Hope & Homes
/ Author: Rachel Debling 397 Rate this article:

Hope & Homes

Local 6 members are helping southern Ontario communities through their work on low-income housing projects—and changing lives in the process

By Rachel Debling

“IF I DIDN’T LIVE HERE, I’d probably be dead.”

So reads one tenant’s testimonial on the website of Indwell, “a Christian charity that creates affordable housing communities that support people seeking health, wellness, and belonging.”

The tenant goes on to say that “I’ve changed my life completely. I’ve done a complete 180.”

Indwell’s programs “support more than 700 people in Hamilton, Woodstock, Simcoe, and London,” according to its website. A quick glance on the site reveals the stories of dozens of men, women, and families whose lives have been turned around by the organization’s affordable housing units.

Graham Cubitt, director of projects and development at Indwell, recalls another heartwarming story of a gentleman who moved into Hamilton, Ontario’s, McQuesten Lofts.

“He went from living in his car to becoming a tenant,” says Graham. “After his placement, he told us that he felt like a completely transformed person and that his humanity had been restored.”

These stories are just two of the many redemption tales to come out of Indwell’s work. The charity’s community-enhancing housing projects rely on the skills and expertise of Local 6 members employed by Schilthuis Construction Inc.

TOGETHER WITH INDWELL, LOCAL 6 members are providing at-risk populations with hope and low-cost homes—with an environmentally conscious twist. These homes have a smaller impact on the environment than standard builds by using a forward-looking and economical approach to building called passive housing. 

The word passive is often associated with quiet personalities and those not willing to rock the boat. But passive housing is anything but a shrinking violet. 

Passive housing principles were first proposed in the 1970s and have been applied to building projects in Europe for over 30 years. Companies that follow its voluntary standards aim to reduce a building’s impact on the environment through airtightness, ventilation, heating and cooling, and other design and architectural elements. 

The benefits of passive housing are wide-ranging, from energy efficiency to lower maintenance.

“The passive housing system dramatically reduces greenhouse gas emissions,” says Graham. “The comfort level of the apartments is amazing. They’re quiet, they’re climate controlled, and the air quality is great, which is especially important during the pandemic. By designing buildings that don’t need much energy to operate, tenants can more easily afford the cost of utilities.” 

When Graham began his career at Indwell 17 years ago, the charity had around 60 tenants and three buildings. Since then, it has opened 16 additional buildings and counts more than 700 clients living in its eco-friendly homes. Eight more projects have been earmarked for development, which will result in hundreds of affordable apartments in the southwestern Ontario and Niagara regions. 

When scouting locations for a project, whether it is a new build or a retrofit of an existing building, Indwell always considers the potential added value for its tenants. It began applying the passive housing model to some of its projects in 2016 due to its long term value.

One such project currently under construction is Lakeshore Lofts in Port Credit, Ontario, a mixed-use building featuring a commercial ground floor that will be home to a food bank called The Compass. Other neighbourhood characteristics that attract Indwell to an area are pharmacies, bike shops, libraries, and restaurants, which will be readily used by the charity’s tenants. 

“We know that every building is going to make a permanent impact, not only on the lives of its tenants, but also on the environment,” says Graham. 

Knowing that maintenance costs will be kept low and the standard of living high is of comfort to Graham and his team. 

“Practically speaking, we make a lot of decisions when designing these buildings that we’re going to have to live with for the next 50 years as owners and operators,” he says. “Our buildings are providing homes, but they are also the ground for rebuilding relationships between people and their families. These are the everyday differences that this kind of housing is making.”

THE PEOPLE HELPING TO LAUNCH these life-changing units include everyone from the project managers directing the builds to the workers implementing the design.

“CLAC members employed by our company are an integral part of the process,” says Henry Schilthuis, president of Schilthuis Construction, who believes that quality counts and pays for itself. “Anyone can build something cheap and fast. But that means the client is stuck with a building that doesn’t perform well. Then they must get the operating costs covered either through the people who live there or through donations, and that’s harder to do than if a high-quality building is constructed right off the bat.” 

Tim Schilthuis, the company’s project manager, agrees. “Our contractors and staff make sure that we provide quality work on time and on budget. These standards are applied from the top down so that everyone is on board. Otherwise, the project is just not going to be successful.”

The process of designing and building passive houses, especially in Canada, comes with its own unique set of challenges. Henry recalls that the insulation under the floor of an electrical room was trapping heat, rather than it being lost to the ground—a result that sounds good, but which caused the room to overheat. Luckily, the problem was remedied with the cooling system— even though it was January. 

“The systems that we’re using have changed a bit from project to project,” says Tim. “As we gain experience, we’re determining which products work best for each situation. Along the way, we have learned what works and what doesn’t.” 

