• This prototype dwelling planned for construction in Nain, Labrador, is designed to be heated economically and to suit the needs of Inuit families. (Illustration: FGMDA Architectes)

On Dec. 1, 2005, the Inuit of Labrador achieved self-government as the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement and the Labrador Inuit Constitution came into force. In the decade since, these Inuit — who call their region Nunatsiavut, meaning “our beautiful land” in Inuktitut — have made important progress in areas such as health, education and culture, but challenges remain. Among them is a housing shortage, and the fact that many existing dwellings in Nunatsiavut are nearly impossible to keep warm in winter and need major repairs.

“We have overcrowding and homelessness,” says Tom Sheldon, Director of Environment for the Nunatsiavut Government, “and almost half our households cannot afford to heat their homes properly. It is a crisis that is affecting health and well-being in our communities.” Sheldon is part of a team tackling the problem by using a mix of local knowledge and outside expertise. Their project, Healthy Homes in Thriving Nunatsiavut Communities, aims to build “affordable warmth” into new houses that will be designed to suit the way people live in Nunatsiavut. “We started by consulting elders and young people,” says Sheldon, “because they are less likely to have access to housing through current programs. We asked them what they would like to see in a home.”

Their suggestions included a large entrance porch for storing hunting equipment and sealskin boots, which need to be kept cool; a large stainless steel sink for preparing sealskins or cleaning fish; an open-concept main floor, which makes it easier to socialize and keep an eye on children; and a second bedroom, where elders can accommodate a caregiver or foster child, or where a young couple’s first child can sleep.

Poorly heated houses often require expensive repairs for frozen pipes, moisture damage and mould, but a few simple changes can make a big difference. Large south-facing windows capture the sun’s warmth; a simple design reduces corners and edges, which thermal scans reveal are always colder. A sealed roof with no attic eliminates the risk of damage from snow blowing in through roof vents, a more frequent occurrence as climate change brings more storms and stronger winds. High-quality insulation, windows and doors complete the picture.

Architect Alain Fournier has incorporated these features into the pilot project, a six-unit building scheduled for construction this summer in the community of Nain. With new building lots costing more than $200,000 to develop, a multi-unit building (unusual for Nunatsiavut, where single family houses are the norm) is more cost-effective. “We can reinvest the savings in energy security, in culturally appropriate homes with lower repair costs and increased home-owner satisfaction,” explains Sheldon.

Once residents have settled in, the Nunatsiavut Government team will work with researchers from Quebec City’s Laval University to evaluate the building. “We will look at how much it costs to heat and how well it holds up. We will ask people what is and what is not working well, what we should change, etc.,” says Sheldon. “If it is successful, we hope to adapt and replicate.”

The project is part of a larger community development program that won a prestigious $350,000 Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2013. But for the people of Nunatsiavut, says Sheldon, the real reward is closer to home. “We are hoping to build culturally-relevant, affordable, climate-adapted housing that can have a cascading impact in terms of mental health, well-being and people’s sense of belonging. That’s a concrete step toward healthier communities.”

This is the latest in a blog series on polar issues and research presented by Canadian Geographic and Polar Knowledge Canada. The polar blog appears online every two weeks, and select blog posts are featured in issues of Canadian Geographic. Polar Knowledge Canada is a new federal research organization that combines the former Canadian Polar Commission and the Canadian High Arctic Research Station project of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada. Learn more at canada.ca/en/polar-knowledge.