Canadian Architect


One Piece at a Time

Housing designs for the north must address a complex set of issues--from transportation logistics to the distinct cultural needs of First Nations communities and capital city dwellers.

April 1, 2014
by Bill Semple

Text Bill Semple
Photos Latreille Delage Photography

The list of issues to be addressed when designing in the North is considerable. The immense size of the region, the severe climate, and the shortage of skilled trades and professionals all present challenges. The three Northern territories cover 3,921,739 square kilometres, representing 39.3% of the land area of Canada, an area larger than India. Within this vast region lives a population of only 110,000 people, with approximately 50,000 living in the territorial capitals of Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Iqaluit. Putting this in context, in Nunavut, outside the capital of Iqaluit, some 25,000 people are scattered in 25 communities over an area of 2,093,190 square kilometres, 20.4% of Canada’s land mass.

Given these large distances, the challenges of transportation and the delivery of goods and services are often the first considerations for architects working in the region. In Nunavut, for example, where there are no roads outside the communities, all materials arrive by way of the annual sealift. As a result, the design process is often governed by the need to complete working drawings and material takeoffs to ensure that materials are delivered to a specific transport ship in time. Missing this shipment would mean missing a year of construction, while miscalculating and leaving anything off the list may require shipping the materials by air–an expense every Northern project wants to avoid. 

Similarly, the timeline for working in remote Northwest Territories communities that are supplied on winter ice roads is heavily influenced by the short ice-road season. While climate change is lengthening the season for the annual sealift, rising global temperatures are predicted to reduce winter road access in Canada’s Arctic by 13 percent by 2050, presenting a significant challenge that has already impacted some communities.

The need to reduce Northern communities’ complete dependency on imported oil–currently used for both home heating and the generation of electricity in community diesel power plants–is also paramount. This involves building upon the significant efforts made over the past several years towards improving the energy efficiency of buildings, while also developing and implementing alternative energy technologies, and increasing the skills and capacities of Northern communities to address and manage these ongoing challenges.

Perhaps the most crucial issue in the Arctic and Subarctic is that of housing. Numerous studies have drawn attention to the inadequate supply, poor-quality construction, and the design of housing that neither addresses the rigorous climate of the Canadian Far North nor the cultural realities of its Aboriginal peoples. 

Andy Moorhouse, President of the Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau notes, “Housing is not the only issue [for Northern communities], but all issues relate to housing.” As Yellowknife architect Gino Pin writes, “The transition from the basic nomadic settlement (a coming together of family), to the contemporary settlement (orchestrated by the planner), has not been a success.” The national significance of this issue was highlighted in a recent UN report on housing in Canada’s North that emphasized the need to design and construct sustainable and culturally appropriate housing, and develop innovative ways to involve Inuit and First Nations in the design process. 

Several housing projects have successfully addressed the combined issues of energy efficiency and cultural appropriateness. Starting in 2005, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), under its Northern Sustainable House initiative, began working with local communities and territorial housing agencies to develop one housing prototype in each of the three Northern territories. Technically, the projects delivered significant energy-efficiency improvements over existing housing while incorporating input from local officials, builders, elders, women and young people through the design process. It is noteworthy that the projects built upon each other, with the energy performance of each subsequent project improving upon the previous, resulting in EnerGuide ratings from 83 to 88. 

As a CMHC senior researcher at the time, I was involved in the design and implementation of each of the three projects. This included the Arviat Northern Sustainable House, a project carried out by the Nunavut Housing Corporation and CMHC in Arviat, an Inuit community on the west coast of Hudson Bay. 

The project began with a one-day design charrette that, in addressing the needs of the community, evolved into a three-day event. Drawing upon both input from local residents and research that has been carried out in Northern communities, the charrette identified many of the failings of Northern housing, while also highlighting some of the unique cultural requirements of Inuit families. 

For example, while typical houses provide small kitchens with small separate dining areas, the Arviat Northern Sustainable House includes a sizeable open-concept living/dining and kitchen area, provided to make space for large family gatherings, which often take the form of elaborate communal meals eaten while seated on the floor. Reflecting the desire to reinforce family connections, hallways are eliminated, with bedrooms opening directly into the main family space. The compact floor plate includes other spaces considered crucial to the local lifestyle: a partially heated room for sewing skins and preparing game brought in from the land, an exterior cold room for storing hunting and outdoor gear, and a room for storing bulk goods delivered in the annual sealift. 

The house includes summer and winter entrances, with the main entrance located based on wind direction to prevent snow drifts. To reach energy performance targets, the design includes a low roof profile with limited openings, locates most windows on the extended south elevation (where space is provided for the future installation of solar panels), and provides an airtight energy-efficient envelope, vestibules at each of the entrances, and a high-efficiency oil boiler with heat recovery.

With the ever-changing face of the North, notions of culture are also changing. This is reflected in new housing projects in the capitals, where almost half of Northerners now live. The “Northern way of life” is different in the territorial capitals, and Northern architects are exploring distinct ideas in these communities. 

For instance, Kobayashi + Zedda Architects (KZA) recognized that for Whitehorse to evolve and attract more urban amenities, it would need to increase its density. To accomplish this shift, more examples of multi-unit housing should be built. Becoming their own developer, the architects constructed a series of condominium projects that cater to a growing segment of the market that is younger, urban and educated. 

Unlike many of the Whitehorse suburbs, which are structured for homeowners to access a maximum of acreage and enjoy seclusion from neighbours, these “Northern condominiums” cater to those who want low-maintenance urban housing that allows them to spend weekends out in the great wilderness of the Yukon. Reflecting this different philosophy, the complexes are contemporary in design, using a combination of Scandanavian-like materials and colours. The variety of sizes and types of units has made a notable positive contribution to the urban fabric of Whitehorse.

While enhancing sustainability is a major goal throughout the country, in the North this challenge always includes cultural sustainability, a component that is seldom part of parallel discussions in southern Canada. The Canadian North is a unique part of the world, home to many different peoples whose cultures form integral and evolving parts of the Northern way of life. Young Aboriginal Northerners–a large and growing population
segment–are working to honour their traditions while incorporating contemporary values and influences into their way of life. As the late Chief Jimmy Bruneau of NWT’s Tlicho people once stated, “If we are to remain a strong people we must educate our children and grandchildren in both the white and the Tlicho ways. They must be strong like two people.” Capital city dwellers, on the other hand, have a distinct set of desires that will keep on evolving as development of the North continues. 

For architects, it is these multiple rich realities that make designing in the North an intriguing, fulfilling and challenging experience. 

For 10 years Bill Semple was CMHC’s senior researcher responsible for Northern housing projects. He is now the owner of NORDEC Design and Consulting, and works with Northern stakeholders to enhance the environmental and cultural sustainability of their communities. Bill sits on several design and technical committees including the Board of Directors of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Steering Committee of the Incubator for Northern Design and Innovation (INDI) at the University of Alberta. 

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