A home in a box

Imagine a home you could build in a week: one that came in a box, could fit almost anywhere and could be heated with two electric space heaters.

Imagine a home you could build in a week: one that came in a box, could fit almost anywhere and could be heated with two electric space heaters.

In your mind’s eye, you’re probably envisioning giant egg cartons or ugly shipping containers stacked awkwardly atop each other. After all, most pre-fabricated homes are not exactly architectural masterpieces.

But what if someone told you they could build you a home so efficient that it exceeds the Yukon energy-saving requirements by an R-value of 10, and comes with a rustic cabin exterior, a modular kitchen and vaulted ceilings?

And what if you were told he could do it all for less than the average square-foot cost of a traditional house?

Paul Girard says he can do just that. In fact, the Whitehorse contractor says that as soon as his ATAPOP Homes (Arctic to Antarctic Portable or Permanent) business goes into full production, he can do it 50 times a year, and bring low-cost energy-efficient homes to the North’s most challenging environments.

“You could put this house on Marsh Lake, where there’s no power, and heat it with solar or wood gasification or just about anything,” Girard said, standing beneath the sweeping beams of his first prototype home in downtown Whitehorse.

The proof-of-concept garden suite has just been finished, and Girard says he’s getting ready to launch his business idea Canada-wide.

The idea is to build houses in Whitehorse, ship them to anywhere, and assemble them on the spot, but do it with high-efficiency materials and engineering, and reap your savings through low heating and maintenance costs.

Girard has been a contractor since 1983 and working in the Yukon since 1996. He says he got tired of building low-efficiency houses that waste electricity, and wanted a way to help the North tackle its housing shortage.

“I started thinking, what if I started building green. Like, really, really green,” he said.

He found a client who agreed to buy the first prototype as a way of helping get the project off the ground.

It took four months to finish the prototype, in part because his designs were so unorthodox they weren’t in the city of Whitehorse’s code book at all.

“The city forced me to engineer everything for the house because it was not in the code book,” he said.

In the end, Girard took a loss on the first house, but he says he isn’t worried because the demo proved his theories about building with energy efficiency as the highest priority.

The house, which looks like a two-storey cabin with a jaunty roofline and slanted deck awnings, is constructed on a concrete pad with adjustable pilings.

To start off, Girard constructed a skeleton out of posts and beams, then pre-fabricated all the walls, roof and other pieces at his 10,000-square-foot shop in the Mount Sima industrial area.

The walls are made of plywood instead of drywall and mud, and come pre-assembled. They only have to be bolted to the frame, sprayed with foam insulation, and sealed to form an airtight envelope – one of the secrets to the building’s energy savings, said Girard.

“Even the windows are not added after, like most buildings,” Girard said. “The doors and windows are all installed at the factory.”

The outside is clad in metal sheeting or lumber with a non-toxic finish. When it’s all assembled, the house has R-40 floor and walls, R-10 windows and an R-60 attic, said Girard. By comparison, the minimum requirements for building in Whitehorse are R-28 for the floor, R-32 for the walls and R-50 for the ceiling and R-3.6 windows.

“You can see that we’re way above average. Everything on the house is natural. This could all be put in a Sea-Can and delivered anywhere,” he said.

The building is so easy to heat you could almost do it with a space heather, said Girard.

When they were building it, the crew accidentally left the two 1,000-watt space heaters running all night one evening. The temperature outside dipped to -25 C.

When the crew got back the next morning, the inside temperature was too warm to work, and they had to open all the doors and windows.

“That’s how efficient these things are,” he said.

The prototype’s material costs are roughly the same as for an average Whitehorse home, which costs between $250 and $300 per square foot.

But Girard anticipates big savings to come from low labour costs to assemble the houses en masse. Once he’s at full production, he reckons he could provide upwards of 40 homes a year by building them in Whitehorse and shipping them wherever they are needed.

“Even in the communities, I can supply them for $250 (per square foot) delivered and assembled. If they want to order, say, 10 houses, I can hire a Hercules transport plane and deliver them that way,” he said.

Girard plans to offer two different models of homes. One will be an 864-square-foot two-bedroom home and the other a smaller 640-square-foot one-bedroom bachelor pad.

Right now Girard has about eight staff working for him, but expects that number to go up as high as 20 if he’s able to get enough buyers.

Contact Jesse Winter at