Endless tundra, stoic mountains, dense boreal forest, raging rivers. In the North, these natural landscapes start at your doorsteps. And those very doorsteps were shaped by these geographic and geological features. “It has to be a conversation between the building and the environment,” says Simon Taylor, an award-winning architect based in Yellowknife.
It’s been a long-running conversation. Inuit, for example, built innovative igluit with the most abundant resource around them—snow—and they perfected the design to conserve valuable heat.
Though many homes in the early days of forced Northern settlements were hastily put up and crudely designed, houses today are conceived and constructed to accommodate and adapt to their immediate—and often dynamic—surroundings. Here’s how geological, climatic and local economic factors influence the look and feel of houses up here.
From the bottom up:
First, the ground is either unstable or too stable. Most communities rest on permafrost or bedrock, which explains why you’re not going to find many basements in the North. “With permafrost, obviously the concern is both degradation of the permafrost and the fact that, seasonally, your ground has considerable temperature changes and condition changes, so that you usually have an active layer of soil that warms up,” says Taylor. When it does and the ground thaws, it can slump, which can cause the buildings sitting on it to shift or even collapse.
“I mean we’re dealing with frozen ground,” says Antonio Zedda, a partner with Kobayashi + Zedda Architects Ltd., which has designed more than 500 building projects in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta and British Columbia. “You don’t have to deal with that in the rest of Canada.”
That’s why you see houses on stilts. Many structures are elevated on steel piles driven into the bedrock to keep the heat inside the home from going directly into the frozen ground. Other homes—often trailers—sit on wood blocks. With the heaving of the ground, they need to be levelled every few years to keep the home from shifting too much. (Don’t worry, there’s someone in town who can do that.)
And some larger buildings will also use a thermosyphon system that keeps the permafrost from melting when the temperature of the ground is warmer than the air. This technology consists of a closed pipe filled most commonly with carbon dioxide. In winter, cooler air temperatures cause the gas in the pipe above the ground to condense, turning it into a liquid that flows to the base of the pipe underground. There, the warmer ground temperature vaporizes the fluid and sends it back up where it cools to liquid, continuing the cycle—and maintaining the temperature of the permafrost. In the summer, when you don’t have that dramatic temperature difference and the need to transfer heat from the ground to the air, the cycling stops.
But even where permafrost isn’t a concern, basements are still uncommon in much of the North—unless developers are comfortable footing the cost of blasting away ancient Precambrian Shield. It’s normal to see homes built around rocks—with outcrops even extending, in some cases, into the home. The rock can mitigate temperature extremes in the home because rock holds a more steady temperature than other materials like wood, says Taylor, who also sees it as an aesthetic feature, not as a blight. “I think there’s something nice about rock.”
Issue with the pipes:
All that bedrock and permafrost doesn’t just eliminate basements, it also means many communities can’t have buried water or sewer lines. Inuvik uses utilidors, a network of pipes insulated and heated above ground. But most communities rely on trucked water and sewage pumpouts. That means many Northern homes are designed so the truck driver can easily access water and septic tanks. (Don’t even try parking in front of a pumpout.) And to keep tanks from freezing, they have to be located inside the building, usually in a furnace or mudroom.
Keeping warm and staying cool:
An obsession with temperature regulation, Zedda says, is one of the reasons why the North is leading the way on energy efficient housing. And it’s really more about necessity than comfort. “It has a huge impact on operating and maintenance costs,” he says. That means designers pay close attention to windows, doors, roofs and walls, and how airtight the building is.
It’s not just about insulation, either. The overall look and plan of a house can be different from a dwelling in the south. For instance, many Northern houses will have the bedrooms downstairs, and the common areas upstairs. Heat rises, so rooms closer to the ground tend to be cooler, while upstairs living areas capture and retain more of that precious heat in winter, as well as getting more sunlight. But while darkness may descend every winter, for months at a time the sun doesn’t set in the summer, so you have to manage those extremes. “You don’t just want to plonk a window in a room because you’ve got a room and need a window,” says Taylor. “You want to make sure where you put that window has some positive impact.” The orientation of the window will mean that in the winter, you get much needed daylight, but you’re not roasting yourself like a rotisserie chicken in the summer. What that light is shining on matters too—the flooring you pick next to your window could determine whether your wooden floors warp in the sun or your linoleum is freezing in the winter.
No rough drafts:
Enter most any Northern home and you’ll find yourself in a room adorned with hooks and ample floor space to accommodate boots, shoes, snowpants, and the very many layers of winter clothing worn by residents and visitors. (You can shuck your Sorels indoors without fear of flooding the front hall when they thaw.) And these spaces are also generally sealed off from the main part of the house to stop frigid air from rushing in. This helps keep heat from getting out.
The money pit:
Many roofs in the North are built out of tin, because they’re relatively inexpensive and light enough to cut down on the costs of getting them all the way up here. Although the environment shapes Northern architecture, money also influences designs. Obviously.
Prefabricated buildings are common in the North, as it can be cheaper to ship trailers and whole building components into communities than it is to build from scratch.
There are only so many construction workers in communities. If you have to bring someone up to build a home, that’s just more money. Available labour also affects the kinds of heating and ventilation systems that are installed. According to Zedda, skilled trades are in high demand and it doesn’t take too many big projects—even in the capital cities—to max out the pool of local tradespeople. Anything that moves, he says, needs to be kept simple enough that it can be repaired and maintained on the ground without having to import people or parts from the south. (Again, the flights and hotels can really start to add up.)
All of this means that, in the North, efficiency and longevity are the names of the game. Although many older homes in smaller communities were built with diesel heating systems and without much thought given to R-values, you will often find new homeowners choosing to eat the expensive upfront costs of low-energy or high-quality systems so they can enjoy the savings over the long-term.
“We’re sort of motivated to be more energy efficient, just because we live in a colder climate and energy costs more than it does down south,” says Zedda.
“The North is kind of leading the rest of Canada in terms of being innovative with sustainable buildings and energy efficient buildings because we have to.”