Guardian Bridge putting big plans into action at old Dana plant

By Dan Rankin

At the end of April, the Independent reported that the Stratford-based company Guardian Bridge Rapid Construction Inc. would be relocating from its home in Stratford into the old Dana plant at 500 James Street South. It has now been three months since that announcement and, while president Josh Dewar said they are still two or three months away from beginning production on their new line of pre-fabricated CLT (Cross-Laminated Timber) homes for Aboriginal communities, things appear to be moving in a very positive direction – something that could never be said about the building’s previous tenants.

“The town’s been great helping us out,” Dewar said this week from his office at the St. Marys plant. “They’re trying to get us funding and, whatever we need help with, they usually respond within a day.”

Guardian Bridge was established in Stratford 1994, said Dewar, who grew up in Sarnia but now lives near Mitchell. “It’s a family business,” he said. “My dad started out in his garage. We started doing R&D testing, and actually got our fibreglass bridge deck approved in the bridge code in 2002.”

They’ve put up over 1,000 fibreglass composite bridges, mainly in Ontario, he said, but also as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia. Next month, they’ll begin work on a bridge along Highbury Avenue near Bryanston. “The road will only be closed for five weeks for a brand new bridge,” he said. “Normally, for a traditional bridge, it’s about three months.”

Their old facility in Stratford was about 25,000 sq. ft. Their new home in St. Marys is aboout 130,000 sq. ft., which gives them enough space to take on their new venture: housing. “Cross-Laminated Timber housing was just put in the building code in 2015 in Canada,” Dewar said. “The government has been wanting us to set up for about five years, but we decided to wait until it was actually in the building code.”

Construction using Cross-Laminated Timber has been common in Europe for decades, Dewar said, comparing the material to very thick plywood. “You can go from three layers, to five layers, up to 11 layers of wood,” he said. “It’s structurally sound and it actually competes against concrete in high rise buildings now.”

Besides the speed of construction, another benefit CLT has over concrete is its much lower carbon footprint, he said. “A lot of people think that after it’s cut down, the tree is just dead, but timber actually does continue to sequester carbon for the duration of the home’s life,” said Dewar. “Concrete actually produces carbon. So, it’s a big advantage.”

The material also helps address a problem experienced in many Canadian native communities, he said. “The problem with the pre-fab homes aboriginal communities are getting right now is that they can’t live in them after six-to-eight years because of mould,” he said. “With Cross-Laminated Timber, it won’t have mould in it. They can actually live in their home for 25 years and they’ll actually have equity in their home.”

In 2011, the Assembly of First Nations reported that Canadian reserves were short 85,000 homes to meet current needs because of issues including mould contamination. “We’re set up to hopefully be able to do about 1,000 homes a year,” Dewar said, noting that they’ve been communicating with communities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as Kettle Point here in Ontario.

The homes they will be building come in around eight different designs ranging in size from 1,200 sq. ft. to 4,000 sq. ft., Dewar said, calling them one-floor structures that are “loft style, open concept.”

“There’s no drywall, so it actually looks like a log house-style,” he said. “We’re offering the complete package, so, using the CLT panels, but also stick-framing the house, insulating it, wiring it, providing the kitchens and the bathrooms. We have construction crews in various parts of Canada, and they’re ready to install these homes.”

Currently, Guardian Bridge employees are in Europe working on bringing over some equipment they’ll need at the St. Marys plant. Other current concerns include ironing out the details to purchase the building, and upgrading the plant’s rail access. “We’ll bring wood in [by rail], and even ship out the houses by rail, to lower the carbon footprint,” Dewar said.

Guardian Bridge has already hired 15 employees and is looking to hire another 25, he said. “We’re after people with construction experience – welders, fitters, millwrights, electricians, carpenters. The list goes on,” said Dewar.

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