First Nations Housing in Fabric Buildings
On a recent visit to a northern Manitoba First Nations community, I sat down with a few of the residents to discuss their housing issues. It was early spring and the frost was just coming out of the ground. Like many northern communities, homes are built on a combination of rock and moss, none of which is level. In the spring, the moisture in the moss expands, pushing a corner of the foundation of the home upward. This causes the doors and even windows to shift, with broken windows, popped by this movement, a common sight. In the worst of winter, residents remove door knobs so that the shifting does not trap them inside or out of their homes when the lock striker plate and latch misalign. The local carpenters are kept busy replacing windows and adjusting door frames.
A part of the problem is the inability to bring up materials and complete the necessary quality work in the short summer season. Materials often can only arrive on winter roads. Tradesmen play "catchup" on repairs while trying to build new housing on site throughout the community. Thus, the quality of workmanship suffers, making the housing crisis worse.Yet, a seemingly simple solution has been overlooked by the band and by INAC: build several houses at once in an enclosed environment, year round. One of the reasons that bands have not embraced this idea is that authorities are still thinking 1970s construction. In their view, building a giant wood or steel warehouse in which to build a handful of houses would be counterproductive. They have failed to examine the benefits of using a fabric structure in which to build the homes.
Standard wood or steel buildings are heavy and the large spans of open interior space would be interrupted or segmented by support beams and posts. This would make building and removing the completed houses from the warehouse an almost impossible task. Fabric, or tension-fabric buildings can be constructed with huge clear spans, sometimes exceeding three hundred feet. Being lightweight, they require much less support than conventional buildings. Because they rely on tension of the fabric for strength, they offer a more sturdy design in a harsh, windy environment. Also because of their design the ends can open almost fully, allowing completed houses and bulky materials to be moved in an out at will.
The poly-fabric is extremely durable, performing very well in extreme cold and extreme heat. While steel conducts heat and cold and wood requires dense insulation, pvc fabric structures help to keep the temperature regulated. At the same time, the open design allows for free air flow, significantly lowering heating costs. Polymer fabric buildings also require less lighting, with good translucence. If insulation is desired, insulated interior tarps or suspended insulation is an easy option.
One of the great advantages of fabric buildings in the northern setting is the lower costs of transportation. Less material and less weight of the pieces reduces weight by up to 80%. In some cases, many of the parts can be flown in economically. Once on site, assembly of poly-fabric buildings occurs in a fraction of the time required for conventional buildings. Even anchoring is easy, either by anchoring trusses and plates into rock or designing a floating footing system.
Fisher First Nations, in Manitoba's Interlake, builds up to four homes at a time in their warehouse building. This idea would work just as well in any remote community, allowing homes to be built throughout the entire year, at lower costs per unit than currently occurs and at a higher standard of workmanship (because supervisors would be on site at all times). A corollary to building RTM homes inside a fabric building is that local workers could be employed year round, while residents benefit from improved housing.
Weight, cost, quality, ease or flexibility each is a great reason to look more closely at using fabric structures in remote communities to benefit residents. Tension-fabric buildings offer First Nations people a great chance to help themselves to lower cost, better quality facilities while creating new employment and income opportunities in regions where jobs are scarce, costs are high and quality suffers.