Eco-friendly home built free of charge for Six Nations woman

JULIEN GIGNAC | The Globe and Mail | Sunday, Apr. 03, 2016 9:51PM EDT

Foot-wide holes are punched clean through the skirting of the baby blue, whale-shaped trailer. Plastic and blankets hang where window panes should be. Mice have made a mess of things in kitchen drawers.

Inside sits Fran Doxtador, who is in her late 50s. She is commonly known as “Flower” on Six Nations of the Grand River, the largest reserve in Canada, an hour’s drive southwest of Toronto.

“In the wintertime, it’s very drafty and cold,” she says, referring to the small space she has called home for 30 years. “There’s some leaks, lots of missing windows. You make do with what you can find after a while.”

Flower received some good news that will significantly improve her quality of life, however: A new home will be built for her come July, and it’s far from ordinary.

She points to a small hill about 50 steps from her front door. “That’s where it’s going.”

An earthship is slated to be built there, an ecofriendly and entirely self-sustainable home. And it’s going to be constructed free of charge.

The earthship homes, which have been around since the 1970s, are wholly off-grid and harness environmental elements for power. Solar panels and windmills replace a reliance on fossil fuels. They are built using organic and reusable materials such as bottles, cans and tires chock full of compacted earth, which act as heat reservoirs. Angled, south-facing windows provide additional warmth and light for a greenhouse; a cistern collects rainfall, providing water for drinking, washing, flushing toilets and plants.

Earthship Biotecture of Taos, N.M., is behind the project, which will cost about $70,000 (U.S.) – $20,000 for the home itself, the rest for everything else, such as transportation, accommodation and labour. The two-week build will be funded and built by 48 international volunteers, who will each pay $1,000, and through donations.

Earthship Biotecture has built four or five homes in Canada to date. Many more have been independently constructed. The homes can be found all over the world in places such as India, Haiti and Africa. A team recently returned from Uruguay.

But this is the first time Earthship Biotecture will build in a First Nations community in Canada. Housing crises have been an issue on reserves for years, and Michael Reynolds, the trailblazing architect behind earthships, says his design could offer a potential solution for those suffering silently in squalor.

“It can grow food year-round,” Mr. Reynolds says. “People can have water. They can have managed, contained and treated sewage. It’s too good to be true, but we know it can work.”

The Six Nations project will prove that the homes can simultaneously take on Ontario winters and provide a viable remedy to those in need of adequate, low-cost housing, he says.

And he wants to go even farther north eventually. “I’m working my way up there,” he says. “We know we can make buildings up there in Northern Canada that’ll keep people reasonably warm with no fuel.”

The prototype that will be built in Six Nations has weathered -36 C in Taos, he says.

When Mr. Reynolds saw pictures of the severe destitution in Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario a few years ago, he pledged to start building in First Nation communities.

Fran Doxtador’s mobile home located in Six Nations of the Grand River. She will receive an earthship this summer free of charge, courtesy of Earthship Biotecture. (Julien Gignac/The Globe and Mail)

The dangerous lack of proper housing in that community is not a Canadian anomaly, though. Neither is overcrowding, mould infestation and lack of heat and access to clean drinking water.

According to an Assembly of First Nations report in 2013, 37 per cent of First Nations homes are in need of major repairs; 51 per cent of people from First Nations communities said they had mould and mildew in their residences; 23 per cent live in overcrowded homes.

Some of those problems are causing Flower serious problems. There’s black mould on the ceiling of one bedroom in her trailer. She says her average electricity bill is $150 a month, which is covered by welfare. She also takes care of her daughter who is suffering from a spinal cord injury and her five young grandchildren.

She refuses to leave the land, though, referring to it as her “terra.” Her sister lives in the house next door; her niece lives up the dirt road. She plans to give the small parcel of land to her grandkids, just as her own grandmother did.

More than 12,000 people live on Six Nations and about a third are waiting for new homes, rental units or renovations. It can take five to 10 years for people to acquire a new house, said a spokeswoman from the band’s housing department. These wait lists aren’t unusual – 94 per cent of First Nations have them, according to the AFN.

In the 1990s, Flower said she was told to wait eight years for a new house. Roughly two decades later, she’s still in her dilapidated, rodent-infested mobile home.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scrapped the 2-per-cent cap on indigenous funding by investing $8.4-billion over the next five years as part of this year’s federal budget. Part of that money, or $554-million, will go toward First Nations housing over the next two years. First Nations people are the fastest-growing population in the country and the cap, which restricted funding to 2-per-cent growth a year, was one reason behind housing issues.

The earthship design offers indigenous people the opportunity to take home building into their own hands.

“In recent years, we’ve made this much more user-friendly, much more easy to replicate,” Mr. Reynolds says, adding that First Nations communities “could take the lead in sustainability.

“I want to empower them to take advantage of physics and biology to have a better life than the people in the cities that’ve given them this bad life.”

The project will take on six First Nations interns too, says Marianne Griffith, a Canadian correspondent for Earthship Biotecture who helped locate Flower and her family. “The beauty of the earthship design is that it’s relatively low-skill to build,” she says. “The pounding of the tires, laying pop bottles … anyone can be taught to do that in a couple of hours.”

The idea is already catching on. Another Six Nations family of six started to build their own earthship last year by themselves.

Flower, having experienced her fair share of hardship, takes the project with a grain of salt. “When I have the key, that’s when I’ll believe it for sure,” she says, smiling.