Transforming What We Build & How We Think

Transforming What We Build & How We Think

A New View of Home Ownership

Building or buying a house is a big financial undertaking and while many people carefully consider the purchase price and may even inquire about month-to-month expenses, very few look at the “everything in” cost of owning a home.

Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is a concept familiar to many commercial facility managers.  For the rest of us, it invites us to wake up and smell the coffee and change how we think about building and owning our homes.  The most sobering revelation is that in North America, the purchase price is a relatively small part of the total cost!  Most of the ownership cost is made up of operating, maintenance, and renewal, however at the top of the TCO list is energy consumption.

Taking a long view is the shift we need to make, but it goes against our natural inclination. We prefer to keep our attention on near-term challenges (what to make for tonight’s supper, the kids’ summer camp options).  But when decisions are made with a longer view in mind the payoffs can be huge.  Consider the typical detached family home in your area. If it is close to the national average, it will consume 110 gigajoules of energy every year.  Prices for energy vary widely, depending on where you live.  In a low-cost place like Manitoba, Canada (cold winters, warm summers, but cheap electricity) the average pre-tax expenditure for energy is around $2,100 per year.  Thus, a homeowner living in a typical detached home will spend over $100,000 on energy alone, over the five decades they reside there.

Early Attempts at Saving Energy

Beginning in the early 1970’s a series of energy crises created a surge in “low energy” home designs and materials.  In New Mexico and Arizona “Earthship” homes were built with massive walls, and where the terrain allowed, were built into the sides of hills.  Further north, strawbale houses were more common.  Rammed earth, adobe, clay-straw “Eco-nests” also had various levels of uptake.  The challenge intrinsic to all these innovative methods is that while they often achieved high efficiencies, they required big investments of research, labour, and skill.  Their “otherness” made mortgage providers skittish, caused engineers to break out in hives, and were stoutly resisted by building authorities.

While only a few hundred Earthship homes were built during the 70’s a factory-made alternative was gaining commercial attention and bit by bit, market acceptance.  Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), also known as “stress skin panels” had been around since the late 1940’s, used primarily for walk-in freezers and coolers.  Their design was ingenious and super-simple: a Styrofoam core glued between two plywood or OSB sheets.  Built in a controlled plant environment and rigorously tested they overcame the financing, engineering, and many of the bureaucratic hurdles of the Earthships and straw bale designs.

Homes built with SIPs reported 30-40% energy savings, were much less drafty and showed exceptional resilience in places where hurricanes routinely flatten stick-framed homes.  But they also had annoying shortcomings.  SIP roofs are “hot roofs”, they don’t have a space for air to move under the shingles as in your standard house with an attic and vented soffits.  On a hot roof, asphalt shingles, even good quality ones, will curl and fail prematurely.  Furthermore, the lack of an air space means that a tiny gap at a panel-to-panel seam is a guarantee of condensation, rot, and moisture infiltration. Well-trained installation crews certainly try, but it’s hard to find and fill every gap.  And what to do with SIP waste, or when a home is renovated or arrives at its end of life?  Foam and its constituent compounds persist in the environment for hundreds of years. Although recycling is technically possible, no one is offering it.

A Better Way: Net Zero (NZ)

Imagine a home that once built doesn’t require an annual budget for heating or cooling! In other words, it’s saving the homeowner a few thousand dollars every year, is more comfortable and because of its highly efficient envelope needs minimal heating and cooling equipment.  What power is needed comes from solar panels and when the sun is hiding it can pull power from the grid.  When sunshine is abundant, it puts energy back into the grid and earns a credit. That’s the objective of Net Zero – build a well-insulated home and equip it with enough solar panel or other renewable capacity to reach the equilibrium between energy in and energy out.

And Better Yet: Passive House (PH)

Passive goes one step further, it’s more rigorous about airtightness, requires higher insulation values and wherever possible uses natural solar gain and shading to further minimize the need for power.  Passive homes in many climates can get entirely away from furnaces and air conditioners – and that’s the passive aspect, little to no active heating or cooling.  They can also get by with smaller PV solar arrays that supply power for all lights and appliances. In colder climates a connection to the local electrical grid is used as a fallback.  In many instances a passive house can achieve a Net Positive energy balance.

Both Net Zero and Passive House approaches are not without challenges. A key one is that foundations, walls, and roofs are made of many more layers, each with a specific role in managing energy and moisture flows.  This complexity requires knowledgeable designers, builders, and tradespeople, as small errors in design or execution can seriously impact performance.  And Passive House standards translate into longer than normal timelines for ordering the high-performance windows, solar equipment, and mechanical systems.  As of this blog (Q2/23) the number of builders with NZ or PH know-how remains far too small for the serious transition that should be underway in cities across North America.

