New project will teach women construction skills to build environmentally friendly housing

Seven years ago, Janice Keil set out on a mission to find a perfect plot of land. She loaded up her bike, took the GO train, and cycled around Southern Ontario looking for an ideal location for her new home.

Janice had been dealing with unsafe building conditions for a few years at her workplace and wanted a safe, environmentally friendly home that she could live in. Somewhere along her bike journey a plan started to take shape. She would have a home built to the European Passivhaus standards and it would be built by an all women construction crew.

Janice eventually settled on a plot of land in Northumberland county, and she currently lives in Peterborough while making all of her preparations for the construction project. Peterborough Currents host Ayesha Barmania spoke with Janice Keil about her passive house project.

[Transcript below the photo]

Janice Keil: [00:00:00] Hi my name is Janice Keil and I live here in the wonderful community of Peterborough, Ontario. And I’ve been here about three and a half years and moved here to look for farmland which I have now found – a beautiful 97 acres east of Campbellford in Northumberland County. And I’m also planning to build a sustainable feminist house next year in 2019 which is called ‘Active Women Building a Passive House’ that has morphed into something huge and attracting a lot of attention. So that’s where it started. And that’s where we’re at right now.

Ayesha: [00:00:42] Nice. And this passive house is why I invited you here today to talk about it. Also the fact that it’s going to be a female only or female led construction crew. Can you tell me a bit about that and why that was important for you?

Janice Keil: [00:00:57] So yeah it’s going to be an all women construction project and this is to promote women in the construction sector. But also to talk about the elephant in the room: what is actually happening in the construction sector. Presently we probably only have about 2 percent of women in Canada that are part of the construction sector and one of the major reasons I’ve been told why women are not staying in that sector even though there’s a lot of women going through trades and technology programs in this province and across Canada is because of the workplace harassment either sexual violence, discrimination on the job site. Women just basically saying I don’t need to put up with this and they’re leaving. So we need to actually create a safe place for women to build up those skill sets so that we can get women in the construction sector up to about the 30 percent level that the U.N. has declared is kind of the threshold for people really kind of making it in that sector. And we’re a long way away from that. And so I always tell people you know ‘Active Women Building a Passive House’ is a project that I want to see redundant as quickly as possible that we will have no need for it – to have something particularly for women and also that we’re not going to have to really talk about passive housing or zero carbon housing any more. It’s just going to be part of the building code and it’s going to be standard in this country but we’re not anywhere near that point.

Janice Keil: [00:02:40] The reason that I personally decided that I wanted to go with the feminist project is a) because I am a very ardent and passionate feminist. And at the same time as I was making the decision that I would have to build something new in the future and I was saving up money for that, I was going through a trauma therapy program at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. And I’m an incest survivor. And went through a tremendous amount in my life as well as workplace harassment. And I knew that as I was developing my sense of myself as a survivor that I really did not want guys going into any building that I was going to build and be demeaning or violate my space or violate me in any way. And I just heard too many stories about that and I just thought, “I just can’t allow that to happen.” And I’m these are the questions that we really want to talk about with this project as well so it’s not just the product. It’s not just building a passive house plus so it’s going to be on a microgrid it’s going to be the first totally DC powered house in Canada, as far as I know. It’s not just the product, it’s the process like how do we get there. And that’s something that is just as important to look at.

Ayesha: [00:04:12] Right. And we’re talking just in the midst or just like at the tail end of you know the #MeToo movement coming to massive popularity. How do you see this project as contributing to a larger conversation about women in male dominated spaces?

Janice Keil: [00:04:31] Well just to say, I’ve been working on this project for seven years so like way before #MeToo and #TimesUp came into the media spotlight and it is so time that we actually talk about these issues and especially when it comes to sectors as you’ve mentioned such as the construction sector and others that are very male dominated and have always been. So I think it’s absolutely essential. And I know that there probably will be pushback but I think the response from women is speaking volumes that we we need to have much greater female representation in these sectors. And the goal is not just to do this one house where I am the client and therefore I’m specifying who I want to have on the job site and I’m saying I want all women to be involved. The goal for the second stage after this training module on this land is to have all women crews across Canada to build affordable housing for women and children. And this I think is part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement as well. That for all of us who have gone through sexual harassment, workplace harassment, sexual abuse as children and so on – usually our incomes are less because a lot of us are on long term disability or just simply knowing the income disparity in Canada. Women don’t make as much as men do.

Janice Keil: [00:06:19] And if you basically are your own project manager. And you know, for example, the details of passive housing and have women educate other women and to be able to help with your own design, you can basically save at least 30 percent and more on your housing costs and that means that women can actually live in good, affordable, healthy, sustainable housing and be empowered themselves which I think is a big part of the #MeToo movement.

Ayesha: [00:06:55] Right. So you’re saying doing some of this work yourself you can save a lot of money which makes up for the pay gap between men and women. Yeah I also want to get into some of the details of the passive house. Why did the passive house appeal to you?

Janice Keil: [00:07:10] Well passive housing or in Germany they call them ‘passivhaus’ – basically it is a building that is super insulated, has a heat recovery ventilator that will be able to recoup like 98 percent of the heat before it gets sent outside. And the popular maxim is that you can basically heat a passive house for the hairdryer and keep it at 20 degrees Celsius all year long.

Ayesha: [00:07:36] Wow, that’s pretty amazing.

