Therefore welcomed earthships: an off-the-grid solution to Canada’s housing crisis?

Homes made of recycled materials have leapt up across the country in recent years, but its the first time one will be built on a First Nations reserve

Francine Doxtator is on a search for use tires. For months, the soft-spoken 56 -year-old has asked everyone she knows and anyone new she meets if they happen to have any lying around. I tell them to simply drop em off, she said, motioning to the hundreds of tires haphazardly piled three-feet high behind her trailer.

Starting this week, these tires and hundreds more donated by an auto shop will be packed with clay and stacked neatly to form the backbone of Doxtators new house an off-the-grid home being touted as a potential solution to the housing crisis facing many First Nations communities across Canada.

Francine
Francine Doxtator is on a search for use tires on a small hill merely steps away from her trailer. Photograph: Ashifa Kassam for the Guardian

When Doxtator found out two years ago that she had been selected to receive a new, donated home, she didnt believe it. Her current home is a rickety trailer denounced years ago that sits on a leafy, green plenty on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve some 55 miles south-west of Toronto. Its weathered blue and white facade has been chewed at by rust and blankets encompass its cracked windows. Inside, the trailer has been ravaged by mouse and black mould. A leaky roof and several pits in the trailer send cold air whipping through the cramped space in the winter, while on the summer months day it is stiflingly hot inside.

Theres seven of us staying in here, told Doxtator, who helps care for her five grandchildren and daughter who has a debilitating spinal cord trauma. Three of her grandsons sleep in one room, while her 17 -year-old granddaughter has a small room to herself. Doxtator, her daughter and one of her grandsons sleep in the living room. Were all looking forward to the new home, she said with a smile, adding, but I still dont believe its happening.

In the next two weeks, on a small hill simply steps away from her trailer, her new home will begin to take shape. Designed by US-based company Earthship Biotecture, the C $75,000 sustainable home promises to do away with her monthly utility bills, which eat up about C $150 a month out of her social assistance cheque.

Instead solar panels on the roof will furnish electricity and rainwater will be collected in a cistern and cycled through the house for drinking, raining, toilets and feeding plants. The tires will be used to create a dense thermomass to assist govern the temperature of the home.

While several of these homes known as earthships have sprung up across Canadain recent years, this will be the companys first time building one on a First Nations reserve in Canada. Its an idea that has been years in the making, said Michael Reynolds, the designer who has been championing self-sustaining homes made of recycled materials for some 45 years.

The company regularly carries out humanitarian builds around the world, in countries such as India, Haiti and Sierra Leone. When he came here across tales of First Nations families braving below-freezing temperatures in tents or makeshift shedswith no water or electricity, Reynolds added Canada to the listing, hoping to showcase earthship homes as a low-cost means of addressing the housing deficits that plague many of Canadas First Nations communities.

The build comes just as the Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau, promised in its most recent budget to invest C $554 m in First Nations housing over the next two years. Truly, all government housing is junk. Theyre not induced with people in intellect, Reynolds said. This housing that we construct is made to take care of people. Feed them, keep them warm, with no utility bills.

Environmentally
An environmentally friendly solar-powered earthship home near Taos, New Mexico. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

His eventual goal is to take the project farther north, to the remote First Nations communities where stories of 15 or more people living in cramped, mould-ridden homes have become the norm. The project on Six Nations is his gateway; demonstrating the homes developed in Taos, New Mexico, at an altitude of some 7,000 ft above sea level resilience in the face of a Canadian wintertime. Im confident right now that nobody will freeze to death in one of these buildings, even in northern Canada.

The company is covering some of the cost of Doxtators new house. Forty interns have signed on to had participated in the building, each contributing at the least C $1,000 towards the project and adding to the thousands of dollars raised by a string of fundraisers.

Ten people from the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve will also participate in the build. I actually dont know what to expect, tells Matt Hill, one of the First Nations volunteers. Im actually curious to see how its going to work out.

The goal is to create a team of qualified First Nations volunteers who can then help others who want to replicate the project; a crucial knowledge transfer devoted 2013 figures that proved some 37% of First Nations homes are in a state of disrepair, 23% are overcrowded and simply over half are blighted with mould and mildew.

Waiting listings for new housing have become ubiquitous among most First Nations communities. In Doxtators community of some 12,000 people, about a third of residents are on the list with most waiting between five and 10 years for a new home.

Earthship
The self-sustained home for Francine Doxtators household living on Six Nations of the Grand River province. Photograph: Earthship Biotecture

The idea of earthships as a panacea to respond to some of the housing demand on First Nations communities is complicated by the strict house codes that govern new builds on reserves, said Hill. Given the absence of real estate marketplace on the reserves, leaders are instead focused on ensuring homes are built to last as long as possible.

Also, as some models of earthships dont qualify for traditional mortgages or home loans, the estimated C $60,000 cost of replicating the house being built for Doxtator remains prohibitive to many.

As she prepares to move into her new house, Doxtator foresees it as a model that will help pushing past some of these complications. I would love to see this happen for more people, Doxtator said softly. First Nations communities are a perfect fit for these trailblazing homes, she added. We try and respect Mother Earth. Right now were ruining her. We have to look after her so she can look after us.

Glancing at the piling of tires, her only hesitation is a superficial one what exactly would a home built on these principles look like? With a giggle she added, I merely hope it doesnt look like a Flintstones house in the end.

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