Overdue: A New Way to Build

Home construction is caught between an old mode of work that has failed to adapt and a new but complicated one that promises good results, if only more people knew how to build that way. If Net Zero or Passive House are to become mainstream a better way to achieve them is needed.  At a minimum, that “better way” would need the following ingredients:

  • Simple. Current high-performance techniques are complex and need expertise to ensure they are done right.  Complexity is a barrier to acceptance by building trades, which in turn limits the supply of high-quality homes. Fool-proof is what is needed, or a systemized approach that’s obvious and not prone to mix-ups.
  • Robust. Longevity and resilience need to be a priority, especially with the increase in severe weather and our changing climate.  Disposable, code-minimum buildings are a loss to homeowners and a drain on our finite planetary resources.
  • Precise. When building assemblies fit tightly together, a host of problems are avoided, and numerous advantages are gained.
  • Healthy. Building material choices can support or erode human health.  We spend 80% of our lives inside homes and workplaces, so physical and mental wellbeing needs to be a key consideration in what and how we build.
  • Affordable. How does one build an energy-efficient place to live and keep it financially within reach?  A solution should be both immediately affordable and provide an attractive TCO for the long haul.

Next month, I’ll introduce you to a new approach that has all these elements, uses local materials, and leverages the best of what modern design can offer.

Partner Feature – Pine Creek Homes

Partner Feature – Pine Creek Homes

Pine Creek Homes is one of Manitoba’s top custom home builders and we’re proud to count them as friends and quality partners. 

Brothers Glen and Josh Veenstra are second generation home builders.  In 2012 they succeeded their parents, Jasper, and Lori in running the family business.  Like so many in construction, they gained their knowledge of home building by being hands-on, from an early age.  The first tasks were not glamorous: mucking out basements, cleaning up rubbish and pulling nails from forming.  “My first work memory is cleaning a basement that was particularly challenging.  By the time Glen and I were done it seemed like there was more mud on us than anywhere else”, recalls Josh Veenstra with a chuckle.  “A nearby puddle provided the only opportunity to clean us up before we were allowed to get back into our dad’s truck!” 

Brothers Josh & Glen Veenstra, Pine Creek Homes

As they grew, Josh and Glen learned valuable skills as part of framing crews, as equipment operators and eventually lead carpenters.  For the young men, their dad, Jasper, often had the role of teacher but was also famously strict when it came to quality details.  It was his example and high standards that led Pine Creek Homes to be the highly regarded builder it is today.  

Woodworking skills run deep in the Veenstra clan.  In the mid-1990’s their uncle, John, travelled to South Carolina to take a course in timber framing.  A cabinetmaker by trade, his eye for detail and exacting measurements, made him a natural in the skills of this newly revived craft.  His know-how helped the company pivot toward building distinctive homes that featured heavy timber.  Not surprisingly the young men were drawn in, spending many hours after school cutting timbers in the Pine Creek workshop.

“Pine Creek Homes grew naturally from there.  We found that our customers were looking for a home that was distinctly theirs, met their needs and lifestyle and was built to a very high standard”, says Josh.  Today Pine Creek’s guiding philosophy reflects their experience in custom building.  There are important lessons they have taken to heart:

  • Be personally involved – always be available to clients, no matter the question or issue.
  • Provide regular and honest communication to clients – it’s the basis of all good relationships.
  • Time used in design refinement and creating detailed plans is time well spent.
  • Limit how many homes you build in a year, so every client has their spot and gets the attention they deserve.
  • Work with tradespeople who sweat the details – quality is found in a thousand small details done well.

Josh says their clients see the value of Pine Creek’s intensive design process: “We aim to have about 90% of the design decisions made before we start on a client’s foundation.  It makes for a smooth build, gives clear direction for trades, and makes an enjoyable experience for clients.”  Modern home design presents tens to hundreds of choices on every material and space.  To help in decision-making and to confirm choices, Pine Creek’s professional in-house design team provide clients with 3D walk-throughs of their soon-to-be-built homes.  Clients love it. “For many, they’re seeing their new home for the first time in a way that they can really understand.  It’s great for everyone’s confidence,” says Josh.

