Tiny Homes for Big Change

It’s no secret that Yukon communities feel pinched when it comes to housing, employment, 

and capacity. Carcross/Tagish First Nation (CTFN) has an innovative program to address all three at once

Between now and the end of May, 16 CTFN members will be counting hours towards their carpentry apprenticeships while building what are called tiny houses, to be installed in one of Carcoss’s new subdivisions.

The project is a partnership with the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN), the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 2499 (UBC), the Government of Canada, the Yukon Mine Training Association, and Kobayashi and Zedda Architects. It’s an impressive collaboration, especially since the first planning meetings happened just over three months ago, and on February 19 the project officially opened with the community giving their blessing to the students and teachers.

The movement towards tiny has been picking up steam in the last few years in the Yukon, following a trend that has spread across North America. Sometimes mobile and always compact, tiny houses are generally under 500 square feet and borrow ideas for nifty fold-away furniture and storage from boats and mobile homes. One example in Whitehorse, which inspired the CTFN project, is the 204 square foot Steve Cardiff tiny house (also designed by Kobayashi and Zedda Architects), built in 2012 by Blood Ties Four Directions as temporary housing for their clients (Yukoners living with HIV, AIDS, and Hepatitis C).

A central mover in the CTFN project is Nelson Lepine, their director of finance and infrastructure.

I get the impression he has his fingers in many pies within the community, but that he also rolls out the pastry, cooks it, and ensures everyone gets a slice.

As soon as I sat down in his office, Lepine unrolls the plans on the floor, courtesy of Kobayashi and Zedda Architects. They show variations on a theme ranging from 12′ to 16′ x 24′, some with separate bedrooms, are others more open-concept.

“The community has been involved from the beginning,” Lepine says. “The designs reflect what they want.”

Considerations evident in the plans include accessibility for elders, outside storage, propane for heat and on-demand hot water back up, and energy efficiency — the walls will be rated to R52.

Three houses will be built in parallel, each providing training opportunities for four students under the direction of one instructor, with classroom time augmenting the practical work.

“We’re excited to be able to provide highly proficient Red Seal carpenters to deliver this training,” says Rachel Cardiff with the UBC.

It’s training that will cover all the bases of a first year program.

“We have a long history of partnering with First Nations – about 50 per cent of our members are First Nations,” Cardiff says. “We feel like family in the Union, and I think that’s how First Nations feel, too. We see huge value in bringing in highly skilled First Nation teachers to the community. The community engagement in this project has been amazing.”

Lepine says he has yet to hear a negative response from a community member, and describes planning meetings that include all the funders and sponsors, as well as teams from the CTFN Departments of Finance and Infrastructure, Wellness, and Capacity Development.

“The focus is really to support all those who apply,” he says. “In addition to the Wellness team as a resource, we’ve set up a buddy system so that each student is partnered with another to support each other in anything challenging them outside the program. All applicants were given a full interview, so that those who weren’t selected can be ready for the next round.”

More than 30 applicants were interviewed for the 12 positions, a quarter of them women.

So why tiny houses?

“What I hear in the community is the costs and headaches of maintenance (of larger houses),” Lepine says. “What if we could remove those stresses, and allow people to focus instead on whatever it is in their lives they would like to move forward?”

Being small, tiny houses offer quicker turn-around times for training, as well.

“We’re trying to maximize opportunities for training,” Lepine says. “At this scale, the students get to experience all aspects of building during the program. Building roof trusses on the ground means they get to experience hoisting and rigging, at the subdivision they’ll do foundation work, even the transportation of the buildings is an opportunity.”

Jeff Sloychuk, the UBC organizer, points to additional opportunities.

“The UBC will provide journeymen to complete the plumbing, electrical and dry walling, and the students will get a feel for those trades,” he says.

According to the schedule, students will be ready for employment during this summer’s construction season, and the first three tiny houses will be occupied by the fall.

Cardiff says the UBC would love to partner with other First Nations in similar endeavours.

As for the students, some already have personal projects in mind. Sloychuk says some hope to build their own homes, and one applicant is eager to learn the skills necessary to fix up his grandmother’s cabin.

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