to divulge prices on the cost of the insulated panel systems until the plant is running later this year, he said it will be a fraction of the cost of conventional material.
“We've been in a conventional stick built market for so long that people assume that everything has to be built two-by two-by-fours and two-by-sixes. When you start dealing with4 mould and thermal properties of conventional homes, especially on First Nation communities, I would think it would be time that our government and First Nation will start considering what other alternatives are out there.”