nailing the technology at the northern housing forum

For reasons that I am sure will be explained, someday, I am currently in Inuvik, attending a conference called the Northern Housing Forum 2010.

For reasons that I am sure will be explained, someday, I am currently in Inuvik, attending a conference called the Northern Housing Forum 2010.

By this, I do not mean to imply that I am unhappy to be in Inuvik, or at the conference – only that I, on the face of it, would not seem to be the most natural candidate for such a meeting.

If you put a hammer in my hand, the only nail to which I pose any kind of threat is the one on my other thumb.

Still, having passed a few days, now, in the company of carpenters and building science wonks, I am beginning to understand something of their very apparent enthusiasm for, and cantankerousness about, this particular art.

My present location does not hurt, either, in bringing me around to their way of thinking.

There is nothing like fighting a blasting Arctic wind all the way up Mackenzie Road at 28 below to get you in the mood for thinking about the importance of energy and space heating.

And it is something of a comfort that one speaker at the conference, at least, is confident that most of what we need to know to build safe, sustainable, warm housing is already out there, in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

These were the words of a knowledgeable and well-spoken university professor and practicing engineer named John F. Staube, who was the featured luncheon speaker, last Tuesday.

The less comforting follow-up to that comment, though, came when he asked all the people in the room who read peer-reviewed scientific papers about building science to put up their hands.

Only one guy did – and he didn’t count, really, since he was a building science academic from Sweden.

I am a long way from being competent to judge the accuracy of Staube’s claim for the accomplishments of the building science; but I was more than a little struck by the evident truth of his second point: That there is a big disconnect between the scientists in this area, and the architects, planners, builders, bank loan officers and construction clients who make up the construction market.

Staube’s point, I think, was not that all those people are just too dumb or hide-bound to get it that science has already settled all the questions about how to do energy management, thermal insulation and air quality control.

We have not arrived at the point where you can figure out your longitude, latitude, seasonal temperature variation and access to energy, then whip out a template plan that tells you how to build exactly the building you have in mind, in the place where you happen to be.

All kinds of local considerations are going to come into play when you are called upon to build a housing unit in the North – varying degrees of sunlight, wind and temperature, form and cost of energy, access to building materials and construction expertise, to name just a few.

But the basic technologies to provide high-grade insulation, low energy consumption, and good air quality are already pretty much in place.

The problem is, those technologies have been, and in most places continue to be, under-employed in the construction market – and therein lies a problem for us Northerners.

Building designs, and even bank housing loan models, are all really structured around energy and climate conditions much more moderate than those we experience in Whitehorse – and even more at variance with the realities of a place like Inuvik.

Design features that are actually critical to the long-term sustainability of a housing unit in the North are often seen (even if erroneously) as overkill by Southern-minded people making the development plans, designing the buildings, knocking the trusses together, or approving the mortgage.

None of these people have any market-driven reason to change the way they do business, at least so long as the coal-fired energy plants that produce most of North America’s energy allow them to ignore the already real and increasingly more damaging rise in the cost of energy.

In a situation like this, the impetuous to change, at least until another energy crunch wakes up the building community and the housing consumer, is likely to be coming from the top down – municipal, territorial and provincial governments raising the bar on the technical requirements of public housing and public building construction.

On this front, Yukon Housing’s commitment to making all its future affordable housing units adhere to “super green” standards, though it is likely to prove controversial sometimes, shows a commendable understanding of current northern realities, and what the future holds in store.

As one of the Yukon Housing speakers pointed out, the Yukon has gotten itself into a real mess by building housing designed to function under current or near-future energy costs and conditions.

The reality is that a house, once it goes up, is likely to be around for 20 years or more, and its value and sustainability over that time needs to be taken in consideration.

So more power to YHC, and less to the buildings!

Or that is at least what I think I learned on my Arctic non-vacation..

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.