Anyone who has explored all the provinces and territories of Canada will attest that our landscapes spanning coast-to-coast-to-coast are truly diverse. But nowhere are the natural elements more extreme, or spellbinding, than in Northern Canada where one can witness one of Mother Nature's most magical wonders of the world - The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis - an ethereal skyscape of glowing dancing ribbons of light that vary depending on the intensity of the sun's solar flares and the earth's geomagnetic activity.
One of the best locations to view this magical experience is in Yellowknife - the capital of the Northwest Territories - during the late-Autumn or mid-Spring. But be prepared to dress with more layers than other locations in Canada, as it's only 400 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. Here the temperatures vary annually from -29°Celsius to 22°Celsius - and rarely climb above 26°Celsius at the height of summer.
Courtesy Of CBC - Science Behind The Northern lights
With such extreme temperatures, it's critical any shelter be designed and constructed to respond to this environment. And to find those who understand this best, it makes sense to look to the descendants of the cultures who have survived in this clime for centuries.
Inspired by and shaped like a tipi, the Tipi House was designed by Kayhan Nadji of NADJI Architects Ltd in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) in celebration of the symbolic and sustainable benefits of Indigenous shelter in the northern landscape, while incorporating modern amenities and smart design.
Demonstrating how Indigenous shelter is inherently an extension of its culture, this organic dwelling incorporates natural elements, functions optimally in its environment, and aligns with the spiritual ethos of its peoples. The recipient of the 2000 National Post Design Exchange Award in Architecture, the panel applauded Nadji’s ability to creatively join two aboriginal cultures together (the Inuit and Dene) in an innovative design built for northern climate conditions.
Merging The Tipi & Igloo Shelters
Conceptually based on the 'tipi' from the Dene culture and the 'igloo' from Inuit culture, Nadji combined the two vernaculars into the Tipi House. Conical in shape, tipis are Indigenous Peoples' shelter traditionally made with animal skins and wooden poles. While igloos are dome-shaped shelters built from blocks of snow. For the Dene culture, the tipi represents the spiritual connection between man and superpower.
Circles Of Open Space
The belief in Indigenous culture is that all of life is circular, equal, and whole, making the circle an integral part of the design language, both symbolically and pragmatically. The Tipi House is true to its origins, having a circular footprint with the fire - in this case, an airtight wood stove - situated in the centre of the shelter’s geometric core with the smoke venting through the top like both the tipi and an igloo. The stove's central location maximizes heat efficiency and optimizes air circulation in the space.
A circular design is the most efficient shape to enclose a volume of space, which minimizes the use of materials required while having the least surface for any heat loss – an especially important trait for this harsh environment. Perched on the Canadian Shield, a rocky terrain full of Precambrian igneous rock and minerals, this region is known for its frigid winters and cooler summers. On windy days, gusts of airflow around the conical form without any resistance. Furthermore, since the shape is non-directional, the ability for daylight to filter in from any angle is possible.
A four-storey spiraling staircase extends from the lowest to the highest levels of the dwelling. Building on this circular form, the staircase infuses a harmonious rhythm by complementing the shape of the house instead of opposing it.
A blue-tinted tipi lightwell comprising energy-efficient triple-glazed windows beckons one to the sky-kissed library on the top level. This radiating fenestration is visually-arresting, flooding the space with sunlight that changes in colour and intensity depending on the time of day, the extent of cloud cover, and the intensity of the sun through the seasons. The dwelling also incorporates multiple opportunities to engage with the natural landscape - an important aspect of Indigenous culture - with each room framing views or having access to outdoor space.
Respect For The Environment
Nadji also honoured his Indigenous People’s commitment to respecting the environment. When designing and constructing the house, he paid careful attention to blending the building with the landscape, using natural local materials both inside and out, while planting species native to this habitat on the property.
Nadji wanted every element of the home to have a positive effect on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being of its residents.
Nadji is an expert when it comes to creating spaces for Indigenous communities. With a Master’s degree in Architectural and Urban Planning, he designs to celebrate the beliefs, values, and traditions of his forebears.
Nadji's design philosophy celebrates the culture of place while respecting its natural order and materiality. Both artfully attuned to its ancestry and grounded to its environment, his architecture represents a new vernacular that successfully honours the past while looking to the future.
To see more architectural designs like this, visit NADJI Architects Ltd for thoughtful intelligently-designed architecture in northern Canada.
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All photos courtesy of Angela Gzowski.
Researched and Written by May Lam, Writer and Editor, Centennial College, Toronto, Canada