June 20, 2018

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'This really should be a game-changer'

Designed for harsh northern climate, Kithouse takes energy efficiency to another level

Supplied</p><p>At only 800 square feet, the Kithouse is an affordable energy efficient home that can withstand Manitoba winters.</p>

Supplied

At only 800 square feet, the Kithouse is an affordable energy efficient home that can withstand Manitoba winters.

Designers and home builders around the world have made varying claims over time about their relative ability to produce air tight, energy efficient homes.

But few, if any have come up with a design for an energy efficient home built to withstand the brutal winters of Northern Manitoba and affordable enough so that it won’t destroy the budget of a cash strapped Northern First Nation, for instance.

Eric Bjornson, who has run a deep energy retrofit company called Sundial Building Performance for 16 years, has spent the last two years designing just that.

Called Kithouse, it is an 800 square foot net zero home, using existing technologies, but with materials sourced and deployed in such a way that even in the harsh climate of the North will only use about $800 worth of energy per year. (If the buyer includes the solar heating option it’s calculated there would be $80 of surplus energy created.)

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Designers and home builders around the world have made varying claims over time about their relative ability to produce air tight, energy efficient homes.

But few, if any have come up with a design for an energy efficient home built to withstand the brutal winters of Northern Manitoba and affordable enough so that it won’t destroy the budget of a cash strapped Northern First Nation, for instance.

Eric Bjornson, who has run a deep energy retrofit company called Sundial Building Performance for 16 years, has spent the last two years designing just that.

Called Kithouse, it is an 800 square foot net zero home, using existing technologies, but with materials sourced and deployed in such a way that even in the harsh climate of the North will only use about $800 worth of energy per year. (If the buyer includes the solar heating option it’s calculated there would be $80 of surplus energy created.)

'It has all the elements to it — high efficiency, affordability, an attractive package, locally-sourced materials... '— Curt Hull, executive director of Climate Change Connection 

Made almost entirely of wood — plywood is used as the interior wall finish, for instance negating the need for drywall mudding and taping — it is designed as a kit that can be shipped, with every finishing fixture included, in one 53-foot trailer. The flat-pack delivery allows for another beneficial feature — with modest supervision and training it can be assembled on site without the need of journeymen tradespeople, providing an element of community pride to the project.

"This really should be a game-changer," said Curt Hull, executive director of Climate Change Connection, a Manitoba clearinghouse of climate change information and solutions. "It has all the elements to it — high efficiency, affordability, an attractive package, locally-sourced materials... and because of Eric’s willingness to work with communities there is the potential for local employment for the construction of these homes."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Eric Bjornson has produced a high quality, inexpensive, air tight, low energy, environmentally friendly home for northern Canada called Kithouse.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Eric Bjornson has produced a high quality, inexpensive, air tight, low energy, environmentally friendly home for northern Canada called Kithouse.

The Kithouse uses tripane windows and doors from Duxton Windows of Winnipeg,  formaldehyde-free plywood from Columbia Forest Products and solar energy installations from Solar Manitoba.

Bjornson’s 14-person company had done some energy efficient custom designed homes in the past, but the downside to the dynamics of that kind of work were obvious to him.

"We were really excited about that work... but the challenge was always cost," Bjornson said. "It takes a year to design, another year to build, they cost a lot and at the end, while the product is great, we’d only be able to do a dozen in our career if we continue at that pace. The real goal was to design something that would be affordable to the mass market."

Erected and displayed publicly for the first time at the recent Home and Garden Show at the RBC Convention Centre, the Kithouse drew so much interest Bjornson ran out of his promotional material three times during the four day event.

While there are no signed orders yet, Bjornson said he got about three dozen solid leads.

"We would have loved to have some orders coming out of the show but it’s obviously a big commitment on the spot and it’s a new concept," he said. 

And while there would be nothing wrong with putting up the Kithouse in an infill lot in the city, it is really targeted for groups building multiple units like First Nation communities or Habitat for Humanity or communities where they can easily mobilize numbers of people to do the construction. Bjornson said there has been substantial discussions already with a handful of First Nations and Habitat for Humanity officials.

Supplied</p><p>Inside, the walls of the two-bedroom Kithouse are finished in plywood.</p>

Supplied

Inside, the walls of the two-bedroom Kithouse are finished in plywood.

"If someone needs say, 30 units, it would be economic for them especially if they were in a remote location," Bjornson said. "Rather than have us move our team from Winnipeg to that location they can mobilize the labour force to do the construction. We would be there for one or two (of the units), then step back because we would no longer be necessary and we would be way more expensive than the local labour and we would not want to take away form the local economy anymore than we need to."

Bruce Duggan, is an associate professor of management at the Buller School of Business at Providence University College & Seminary and also runs a consultancy that specializes in alternative energy applications especially in First Nation communities.

He has a deep understanding of the abysmal state of the housing stock in Northern First Nations as well as the challenges in coming up with a solution. He believes the Kithouse concept has a lot of promise.

"I don’t think the magic (of the Kithouse) is necessarily unbelievable new technology," Duggan said. "From what I can tell it’s very high quality technology, Eric knows his stuff. There are people all over the planet doing that stuff. But the housing in Northern First Nations is appalling. It is hard to believe how bad it is and there are many reasons for that including the fact the housing is essentially designed for a southern location and mostly built in the south."

For various reasons that status quo has been allowed to exist for some time. Bjornson attests to the fact that the economics, among other things, are hard to overcome. But the Kithouse is specifically and exclusively designed for the northern climate. (Even Bjornson said the Kithouse would be "unnecessary" in a temperate climate.)

"Most of the manufactured housing in our climate is not designed for our climate, it’s designed in the south and shipped here," he said. "Especially when you start going further north that is completely inappropriate. We wanted to focus on the coldest of the climates. No one else is."

Bjornson has a lot riding on the Kithouse. Two years worth of time and resources have gone into the project that he said was partly done to create a more stable future for his company and employees.

Considering the growing realization of the poor housing options especially in Northern remote communities, it is hoped by many that the Kithouse option could be the beginning of a solution.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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