US – Canada Free Trade Turns 35

US – Canada Free Trade Turns 35

Free trade between the US and Canada will celebrate its 35th anniversary on New Year’s Day, 2024. 

In 1982 the US unemployment rate reached 10.8%, the highest level in the entire post-war period.  Over 12 million job-seeking Americans were idled. In Canada unemployment reached 13%. There was sharp disagreement about the best course of action to address the underlying economic stagnation. Unions and employment advocates called for higher tariffs and stronger trade barriers as the only effective way to protect jobs.

Predictions of massive job losses, a deterioration of worker rights and a loss of sovereignty were major concerns raised by those opposing free trade.

US President, Ronald Reagan argued that the best medicine for the unemployment crisis and an under-performing economy was not protectionist measures, but free trade. Many on both sides of the political divide called his ideas naïve and reductionist.  Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney also faced push-back, with opponents saying a trade deal would simply make Canada the 51st US state.

The Reagans hosting the Mulroney’s at a White House state dinner in 1988.

Trade negotiations took five years and yielded the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA) in 1987, which came into full effect on January 1st, 1989.  Mexico was not included in this initial agreement and lobbied hard to have the agreement expanded to include the whole continent.  Once again, labour leaders and politicians predicted economic disaster if a low-wage economy like Mexico would be added to the deal.  It would take until 1994 before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law and all three countries began to remove tariffs on each others’ goods and services.

Celebrating the 1994 NAFTA signing.  Salinas, Bush, and Mulroney.

As with so many things, the tally of wins and losses can be difficult to distill from the wide array of other changes happening in the global economy at the time. Technological change in the early 1990’s was dramatic, China was growing as an export powerhouse, the Cold War ended, and the European Union was also liberalizing trade.  In these years, the economies of all three countries saw dramatic growth and economists attribute the largest impacts to NAFTA.

  • US trade with its neighbours more than tripled following the deal.
  • It’s estimated that 14 million US jobs are directly tied to open trade with Mexico and Canada.
  • Consumer prices declined, especially for agricultural products and energy.

Cornerstone Timberframes has been exporting timber structures to the US for more than 21 years.  While free trade has felt positive it doesn’t show up as a factor for the builders and homeowners who choose us.  Our clients tell us their purchases are driven primarily by three considerations:

  • The attentive and friendly service that Cornerstone is famous for.
  • Feeling heard and understood by our design team, which results in beautiful, personalized designs.
  • The sweet realization that a US dollar is worth 35% more in Canada.

If you’re looking to build and want to realize the benefits of free trade, talk to a friendly Cornerstone Timberframes representative today!

Creating Your Backyard Oasis

Creating Your Backyard Oasis

with a pergola or Gazebo

One of the joys of summer is being outdoors, surrounded with pleasant views, unharried by the cares of the world.  If you are looking for outdoor happiness, a well-designed and properly sited timber frame structure, like a pergola, gazebo or outdoor bar can transform a pleasing backyard into an oasis of wellbeing and delight.

The Checklist:

To make the work of planning your get-away a little easier, here are the top 10 things you’ll want to know before you spend a dollar on designs or materials. Good design starts with a location, examines how a space will be used and then creates a shape and features for that space that help you maximize your comfort and enjoyment.

First, let’s narrow down the best spot for your oasis:

  1. Review your yard’s exposure to all the things that will have a bearing on your enjoyment. Think about the times of day when you’re most likely to use your gazebo or pergola – what’s happening at those times with sun, shade, neighbours, street noise and the like?  Do you have a wind-sheltered spot?
  2. Next, where are your favourite views? Move around your yard and note the views you like, as well as any that you’d rather not see. Plantings and privacy screens can often help with the latter, so don’t count out a location if it scores well in #1 but has a view to the neighbour’s tool shed – the solution can be beautiful.
  3. For your top locations, think about the path your family and guests will use to reach your gazebo or pergola.  Look for any issues that might affect ease of access.  Remember that distance matters: the closer it is to your home, especially your kitchen, the more you’ll use it and enjoy it.  Being close also reduces electrical runs, path materials and makes every transit between home and oasis easier.

