From Prime Minister's Youth Council to Home Builder - Q &A with Alex Bouchard
Friday, February 16, 2018
We sat down with Alex Bouchard, one of our three SHAD Fellows on the Prime Minister's Youth Council. As a resident of Haines Junction, Yukon, Alex has always been passionate about sustainability. Most recently she has become an advocate for young home owners after experiencing some set-backs as the builder of her own home.
Teddy: Let’s begin with you getting picked for the Prime Minister’s Youth Council. How surprised were you when you heard that news?
Alex: Extremely surprised. I mean 13,000 people applied for that position and it felt pretty surreal that I got picked out of all those people.
T: What did you say in your video pitch?
A: I went a little on a rant but my passion kind of shone through that.
T: You went on a rant? In what way?
A: *laughs* Well I live up in Haines Junction, Yukon and the internet wasn’t super great that day. I attempted to record my video many times and the more I did it the less composure I kept. Finally, I decided to keep the last one I recorded and thought, “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to get this job so I’m just going to say what I really think.” I talked a lot about the need for more drastic measures considering it is 2017 and we’re still really destroying the environment.
T: In 2009, you were a high school student. You went to SHAD at UBC. What impact did that have on you as a young student at that time?
A: SHAD had a huge impact on me. For one thing, I went to UBC afterwards, so it helped me pick my university for the future, which is pretty neat. But it was also one of the first times I was in a room with a whole bunch of leaders and we were told that we could do whatever we wanted, we just had to put our minds to it. That was a pretty special thing to have experienced.
T: I’m curious if you could describe one of these ice breaking exercises that you had at SHAD, because if I’m not mistaken, it was all about building a house out of newspaper?
A: Mhmm. So that was one of the first activities I remember doing as a group. We didn’t know each other super well and we were told you have to build a house out of newspaper and it has to be able to stand up on its own and fit everybody inside. And I remember looking at the task as this impossible thing. But as a group, we sat down and we thought, “Okay, so the triangle is the strongest form, so let’s go with that first. And well you know, I’m from the Yukon, so let’s do an igloo; those are pretty solid.” And so as a group and as a team, we actually built a house that totally stood on its own and fit everybody inside. And I remember it being pretty cozy and it was a pretty special lesson to say,“If you take things one step at a time, nothing is really impossible.”
T: Did you think about that lesson during the last year and a half, now that you were building an actual house of your own, with your own two hands?
A: Yeah. I think it’s a lesson that I’ve tried to carry throughout my life. I just finished building a house here in Haines Junction and it got very daunting. When you think of a house as a whole there are so many pieces to that puzzle, but when you think about the little pieces one at a time, it kind of builds itself. It was a really neat project and I’m really glad I did that.
T: Tell me what motivated you to actually go and do this, building your own house, basically from scratch?
A: To be honest, I was a little bored. I had just finished university. I had a little time off work and I was kind of looking for a new project. And I’ve always known I wanted to try to work with my hands. I find, you know, after a day’s work in the office you’ve emailed a hundred times but you haven’t really created anything. So the house really appealed to me because I would be building something that would stand time, you know? That’s kind of what motivated me and I was looking for a place to stay so it seemed like a nice project to start.
T: Tell me about how difficult it is to build a house? If you could put into context what it’s like to build a house up in the north where you are.
A: It’s a great question. It’s very difficult to build a house. If I knew all the aspects of it, I don’t know if I would have done it. I was very naïve about the realities of it. It’s really hard, both mentally and physically. Mentally you’re always thinking five steps ahead; you’re always thinking about the house. You can’t hang out with your friends because you’re working during the day with Parks Canada and working on the house at night. And physically, I think I ripped out three of my nails. I have so many scars on my hands now from the house building and it was a pretty hard process. But I do feel a lot stronger from it. You learn so many different tasks along the way and lessons, so it’s pretty cool.
T: Are there specific challenges to building a house in the north. I’m thinking at this time of the year with so little light, for instance?
A: Yeah we have more time constraints. I started taking down trees off the lot in July before we started to build, and then we were racing against winter. We had to get a frame solid before winter came, so it was a lot of working on a deadline. The darkness wasn’t too bad once it got there. We were lucky because we had a generator and we started to do the electrical work. But I know a lot of people can only work during the summer so their building time is a lot shorter than most. And you’re also racing a little bit against the cold. You know, you want to make sure that you have a fireplace in there or some sort of heat so that you’re not working at minus 40 inside.
T: Can you paint a picture of the house for us?
A: I’m calling it the “New York loft look". I had no idea what I wanted at first. I was on Pinterest a lot. I highly recommend it for anybody that’s looking to build a house or decorate. I would just look through pictures and be like, “Ooh ya I like this” or “I don’t like this” and “I like that”. So I kind of slowly over time built an image of what I wanted for the house and it turned out to be very modern – very loft looking. It has a lot of wood inside and it’s quite cozy. It has two nice fireplaces to keep the house warm.
T: And you have quite a view, I’m told.
A: Yeah I live beside Kluane National Park and Reserve which has the tallest mountains in Canada. I get to look at those mountains every morning.
