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“Our dream was to find one piece of land and we would all live on it together.”- Keiko Lee-Hem

Extended Families Growing Together

Lukas Armstrong is an architect, and his wife, Keiko is a graphic designer. In 2012, long before the Covid-19 pandemic, when many Canadian families began to re-evaluate their urban lifestyle, the Armstrongs were already planning to move to a rural area. They travelled around the province looking for a piece of land that was just right.

Lukas and his brother Max grew up on a rural farm outside of Dawson Creek. They spent their childhood surrounded by nature, with horses, chickens and goats. Lukas and Keiko wanted to raise their child in an equally idyllic setting. When they found an acre and a half of property on Bedford Road in Blewett, they happily made a move to the West Kootenays. 

Keiko with purple corn. All photos courtesy of Keiko Lee-Hem and Lukas Armstrong.

The twist is – the couple purchased the property with Lukas’ mom (his dad previously passed away), and Lukas’ brother Max. They all shared a vision of living together on one piece of property – a village within a village. They would utilize each others knowledge and plant gardens and harvest as much food as the land could provide. Keiko’s parents later bought the land across the road.

Fast forward to 2021, and Keiko and Lukas live on Bedford Road, a 10-minute drive from Nelson. They live in a triplex Lukas designed and built with Max, who is a builder. Keiko and Lukas live in one of the suites with their 8-year-old son, Eli. Max lives beside them in the suite with his partner, Jocelyn, and Lukas’ mother Helga lives in the third suite below. Keiko’s dad lives across the street in a house. Her mother was here, too, but sadly she passed away. Keiko’s sister and her child live in a cabin on her dad’s side of the property.

Lukas with a cabbage from the family garden.

“When we have a problem in the garden, we just talk to each other, we troubleshoot together, and we find solutions based on each other’s knowledge,” Keiko says.

They grow cabbages, beans, peas, asparagus, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and berries In their large gardens. In their orchard, plum trees, cherry trees, pear trees and apple trees bloom each spring. Everyone helps to grow the food that they preserve and store in their root cellar. It’s a feat. It’s hard work to grow enough food to sustain nine people. 

Keiko’s dad bringing in the apple harvest.

“The investment is what we’ve put into the food, the trees, the perennials that are here, like the almond trees and the walnut trees. It’s food that is produced passively, and we don’t need to be involved with it,” Keiko says.

When Eli is an adult, she hopes he will remember his parent’s foresight in a changing world and appreciate their decision to invest in planting trees.

Buildings Account for Almost 20% of Greenhouse Gases

“Our house is about 80-85% more efficient than standard construction, and using this framework, you can get to net zero or even net positive,” Lukas says.  

Remember, Lukas is the architect who designed their triplex? He designed it and built it to meet passive house certification. That is the internationally recognized standard for a house approved by the Passivhaus Institute in Germany.

Essentially, a passive house maintains its comfortable interior temperature without heating or cooling systems. Instead, it relies on heavy insulation, airtight construction, ventilation that continually exchanges inside moist air for outside fresh air, high-efficiency windows, and the position of the house, such as south-facing. 

Eli picking tomatoes.

“Our home was the first multi-family passive house in Canada. We built the first passive car dealership for Subaru in Red Deer, a very, very harsh climate. It was built quasi-industrial, and it was a good project because it shows the potential for the passive house strategy to be applied to any type of building,” Lukas explains. 

The first energy-efficient building he constructed was with his brother; they built an energy-efficient home in Dawson Creek. After completion, they entered a pilot project run by the BC government. The project wanted proposals from people capable of constructing a highly energy-efficient building. They won a grant to use for the construction of their house in Blewett. They held onto another grant while hoping to find someone interested in using it to build another energy-efficient home. Unable to find anyone, Lukas and Max returned the money. It was disappointing, but Lukas’ architectural firm remains on the cutting edge of Passivhaus designing.

Cousins enjoying fresh plums. The garden and the harvest are a true extended family affair.

Lukas and his firm are designing the new chamber of commerce building for the City of Castlegar. The federal government is providing funding through Clean BC grants. The building will be a certified passive house and built with mass timber coming from a Kootenay mass timber factory.

“We believe it will be a potential first in Canada- combining passive house construction and mass timber,” he says.

Is Mass Timber a Good Choice?

According to the website of the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC, mass timber is thick, compressed layers of wood that create strong, structural, load-bearing components through lamination, fasteners and adhesives. The environmental benefits of building with mass timber include: it’s renewable and a regionally available resource, it uses fewer materials and leaves less construction waste. It also allows for de-construction, the reuse and recycling of materials. Lukas explains further:

 “Steel and concrete both have high embodied energy and huge amounts of carbon in their production. By switching to a mass timber panel, you reduce the embodied energy in the building, but you seek to capture carbon in the wood rather than produce carbon. It’s important for sustainability. But you must have well-managed forests, and that’s a provincial and federal government issue in terms of stewardship.” 

Lukas harvesting onions.

A Family Forgoes Square Footage

Lukas was ahead of the curve building energy-efficient homes. He built his house before the wildfires, the pandemic, and the heat waves. Still, his family avoids the potential health problems the smoke and heat cause because of the design of their house. 

If we night vent, which means we leave our windows open at night and close everything up in the morning, the house will hold the morning temperature all day. We have an HRV heat recovery ventilator that harvests heat out of the exhaust air, and puts it into the incoming air in the wintertime. It uses a charcoal filter, and our house has no smoke in it. It has 100% fresh air all the time, and it’s highly oxygenated.” 

It’s not all fruit and vegetables. Keiko shows off a bucket of flowers they grew as well.

Lukas points out that it isn’t sustainable for Canadians to continue to build 2500 sq. ft. homes. His home, in the triplex, is 600 square feet, and his mother’s home is the same. Max’s portion is 1,200 square feet. As a family, they chose to avoid toxic materials, including carpeting, vinyl plank flooring or glued melamine in the cabinetry. The plywood they used has no formaldehyde, and their lumber came from the nearby Harrop-Proctor sustainable forest.

Lukas encourages his clients to consider Canada’s need for sustainable building practices and buildings.

“We need to build smaller, better homes, not bigger, cheaper homes.” 

Lukas and Keiko made an intentional choice to live with their extended family on Bedford Road and to reduce their impact on the environment. Maybe they’re still ahead of the curve, and soon more extended families will live together on one property as the world becomes less predictable.