Meeting the northern housing challenge

By Kiley Daley – PhD Candidate, Dalhousie University

The Healthy Homes in Nunatsiavut Project prototype dwelling, Nain, Labrador.  (Photo: FGMDA Architectes)
The Healthy Homes in Nunatsiavut Project prototype dwelling, Nain, Labrador. (Photo: FGMDA Architectes)


The shortage of adequate housing in the North has hampered progress on many economic, social, and health issues in the region. Building and maintaining housing in the North is challenging due to the arctic environment, changing climate, brief construction season and limited local resources. Building costs are on average 150 percent higher in the North than the rest of Canada and actual costs in the more isolated communities are likely even higher (NAEDB, 2014). The number of communities with suitable housing varies across regions, peaking at 90 percent in the Yukon, but dropping sharply to only 62 percent in Nunavut and 58 percent in Nunavik (NAEDB, 2016). Affordability is a barrier for many people; therefore reliance on public housing is high. Much of the current public housing stock is old, in need of major repair and energy-inefficient. Additionally, the housing designs are often culturally unsuitable for Aboriginal families and do not meet the needs of life in the North. Household crowding is a significant issue in the North and has been associated with a number of adverse health outcomes including respiratory infections, person-to-person transmission of pathogens, elevated measures of chronic stress and lower levels of self-reported general health (Anderson & Thompson, 2016; Minich et al., 2011; Statistics Canada, 2010; Riva et al., 2014; Ruiz-Castell et al., 2015; Tse et al., 2016). Concurrent to the housing shortage, high rates of population growth – particularly among Indigenous peoples – are continuing across the North, further increasing pressure on the already strained housing supply (Statistics Canada, 2008). As the demand for adequate housing increases, designs and technologies that are appropriate for Northern conditions and communities are needed to improve the quality of life for residents and spur long-term economic development in the region.

Potential solutions

A number of projects have recently begun to tackle various aspects of the Northern housing issue. Community consultations have improved designs and resulted in homes with features and layouts that are better suited to life in the North. There have been significant innovations in building science in recent years, and by modifying these for application in the North, homes can be made more energy-efficient and better equipped to withstand the arctic climate.. The Healthy Homes in Nunatsiavut (InosiKatigeKagiamik Illumi) Project is one such program that aims to construct culturally relevant, affordable, climate-adapted homes in the Inuit region of Labrador (Nain Research Centre, 2015). They began by garnering design input from local residents who suggested features such as exterior porches for storing hunting equipment; large stainless steel sinks for preparing sealskins or cleaning fish; open-concept living areas that can facilitate large gatherings or a variety of furniture layouts; and an extra bedroom to take into account changing needs of multigenerational families (Bennett, 2015). As a pilot project, the initial design is a multi-unit building, which is more cost-effective than a single-family unit. A number of features will help ensure “affordable warmth” and avert the problems, chronic in Nunatsiavut, of poorly heated houses: frozen pipes, moisture damage and mould. Large south-facing windows will maximize passive solar heating and natural lighting; a basic rectangular design will minimize corners and edges, where heat escapes; and a sealed roof with no attic will prevent strong winds from blowing snow in through roof vents (Bennett, 2015). Once the building begins operating the Nunatsiavut Government will work with researchers from Laval University to evaluate its cost and energy efficiency, as well as the impact on health and well-being (Bennett, 2015).

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has also identified northern housing as a priority area of policy and research. Their Northern Sustainable Houses project involves the design, construction and performance monitoring of four demonstration houses (CMHC, 2016). Two of the houses are located in Dawson City, Yukon, one in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and another in Arviat, Nunavut. Host communities were consulted early in the design phase to ensure culturally-appropriate homes, as is evidenced in the differing use of space within each region. The homes in Dawson City, for instance, were designed with covered decks that can be used as outdoor living space or converted to extra bedrooms as needed (CMHC, 2014a). The house in Arviat, a community with no road access and longer winters, was instead designed with a large, heated storage room to stock supplies that arrive by annual sealift (CMHC, 2014b). All of the houses were also constructed with a number of features to enhance energy efficiency and create a healthy indoor living environment. All houses were fitted with heat recovery ventilators, which ensure good air quality and interior moisture management while still allowing the house to be constructed relatively airtight and retain heat. The homes were also designed to accommodate future installation of solar energy heating systems (CMCH, 2016). In addition to these demonstration projects, the CMHA is also active in innovative housing financing solutions and leveraging linkages between housing and economic development in the North.

Arctic Housing Infrastructure Workshop

There are many other organizations working to improve housing in the North, and given the complexity, scope, and urgency of the issue there is a need for increased communication and collaboration among them. On February 25-26, 2016, POLAR Knowledge Canada (POLAR) hosted a workshop titled “Collaborative Action on Arctic Housing Infrastructure” to foster relationships among parties engaged in this cause. The workshop, itself a collaboration of POLAR, CMHC, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), and the National Research Council (NRC), brought together experts from across the north, including Alaska, and from southern Canada. Participants included technical specialists from a range of disciplines, occupants and operators of private and public northern housing, and northern governments, to share knowledge, work collaboratively, and continue bridging housing and technology advancements with needs of northern communities.

Housing in the North appears to be at the beginning of an encouraging new era. As demonstrated in the Health Homes in Nunatsiavut and Northern Sustainable Houses projects, collaborations between engaged community stakeholders, private and public partners, researchers, and building experts have the potential to markedly improve the quality of life and well-being of Northern residents, with relatively low financial investments.


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Tse, S.M., Weiler, H., Kovesi, T. (2016). Food insecurity, vitamin D insufficiency and respiratory infections among Inuit children. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 75: 29954. –
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