Buildings We Love

Energy efficient 'Heal My Spirit' Centre built to last

The 6,800-square-foot Letwilc ten Semec Centre is a six-bed wellness facility in the Cariboo that's part of B.C.'s effort to support drug and alcohol recovery and address the opiod crisis. Show caption
Heat pumps will be used to provide the hot water and space heating needs while fresh air will be provided efficiently throughout the centre by a heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system. Show caption
Along with Natural Resources Canada, BC Housing and BC Hydro helped cover the additional expenses for the energy-efficient design. Show caption
The Letwilc ten Semec Centre was constructed with wood from Secwepemc traditional territory. Show caption
The 6,800 square foot building was assembled on site from pre-fabricated panels built at the Zirnhelt shop at 150 Mile House near Williams Lake. Show caption
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Wellness centre a sustainable gem for Alkali Lake and the Cariboo region

It's called "Letwilc ten Semec," which translates to "Heal My Spirit," and the new wellness centre in Alkali Lake was built to last for generations.

The six-bed facility is part of the provincial effort to support drug and alcohol recovery and address the opioid crisis. Sam Zirnhelt said the construction methods and materials used will have the building standing, "for many generations."

Timber frame construction with local wood

The company he runs with his brother, Zirnhelt Timber Frames, is known for elegant and robust wood structures. "Sustainable building was our reason for starting our timber frame construction business," Zirnhelt explained on the phone from Victoria, where he was attending the Canadian Home Builders' Association conference.

"What interests us are projects that have a community focus, legacy buildings that make sense in the landscape they are in," said Zirnhelt. "Beautiful buildings that people will want to take care of."

That's certainly true of the Letwilc ten Semec Centre, which was constructed with wood from Secwepemc traditional territory. Maximizing use of wood and other natural materials contributes to the local economy and the health of occupants, claims Zirnhelt.

The 6,800 square foot building was assembled on site from pre-fabricated panels built at the Zirnhelt shop at 150 Mile House near Williams Lake. The pre-fabrication process, Zirnhelt explained, allows for a better-quality envelope, constructed in a controlled environment, and much faster construction on-site, particularly during the winter months. "It's hard to seal membranes perfectly on site when it's minus 20," he said.

Constructing bold buildings, building community capacity

Zirnhelt doesn't see his company as just a contractor. "We're trying to create continuity of employment," he explained. They did that by employing people from the community to work on the construction. There were as many as five people from the Esk'etemc First Nation working on the Centre, and two who have been employed full-time by Zirnhelt Timber Frames for more than a year.

"There's always room for improvement, which we'll achieve as long as local employment and capacity building are part of the core values and partnership approach we bring to our work with communities."

Zirnhelt said they'd like to partner with other First Nation communities to train members who can lead the construction efforts and pass on their skills, developing expertise among other community members. The idea is to "build capacity that enables communities to participate more fully in their own housing projects," explained Zirnhelt. The homes will be high-efficiency and will make use of natural building materials whenever possible.

Zirnhelt added: "Creating an effective partnership requires working with the community from the design stage and looking at the public buildings such as daycares, government offices, and health centres, not just homes. In some cases, we also include training on sawmilling in the community, which is something we've been doing for over 25 years."

"If we're going to rebuild communities, let's not do it to today's standard," said Zirnhelt. "Let's be a decade ahead and start building homes that are where B.C. will be in 2032 when the BC Energy Step Code is implemented."

The challenge is that building that way tends to cost more.

Managing the extra cost of high-performance construction

Construction of the Letwilc ten Semec Centre was supported by the Local Energy Efficiency Partnership (LEEP) program from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). LEEP was created to accelerate the development and construction of buildings that adopt robust energy conservation methods. Along with NRCan, BC Housing and BC Hydro helped cover the additional expenses for the energy-efficient design.

The extra effort resulted in a qualification of Net Zero Ready from the Canadian Home Builder's Association, which says this is the first building in a northern climate and the first in an indigenous community to be awarded the efficiency label.

A building that is "net zero" is so efficient that it can produce as much renewable energy as it uses annually. The centre's efficient design started with a great building envelope that was optimized using energy modeling software and tested for air tightness. This significantly reduces the building's heat loss, and therefore what the heating system needs to provide, even on the coldest winter days.

Heat pumps will be used to provide the hot water and space heating needs while fresh air will be provided efficiently throughout the centre by a heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system. The efficient envelope and mechanical systems combine to make building 68% more efficient than one built to the basic BC building code.

It doesn't yet have the solar panels that would allow it to generate its own electricity, but it's been designed to accommodate them.

For Zirnhelt, the energy efficiency is only part of the story. Beauty and cultural appropriateness are also key. The Letwilc ten Semec Centre has it all.