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Edmonton startup Novhaus helps families resettle after disaster

Sheldon Dahl and his wife, Jennifer, recall the day they “drove a gauntlet of fire” with their three children in the back seat as they, like thousands of others, fled Fort McMurray to escape the wildfire which would destroy their home.

“We were being told on the radio to head to MacDonald Island but we decided to go south on 63 while we still could to try and get to Edmonton. That’s where my dad lives,” says Mr. Dahl, a high school teacher. “There were flames on all sides of the road, it was terrifying.”

The couple’s eldest child, 10-year-old Henry, has autism. He’s also acutely afraid of fires and concerned about environmental issues including habitat destruction affecting wildlife.

“Henry wasn’t handling the evacuation situation well,” Mr. Dahl says. “He was very, very upset. The radio was saying Abasand, which is where our home was, is on fire and he was becoming increasingly anxious and stressed over that.”

The burned remains of homes in the Abasand neighbourhood of For McMurray. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

After making it safely to Edmonton, the family waited six days for news of their home before a fire map confirmed the worst; along with 2,400 other homes in the city, their property had been destroyed.

“The days after the fire were surreal,” Mr. Dahl says. “I realized for the first time in my life that I didn’t have socks. I’d been wearing sandals on the day of the evacuation and all of my socks were in our house. Then you start thinking about all the other things you and your family no longer have and it becomes completely overwhelming. There were a lot of moments like that for all of us.”

In the coming weeks, as the reality of their situation sunk in, the Dahl family decided to stick with their plans to spend the summer in Vancouver. But, with Henry’s increasing anxiety about the family’s home, they knew they needed to form a plan to resettle their family.

“Within a week of finding out we had lost our home, we started thinking about rebuilding,” Ms. Dahl says. “With Henry, the longer you delay transition, the harder it becomes.”

“We lived in five homes this summer,” she continues, “which is very hard for all of us, but especially Henry. For him, what’s happened to us is like the animals who lose their homes because of habitat destruction. He’s very concerned that we don’t own a home anymore.”

Rendering of Tau, a structure Novhaus describes as a garden suite. (Novhaus)

In search of a new habitat, the family came across Novhaus on social media.

The Edmonton-based company launched in September, 2015, building steel-framed houses using modified shipping containers as the internal structure. They’re manufactured at a climate-controlled facility just west of Edmonton in Parkland County and can be installed on a site within 90-days of receiving building permits.

“The time frame for this kind of house was really appealing for us,” Ms. Dahl says. The Dahl family recently returned to Fort McMurray for the start of the school year and are living in yet another rented house in Northern Stonecreek. “We also plan to be in Fort McMurray until we retire so it fits with our vision for a long-term home to raise our family.”

Novhaus houses are energy efficient, environmentally friendly and affordable, with the most popular three-bedroom, 1,900-square-foot Beta model coming in at $268,650 without customization. Upgrades include solar technology, smart energy management and wildfire sprinkler systems.

A rough cut of a steel container at the Novhaus construction facility. (Novhaus)

The Dahl family have paid a deposit on a Beta model house and are waiting to approve custom floor plans, which include an additional bedroom. Upon completion, the modules will be transported to their Abasand site in nine trucks.

Novhaus recently attended the Fort McMurray Home Show, an event to showcase what local businesses can do for those who lost their homes back in May. Founder Aurelien Balondona says the response to his product has been “incredible.”

“We have a database of about 350 people who have committed to buy in the next six months. We’ve had about a hundred people from Fort McMurray visit our facility in Edmonton and we’re unveiling our first show home at the beginning of October.”

Mr. Balondona is an engineer, originally from Cameroon, who has spent years managing modular building projects with sea cans around the world within the oil and gas industry. After settling in Edmonton, he decided to start his own business, bringing energy-efficient, technologically advanced modular houses to the masses.

“Our homes are like Teslas,” he says. “They’re at the cutting edge of home design and manufacturing and Albertans have a unique appreciation for engineering.”

Wood studs are installed on the inside of a shipping container at the Novhaus facility. (Novhaus)

He’s also a passionate advocate for affordable housing and is planning a community in partnership with a non-profit in Edmonton in 2017.

“A shelter is a basic human right, everybody deserves a place to call home,” he says.

Henry Dahl, the little boy who feels his habitat has been destroyed, would probably agree.

His parents are hopeful that, if they can get a foundation poured on the site of their old home before winter, the whole family could be in their new house by January.

Blwon insulation installed in a Novhaus container. (Novhaus)

“For us, it’s about resettling our family quickly, in a home that’s affordable. It’s also about being able to customize it in a way that makes our kids happy and comfortable.”

The Dahls’ two daughters, eight-year-old Elsa and four-year-old Agnes, have already requested a secret passage between their two bedrooms. Henry loves the colour teal, so Ms. Dahl says they’re working on a way to incorporate that into the house.

“Henry would like the house to be exactly the same as our old house but we’re hoping we can win him over with the fact that this house is very environmentally friendly, which is something he’s always been concerned about. The internal structure has also been on a boat and probably also a train at some point, so we’re hoping he’ll get excited about that, too, because he loves vehicles.”

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