When asked what he and Glen see as their favourite part of the job, Josh responds, “It’s got to be possession day.  The client has seen their dream home coming together week by week and now we get to celebrate with them.  Handing the keys over is a powerful moment and can be emotional for both them and for us.”

The Beauty of Timber

The Beauty of Timber

The Missing Ingredient: Nature

Each of us is intimately linked to nature, through the air we breathe and the water and food we consume.  It goes much deeper; our ancestors, our human experience and our DNA are all infused with nature, and we can’t exist long without it.  It’s surprising then, that we spend the largest part of our lives inside buildings and away from nature.  Equally striking is that so many of these buildings are dominated by non-natural finishes (drywall, concrete, laminates and more).  In the latter half of the 20th century the exclusion of nature was embodied in an architectural style, aptly named Brutalism.  

Since human life depends on a connection to nature, one might wonder what a prolonged and daily separation from nature is doing to us.  A growing body of medical and public health research provides strong reasons for getting more nature into our lives.  Framed positively, exposure to nature improves one’s cognitive function, mood, blood pressure, mental health, sense of wellbeing, and sleep.  The benefits of simply having natural materials in the places we inhabit is linked to reductions in depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.  

The presence of wood brightens our mood, inspires creativity, and re-connects us with nature.

Big Wood to the Rescue

As with nature, our connection with wood is as deep as time.  Throughout human existence, trees provided us with shelter and warmth, supplied our first tools and in many places and times clothing and food as well.  Every individual piece of wood has its own character, which allows our eyes and minds to find the material interesting and pleasing.  Thankfully, the visible use of wood is making a comeback in modern timber frame and mass timber buildings.

A new awareness of how our indoor spaces affect us is taking hold.  Across Europe and North America new building designs are increasingly guided by considerations of mental and physical wellbeing.  Materials like wood are now understood as “biophilic” (able to connect us with nature) and this is the latest step along a path which has led to better indoor air quality, non-toxic material choices, better lighting and new levels of comfort for minds and bodies.

Cornerstone Timberframes has the privilege of participating in the design and construction of healthy, inspiring, and efficient wood buildings.  Our work is strengthened by ecologically conscious timber suppliers, architects and builders who join with us in celebrating the beauty of wood.  

Reach out to us – we’d love to hear about your ideas for using wood in your next project!

Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence”, 2021 May, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Jimenez, et al.
Nurtured by Nature”, 2020 April, American Psychological Association.  Vol. 51, No. 3, pg 50

Care, Curiosity & Joy

Care, Curiosity & Joy

An interview with Gary Snider.

Reflecting on the principles that guide our work with clients…

On the Importance of Being Acknowledged

I’m not an extrovert, so stepping into a new social setting where I don’t recognize anyone, brings a sense of vulnerability.  What a difference it makes when someone steps out of the crowd and welcomes me!  That one, simple act of acknowledgement changes everything that follows – it opens the door to real connection.

It still surprises me when clients phone and say they’re delighted that we answered their call or returned their message so quickly.  Isn’t this what every business does?  I can’t imagine offering a high-quality product and not prioritizing the customer experience, not only in that first contact but day by day.  I think it’s the natural outcome of experiencing care ourselves.

Understanding is Foundational

The basis for trust is the assurance that you are understood.  I first encountered Cornerstone as a client and was impressed with how they listened, the perceptive questions and their genuine interest in the details of my project.  That experience brought me back to Cornerstone a few years later and I’ve enjoyed building on the notion that listening well is a joy for both parties to a conversation.  If you’re truly focused on understanding someone, you’ll always find a fascinating person in front of you.  The beauty of seeing every person as worthwhile and interesting is that it’s nearly always a reciprocal experience.

Sites & Possibilities

In my experience, every designer worth their wage will want to visit your building site.  With the advent of easily accessible maps, aerial photos and “street views” there may be an argument for letting those replace a site visit, especially if the location is remote.  As helpful as those can be, they are a weak substitute for walking the site with the client, taking in views, the sun, sky, and lay of the land.  Visits to building sites can be memorable because the conversations and experiences at the site often give rise to ideas that improve a design.


It’s often hard for designers and tradespeople to ask about client budgets up-front.  Having that important conversation early ensures buildable designs and more comfortable conversations around features and options.  Over the years, I’ve seen a pattern that is now highly predictable:  if a client’s current home or cottage has an awkward, too-small space, the design for the new place will be at risk of oversizing that same space.  Kitchens, foyers, main bedrooms, and garages top the list.  Again, a designer who is empowered to ask questions is your best guide to getting a “right-sized” result.


