Canadian Contractor

By John Bleasby   

The Class Of 2018

canada class of 2018 contractor The Endeavour Centre

The Endeavour Centre in Peterborough, Ontario is sending their sustainable building course graduates to all corners of the world.

George from Ghana, Nicole from Nicaragua, Diederich from Holland, Justin from Minnesota — each with diverse backgrounds and future ambitions. They join Maya and Genevieve from Ottawa and Justin from Toronto with a shared objective — hands-on experience with sustainable, natural building materials and techniques. Along the way, they’ll also learn how to manage the design and build process of a real-life project. Returning home to develop their future career paths, they may well be among tomorrow’s influencers of residential design.

Each May, students from all over the world arrive at the Endeavour Centre, a private learning facility in Peterborough, Ontario. They’re drawn to Endeavour’s learn-while-you-build project, a summer-long course that has really put the facility on the map. “We thrive on working with the most promising and innovative sustainable building materials and technology,” the Endeavour website explains. “From simple natural materials to effective high-tech mechanical systems, our exploration of what’s available, possible, practical and affordable is our raisons d’être.” It’s a unique outlook, but reveals only a part of the independent streak that runs through the organization.

Chris Magwood, one of Endeavour Centre’s co-founders, had previously been teaching sustainable building at Fleming College in Peterborough for several years. “We had been looking at expanding that one course but decided it would probably work better outside the institution,” Magwood tells me when we first talk during the winter. “It simply takes longer to initiate those types of programs inside a college environment. We thought we could be quick and nimble and start our own thing.” In response, Magwood along his wife, Jen, and three associates came up with the idea of the Endeavour Centre. Today, it offers more than 25 courses and workshops in design and building science that run almost year-round.

That initial conversation with Magwood arouses my curiosity. So does the Zero House, an Endeavour Centre project that made a dramatic statement at the Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology (EDIT) held in Toronto in the fall of 2017. Built in collaboration with Ryerson University in Toronto, the Zero House was a pre-fabricated, 1,000 square foot, two-storey NZE home constructed by Endeavour students earlier that summer at the Centre’s campus, then reassembled at the Expo.

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I decide to visit Peterborough in May at the start of their summer-long sustainable building course, and spend two days shadowing seven students ranging in age from 21 to 56 years. Each has paid several thousand dollars to be part of the 2018 project — transforming an unsightly concrete block garage behind a large, older home near the city’s downtown into a modern, energy-efficient rental apartment. Surprisingly, only one student is a carpenter by trade, but never mind — that’s neither a prerequisite nor a concern to Magwood and the way the course operates.

Students paying to work? It’s just another aspect of the Centre’s uniqueness — financial autonomy. The Endeavour Centre earns its way almost exclusively through tuition fees plus the management fees charged to the project’s property owners. “In Canada, paying (entirely) for your education is a little bit outside people’s expectations,” Magwood says. “But people who come from outside the country think it’s a really affordable education, a bargain, in fact. I think that’s one reason why we attract so many international people.”

The Endeavour Centre doesn’t run on government grants or subsidies, either. “There really aren’t any government programs that cover what we do,” Magwood tells me. “We don’t like being beholden to granters. What we do is outside the box, and grants tend to define you. We have to be able to change, be flexible and explore new things. That often doesn’t mesh very well with grants.”

Magwood explains that working hands-on from start to finish on actual projects is the key to students understanding the full arc of the process. They’ll learn to use a number of materials and strategies for sustainable building. They’ll learn how to assess existing building conditions and formulate sustainable solutions such as rammed earth, natural insulation, wood framing and natural plasters, all in real-life situations. Air tightness and avoiding thermal bridges are also high on the list, as well as the selection and installation of natural finishes and low carbon heating systems.

Shane McInnis is Magwood’s right hand man supervising this summer’s project. A Red Seal carpenter and Endeavour Centre alumni who joined the Endeavour Centre faculty three years ago, McInnis teaches at Georgian College in Toronto during the off-season. He likes the direction Magwood has set and Endeavour’s ability to adapt the curriculum on the fly. “If we notice a gap or need in the students’ learning, or a learning outcome that needs to be addressed, we can make those changes.”

The term “sustainable” in the building industry has been subject to a certain amount of marketing abuse. For clarity, I ask McInnis how Endeavour defines it. “The way we define sustainability is to actually set goals for the project,” he explains.

“Those goals should be measurable and need to take into account the combined carbon, the indoor air quality for occupants, responsible waste management — how much is diverted away from the landfill — and energy efficiency. These goals are set at the start, based on the specifics of that project. It’s more than simply using non-VOC paints, for example, or quoting some certification.” McInnis is quick to add, however, that project goals must relate to budgetary objectives, too, not just idealism.

Endeavour alumni later becoming industry influencers in the goal. Chris Magwood’s passion for sustainable building practices has played a key role in the professional development of one of the country’s leading eco-friendly builders. Ben Polley, co-founder of Evolve Builders in Guelph, Ontario, met Magwood in the days before the Endeavour Centre. “Chris had started as a straw bale subcontractor with two other building partners,” he tells me. “When I was looking to do something similar, they effectively took me under their wing. They first taught me what they knew about straw bale building, and then helped me on my way by providing leads in areas they couldn’t have easily serviced.”

Who can say how or where Endeavour’s class of 2018 will impact the world of construction. I return in late September to ask the students to comment on the personal impact the course has made on them. George is a 30 year old Ghanese, and the executive director of Roots Without Borders, a foundation supporting environmental programs in Ghana and Canada. Although he’s not a carpenter by trade, he tells me about his background in agri-education, and how he and his Canadian wife have built a school incorporating a 20-acre farm that supplements the student fees. He exudes enthusiasm. “This program is one of the greatest I’ve seen so far. This sustainable building idea is a big new chapter for me in my life — the materials, the concept, and the actual building itself. I really believe that sustainable building is something that is going to protect this planet, which is very, very important.” George brought materials from Ghana, experimenting withn how to adapt them back home based on what he has learned here in Canada. In December, he will host Magwood on a two-week exploratory trip to determine if a sustainable training programme can be set up in Ghana, perhaps with government support.

For Nicole, a Canadian living in Nicaragua, returning with an understanding of how to adapt cheap, abundant and indigenous materials into a sustainable building process was a goal shared with George. She and her partner are developing an eco-lodge.

It’s no easy task. “Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” Nicole tells me. “Clay is one of their biggest resources. There’s bamboo, there’s palm leaves — it’s an entirely different environment, a jungle.”

Justin, Maya and Genevieve came to the Endeavour Centre from other angles entirely. Justin is an architecture grad from Toronto who will return with his passion reignited, ready to blend it with an improved understanding of sustainable processes. Genevieve works with her father’s design firm in Ottawa as a draftsperson. She’ll incorporate her new understanding of sustainable options into presentations to clients who are interested in an earth-friendly approach to their new homes. Maya, the youngest of the group, is a creative mind with a background in industrial design and a love for working with tools and her hands. “I just started school at Carleton University in Ottawa, and wrote an internship report on this program. It’s really going to be part of my career in industrial design.” Justin from Minnesota, the only bona fide carpenter in the group, may or may not return to the States. He’s considering moving to Canada and setting up shop, perhaps to offer sustainable methods to homeowners. And Diederich will return to Holland to continue his personal voyage of philosophic discovery and development. He can’t say where his summer’s experience will take him. “I have no idea what I will do with this knowledge I have gained, but I will come up with something.”

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