Research in Action - Building a better, stronger home

Originally posted in the Chronicle Journal on July 4, 2024


Growing up in rural Alberta, Tristen Brown saw first-hand the difficulties faced by Indigenous communities when it comes to affordable and well-maintained homes. It's these wretched images of substandard houses, unhealthy overcrowding, and the need for major repairs that underpin the work being done at Lakehead University as part of a wider effort to find innovative solutions for habitats that can better withstand Canada's unforgiving climate.

“Driving by these communities you see the siding of the house completely torn off, big holes in walls, windows blocked off and covered with wood,” says Brown, a member of the Sturgeon Lake Cree First Nation who lived in Edson, Alberta, in the vicinity of a half-dozen First Nation communities. “Then there's no proper ventilation, moisture starts occurring. Then you have mould growing, which deteriorates the structure. Then when these families have a house, the grandparents move in and you start to have three or four generations of a family in a two- or three-bedroom house. You have 10 or 12 family members living in a single house and the body heat from all those people starts moistening the whole house inside. That's when mould starts occurring again.”

Brown is part of a group under the direction of Dr. Ahmed Elshaer, developing modular housing for Indigenous communities that have to deal with extreme weather as well as transportation and other difficulties.

“When it comes to housing, we are trying to build them to be resilient enough for the conditions where they are located,” says Elshaer, an associate professor in Lakehead's department of Civil Engineering. “Typically, Indigenous communities are located in northern regions where they experience substantially higher wind loads and higher or severe cold climate. This would require special planning and design when we are developing housing solutions.”

Damaging windstorms occur in Toronto, for example, every 50 years; in northern communities it's every three years. And with global warming, it's only getting worse. The issue is even more pressing for remote communities, which are distant from major cities, lack access to skilled trades, and face a short building season.

“The remoteness of these communities is a major issue,” says Brown. “When you're trying to find something affordable it becomes extremely difficult because you have to transport all these goods and services up to those communities.”

“We need to find a solution,” Elshaer adds, “that can be easily transported, easily assembled, lightweight, and resilient to those severe cold climates.”

The answer lies in modular housing -- putting structures together outside, transporting them to their destination disassembled and then joining them up on-site.

“I describe it as 'Ikea-like' buildings,” Elshaer says. “You have a building in a box and you assemble it using some bolt connections. It doesn't require a lot of knowledge to put them together, or even heavy machinery. It just needs simple lifting tools.”

This project started in the fall of 2021 and is supported by a five-year grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Partners include Lakehead, Coastal Steel and other collaborators.

Elshaer's team at the Structural and Wind Engineering Research Laboratory (SWERL), which includes undergraduates, graduate assistants and post-doctoral fellows, is concentrating on different elements of modular housing, specifically on special connections and to boost thermal insulation.

Along with Brown, the researchers include:

  • Magdy Alanani: a post-doctoral fellow, focusing on structural optimization for the modular houses;

  • Mostafa Elhadary: a PhD student, working on developing innovative connections for hollow structural sections to withstand flexural moments;

  • Amir Ali: a PhD student, creating innovative thermal insulating materials using waste paper pulp and aerogel; and

  • Raghdah Al-Chalabi: a PhD student, studying wind pressure distributions.

Wind impact and distribution testing has taken place at Toronto Metropolitan University. RWDI, a multi-national engineering firm specializing in wind evaluation, is also on board.

“They are helping us, providing historical wind and climate data for different areas of northern regions,” Elshaer says.

His team has already developed an easy-to-assemble beam, column and bolt connection. He hopes to have a full-scale prototype, measuring 2.5 x 3.5 x 6 metres, available for testing in the next year. The units, made of timber with steel connections, would be pieced together to complete a home.

“The house would not be just formed of one of these modular units. They are made of a number of them,” Elshaer says. “The key is we can easily assemble all of these units together.”

Brown was originally attracted to engineering while working as a labourer for a landscape company. After obtaining a diploma from Lethbridge College, he transferred to Lakehead. His master's studies was on wind behaviour for tall structures. For this project, he's looking at weather station reliability for these far-flung communities.

“The wind can become unpredictable in certain regions,” he says. “Usually when you design for a structure you want it to withstand cold climates and wind, so you design for a 1-in-100-year return period or a 1-in-250-year return period. So when you only have 10 years of data you have to forecast and add a reliability factor to this wind data. That's my goal: to understand how vulnerable the wind data is, and then should it be justified further when designing these buildings.”

Brown, who is in the PhD program, recently received a prestigious national prize. The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship comes with $150,000 in support of his doctoral studies.

“I'm very pleased to have been awarded this,” says Brown, the first Civil Engineering student at Lakehead to do so. “It's exciting and an honour to have this title.”

Brown first came in contact with Elshaer as an undergraduate researcher and worked with him while finishing his master's degree.

“When Dr. Elshaer asked if I wanted to continue into my PhD and work on the topic related to my own culture, I was more than pleased to accept,” he says. “It never entered my mind that I could put my own imprint on my culture and that I could make a difference by conducting research in this field. It made me very happy to know that I could make a difference.”

Lakehead University civil engineering Dr. Ahmed Elshaer (centre back row) is joined by members of his team at the Structural and Wind Engineering Research Laboratory (SWERL). From left: Magdy Alanani, a post-doctoral fellow; Mostafa Elhadary, Amir Ali, Tristen Brown and Raghdah Al-Chalabi, all PhD candidates Lakehead University civil engineering Dr. Ahmed   Elshaer (centre back row) is joined by members of his   team at the Structural and Wind Engineering   Research Laboratory (SWERL). From left: Magdy   Alanani, a post-doctoral fellow; Mostafa Elhadary,   Amir Ali, Tristen Brown and Raghdah Al-Chalabi, all   PhD candidates 




Research in Action highlights the work of Lakehead University in various fields of research.

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 A. Elshaer