Pisim in the wind

A building and educational project in Saskatchewan is bringing together Grade 10 students, community leaders and environmental building experts to create a unique off-grid-ready home.  Grade 10 students at Charlebois Community School in Cumberland House, the oldest permanent settlement in western Canada,  teamed with professional engineers, alternative energy and building specialists, and local trades to build an environment-friendly house.

Dubbed the Pisim Project (Pisim is Cree for sun), the house is based on the same footprint as homes of a century ago, while using local materials and modern technology to produce an efficient, low-cost home capable of existing off-grid for up to five days. The one and one-half storey home will showcase innovative energy-efficient design features including double stackwalls and passive and active solar heating.

The project establishes a new benchmark for northern communities across Canada by actively involving youth in sustainable housing projects that foster important skills, build relationships and help secure a greener future. The Pisim Project is funded by the Cameco Access Program for Engineering and Science (CAPES). They approached the Northern Lights School Division and indicated they were willing to support any science and engineering projects of relevance to their communities. Pisim was made possible by the contributions of numerous individuals, companies and local government organizations.

The program is supported by the office of Outreach & Transition Programs at the University of Saskatchewan College of Engineering. “We first made contact with the students in April 2008 and wanted them involved in the whole process and we had to work within the school year,” says Sally Meadows, program administrator at the University of Saskatchewan College of Engineering.

“Last semester the students, in conjunction with many professionals, began the design aspect of the house.” In May and June, several professionals with environmental design expertise traveled to Cumberland House, “We had the students design it. The intention then was to begin building in September and they eventually did break ground in September.” They aim to have the Pisim Project house completed by June 2009. “To date they have broken ground, fixed the foundation, the water and sewer is in and they’re trying to get the flooring done. Some of the walls are already up. When December hit they had to suspend outside construction.” Over the wintertime the students will be working on the timber frame indoors.

“They won’t actually erect the timber frame until April, so we’ll have experts in timber frame construction going up then to work with the students.” While experts provided building knowledge, the students and community of Cumberland House is driving the project with input on its design, function, appearance, materials and end use. The project began with extensive consultations in the community about design and construction of the unique house. “That was a question we asked the students, ‘What do you have lots of here in Cumberland House?’ and the first thing the students said was, ‘Lots of wood.’ They actually went out and cut the trees down, then got them sawed.” The home’s one and a half storeys add up to a total of 720 square feet, with 500 square feet on the bottom floor and 200 on the upper floor. “It’s a fairly small house. It was designed to have a footprint no bigger than what their ancestors might have left.” The double stackwall house has a very interesting look to it, Meadows adds. “It’s a combination of wood and concrete. The logs are only six inches long and in the matrix of concrete, so that when you look from the front of the house, you’ll see the cut end of logs, so it looks dotted. It’ll be like a wall and then a cavity of 8 inches and then another wall and that’s where the double wall name comes in.” Inside, the home will feature exposed timber. “Cumberland House is the oldest settlement in Saskatchewan. We took a look at what the oldest house there looked like. The timbers are exposed indoors.” All the experts working on the project are donating their time and include everyone from structural engineers, architects, a timber frame expert and an eco-building expert. The community itself is largely responsible for driving the project. CAPES’s role is to hook them up with whatever they need and can’t get themselves. The Pisim Project house endeavour is being filmed by a couple of documentary film makers. Because the Pisim Project house is being built on a street with lots of young families on it, students wanted to design a home that would be suitable for a young family. The community plans to raffle off the house and use the funds so the students can build another house. “So this is a sustainable project in more ways than one. “It’s an environment-friendly house but we also want it to be a community-sustainable project, so that they’re as self-directed as possible for any projects that come in the future. “We’re hoping it will serve as an inspiration to other communities across the north of Saskatchewan and across Canada because it’s an environment-friendly project that engages the youth. Those are two pieces that are very important to people right now.”

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