North by North Housing

Text + Photos Avi Friedman

Drawings Jeff Jerome and Fa Xiong Wu

Environmental Engineering Rowan Williams Davis & Irwin Inc.

I was foreign to the far north when, last August, I accepted an invitation to design social housing in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, by Michele Bertol, Director of Planning and Lands at the City of Iqaluit, and the Nunavut Housing Authority. My design and building knowledge above the 60th parallel and familiarity with the Innu dwelling culture were rudimentary. The barren landscape of Baffin Island and the challenges faced by local architects were a real eye-opener, one which could provide a lesson for the rest of us southerners.

Northern Canada is in transition. The marks of new mineral discoveries, cultural transformation and climate change are visible and introduce new paradigms affecting design. A good place to start, however, is the fundamentals.

Canada’s modern presence in the north is linked to trade, the military, and sovereignty over land, land which some suggest contains our future riches. Until the 19th century, the Canadian north was populated by a few First Nations and was the focus of early explorers. In 1914, the Hudson’s Bay Company began to set up trading posts throughout the arctic. Growth came to Iqaluit, formerly Frobisher Bay, in World War II, when the Americans built an air base in the area. During the 1950s Cold War era, the base was turned over to the Canadian government and became part of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. The place drew southerners, who needed basic amenities. Additional expansion took place in the 1970s with the building of a hospital, school, homes, apartment buildings, hotels and other features of a modern town. In 1999, with the creation of the new Northern territories, Iqaluit became the capital of Nunavut, population 30,000, a region that occupies one-fifth of Canada’s land mass and assumes its own governance, structure, and cultural identity.

Building in the North

Designing for extreme temperatures plus a very short construction period pose awesome challenges. Perhaps the biggest of them all is logistical. Every building component needs to be ferried from the south by boat during the warmer season. Failing to deliver a large item on time may mean that the building process may come to a halt or that the piece will have to be flown in–a costly prospect. It gives real meaning to the term “miss the boat.” Lack of a deep water harbour in Iqaluit also requires the transfer of goods from boats to barges to land and trucking them to sites. It also means that most building needs to be conceived as a well-designed kit of parts for rapid assembly.

Linking buildings to municipal utilities and constructing infrastructure pose other formidable challenges. As the terrain freezes to a depth of two to three metres, the use of conventional pipes is forbidden. Instead, fresh water runs in insulated conduits whose contents need to be kept in constant motion to avoid freezing. The community, therefore, has circulation pumping stations throughout. Up until recently, most homes in Iqaluit were not connected to central fresh water supplies and sewer disposal. Instead, every home was frequented daily by trucks which supplied them with fresh water and collected grey water, and 30 percent of homes are still serviced this way.

Despite a vast land mass, finding terrain to build on is not easy in the north, since much of the ground under the topsoil is permanently frozen. Conventional southern foundation practices, deep or shallow, cannot be applied here, and the rocky terrain does not make things easier once appropriate land is found. Steel piles need to be driven into the ground, and beams, upon which the superstructure sits, are welded to their heads. When a heated building sits directly on the ground, a zone of thawed soil in the perennially frozen soil develops. It can affect the stability of the permafrost and, as a result, damage lower floors–which is now reported frequently–a result of a climate change.

Climatic considerations affecting designs have extreme importance in the north. For one, energy costs, much higher due to the cost of transporting oil, must be kept down, and inhabitant comfort made a priority. Harold Strub’s excellent book Bare Poles (Carleton University Press, 1999) systematically lists many of the aspects a designer needs to consider.

Blowing snow in frigid arctic weather is one such phenomenon. There is simply not much that can block wind and snowdrift formation above the tree line but the structures themselves. Urbanistically, buildings need to be sited to shelter each other. The long axis of each building needs to be aligned with the wind and raised above grade to form an open crawl space. A blocked underbelly will cause snow accumulation on the building’s other side. The structure’s silhouette also needs to be streamlined and the roof’s height must be shallow. Entrances with wind locks cannot face the wind and deflectors to reduce zones of stagnating air need to be installed.