 One of my favourite things to discover is a client’s aesthetic preferences.  Just like food or art, the visual impact of a physical space exists on a continuum (and often several) – rustic to refined, traditional to modern, detailed to minimalist, hidden to visible… and more.  Some clients love an industrial vibe where metal plates and bolts are celebrated, others are drawn to clean Scandinavian lines. 

Over 32 years, we’ve done it all.  The vision for the aesthetic goal comes from conversation, the sharing of inspirational images and those ideas that arise from the site itself.  For clients who can’t quite imagine what a finished space will look like, the power of 3D rendering makes the “yet-to-be” visible and almost real.

Happiness in my work comes from serving people, getting to know what’s important to them, and playing a part in helping them achieve the best outcomes.  It takes curiosity and care.  When done well, the reward is joy.

If you’re considering a timber frame or mass timber project, get in touch:  204.377.5000,

Mass Timber- A Durable Choice

Mass Timber- A Durable Choice

Recent developments in wood technology have generated a range of mass timber products that are strong, durable, and fire-resistant. The versatility and strength of mass timber products continue to draw the attention of architects, builders and industry partners across North America.

Wood’s natural flexibility and toughness make it a resilient building material, capable of providing centuries of durability. One reason behind this is that timber can absorb and release moisture from the air and is resistant to many of the conditions and chemicals that can harm steel and concrete. Coupled with quality design and routine maintenance, mass timber structures can have an astonishingly long service life.

A study from Wood and Fiber Science in 2019 noted that a cross-laminated timber (CLT) structure withstood over 90 minutes of burning before the loss of integrity. In contrast, a single-story wood frame home in the same study only withstood 17 minutes before the collapse. The reason behind mass timber’s remarkable fire resistance lies in how it reacts to flames. When exposed to fire, it forms a layer of char on the surface. This char layer creates an insulator for the core, protecting it from the flames. This attribute makes mass timber a safe choice for homes and mid-rise apartments because it allows the occupants much more time to escape in the event of a fire.

In 2007, a team of Japanese and Italian scientists used a ‘shake table’ to test a seven-story CLT building. The results showed it could withstand the equivalent seismic forces of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Since mass timber elements are flexible, lightweight, and strong, they’re less affected by side-to-side seismic motion than similarly sized steel or concrete structures.

When building your next project, it’s important to consider the durability and resilience of your materials. Using mass timber adds strength and safety. At the same time, wood’s natural qualities make it a visual joy. Cornerstone Timberframes is proud to offer mass timber frames built to last generations.

Are you interested in using mass timbers for your project? Reach out to us by phone at 204- 377-5000, or via email at

Photo by Nordic Structures.

Mass Timber- A Construction Revolution for 2023

Mass Timber- A Construction Revolution for 2023

Considering construction trends and consumer interests in 2023, mass timber will be at the forefront of innovative and sustainable construction this year. Its strength, durability, and beauty have already captured the attention of architects and industry leaders in Europe, North America and Asia. Its popularity will only grow as more customers ask for sustainable building materials.

What is Mass Timber?

Mass timber (short for ‘massive timber’) is a building material that joins layers of timber together with glue, dowels, or nails to form a single product. A variety of products fall under this label. For example, cross-laminated timber (CLT) is made by layering timber boards crosswise at 90° angles and gluing them into place. The strength and versatility of these materials allow them to span farther and be used as columns, beams, floors, building envelopes, and demising walls.

On The Rise.

Over the past decade, mass timber has seen extreme growth in demand. In 2015, global mass timber production only reached 500,000 m³. Since then, production has skyrocketed. In 2020, global production reached 2.8 million m³; more than 40% year-on-year growth. Considering these rates, mass timber could account for 0.5% of all new urban buildings by 2050, an impressive feat for a relatively new material.

Why is it So Popular?

Although once considered an emerging building technology, mass timber has quickly gained wider market acceptance. This is due mainly to the urgent need for low-carbon buildings. “Wood sequesters carbon,” reports Kristen Mosier, “removing it from the atmosphere and storing it.”

Mass timber allows architects and designers to reduce their building’s carbon footprint without sacrificing quality.
Mass timber products perfectly combine safety, beauty, affordability, and durability. It’s no wonder why they’re at the forefront of sustainable construction.

At Cornerstone Timberframes, we are proud to work with mass timbers and the design ideas that are changing how we build. Interested in mass timber for your project? Reach out to us by phone at (204) 377-5000 or email us at

Photo by: Nordic Structures.