Henry says that one of the few potential drawbacks of passive housing is that, because of its high-tech specifications, recycled materials often aren’t used. “It’s more performance-based than materials-based,” he says. 

Tim adds that the company is investigating materials such as fibreglass that incorporate recycled elements to help make each project even more eco-friendly.

JOSIE COSTANTINI IS A PROJECT manager at Schilthuis who has seen first-hand the difference passive housing can make in a community. She is a certified passive housing consultant and has proudly overseen several of Schilthuis’s projects. 

“I basically followed Tim around for the first year that I was here, as a kind of a sidekick,” she says. “He helped me build on-site relationships, which was really helpful.” 

Josie counts the Indwell retrofits her team has undertaken as some of her most exciting projects to date. Churches, libraries, and even dairies can be revamped into gorgeous loft-style residences that maintain much of the original building’s architecture. These projects, many of which are being completed in Hamilton, are of special interest to Josie. 

“They are part of the rapid housing movement that Indwell is trying to get involved with,” she says. 

She notes that retrofits can help keep the schedules to a minimum. 

“With the funding we receive from the city, we’re under a strict timeline in terms of how fast we have to get it done,” she says. “Working with preexisting structures can help streamline the process while also retaining the area’s heritage and character.” 

The benefits of passive housing go beyond the eco-friendly factor and its modern, clean look. Local 6 member Doug Riley, who is a site superintendent, journeyman carpenter, and 33-year veteran with Schilthuis, notes that one of the greatest benefits of this housing style is its low maintenance, which provides ongoing cost savings for building management and its tenants. 
“Though some additional time and construction costs are required for passive housing builds, it’s not exceptionally more difficult than a standard project,” he says.

Doug’s first Indwell job was the 68-unit Port Credit location that shares a footprint with The Compass. He is eager to bring future projects to life in the coming years. 

Those working on Indwell projects take inspiration home with them, too. After taking the passive housing training provided by Indwell, Josie was motivated to apply for her masters in building science at Ryerson University.

“It’s a program that touches on many of the elements I apply to Indwell’s builds,” she says. “I’m looking forward to finishing my studies over the coming months.” 

PROJECTS THAT UPLIFT THE COMMUNITY while providing learning opportunities enhance workers’ morale and satisfaction, both on and off site. Local 6 members working on site have told Graham they enjoy the humanitarian side of Indwell projects. They also report appreciating the new skills that they take away from each build. 

“One guy said to me, ‘I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and it’s nice to learn something new,” says Graham. “You don’t just go to work and grind it out and go home. You’re advancing your skills while contributing to the community.” 

Josie agrees. “These buildings are something you take pride in. It’s proven that when you have a more comfortable living space, a higher quality of life follows. 

“It’s called optimum comfort, which is something that passive housing provides. Aside from the lower cost, these units are truly improving the lives of tenants.”

A Crash Course in Passive Housing

Though the standards in Canada, the US, and Europe differ, passive housing units across the globe share similar traits. Josie Costantini, passive housing consultant, explains the basics and how they apply to the builds she helps to manage. 

Airtightness – “Air quality is important in passive housing units. There can be no leaky doors or windows. A building that is airtight also has another fringe benefit: less mold and mildew. There isn’t a condensation risk, so it adds to the building’s resilience.” 

Ventilation – “Because these buildings are so airtight, proper ventilation is important, which results in cleaner air. For example, by using a heat recovery ventilation or energy recovery ventilation system, some buildings will exchange cold air for hot air that has been exhausted, to keep the unit cool during the summertime.” 

Insulation – “Passive housing projects focus on thermal insulation—sometimes using up to eight inches on the outside of a wall—which reduces the heat transfer between objects or surfaces. If you were to touch the walls or windows in a passive house, their temperature wouldn’t be too far off from the temperature of the air. This means that if you are standing next to an exterior wall in the winter, you won’t feel a chill.” 

Thermal bridges – “The design of passive houses reduces the use of thermal bridges, which are temperature highways from the inside to the outside of the home. Think of a steel rod going from your bedroom through the wall. It would transfer the temperature from the exterior of your home to the inside—which is a no-no for energy conservation.”

Homes of the Future—Today!

Gifted architects are pushing the boundaries when it comes to how homes should look and function. Here are a few eye-catching designs that scream the future is now! 

• On the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in California sits High Desert House, a 5,000-square-foot home designed to resemble a pile of ribs when admired from above. 

• For those wanting to escape earth’s atmosphere, look no further than minimal housing prototype MARS Case. This design imagines how life on Mars may look and is environmentally conscious. The heat, exhaust, and other byproducts of its electronics are reused as energy to run the home.

• The Komb House was created on the idea that eco-friendly design doesn’t have to be boring. In addition to its solar panels and LED lighting, the home features a rotating sculpture that generates wind energy.

Sources: archdaily.com, dwell.com, inhabitat.com

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