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A sustainable future at -40 C

Students test innovative housing for the harsh northern climate, in Concordia’s Environmental Chamber and the Arctic
October 17, 2013
By Laurence Miall

Ahmad Kayello
Test hut construction

Wind, snow and frigid temperatures might seem like the biggest threat to houses in Canada’s north, but their designers consider many factors beyond extreme weather. These structures must be easily built, energy efficient and durable: fixing breakdowns is far from easy given the paucity of local materials.

Ahmad Kayello and Daniel Baril — both students in the second year of their master’s studies in Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering — are conducting important testing in Concordia’s state-of-the-art Environmental Chamber and on site in the north. They are working under the supervision of Paul Fazio, a professor of building engineering and member of Concordia’s Centre for Zero Energy Building Studies.

Both field and lab research are vital components in a full understanding of how to best design structures for remote and intemperate communities.

Baril comes from Kuujjuaq, a Quebec town near the tree line. “There is a housing shortage up north, and a lot of overcrowding,” he says.

“This is a good opportunity to get involved and find solutions.”

Kayello hails from a much hotter region: Saudi Arabia. “Lots of research has already been done into housing in that kind of climate. What’s been neglected are cold climates — there are lots of opportunities to do things that haven’t been done before,” he says

At Concordia, over the last month, a test hut built in the Environmental Chamber has been subjected to temperatures of up to -40 C, to simulate real-life conditions.

Kayello has been tracking several important measures. Temperature is, of course, critical. Joints in the test-hut walls and the attics were embedded with wires that sense temperature changes — indicating if, for example, air is sneaking in.

Daniel Baril
Daniel Baril
Ahmed Kayello

Relative humidity is another key measure. The walls are made from prefabricated sandwich boards: two layers of wood with Styrofoam inside. It’s important that humidity not pass through them because water vapour can condense, freeze, thaw out, and ultimately lead to mold growth, which can be hazardous to the occupants’ health.

The extensive testing is being conducted for the KOTT Group, a business that supplies buildings across Canada. Baril says it’s like “putting together Lego” to assemble full-sized houses that, similarly to the test huts, are built with what are called Structural Insulated Panels.

With the help of local workers, an entire house can typically be erected on site in the north in six days.

The testing at Concordia complements field studies in Nunavut and Nunavik, which have been of particular interest to Baril. He has tracked similar measures to Kayello, but with actual occupants who provide data as they go about their daily business — cooking, sleeping, taking showers.

Baril explains how, with fuel costs rising and an increased need for housing in the remote communities where many of Canada’s natural resources lie, there has never been a greater need for innovative building designs.

“It’s all about helping provide a sustainable future for the Arctic,” he says.

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