How do you want to use your outdoor space?

  1. Consider how many people you’ll routinely have and the largest number at any one time.  A properly sized space will range between 1-1/2 and 2 times your “everyday” group size.  For larger gatherings, having a patio area as part of your oasis is an easy way to provide room for those additional guests.
  2. Is food preparation and outdoor dining on your menu?  Outdoor kitchens can be compact and simple, and they can also be large and lavish.  Think about the kinds of meals and cooking style you prefer and list the essential elements you’ll need to achieve a hassle-free food prep experience. 
  3. Other Outdoor Features to consider: Think fireplaces, water features, hot tubs, TVs, special lighting, pizza ovens, swings, hammocks and whatever completes your definition of relaxation and refreshment.  Some of these are large and need careful consideration in your design while others can play a part in creating privacy and hiding a less desirable view. 
  4. Do you hate being bugged?  No surprise: mosquitoes, wasps, and flies can make it a challenge to fully relax outside. Thankfully, window and screen materials for gazebos have seen big improvements in variety, functionality, and toughness.  Your gazebo designer can recommend a solution and make sure that window openings make best use of your preferred anti-bug defense.

The shape, style, and material used to make your backyard oasis will enhance your use and enjoyment:

  1. Shape alone, could easily be its own blog topic. Simply stated, square and rectangular pergolas and gazebos are the go-to solution if you’re after the most efficient and affordable space.  Hexagon and octagon shapes involve more material and joinery ($$) but have more wow factor, especially when you step inside a gazebo and look up at how the roof timbers converge.
    Single slope roofs, also known as shed roofs, are simpler to build and can provide a more contemporary feel.  Ask your designer to show you the different roof types or visit our “Look Book” to see the many ways you can configure the shape of your get-away.
  2. Sidewall height needs to allow for at least a 6’-8” (2m) clearance under the eave beam, with 7’ to 9’ heights being most common.  Roof slopes from shallow to steep are a personal choice.  You may want to match an existing building on your yard or let your oasis be its own thing.  Overhangs of 12”-24” are typical, but again, your preference rules.  If you matched the roof pitch of another building, matching the overhang also makes good sense.
  1. If you’re a person who loves wood, this one can be a difficult consideration, but here’s some help:  Cedar is the gold-standard material for handling weather.  It comes in a variety of species with “western red” and “northern white” being the most common.  Both are highly rot-resistant and can be allowed to go silver or helped along with a moisture repelling finish like Sansin’s Wood Sealer. Douglas fir and white pine need to keep dry feet and we recommend using a post stand-off to keep columns clear of puddles.  A good three-coat stain finish is essential.

For more contemporary designs glue-laminated posts and beams can do wonders, allowing longer spans and high-capacity connections, while keeping a sleek, minimalist look.  

Ask your designer to see examples of available wood types.


Pavilion – a roofed structure, free-standing or attached to a larger building.  Is typically open-sided but may also be enclosed by walls.
Gazebo – an open-sided, free-standing, roofed building usually located in a natural area like a garden or park.
Pergola – an open roof structure that provides shade and can also support climbing vines that provide additional shade and privacy.

Why Wood is Good

Why Wood is Good

9 Reasons to Design and Build with Mass Timber

1. Ease of Use

No other construction material is as versatile or easy to use as wood. It can be cut, shaped, and fastened with basic tools.  With experienced supervision, installation is quick and can be undertaken by a small crew with only basic carpentry knowledge. Repairs and modifications are easy and do not require heating or other special measures in cold weather.

2. Fire Resistance

Mass timber is inherently hard to ignite, and when exposed to flame it develops a char layer that resists further combustion.  Full scale fire testing shows that mass timber can meet and exceed required fire ratings, acting like non-combustible construction.  See for details.

3. Seismic Resilience

Timber can resist seismic forces that cause rigid masonry to crack   and crumble.  Wood fiber’s elasticity allows it to bend and twist without breaking.  Good connection design is critical.

