Willie Gadbois knows a thing or two about designing and building houses for a climate most Canadians would find too harsh to bear.
Gadbois is president and co-founder of Nunavik Building Inc., a company that constructs houses for Canada’s north in communities like Kuujjuaq, the largest of 14 Inuit villages in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec.
On the edge of the tree line near Ungava Bay, Kuujjuaq is about 1,500 kilometres north of Montreal. Winter winds blow up to 100 kph and temperatures drop well below minus 40 C for extended periods.
It’s not a climate for poorly designed or under-insulated homes but Gadbois, a plumber and heating mechanic by trade, says many homes in the north don’t meet standards they should. Chilly interiors, frozen water lines and exterior building envelopes unable to withstand the harsh environment are common.
That is why Gadbois decided about a dozen years ago to research house designs better suited to northern climates. His investigation led him to Montreal and Claude Jannelle, a modular home builder who improved energy performance through a building envelope with injected foam insulation. The pair founded Nunavik Building and built their first house last year for the president of the Nunavik government.
Gadbois, who says it was “very expensive” to complete because the company had to send up a crew from the south for assembly, decided to cut costs by building the houses in a 200 x 100-foot factory in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
“It’s kind of a plug and play operation,” he says, noting the first house was shipped to Kuujjuaq in September to be on show for residents.
It was ready for occupancy about three hours after being placed on site on a foundation of steel tripods. In the future, Gadbois and Jannelle plan to use ground screws drilled into the rocky terrain of the north as foundations.
It cost about $40,000 to ship a prefabricated house from the port of Montreal to Kuujjuaq but Gadbois says that price and the cost of materials and labor is still a lot less than the tab for constructing a house in the village.
He says one of his small houses (roughly 600 square feet) will cost a buyer about $220,000, while larger two- or three-bedroom homes go for about $100,000 more. By comparison constructing a conventional house from scratch on site will run $500,000 to $1 million in the region.
While the company’s first houses are 2×6 wood frame, Gadbois says the company is looking into a light steel gauge frame design.
The houses come with a non-toxic and inflammable injected foam insulation comprised of 70 percent agricultural soy and 30 percent water. The walls are R-48 while floors and ceilings are insulated to an R-52 rating. Windows are triple-pane and siding and roofing consists of durable steel panelling that stands up to high winds and cold temperatures.
Nunavik Company’s houses feature water-proof wood flooring, pine panelled walls and LED lighting. All the homes come with radiant floor heating and wall-mounted radiators.
Gadbois keeps the heating/plumbing systems as simple as possible for easy repair – even by homeowners, in instances where he can’t be on hand quickly.
Gadbois, who says the company has the capacity to prefabricate 15-20 homes at a factory in Sherbrooke, adds that since the show home was installed in September in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik Building has received three orders for residences.
Homes are built in the factory in about a month. Shipping time by sealift is about a week, he says, noting the shipping window is June to October.
“If we start building enough houses up here, I would like to set up my own factory in Kuujjuaq,” he says.
Gadbois says the company’s market is widespread and includes the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik, Labrador and even overseas.