Culturally-Appropriate Housing for Life in Northern Canada


Arviat HouseA new initiative in Northern Canada aims to develop housing for Aboriginal residents that are not only significantly more energy efficient than current buildings, but are also designed with cultural traditions in mind. The project, dubbed the “Northern Sustainable House” is being piloted in Arviat, Nunavut, with similar initiatives underway in Dawson City, Yukon, and Whitehorse, Northwest Territories. The project is supported by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the Nunavut Housing Corporation, and the Centre for the North, and was developed in collaboration with local community residents.

Upwards of 300 Northern communities rely on the fossil fuel, which is only imported via barges and ice roads.[i] Nunavut is entirely dependent on diesel, so there is a strong push to incorporate other heating methods to conserve fossil fuels. These houses will be constructed with alternative materials and will contain innovative heating and ventilation systems. Houses will also make appropriate use of the sun, with most windows facing South. They will be constructed with large vertical areas fit for solar panels. There will be separate entries for summer and winter, with the winter entry being air-locked to keep out the cold. Each of these entries will be connected to a wind porch before connecting to the living areas to minimize heat loss.[ii] These structural adjustments are expected to increase energy efficiency, making them 50% more efficient than what is currently considered standard by the National Energy Code.

arviat_nunavutTo integrate culture and tradition into the housing design, community members highlighted the importance of family gatherings and space to clean game and prepare skins and furs. The houses have been designed with a large open kitchen and living room to accommodate gatherings for extended family and friends, as well as a large storage area to accommodate the periodical restocking of supplies.[iii] The houses are equipped with a cool room for storing game and sewing skins and furs, and space to repair equipment.

arviat_womanThe project is a response to a housing issue not exclusive to Aboriginal communities in the North, but also relevant to many communities on reserves across the country. The layout and structure of existing houses and housing plans don’t always incorporate or accommodate integral elements of Aboriginal culture and tradition. Rather, houses are often designed to meet standard government building codes and are usually pre-fabricated in Southern cities and shipped north. These houses are not structured to withstand the Northern climate and often degenerate rapidly. Many are not outfitted for plumbing or electricity.

The new sustainable houses have taken these issues into consideration, and are a direct reflection of the concerns of local residents. The CMHC branded this approach as an “Integrated Design Process,” wherein elders and community members (including women and youth) and municipal and territory representatives met with Northern architects, engineers, and planners.[iv] They communicated their needs and wants to ensure that the houses represent “the interrelated elements of community, culture, and sustainability.”[v] It is the hope of the involved stakeholders that these energy efficient and culturally appropriate houses will make the cold easier to endure. The houses are currently developed as prototypes. We will provide updates as the project advances.

To learn more about life in Arviat, click here. For more information about the need for cultural and climate-sensitive housing in Canada’s North, check out this report. Listen to a discussion that showcases the results of the above report here. For more innovative housing solutions, click here.

[iv] p. 47
[v] Ibid., p. 48
Sarah Anstett

Sarah Anstett

Sarah is a writer, researcher, and development practitioner currently based in Toronto, Canada.

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