The classic example of seismic performance is the Ying Pagoda in Shanxi, China, built in 1056.  It is 67m / 220’ tall and has withstood a dozen major earthquakes over the past millennium. In 1556 (its 500th anniversary) it survived the Jiajing Great Earthquake, the deadliest quake event in recorded history. While built of wood, its exceptional resistance can also be attributed to its design.  The Ying Pagoda uses a locking joinery that keeps radial beams in place between the inner core and columns at the outer wall.  When things shake and sway these critical connections are designed to move and not break – a flexible, brilliant solution.

4. Acoustic Properties

The International Building Code (IBC) sets out a 50dB sound reduction standard for walls and floors. Concrete, with its high density can achieve this with 15cm / 6” of section. Solid wood is 1/5 the density of concrete, an advantage in almost every aspect of construction, except for resisting sound transmission.  Low amplitude sound waves in the 50-100 Hz range are of special concern in floor assembly design with footfalls and furniture movement being the most noted complaint examples in older wood-framed buildings.

Unlike traditional wood frame construction, the draw of mass timber is being able to see the wood.  Exposed wood ceilings are especially desirable, and this requires sound insulation to be placed on top of the floor as opposed to it being added into a ceiling void. 

A 5-ply CLT floor of 175mm thickness (6 7/8”) by itself has an STC rating of 41. To increase this to a 60 dB rating a multi-layer assembly is required. The top strategies for improving floor sound deadening are:

  1. Decoupling – use of an acoustical mat that creates a low-density zone that inhibits lower Hz sound waves.
  2. Use of a sound absorbing layer – loose-fill limestone or mineral wool board can act as diffusion layer that breaks up and scatters sound waves.
  3. Increase mass – using light concrete toppings (gypcrete) of 25-50mm (1-2”) helps the assembly resist sound vibration.
  4. Flooring material – a variety of floor coverings can provide significant reductions in impact sound transmission.

An updated inventory of STC and ICC ratings with tested assemblies can be found at Woodworks, a US not-for-profit that conducts research on mass timber construction: 

Mass timber is an innovative space where new ideas are constantly improving outcomes.

5. Thermal Comfort

Mass timber’s thermal properties are perfectly suited to human use.  Mass timber components are slow to transfer heat and cold and help moderate the temperature of indoor spaces even when outdoor temperatures move into extremes.

CLT walls by design and construction are “thermally tight”.  In stick framed walls, a common failing is poor draft sealing – air leakage at seams, and at hundreds of nail, staple, and screw punctures, significantly reduces their performance. The CLT’s solid, multi-layer core makes it essentially wind impervious. CLT panels are machined to fit precisely, and simple sealing details ensures a higher fit and finish.

Tests at Oakridge National Laboratory’s Large Scale Climate Simulator showed that CLT walls outperformed stick frame wall assemblies, reducing peak heating and cooling demand by 30%-50% and improving thermal comfort by up to 46%.*

*“Impact of Mass Wood Walls on Building Energy Use, Peak Demand, and Thermal Comfort”, M Salonvaara, 2022.

6. Sustainability

Sunlight, soil, and water – that’s the basic recipe for producing wood.  Nature excels at making use of available resources, bringing things into balance, while building forest communities whose only “waste products” are oxygen, clean water, and a surplus of beauty.

The production of wood and mass timber stand in stark contrast to the energy intensive industrial processes for making concrete and steel.  One way to understand and compare these building materials is to examine their contribution to our world’s existential challenge of climate change.  Consider the graph below:

This graph compares wood, concrete, and steel, by looking at the CO2 emissions generated in the production of a single beam, designed to span a 7.3m (22’ 3”) distance while supporting a 14.4 kN/m unfactored load. All three materials are optimized to the span and load but achieve it with much different carbon emissions.

The wood beam is a glue-laminated timber made up of responsibly harvested trees.  The trees once grew and collected carbon from the atmosphere and now as a wood beam will hold the CO2 for as long as the building exists.  

