Architect designs unique tipi-inspired home in Yellowknife

The penetration of the chimney into the skylight.
The penetration of the chimney into the skylight.

This site, on high ground, has one of the best views in the city of the river and bays the First Nations people call Weledeh (Yellowknife River). To maximize this, there are many windows and four levels of walkout decks. The environmentally sensitive site determined both the extent of glazing used in the building and transparent deck railings. Within these constraints, the aim was to produce a building with a sense of tranquility and harmony with a location that reflected the environment and culture of First Nations peoples with a strong visual presence.

The 13 m (43 ft) diameter round/tipi house, which stands out in high contrast to the sky, sits back on a long rocky site. Behind the house are birch and spruce trees. The site is bounded on the east by Yellowknife River and on the west by Niven Lake. The overall vocabulary abstracts the form of First Nations dwellings of the surrounding area. The ground floor contains air lock which is located to prevent wind and precipitation from entering directly into living space, the 5 m (16 ft) diameter rotunda entry hall, living, dining, family room, kitchen and bathroom, the second floor contains bedrooms and bathrooms, and an observation sun room with a library is located on the third floor. The basement contains an office and an art studio.

The house has a cast-in place reinforced concrete foundation in bedrock. The basement floor is reinforced concrete poured into the bedrock. A layer of 200 mm (8 in.) rigid insulation and a vapor barrier under the slab on top of 360 mm (14 in.) compacted gravel prevent frost penetration and improve thermal performance. The house places an emphasis on the expression of simple frame construction. The structure which combines wood framing with, steel post-and beam on a concrete foundation was built, nailed, and shaped with ordinary tools. The 13 mm (1/2 in.) exterior sheeting is wrapped in building paper as an air barrier. Interior insulation is mineral wool and foam completed with vapour barrier. Natural materials are central to the philosophy of the design. Steel columns are generally and equally spaced on a 5 m (16 ft.) diameter circle. The building superstructure is constructed with round structural steel beams and six steel columns with 2×10 Douglas Fir # 1 floor joists c/w 19 mm (¾ in.) plywood glued and screwed to the joists. The roof structure consists of round steel beam supporting skylight, framing with 2×8 slanted stud wall with 19 cm (7.5 in.) spray foam insulation, and vapour barrier.

Drywall was used for finished walls, completed with three coats of paint. The colour scheme is deliberately anti-institutional with rich saturated hues of natural materials playing off the white. Upon entering the house from the main entrance, one is confronted by two colourful ceramic finished planters symbolizing two arms welcoming visitors to the house.

Main floor and basement plans. Photo courtesy Kelsey MacDougall
Main floor and basement plans.
Photo courtesy Kelsey MacDougall

A wood stove and chimney are the centre core. The woodstove is located at the geometric centre. A four-storey void extends the full height of the house, wrapped by a continuous stair, which spirals up from the basement. Walls surrounding the stairwell consist of 2×4 wood studs covering with 13 mm drywalls.

The conical 3 m (10 ft) tall and 5 m (16 ft) diameter skylight with the 25 cm (10 in.) penetrating chimney, marks the tipi and represents Dene culture. Light plays an important role. To take advantage of solar energy, a generous use of blue tinted glass in the skylight pulls daylight into the stairwell.

The triple-pane low-E glass windows placed high in each room captures the winter sun. The amount of daylight in the house changes colour and space with the hours of the seasons. Six watertight roof windows frame the landscape outside in a vast panorama. Windows are arranged to take advantage of cross-ventilation and daylight. Colours use rich saturated hues of natural materials and the purple-gray stucco façade harmonizes with the surrounding rocks and trees. Use of dark colors for exterior finish can help structure absorb solar radiation and convert it to heat, which can be beneficial in warming surfaces exposed to the sun.


The integration of landscape and building is one of the main goals of the design. The house celebrates the natural beauty of the surroundings. The landscape, architecture, and culture are as close as can be to what one would find in native land. Design concepts are based on creating a more friendly relationship between people inside and the natural surroundings, opening the house to the mysticism of the land and its cultures. The house is set into the natural landscape to blend rather to dominate it. Respecting northern weather and economy, local material such as rock and gravel in combination with birch and spruce trees, has been used for landscaping. The house attempts to complement the natural beauty of surroundings, so landscape elements are an integral part of the building concept.


By studying the First Nations’ architecture, it can be seen that complex structures are not always superior. First Nations’ architecture possesses a high degree of sophistication, performance, relevance to people’s needs, and respect for the environment.

When looking into First Nations ways of living, it can be found their houses were not only sympathetic with nature but celebrated nature as the source of life. They illustrate sophisticated rules about design and construction. Their rules have a lot of respect not only for the elements of nature, but also for people. This eye-pleasing as well as functional house has tried to articulate, through its form, a northern architecture through its relationship to First Nations culture, landscape, and the northern sky.

Kayhan Nadji holds a master’s degree in architecture and urban planning and has many years of experience in architectural design, urban planning, project management, and administration. Based in Yellowknife, N.W.T., and operating in one of the world’s most remote regions, Nadji is passionate about creating designs which respect local culture and traditions. He regularly works with remote indigenous communities to create spaces where they can comfortably work to achieve the goals of their people.

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  1. This house is gorgeous and unbelievable design, I proud that this architect has this talent to design such a wonderful tipi house.!

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