Architect designs unique tipi-inspired home in Yellowknife

By Kayhan Nadji

Photos © Angela Gzowski
Photos © Angela Gzowski

The Tipi House in Yellowknife, N.W.T., designed by Kayhan Nadji of Nadji Architects, is a symbol of northern culture and its jagged landscape. The design reflects an increasing awareness of the ways architecture affects, and is affected by, the environment and by culture. The architect has tried to figuring out the best way to combine the fundamental indigenous architecture shapes with more modern considerations, such as central heating, space, and lighting. The result? A truly unique, eye-catching Northern home.

The housing history of northern Canada begins with the dwelling of the indigenous people. The early inhabitants of the Northwest Territories belong to two large cultural groups: the Inuit of the arctic and Athapaskans of the western sub-arctic. The arctic lands of the Inuit are sandy or rocky and devoid of trees—the winter snows are windswept into dense drifts. The sub-arctic land of the Dene is forested, the snow soft and fluffy, the form of their shelter is compact. Construction materials are local, and climate is the prime influence on the construction of shelters in both cultures.

To understand the particularity of the First Nations’ architecture, it is important to also understand their beliefs and how they live in relation to people and nature. First Nations people believe in communal and co-operative living. Survival often depends on communal efforts to obtain and store food. They feel a kinship with the natural world.

Dene architecture

Unlike the eastern Arctic, beyond the tree line where the change from a nomadic life to a permanent village life was sudden, the western Arctic has a long history of established settlements. Additionally, because of plentiful fishing and fur-harvesting along the Mackenzie River (home of the Dene) there was an economic base for community growth. In some cases, however, the settlements have outlived their original economic purpose.

The Tipi House library under the skylight.
The Tipi House library under the skylight.

Since this area is within the tree line, the range of possibilities for building materials is greater than in the barrens. Conical shelters and tipi became common. Every group adopted the conical form, developed its own unique type, and adopted a variety of materials. The Dene tipi shape creates a spiritual power representing the relationship between man and God.

The project

With the Tipi House project, Nadji has tried to build a new home to stand as a symbol of his deep respect and admiration of northern culture and his love of the beautiful, rugged landscape of Yellowknife. Nadji’s objectives in designing and building this project were to implement characteristics of the First Nations’ architecture in relation to a changing environment, and reflect on emerging approaches in contemporary architecture. The architectural expression of this house grows out of an appreciation for the local culture and setting.

The topography of the Yellowknife district is typical of the Canadian Shield. The bedrock in the Yellowknife area is of Precambrian age. The area now referred to as Yellowknife grew originally following the discovery of gold in 1935. Yellowknife is within the extensive discontinuous permafrost zone.

Concept

The round/tipi house is designed to reflect an increasing awareness of the way architecture affects, and is affected by both the environment and culture, plus emergent characteristics in contemporary architecture. Nadji has tried to create a building where every element of affects the psychological, physical, and emotional well-being of its tenant. For First Nations people, the circle is a significant symbol representing the continuity of life. They believe everything in life relates to a circle. Everything the power of the world does is in a circle. The sky, earth, and stars are round. Almost all First Nations shelters feature a circular plan in which holds some basic physical and psychological concepts: a circle makes everyone equal; the circular plan encourages concentric use of space with attention focused on the center with its fire pit at the base and the smoke vent at the top. Additionally, a circular dwelling is non-directional, aside from the entrance, and lets in daylight from all angles.

The circular shape has been adapted to this design. It is the most efficient for enclosing volume as it minimizes the use of materials and presents the least possible surface for heat gain and loss. The circular plan directs the earth forces naturally around the building, and fewer corners reduce wind turbulences to a minimum. It encloses the given area with a shorter overall length of walls, and energy consumption is dramatically reduced because of the form of the building.

Description

The building height and location on the lot was determined by the City of Yellowknife. This four-bedroom, 450-m2 (4840-sf) house, designed for a family of five, is in Yellowknife, the homeland of Weledeh Yellowknife Dene. Based on tipi (means to dwell or live) and igloo (means house) architecture, the First Nations’ dwelling of this area.

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