The importance of sunlight in northern climates cannot be overstated. At higher latitudes, the angle of incoming sunlight remains so low that it reaches its greatest intensity by projecting on vertical surfaces such as walls, rather than the horizontal surfaces like flat roofs, roads, and parking lots, as occurs at lower latitudes. It is very wise to ensure that sunlight is captured and focused by vertical surfaces to create thermally appropriate microclimates. It is also important to consider that during the summer, the sun reaches most of the horizon’s circumference once a day. Therefore, sunlight will reach almost all exposed sides of the building at some point during the day. During the winter, however–when the sunlight is needed most–it is often only available for a couple of hours and only from the south (Strub, 1999).

Designing Social Housing

The building site for the social-housing project was located at the heart of an interesting and diverse part of Iqaluit. Close to the waterfront and across from a visitors’ centre, library, museum and school, it has a gently sloping terrain, a water stream that borders its eastern side and a mountainous view at the rear.

Several cultural and lifestyle attributes invoked ideas when I began contemplating an approach to site planning. First, the notion of demarking property does not exist in the north. One will be hard pressed to find a fence surrounding a yard. Residents freely walk or even drive through each other’s spaces. Clusters of homes have a strikingly different appearance to what we are used to in the south. Also, tents are still used as summer dwellings. Due to overcrowding and a need for cool places, the Innu construct tents adjacent to their homes or on the nearby tundra.

Fishing and hunting form an essential part of a household’s economy and diet. Fishing gear, hunting equipment, skidoos and a kamotic (the sled that drags behind) are part of a family’s possessions which need to be safely stowed away. Once the hunt is over, carcasses are processed indoors and the meat stored for consumption over the long winter.

One is also struck by the inherent artistic talent of the Innu. Behind many homes you can hear the sound of power tools and see locals sculpting soapstone into magnificent works of art. Some large pieces are also displayed in various spots throughout the community. In the north, artwork supports many households’ economies and its production must be accommodated in the dwellings’ design.

Lack of trees lends northern communities a barren image. Yet the beauty of the tundra, with its rock formations, flora and fauna, is captivating and can be made part of the landscaping and streetscaping. It is surprising to find the large number of species that survive the harsh weather and carpet the wild landscape.

The need for housing–social housing in particular–in the north is staggering. Iqaluit, for exa
mple, saw a 20 percent population increase in five years, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation statistics. With a large youth segment of the population and excessively high costs of dwellings, locals have very few shelter options but to rely on social housing. The problem is compounded by high levels of unemployment, overcrowding, and substance abuse. Fostering a strong personal identity, respecting local dwelling culture, and creating a place that embeds itself in the physical landscape were therefore key planning and design objectives.

The orientations of the proposed buildings were woven into the pattern of the old ones, which acknowledged wind direction and solar exposure. Foot and skidoo paths were laid on existing ones, and soapstone sculpting areas equipped with electric outlets and tool sheds were designated at the rear. Where the paths cross, a public square and seating arrangement made of rocks were planned. Sites were also allocated for children’s play areas, an arctic garden and large-scale sculptures by local artists.

Having individual entrances to homes rather than common ones was meant to foster personalization. Colours present in local art were chosen for the wood-siding exterior faades. The parapet of the roofs, it is hoped, will also draw their roots from local culture.

A flexible approach was taken to the design of the interiors of two families’ two-storey dwellings. Sun exposure required that north- and south-facing layout prototypes will be designed. Within the very same footprints, one- or two-bedroom plans were offered. At the rear, a storage space for hunting and fishing gear with access from the interior was planned. Also, we included in the design a multi-purpose room in which hunted carcasses could be prepared and which allowed for plenty of other storage facilities needed by young families.

Housing design in the far north is unlike any of the challenges that architects face in the south. In addition to technical and logistic difficulties, and new realities posed by climate change, one must consider cultural aspects of First Nations people. The combination of all these factors makes, however, for a fascinating design experience in parts of Canada that are rapidly opening up and transforming.

Avi Friedman teaches architecture at McGill, where he also directs the Affordable Homes program.