While the decades pass, new trees are growing where the original trees were harvested.  With better informed forest practices, the circle of carbon collection and storage can be sustained indefinitely.  

7. Speed of Installation

Mass timber structures are fabricated entirely off-site, and deliveries are coordinated to match on-site schedules.  Mass timber components assemble quickly and will typically reduce installation schedules by 20-30% over alternative materials.  

8. Cost Savings

As mass timber becomes better understood and accepted by architects, engineers, and builders, it is also becoming more cost competitive.  In the last two years, studies are showing that an effectively designed mass-timber building is within +/-5% of steel and concrete.  With lighter foundation requirements and fast installation, the cost advantage of mass timber will continue to gain market share.

9. Human Health

In Canada and the US, like most of the developed world, the greatest part of our lives is spent indoors.  Study after study is showing that the spaces we inhabit play an important role in our physical and emotional wellbeing.  Spaces that are enriched by the presence of natural objects and materials are associated with lower levels of stress, feelings of wellbeing, and overall improvements in mental focus and mood.

Wood’s ability to buffer humidity by absorbing and releasing moisture makes for more comfortable homes and offices. Mass timber is chemically inert and uses polyurethane adhesives that do not release VOC’s or other irritants.  Studies of mass timber buildings find the use of wood supports better air quality, thermal comfort, visual and acoustic qualities than equivalent structures built with steel or concrete.


The U.S. Advantage

The U.S. Advantage

The US Dollar Advantage 

Let’s talk about foreign currency exchange…sorry, excuse me while I yawn and reach for my mug of coffee

‘Forex’ as insiders call it, is not a topic most people care about or want to spend much time contemplating.  And yet, there are times, like now, when a bit of mental tenacity can really pay off.

Did you know that today, one US dollar is worth 1.37 Canadian dollars?  What that means is that a person with US dollars can buy a $1,000 item in Canada for just $730 USD.  It’s like a 30% off everything in the store event that has been going on for the past year or more and is likely to continue well into the future. 

Honest & Fair – What Everyone Deserves

Cornerstone Timberframes has been supplying our US customers with high quality timber structures for over 20 years.  Over these years our company has maintained a policy of providing US clients with clear pricing based on the current exchange rate.  Transparency and fairness are what all clients expect and what we deliver.  We are glad to quote in both USD and CAD and clients are free to choose either currency for payment.

Banks that facilitate USD to CAD exchanges, typically take a fee for their service, often around 2% for amounts below $5,000 USD and diminishing as the transaction amount increases.  As an added benefit to our US clients, we absorb these fees, so that customers realize the full gain on the exchange rate at the time of their purchase. It’s one more way that we can show our thanks for the trust you place in us.

A Time of Opportunity

A strong US dollar creates ideal conditions for US travelers and shoppers. With affordable international travel and advantageous pricing from reliable, nearby suppliers, now is an excellent time to explore and make major purchases.

Cornerstone Timberframes is a family-run company that prioritizes person to person connections, integrity, hard work, and high quality.  Our customers tell us they love the way we support them, respond promptly to questions, and keep them informed at every step of the process.

While the cost of a timber frame is always a consideration it should never be the sole factor in deciding where to buy.  Look for top quality, great service, and a fair price – when these are found in one product, you’ve found enduring value.  This is our recipe.

If you’re interested in learning more about working with Cornerstone Timberframes, give us a call, or drop us a line.  We’re looking forward to serving you!

Quality Construction and Cornerstone Timberframes in Wisconsin Lake Country.


Big Wood Wall – A New Way to Build

Big Wood Wall – A New Way to Build

Recap of the Challenge 

In our last blog, we looked at energy efficiency using a concept widely used in commercial construction: Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).  We then reviewed a few approaches to building efficient spaces but ran up against three core challenges in the construction and building product spheres.  Super-insulated homes often have complex assemblies that are difficult for builders to consistently achieve, many insulations have negative health and environmental consequences, and timelines for planning and building an energy-efficient home are often too long.