Janice Keil: [00:07:38] And that’s basically why it’s called ‘passive’ because it doesn’t really need an active heating system to keep it at that level of thermal comfort.

Ayesha: [00:07:49] OK. And the land you bought now you’re sending up this passive house so that it can run on a micro-grid. What’s the goal there and what is a micro-grid?

Janice Keil: [00:07:59] So there’s a big move to get buildings less dependent on our regular grid system which as we know in Ontario is getting outdated. It basically is very inefficient. You lose a lot of power in terms of the transmission between the grid and the buildings. When you have a micro-grid that means that you are basically not using alternating current which is the regular electrical current that we use now that basically you’re using direct current.

Janice Keil: [00:08:39] So if you look at for example your laptop. So I have an Apple. And when I look at my cord I have that little box on the end of it which is probably the heaviest thing on your cord. Well basically what that does is it takes AC power from the grid and it turns it into DC which is what laptops and LED lights and so many things that you have in your home already run on DC current which is much more efficient than AC in terms of that you don’t have those transmission losses. So if you look at solar panels and all of those those batteries run on DC power. So it means everything is going to be just simply without any transmission losses which means you’re saving 30 percent right there. So hopefully this might be the standard or the the first one in Canada. There’s only one in Detroit in the United States.

Janice Keil: [00:09:32] So be great if maybe we could have this as kind of a model test case for how we could actually have a new way of delivering electricity.

Ayesha: [00:09:41] Cool. That was a wonderfully accessible explanation of AC and DC. [laughter] I can hear your teaching background through. I can also hear that you understand this stuff really well. Can you talk a bit about the research and the work that you’ve done to get to this point where you understand all of the technical things so well to make this passive house?

Janice Keil: [00:10:01] Well I guess if – I have you know four university degrees. But if I were to go and do it again I probably would love to be an architect and probably an engineer. But unfortunately growing up I just wasn’t given the empowerment as a trauma survivor that I would be able to do anything like that all those years ago. But I still have it in me. I have this tremendous interest in all of this information. And so I thought rather than pay someone to do this – money that I don’t have – I thought, ‘I’m just going to learn it myself.’ And so I have spent the last few years learning this information doing a lot of research and being able to kind of – and this is where it is good to be an educator because I’ve learned how to translate these concepts these very difficult concepts you know building physic formulas and so on into a way that I can actually access that information. And so I have you know created this book to be able to help me do that with all of this information in it. And I have to say and I’m saying this in all humility but with great excitement. I actually understand this now and that’s what’s frightening but I actually understand it.

Ayesha: [00:11:20] It’s really cool.

Janice Keil: [00:11:23] And in doing that and in understanding that I thought what has come to me in the last year is that there has to be a role to be able to educate other women for free.

Janice Keil: [00:11:36] Because I know I don’t have the money to be able to go out and have someone teach me and I have been able to learn this on my own and I would really love to share this information. And so this is something that I’m thinking kind of has to be part of this project going forward. This kind of almost open source education piece so that we can educate other women so that people don’t have to rely – they don’t have to rely on men and defer to them as the experts because automatically people – and I’m talking about people that are really big feminists – when it comes to anything to do with construction or renovation of their house or whatever, people automatically think, ‘Oh I’ve got to hire him or this crew that’s been you know doing it you know for the last number of years.’ And I really want to provide an opportunity for women to say, ‘Oh I have another option. Right? I can hire her.’ You know? Or I can learn how to kind of do most of this kind of basic research myself.

Janice Keil: [00:12:48] And I think that is so so important because I want to prove that you can build a passive house affordably in Canada that you don’t have to have a lot of money that you don’t have to you know put out a huge expenditure of your savings to be able to build a house to the highest sustainable standard in the world and I’m going to prove that because I only have the money that I’ve saved up. And so thus it’s going to be done to that limit. And from the cost projections that I’ve done so far I think it can happen.

Janice Keil: [00:13:25] And I think that in and of itself is a really big step because we need to make affordable housing sustainable and we need to make it accessible for all Canadians because affordable housing is a huge problem. I faced it myself living in Toronto. I was transitionally housed and had to move 25 times in ten months because I just couldn’t afford to live there any longer. And so I know the issue myself from lived experience and we need to do something about it in this country. But if we’re going to actually meet our climate change targets which the federal government and provincial government have agreed to then we need to do it sustainably and that means we need a huge transformation in how we do things in the housing sector. And as far as I’m concerned if you’re going to transform the sector let’s do it with women at the forefront. And for me that’s a winning combination and it’s time we’re ready.

Ayesha: [00:14:26] Yeah well I just want to wrap up. But when will your project be starting and how can people get in touch to get involved?

Janice Keil: [00:14:33] OK so the project is going to be taking place late spring early summer of 2019. As I said I am presently working on the website. So I would say that if people just to kind of keep checking in that hopefully the website will be up by the summer of this year for sure and be able to go on and on and we’ll have lots of opportunities for you to contact us and let us know how you’d like to be involved.

Ayesha: [00:15:06] Awesome. Thanks so much Janice for coming in. I really appreciate you telling us about this.

Janice Keil: [00:15:11] Well thank you so much for having me. It was absolutely wonderful to talk to you. And to be able to tell you a bit about the project.

Ayesha: [00:15:19] OK. Thanks.

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