Future Architecture, Ancient Wisdom: Adaptable Structures from Arctic Tradition

Future Architecture, Ancient Wisdom: Adaptable Structures from Arctic Tradition

N.P. Mackin

University of Victoria and Mackin Tanaka Architecture, Canada

| |
| | Citation



In the Canadian high Arctic, subsistence hunters and fishers have learned, over generations, to construct shelters from available materials so they can survive  inclement weather while harvesting food. Now, as accelerating climate change exacerbates the intensity and unpredictability of extreme weather, scientists and country food harvesters once again worry about becoming stranded. To envision how tradition-based dwellings might serve as modern short-term survival/emergency structures, we reconstructed four vernacular structures in largely- Indigenous Arctic communities and compared them with a Sami reconstruction from Arctic Scandinavia. Local knowledge-holders and students participated  and  proposed  adaptations  using  modern  materials  and  concepts.  The  five structures were qualitatively evaluated for replicability, adaptability to modern situations, on-going usefulness, thermal performance, and materials availability. Quantitative evaluations included speed of construction relative to length of use and approximate mass of structure per person. The structures that were most adaptable, replicable, and efficient were elliptic paraboloid-shaped dwellings: Inuvialuit willow-framed moss-and-skin-clad dwellings (Western Canadian Arctic), Inuinnaqtun snow houses (iglus and qarmaqs) (central Canadian high Arctic), and birch-framed turf-clad homes (Scandinavian Arctic). All shared the following characteristics: (1) catenary- or elliptic paraboloid-domed frame- work, (2) materials accessed from immediate vicinity of building site, (3) ease of construction by 1 or few people, (4) passive heating and insulated assemblies, (5) windbreaks incorporated into siting and design, (6) strong structure resistant to high winds and inclement weather, and (7) siting along routes where foods are harvested. These characteristics are now serving as design principles for tem- porary Arctic dwellings, demonstrating how recording, adapting, and sharing long-resident peoples’ architectural knowledge facilitates survival during extreme events associated with accelerated climate change


arctic indigenous knowledge, catenary arch, elliptic paraboloid, survival structures, vernacular architecture


[1] Hadlari, A., Personal communication, April 7–9 2016, Inuit knowledge-holder,  Cambridge Bay NU Canada.

[2] Mackin, N., Moss houses in the circumpolar north: architectural traditions and innova-tions that respond to climate change. International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, 8(2), pp. 1–14, 2015.

[3] Emmons, R., An investigation of sami building structures. Sami Culture, University of Texas, available at: https://www.laits.utexas.edu/sami/dieda/anthro/architecture. htm#Thermal, 2004.

[4] Sjølie, R., The sami goahti, an earthen house in the arctic. Vernacular Architecture and Earthen Architecture: Contribution for Sustainable Architecture, The Sami Goahti, an Earthen House in the Arctic, Taylor and Francis Group: London, pp. 71–76, 2014.

[5] Auroville Earth Institute UNESCO Chair Earthen Architecture, Stability Notions, avail-able at: http://www.earth-auroville.com/stability_notions_en.php

[6] Fehr, A. &Andre, A., Gwich’in Ethnobotany, Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute and Aurora Research Institute: Inuvik NWT Canada, 2002.

[7] Gruben, P., Personal Communication, Inuvialuit Knowledge-Holder, Dec. 18, Aklavik NWT Canada.

[8] English, M., Personal communication, Inuivialuit knowledge-holder, Dec. 2015, Inuvik NWT Canada.

[9] Jerome, J., Personal communication, Inuivialuit knowledge-holder, Dec. 2015, Inuvik NWT Canada.

[10] Lee, M. & Reinhardt, G.T., Eskimo Architecture: Dwelling and Structure in the Early Historic Period, University of Alaska Press: Fairbanks AK, 2002.

[11] Peter Kershaw, G., Scott, P.A. & Welch, H.E., The shelter characteristics of traditional-styled inuit snow houses. Arctic, 49(4), pp. 328–338, 1996. http://dx.doi.org/10.14430/arctic1208

[12] Handy, R.L., The perfect dome. American Scientist May-June 2011, available at: http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/2011/3/the-perfect-dome

[13] Monreal, A., Catenary or Parabola, who will tell? DIMACS entre for Discrete mathemat-ics and theoretical computer science, available at: http://www.cs.rutgers.edu/~mcgrew/dimacs/slides/Amadeo_Huylebrouck.pdf

[14] Inuvialuit Elders with Robert Bandringa, Inuvialuit Nautchiangit: Relationships be-tween people and plants, Inuvik: Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre, 2010.

[15] Senosiain, J., Bio-architecture, Architectural Press: Oxford, 2003.