T: Did you include certain elements? Your big thing is again the environment and sustainability. Did you think about building the house with that in mind?
A: The house has an eco-rating to it. So that means it’s so well insulated that it’s not using a lot of heat to heat up. I tried to buy appliances that would be environmentally friendly. I tried to do little things. The lights are all good for the environment. It’s hard. I was definitely thinking of solar panels but given where we are up north, it’s hard to justify solar panels when it’s pretty dark most of the year.
T: And what about electricity and water?
A: On my lot I’m not hooked up to the city so I had to get my own electrical and my own water. I dug a well for the water and then for the electrical I had a power line brought in. Most of the heat comes from the fireplaces and so I don’t take a lot of heat or electrical but I do still get some power.
T: Did you have anybody helping you with this, Alex? Or did you do all this work on your own?
A: I wish I could say that. I definitely had so much help. My dad was a contractor in the past. He’s retired now so he was a huge help to help me manage the project and show me the tricks of the trade. I also watched a lot of YouTube videos of how-tos, so those are also helpful. But yeah my dad would basically come in at the beginning of the week and say, “Okay, this is what you are going to be doing for the week. This is how it’s done,” and then leave me to it. I also had some awesome friends that would come and help me move some stuff that was too heavy. To lift up the walls I had a lot of friends come in. I had an army of friends just to lift those walls up. So I was really thankful for that.
T: How much does the house now feel like it has you written all over it? I mean could you see yourself basically selling this one day now that you put your heart and soul – your blood, sweat and tears – into this?
A: My dad’s talked about selling it because it would fetch a good price on the market. I would find it really, really, really hard. Before this point I had always lived in apartments or basements and things like that and now I have my own house with three bedrooms, two baths, my aesthetic, my look. There’s lots of space. And that’s going to be really hard to give up. I’m pretty attached to my fireplaces as well, just to be able to sit with a cup of coffee in front of the fire. Eventually I might sell it; I’m already thinking of different ideas for the next house. But for now I’m really going to try to enjoy it.
T: What were some of the surprises you had along the way? Because I’m sure there were some specific challenges you had to go through. Were there any in particular that came as a surprise to you?
A: I found there to be sexism in the industry. I didn’t think it was going to be that present but I found whenever I would go to Home Hardware with my dad, I would ask the question to the person at the counter and they would respond and look at my dad. There is a belief that a man is going to be in control, that a man is going to be in charge, but it wasn’t the case. This was my project; it was my house. And it was really hard to kind of command that respect from the industry. I found I would slowly pick contractors to help me out that were open to working with a woman and it wasn’t always easy. There were a lot of men in that industry that just trust other men more. I also had a lot of problems with the inspectors and while I think inspectors do a great job and they want you to be safe, I do feel like I was picked on a little bit because I was a young woman building by myself. I found they were triple checking everything I did while a friend down the street who’s building and is at the exact same stages in the house hadn’t seen an inspector in months.
T: And what about on the financing side? What did you face on that front as a young single woman doing this project?
A: Again, no institution wants to give their money to a single woman with only one source of revenue. So my parents are actually funding the house and once it’s done I will have to go to the bank, grab a mortgage and pay it back. Finance was really difficult because I was like, “I’ve got a great job, I can do it for a pretty small amount of money,” like it should be a pretty easy deal for them and nobody really wanted to give me the money. That was really surprising to me at first, so I actually went and complained to the Minister of Housing in the Yukon and she told me, “Well you know if you’re going to complain about this, you might as well join the board of directors for Yukon Housing and make a difference.” And that’s what I did. I joined the Yukon Housing board and one of the things I’m kind of advocating for is that the world is changing. People that are 25 and single – you know we live in a different world than our parents – we can do this on our own. It shouldn’t have an effect. Before at 24 you might already be married and have a kid at that point but now this is happening a lot later so I think the housing committee has to adapt with that reality as well.
T: Alex, remind me again, how old are you?
T: What do you think is the biggest takeaway and the biggest thing people can learn from your experience here?
A: I think one of the biggest things I learned – and it does really relate strongly to SHAD – is that you can do anything you want to as long as you take a step at a time. Whenever I would think of the house as a whole I would get so overwhelmed, but the second I would work on it step by step, piece by piece, that’s when the task didn’t become so daunting and I could just work at it slowly.
T: And what’s the one thing, or maybe a couple of things, that you take back to the Youth Council from this experience because I’m sure there’s a lot of different things that you learned from it?
A: For the Youth Council I think obviously I bring back a lot from the environment perspective but I’m also a bit older than most of the youth on that council – I’m the oldest one there – and I can bring back the challenges of getting a mortgage at my age or that sexism that you’ll encounter in the industry. I bring a bit of a different perspective. I also talk a lot about rural living. I had to bring in my own power. I had to bring in my own sewage system. And it’s too bad. The piece of land that we buy is just as expensive; the taxes we pay are just as expensive, but we have to bring in our own stuff so there’s a bit of an inequality there that I’m trying to advocate for.
T: Alex, thanks for taking the time to share your story of you building this house. It’s quite fascinating to hear you do this.