Canada has an aboriginal housing crisis. Two brothers from Calgary think they have the answer

The bones are still thin plates of steel lined with wood, but Kurt Goodjohn can already see the body of the building take shape. Here, he says, will be a communal kitchen, a bathroom and a meeting area. Upstairs will be the office for the elders, complete with a private enclave and an elevator shaft. Wearing a hard-hat and a collared shirt, he’s standing in what will become an office for a social services building in a remote aboriginal community in Ontario. And it’s under construction inside a sunlit factory in the southern industrial wilds of Calgary.

Kurt Goodjohn, co-founder of Karoleena Homes, won’t stand for low-quality modular homes
Photograph Bryce Meyer

Kurt and his older brother Kris are pioneering a new type of building process that has the potential to alleviate chronic housing shortages in aboriginal communities across the country. Like many of the cookie-cutter sheet-metal homes used on reserves, Karoleena Homes makes modular buildings. Unlike those structures – rightly derided as cheap, flimsy trailers – these homes are different from regular houses only in where they are assembled.

After walking into the Goodjohn brothers’ new Calgary factory, customers see sketches for homes with clean, square lines and big windows; they’re boxy, modern and stained in the trendy earth tones popular in the city’s gentrifying communities. Poster-boards include the latest kitchen backsplashes and countertops, glass and clay stone. Homes are designed by in-house architects. Everything is top-shelf.

The Goodjohns hope this process improves living conditions on reserves. So far they’ve worked with members of the Tsuu T’ina community to design homes that would suit First Nations lifestyles. That means, for example, changing the configuration of windows – and backing away from the bigger ones that are standard on most modular homes – in order to maximize the security of a home that will be located in a far-flung locale. That means placing a greater importance on common space and the cultural role that it plays in the life of many aboriginal people. Some of the company’s design sketches even include a circular mantle for a fireplace, which represents native spirituality. It’s all part of an effort to make the homes feel like, well, homes. “The main thing is that they want a space for the family to be in, to have a good quality family time together,” Kurt says. “They don’t have as big of a desire to have big bedrooms, or walk-in closets. They want useful bedrooms and then an open gathering area.”

It’s a vastly different approach to housing than what’s typically available on reserves. Because it’s often difficult to manage long-term construction schedules in remote native areas, homes there are frequently choc-a-bloc modular designs with no connection to traditional lifestyles. “They’re just standard double-wide houses that don’t have any cultural relevance,” Kris Goodjohn says. “It’s not something they’re proud of, or have anything to do with what their different customs, wants or needs are.”

And then there are the quality problems. Most modular homes built in Canada are “crap,” Kurt says. In fact, that’s why he and his brother started Karoleena in the first place – they were tired of seeing other modular building companies making homes with slanted porches and bad plumbing. Similarly, aboriginal homes are often made of wood, which rots, warps and burns in intense northern climates.

The shabby state of dwellings in many of these communities became an international crisis last winter when a state of emergency was declared in the Northern Ontario Cree community of Attawapiskat. A federal government report on First Nations housing found reserves are facing severe shortages: up to 35,000 new homes are needed to meet the current demand in the country.

Several groups, including the Assembly of First Nations, dispute even those figures, saying as many as 85,000 are desperately required. Until then, many First Nations people live in substandard homes with thin wood walls, leaking roofs and rolling floors. Even the nations that do obtain the funds to improve their lot face a major problem: Winter. That’s where modular homes come in.

The Goodjohns started their company in the boom-time of 2005, when labour was so scarce that getting a full team to a building site was a daily gamble. “Just from doing it ourselves outside in the winter, shovelling snow, digging mud and stuff like that, we thought ‘there’s got to be a better way to do this’,” Kurt says. “The real advantage [to modular homes] is how they’re built. They’re in a factory, so you’re not required to have labour on site.”

When Calgary’s boom turned bust, the brothers almost went bankrupt. Kurt says he took a part-time job at Moxie’s to make ends meet. The brothers, and their families, were living on credit cards. “We were so deep into it we didn’t have the option. We just had to keep going,” Kurt says.

But they learned a valuable lesson in trying to compete with the city’s better-established inner-city builders. They deduced that by using a modular process they could both speed the homebuilding process and improve the quality of the product. Instead of exposing a structure’s sensitive innards to -40C outdoor temperatures, they could control the construction process by assembling homes indoors. When they’re almost complete, they ship it in parts to its final destination and assemble it on site. Using this process, a home can be installed in a matter of days, instead of months or even years. “It makes a lot of sense. It’s just like building a car: they don’t build them out in the snow,” Kurt says.

With the help of W. Brett Wilson, who decided to invest in the company after  they appeared on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, the Goodjohns opened their factory about a year ago, and business continues to tick along, they say. And they continue to innovate, too. The two-storey office tower that’s currently under construction in their factory isn’t being made out of wood but instead created from recycled

shipping containers. And instead of the standard pink fibrous insulation found in old attics, they use a spray foam that will prevent mould damage. The company opts for the best flooring, plumbing and finishes they can find. The homes are more expensive – about $450,000 for a 2,000-square-foot model – but they’re practically indestructible. They are, in other words, exactly the sort of building, and process, that many remote communities need.

The Goodjohns say they hope to work with First Nations communities to build high-quality shelters in desperately needed areas. Until then, they have plans to expand their factory to create more downtown homes and recreational cabins. In the meantime, the biggest obstacle they face is trying to remove the stigma of the phrase ‘modular home.’

”We’re trying to brand a whole new word for it that’s not ‘modular’ or ‘prefab.’ We just want to call it Karoleena, because there are a handful of companies doing what we’ve done,” Kurt says. “There’s that perception out there of modular, and that is not what we’re doing.”

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