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Buildex Vancouver: Modular construction a housing solution for First Nations

February 1, 2023
HIYÁ̓M̓ HOUSING SOCIETY — An early rendering shows the first of several projects the Squamish First Nation is embarking on for affordable housing development.

NationTalk: Journal of Commerce – One of the biggest challenges facing First Nations is the procurement of suitable housing for their members.

At Buildex Vancouver 2023, a panel of housing experts will discuss how modular construction can help First Nations get the housing they need. The seminar, Bringing Rapid, Affordable Housing to First Nations Communities Through Modular Construction, takes place Thursday, Feb. 16.

The speakers are Sean Binns, project manager, Kindred Construction Ltd.; Rory Richards, president and CEO, NUQO Elevated Modular; Vance Harris, partner, DIALOG; and Simon Davie, vice-president, Lu’ma Development Management. The panellists will discuss two modular multifamily residential projects being built for the Squamish Nation in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, in North Vancouver and in Brackendale, 40 miles north of Vancouver.

Hiyam Housing Society is the developer of the projects. Founded in 2019 by Squamish Nation Council, Hiyam is a not-for-profit organization that builds and manages affordable housing for its members. Hiyam ensures such Squamish Nation priorities as cultural approvals, in the form of land blessings, and archeology, are addressed, said Donalene Rapada, CEO of the organization.

The north Vancouver project, which is located on the Capilano Reserve, will have 55 supportive housing units. Its name is “estítkw,” which means “safe place.”

The 27-unit Brackendale project, which is called “eskékxwi7ch tl’a Sp’ákw’us,” or “gathering place of eagles,” is located on the Siyich’em Reserve. The units are being supplied by Nuqo, an indigenous supplier of modular steel. “Nuqo provides an important Indigenous lens to the project team throughout the design and development process,” said Rapada.

Squamish Nation needs housing and it has a plan to get it. “Although there are approximately 4,100 Squamish Nation members, only a little more than one-half of them live on our reserves,” said Rapada. “The others live elsewhere in Canada and around the world.”

Within the Metro Vancouver area, many members face challenges of housing affordability and homelessness. “Therefore, Squamish Nation’s 2020-2023 strategic plan contains the bold goal to house every Squamish person within the next 25 years,” Rapada said.

In addition to the north Vancouver and Brackendale modular projects, Hiyam and the Squamish Nation are working on a strategy to house all its members within their need and income levels.

In 2022, it launched a rent subsidy program and a home loan program. “We also started construction on a 95-unit affordable housing complex on Capilano Reserve to house our independent elders, youth and families,” said Rapada.

Kindred Construction is the general contractor for both projects, overseeing the assembly and installation of the modules. Both projects have concrete foundations, with a community kitchen, office and community space for meetings on ground floor, and residences above, said Sean Binns, who acted as senior project manager. “The foundation has been poured in north Vancouver and the modules began to be installed in mid-January (2023),” said Binns. “The foundation for the Brackendale project was poured in January and the modules are expected to be put in place in April.”

All units get delivered to the site with appliances, fixtures, fittings, floors and blinds ready to be installed. They also come with a cedar feature wall.

Binns said modular construction has many benefits – faster, more efficient and higher quality, because the units are built off-site and not exposed to the elements, like ordinary stick-built construction. “Modular structures can be built in approximately 30 per cent less time than conventional stick-frame construction,” said Binns. “The north Vancouver project will take about 12 months instead of 18.”

Lu’ma Development Management (LDM) is development consultant on the projects. LDM works for First Nations, urban Indigenous housing societies and other non-profit groups to help develop housing and other social-purpose real estate, said Imelda Nurwisah, LDM development manager.

The Squamish Nation projects have encountered a number of challenges. “When we made our funding application in December 2021, the amount we asked for reflected the construction and development realities of the time,” said Nurwisah. “Since then, we have encountered significant inflation, supply chain constraints and a constrained labour market.”

In addition, the project makers have to work within very different legal and tax frameworks than other municipalities. “Everything, from building permits to construction contracts, is being reviewed for the first time,” said Nurwisah. “That puts a lot of pressure on schedules and budgets.”

Fortunately, she said, Squamish Nation has been flexible and innovative on the projects. “Council and the departments of planning and capital projects, rights and title and language and culture have all been instrumental in solving problems,” said Nurwisah.

Buildex Vancouver 2023 takes place Feb. 15 to 16 at the Vancouver Convention Centre West. Find out more here.