Simplicity & Accuracy

One of the enduring benefits of travel is that you get to see how different communities and people deal with the same problems as you but end up with different and, occasionally, better solutions.  In May, I had the privilege to visit Germany to see how builders use local wood resources to construct homes that achieve passive house standards.  The mind-expanding aspect of their approach is its simplicity – boards nailed together to form a solid wall of 5-15 layers, each layer running crossways to its neighbours.


Like me, you’re possibly wondering how this can be a high-performance wall. We’ll address that shortly.  But first, let’s look at how these “big wood walls” are made.

I visited a production facility owned by a carpentry company that specializes in multi-family residential construction.  Kiln-dried boards in random widths are purchased from nearby sawmills.  The boards are planed to the exact thickness and receive a grooved pattern on one face.

The grooves help to reduce sound transmission and improve the insulative quality of the wall.  Boards are fed into a CNC assembler that places and nails each board in place, creating a wall billet of up to 4.8m x 6.1m (16’ x 20’).  

This CNC unit places and nails boards to suit the wall’s role in the overall structure.

Once nailing is complete the billets are moved to a CNC cutter that translates an architect’s 3D model into a series of machining steps that create window and door openings, gable cuts, electrical and mechanical chases, and a variety of panel-to-panel connection details.  A cutting accuracy of +/- 1mm ensures that panels go together precisely on site, providing air tightness and excellent structural rigidity.Gantry-type CNC begins to work on a wall billet.

Wall units are labelled, receive a rain cap, and lift straps, and are loaded onto flatbed trucks in an upright position.

In Germany, the use of site cranes is the norm, and every established builder has at least one.  The lead carpenter operates the crane via a wireless control set that allows them to always be in the best location to safely lift the panels from the truck, swing them and set them into place.  A crew of 4-5 carpenters will install the walls, floors, and roof of a 170 m2 (1800 sq. ft.) home in just three or four days.

The speed and simplicity of the work are astonishing, especially for anyone familiar with typical site-built processes and timelines in Canada.  And it’s quiet, with minimal use of saws or other power tools.

Speed of construction is supported by three conditions inherent to the Big Wood Wall: 1) precisely dimensioned and detailed panels, 2) zero site modification, and 3) designs modelled in 3D which include optimized shipping and assembly sequences.


So how does a wood wall reach Net Zero or even Passive House levels?  

Wood, especially pine, spruce, and other softwood, is intrinsically a “warm” material with a cell structure that is slow to transmit heat or cold.  The grooves further slow conductive transfer, by reducing the contact surface area board to board.  The whole assembly is solid, dramatically reducing air infiltration even before any wind barrier layer is added.

The walls provide backing for externally applied, uninterrupted insulation.  A typical exterior wall of 13 layers and 140mm (5.5”) of wood fibre insulation will approach R50.  For extremely cold climates the insulation layer can be increased up to 240mm (9.5”).

A solid wood wall has significant thermal mass, which means that changes in temperature on one surface takes a long time to be telegraphed through to the opposite surface.  The number of hours for a change in outdoor temp to be noticed at the interior is called “phase shift” and for most conventionally framed homes will be in the order of 5-7 hours.  For the wall in the photo above, its phase shift is 22 hours.  Longer phase shifts mean a more comfortable interior with proportionately smaller variations in temperature.

Health & Air Quality

In Germany, and the EU in general, there’s a heightened perception that chemical exposures are connected to negative health consequences.  Poor indoor air quality and the incidence of asthma, especially in children, have been linked to chemicals like formaldehyde that off-gas from a variety of manufactured sheet goods and insulations.  Consequently, builders and home buyers in Germany have created a strong market for natural and chemical-free building materials. 

The Big Wood Wall fits well into the trend toward natural materials, using untreated wood that is nailed together, with no need for chemical-based adhesives.  Additionally, wood is hygroscopic which means that it can easily absorb and release moisture, allowing it to act as a humidity regulator.  This attribute is particularly beneficial in climates with humid summers and dry winters.

