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northern nomad tiny

Ottawa's Northern Nomad Tiny Home 

By Maria Saxton P.h.D
Jan 21, 2020

I spoke with Seungyeon Hong, a current Civil Engineering master’s student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. He shared many insights into the Northern Nomad project, and, as evidenced by its name, this tiny home is made for the northern climate.

tiny house frame
Photo Credit: Northern Nomad

Like many student tiny home projects, the Northern Nomad is the brainchild of the students themselves. A group of five engineering students designed a mobile, net-zero energy tiny home for their senior capstone project. Under the direction of Professor Scott Bucking, Northern Nomad’s project supervisor, they were able to create a genuinely buildable design.

Stemming from a desire to study building performance and incentivize learning, Professor Bucking and one of the original students decided to make the design a reality. Through assembling a construction crew with an interdisciplinary team of engineering students, and fundraising and partnerships with over 30 industry sponsors, they were able to create the tiny home deemed the Northern Nomad.

Why a tiny home? 

Before jumping into the design details of the Northern Nomad, it is imperative to share the goal of the project: to collect data on home performance. The team wanted to examine various building technologies, such as building-integrated photovoltaics, and gather data on how they perform. In short, they wanted a testbed for building research.

A tiny home was a viable option because it could be built within a relatively short amount of time, be mobile, and did not require a permit to build. In addition, tiny home design is a trending concept, so it was appealing to the students and various stakeholders of the project.

tiny town association
Photo Credit: Tiny Town Association

A tiny home for the North 

What sets this tiny home apart from many others is that it was built to withstand a frigid climate. The tiny home movement has seen a rise in popularity worldwide, most notably in the United States. In recent years, Canada has witnessed an increase of interest in tiny homes, and groups like the Tiny Town Association have been created.

For the team to build a tiny home in a place like Canada (let alone a net-zero energy tiny home), specific measures need to be put in place to ensure it can perform optimally. Weather is an especially important factor when trying to design a net-zero energy home since much energy is spent to fight against the local climate and condition the interior space.

tiny house walls
Photo Credit: Northern Nomad

For a mobile home, in particular, there is a greater surface area to insulate since it is elevated off of the ground. For tiny houses on wheels (THOWs), there is more surface area where air can infiltrate into the interior space, which can have a significant impact in terms of energy. This challenge makes tiny homes arguably more difficult to well-insulate than larger homes.

Vacuum insulated panels (VIPs)
Vacuum insulated panels (VIPs). Photo Credit: Northern Nomad

A distinguishing design feature of the Northern Nomad is the use of vacuum insulated panels (VIPs). While not typically used in traditional architecture, the team wanted to incorporate VIPs to research the correlation between their lifespan and common issues with this material, such as fluctuation in moisture levels. Commonly used for industrial refrigerator lining, VIPs are not a conventional insulation type. However, a single inch of vacuum insulated panel can provide an R-value of R-25 or more-- much higher than traditional insulations. With the combination of VIPs and spray foam insulation, the team was able to achieve an R-value of R-37 in just a 2x4 wall.

solar roof
Photo Credit: Northern Nomad

Another unique feature is the unconventional incorporation of solar panels. Typically, homes will have a roof with solar panels attached to the outside. The Northern Nomad incorporates solar panels into the roof itself, allowing seamless integration between the two and a sleek, glass-like finish. Even neater, the team is planning to take advantage of the cooling process of the panels to generate heat for the interior space. The tiny home only consumes as much energy as the solar panels generate in a year; the team has even run computer simulations to ensure this, estimating a net-zero energy performance. The tiny home functions off-grid; however, in the depth of winter, the duration of off-grid operation may be limited by the amount of sun exposure and how the occupants use the space.

tiny house rendering
Photo Credit: Northern Nomad

A Digital Twin 

One fascinating element of the Northern Nomad project was the ability to create a ‘digital twin’ of the tiny home-- in other words, a digital replica of the real house. Using the BIM software Revit, the team was able to compile one single document that included every single building element. According to Seungyeon, this was a powerful collaborative tool that allowed students from various disciplines to work together.

The home’s digital twin will help to resolve potential maintenance conflicts down the road. To illustrate, if a pipe needs replacement, the digital twin can tell the team exactly where to cut so that other building components such as electrical wiring are not damaged.

The Northern Nomad team came up with a fantastic way to share their designs with others through the use of digital tours. At the bottom of this page, anyone can take a digital tour of the tiny home and learn about the specific design features. This fun, easy interactive tool is powerful for those who want to experience the home without physically visiting in person. The team produced an amazing promotional video using Twinmotion software that provides a compelling overview of the project and its features.

tiny house tesla battery
Several lithium ion Tesla batteries are stored in an interior battery box that can be used as a bench. They collect all of the energy produced by the roof-mounted photovoltaic panels, and feed electricity through the house.

Advice for Homeowners 

From the integration of solar panels to the creation of digital twins of designs, there is much for a homeowner to learn from the Northern Nomad tiny home project.

In particular, Seungyeon shared some advice that was specific to those living in Canada. To achieve a genuinely environmentally-friendly design, he emphasized the importance of considering the fuel source for one’s location when designing a home.

The Northern Nomad is fully electrified, meaning that everything, including cooking and heating, is electrical. In some locations, this may be the most environmentally-friendly route, such as Quebec, where electricity comes from hydropower and nuclear. But, in Alberta, much of the energy comes from burning fossil fuels, therefore increasing the environmental impact of electricity use.

tiny house kitchen
Photo Credit: Northern Nomad

What’s next for the Northern Nomad? 

The Northern Nomad is currently situated on Carleton University’s campus and is officially in the research phase. Students are testing new technology and collecting data to determine which design features are best suited for Canada’s harsh climate.

There are multiple plans for the future of the Northern Nomad project. Data collection and research will continue on a variety of subjects ranging from energy recovery ventilation to atmospheric water generation.

The team is switching gears and fundraising to build a second tiny home: Tiny 2.0. They hope to design and build two (or more) tiny homes to examine the network of houses. The main goal will be to form a resilient, micro-grid network where homes can work together to achieve grid-independence. The idea is for the homes to generate power when the sun is up, store power in a storage system, and if one house runs out of power throughout the night, another house can power it.

To take this a step forward, the team is interested in employing this network in a local indigenous community that is is the first indigenous community to have a solar micro-grid installed.

We’re excited to continue this series on tiny homes designed and built by students. The design/build process allows students to put theory into practice and to learn construction skills as they complete a small-scale home. Thus far in the series, we’ve explored tiny home projects at Appalachian State UniversityAuburn UniversityWestern Washington University, and Temple University. These projects show how people with little or no experience can build a tiny home.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-23T16:21:51+0000
Maria Saxton

Article by:

Maria Saxton

Located in Roanoke, Virginia, Maria Saxton holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Design and Planning from Virginia Tech. She works as an Environmental Planner and Housing Researcher for a local firm specializing in Community Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Historic Preservation. Her dissertation explored the environmental impacts of small-scale homes. She serves as a volunteer board member for the Tiny Home Industry Association.