Skip to main content
True North Living » Community » Building Better: An Indigenous Philosophy for Construction Projects
Suzanne Brant headshot

Suzanne Brant

President, FNTI (First Nations Technical Institute)

Tim Coldwell headshot

Tim Coldwell

President, Chandos Construction

When FNTI (First Nations Technical Institute) began planning construction of a new state-of-the-art learning facility, the team was committed to ensuring that every phase of the build aligned with its Indigenous community ideals.

In the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory of Southern Ontario, the future of Indigenous higher education in Canada is being built. And, given that this is a country where the intersection of Indigenous culture and the education system is especially fraught, the team involved are well aware that this is a delicate undertaking. So, when FNTI was planning its new building, it knew that it couldn’t approach it like any other construction project.

“We want the whole building to be reflective of learning, empowering, building pride, and ensure that not only are the people in the building sharing their knowledge, but that the building and landscape are sharing knowledge too,” says FNTI President Suzanne Brant. “Our goal is to change the legacy between Indigenous people and learning. A lot of our students have previously attended mainstream educational institutions and it has not been a good experience for them. We want to build a school that our students can be proud to have attended. We want a place and a space to display wampum belts and cultural items that people can appreciate and learn from. Because of the impacts of residential schools and the ‘60s and ‘70s scoop many of our people haven’t learned their language, don’t know their own history and are just starting to discover who they really are. We want to make sure everything that we provide for them is the best and deepest learning experience possible.”

What sets IPD apart from all of the other delivery methods is the risk-reward model that’s embedded into the contract.

The landscape is an important part of the vision for the new FNTI building

Executing on a big vision requires a solid plan

With the philosophy of design behind the building already so grand in scale, there was another consideration that was just as important. This construction project is a massive infrastructure development on First Nations land, and it’s essential to ensure that it enriches the community as thoroughly as possible both after construction and during. Too often, when Indigenous communities have the budget for a large project like this one, the wealth flows straight out of the community and into the pockets of large contractors who overpromise and underdeliver. And so, in seeking construction partners, FNTI was looking for someone with an entirely different approach to project delivery. Enter Chandos Construction and the Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) method.

“What sets IPD apart from all of the other delivery methods is the risk-reward model that’s embedded into the contract,” explains Chandos president Tim Coldwell. “The only way project participants get their full profit on the job is if the client is satisfied with the outcome of the project. The owner, designer, builder, and key trades are all linked together so they all win and lose together. It’s a completely new way to build where you scale-up-to-win or scale-down-to-lose. This delivery method broadens your perspective on what’s possible.”

The risk-reward model of IPD, and the radical transparency that goes with it, is a contractual scaffolding that’s surprisingly effective at ensuring that everyone at every stage of the project is kept focused on the same goal: delivering the best project possible.

“As soon as you take away the hidden margin pockets that find a way into a job and you disincentivize the team from increasing costs for their own gain, it radically changes everything,” says Coldwell. “If we can deliver the project below the forecasted cost and the owner is happy with it, then the owner gets half the savings, and the rest of the team gets the other half. That’s the incentive to reduce your costs.”

We are all one

The IPD model also creates a considerable sense of community involvement that ties in directly with modern ideas of Indigenous economic reconciliation. This philosophy of Indigenous wealth-building focuses heavily on communal work for communal benefit. Through IPD, that’s exactly what’s happening in a project that feels, in some very positive ways, more like a barn raising than a major infrastructure development.

“We have a goal of 80 percent Indigenous economic participation in the FNTI project,” says Coldwell, who has Mohawk heritage himself. “To make this happen, we have to connect with the community to understand what the capacity of the community is. We do that in part through co-locating everyone into what is pretty much a longhouse. We get the architects, engineers, tradespeople, and every other key team member to work from the same big room on-site. You can walk across the room and ask questions, have conversations, and solve issues in minutes that would take three weeks if you weren’t co-located. We also use that space for open houses, and we invite the community to come in, talk to us, have a coffee, and see the work we’re doing.”

Chandos employees training Indigenous apprentices

The building becomes the community

When all is said and done, the work done in that big room is going to give FNTI a new cutting-edge facility that combines all the modern amenities of a top tier post-secondary institute with a hefty appreciation for the ongoing cultural legacy of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. It will serve the specific community and educational needs of the students FNTI serves across Ontario and Canada, all from their home community of Tyendinaga Territory. It’s a net-zero carbon design with indoor and outdoor spaces conceived to maximize community involvement, from round classrooms that foster discussion to grid-independence with an eye toward disaster preparedness, and from ceremonial venues to Indigenous gardens and medicinal plants.

As this project develops, FNTI becomes more and more convinced that their vision could not have been realized without Chandos and IPD. “We just don’t have these kinds of places and spaces in First Nations communities, and we really want to set an example of how to create them,” says Brant. “With Tim and his team, we now have the platform to be able to say, ‘This is how you can do it with the Indigenous philosophy intact.’ In the near future, I’d like to create training modules so that we can show other communities how to go down this pathway of accountability, inclusivity, and collaboration, using IPD and a net-zero philosophy.”

Next article