Wood is increasingly understood as being biophilic, a term describing materials and objects that support human feelings of well-being and that confer physical and mental health benefits.  It’s why we gravitate toward urban parks and why researchers see a measurable drop in blood pressure and anxiety as people are exposed to flowers, trees, and natural materials where they live and work.

Affordability and the Long View

Early financial analysis suggests that a big wood wall, compared to its closest analog, a CLT wall panel, will be approximately 30% more cost-effective. But, as we’ve previously discussed, a purchase price can never stand in isolation from a host of other life cycle costs like energy use, serviceability, and maintenance.   Occupant health and environmental impacts should be valued, though rarely are, at least in the North American context.

In Germany, the Big Wood Wall is widely used in multi-family construction, of up to five storeys in height.  Many of these projects, like the apartments shown below, are entering the market as affordable rental units.  In some European jurisdictions, homebuyers and developers also receive added financial incentives if their project achieves a high level of energy efficiency.  All barriers to building well and attaining the lowest “total cost of ownership” have been removed by these innovative and farsighted authorities.

Mikado Apartments in Baden-Württemberg: achieving net zero takes the sting out of monthly bills.

If you are intrigued by the idea of the Big Wood Wall, I would be delighted to hear from you. Introducing this concept to North America will require a significant pioneering effort. In Europe, the Big Wood Wall has been gaining popularity since 2011, and as per the latest reports, over thirty plants are producing these panels, and more than 7,000 projects have been completed.

Next month we will look at noise transmission in buildings. And yes, that was another significant “light bulb” moment in my travels. People’s perception of noise and their response to it appears to be different from place to place. Join me for a fascinating look at the scientific, historical, and societal aspects of noise in the places where we live.

FSC – Why it Matters

FSC – Why it Matters

Forests are crucial for sustaining life on our planet. They have a significant impact on moderating our climate, purifying our air and water, and providing habitats for numerous plant and animal species. Additionally, they offer us a renewable source of wood, which is a vital material for building and achieving a more sustainable future.

Cornerstone Timberframes builds a wide variety of structures, from screen rooms to homes and cottages, to multi-storey commercial buildings – all from wood. Thriving, productive forests are the foundation of everything we do. If the forests that provide us with our wood are healthy it means good work for our employees and beautiful, sustainable places for us and our clients. If the forests are harmed, and their capacity depleted, then the work and wellbeing of everyone in our company’s ecosystem is also threatened. Moreover, all of us want a future where forests thrive, as one where they don’t would be a scary future that no one wants to experience. This is why we are FSC certified.


The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a fully democratic organization made up of a diverse group of people with connections to forests around the world. And this is where the FSC is so different from other forest-certifying organizations. Voting members are drawn equally from three groups: those whose homes and livelihoods depend on forests, people and companies economically tied to using forest resources and, individuals and groups that study and seek to sustain the ecological role of forests. Every three years these people gather for a General Assembly to elect a board of directors and vote on a range of proposed initiatives.

The balanced and democratic makeup of FSC ensures that initiatives are rigorous, widely supported, and actionable. The FSC is not beholden to any funder, industry or lobby group and can do what is in the best interests of the forests, and all that depend on them for life and livelihood. The FSC mission: “Ensuring forests for all, forever” is focused on five standards of responsible forestry:

  1. Zero deforestation, which is the conversion of forests to other uses.
  2. Safeguarding ancient and endangered forests.
  3. Fair wages and safe work for those in the forestry and wood products sectors.
  4. Preserving biodiversity.
  5. Supporting community rights, including those of First Nations

Cornerstone Timberframes underwent a detailed audit to become an FSC “chain-of-custody” certificate holder. The audit included an inspection of our yard and facility, a review of human resource policies, fair labour practices, safety and training programs, and an examination of our accounting, purchasing and inventory systems. Maintaining our certification requires ongoing training and careful documentation to ensure that sustainably harvested timber is properly handled and recorded as it flows through our company to our customer projects.

FSC is the most credible and impactful organization involved in sustainable forestry. Specify FSC timber for your next project.

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,