A participatory process for the design of housing for a First Nations Community


First Nation (Indigenous) on-reserve housing in Canada is in crisis due to severe shortages, high reported instances of mould contamination, overcrowding and structural deficiencies. The Kitamaat reserve of the Haisla First Nation provides one example. The intent of the study reported here was to engage with the Haisla to develop a culturally appropriate, environmentally responsive and energy-efficient housing type that the Haisla could implement in the future. This work was undertaken by Marceau-Evans-Johnson Architects in collaboration with researchers at the University of Victoria. In this article, the circumstances leading to the present housing crisis are reviewed, the consultative design process with the Haisla and its outcomes are described, and the concept design solution which was co-developed for future housing is presented.

On-reserve housing in Canada

International context

With respect to housing, the relationship between Indigenous populations and settler populations varies around the world due to the particular forms of land tenure which developed between neo-European conquest states and surviving Indigenous peoples. These stem from the kinds of dispossession of Indigenous people from lands (war, treaty, involuntary removal) and forms of acquisition encouraged for expanding settler populations which occurred (squatting, purchase, land grants). In the United States, “Indian Lands” set aside as reservations for “Native American Tribes” (the preferred terms) were usually areas considered undesirable for European farming and ranching activities (Foreman 1933; Drinnon 1980; Dippie 1982; Hoxie 1984). Until recently, housing has not been a high priority for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the remote areas of the western United States where half of all reservation-dwelling Native Americans live (Bureau of Census 1995a; Marino 1994; Meredith 2001). Forms of individual ownership historically encouraged by the United States have often conflicted with ideas of collective rights to use property, including housing, found among many Native Americans. Crowded, substandard housing has often resulted: in the United States, for example, 20% of households on Indian reservations lacked any form of plumbing in 1990 (Bureau of the Census 1995b).

In Canada, “reserves” (the preferred word) have a different history, as does land tenure, mainly because very few wars were fought between settlers and Indigenous peoples, about half of whom still live “on reserve”, especially in traditional Northern territories where “First Nations” (the preferred term) often are a majority of the population. Housing on Canadian reserves is the joint responsibility of the Federal government and individual “Band Councils” (on-reserve government elected by band members). First Nations in Canada have been seeking to take greater financial and planning control over the housing process (Assembly of First Nations 2009). Though the Canadian history of housing ownership may vary from the United States, the quality of housing and the water supply on reserves in Canada is at least as depressed as in the United States. Throughout the rest of the Americas, land tenure among Indigenous peoples and the responsibility of the state do not include the notion of reserved land. Consequently prevailing poor housing is due to racism and local socio-economic factors rather than institutionalized forms of neglect.

Land tenure and housing policy in Australia is also very fragmented and policy varies among Australian states and the federal government. Housing there is characterized by very high rental and low ownership rates among “Aboriginal” people; crowding and poor health associated with general disenfranchisement have also been well documented there (Bailie and Wayte 2006).

Housing deficiencies in Canada

First Nations (Indigenous) peoples in Canada face a housing crisis on their reserves, where 40% of their population lives (Statistics Canada 2008). Housing stocks on reserves are severely inadequate in both quantity and quality. This crisis is partly attributable to rapid population growth, inadequate funding, restrictive government policies, lack of home ownership, and culturally inappropriate housing designs (UN 2005; Abadian 1999; Kendall 2001). The consequence of the crisis is that the home, which for First Nations people has traditionally been a place of pride and identity, instead today exacerbates many social and health problems.

In 2005, First Nations’ birth rates were double the national average; population had increased 22% between 1996 and 2001 (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada [INAC] 2005; Jakubec and Enegland 2004). This led to increased housing demand on reserves, where a projected 4,500 new units are required per year from 2005 to 2015 (INAC 2005). In 2001, of the 73,000 on-reserve homes 59% were owned and operated through bands; the rest were privately owned and rented (Jakubec and Enegland 2004).

Due to impoverishment on reserves, most communities rely on government funding for housing construction and maintenance. The median income for Aboriginal peoples in 2006 was $18,692–30% below the median income for the rest of Canadians (Statistics Canada 2008). Moreover, current government funding allocated to band housing (housing owned or operated by the band council) is inadequate. In 2005, the government of Canada and First Nations representatives negotiated “The Kelowna Accord” which committed the federal government to an investment of $1.6 billion over 5 years to reduce housing shortages by 40% by 2010 (Patterson 2006; UN 2005). However, in the three fiscal years since the Kelowna Accord, the federal government committed only $300 million to on- and off-reserve First Nation housing improvements (Department of Finance 2006), only 42% of that committed in the Kelowna Accord. After inflation, the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) budget dropped by 3.5% between the fiscal years 1999–2000 and 2004–2005 (Assembly of First Nations 2004). Obtaining the limited funding available can be bureaucratic and burdensome for communities. For example, a 2002 report from the Auditor General on Canada’s major funding institutions, including INAC and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), was highly critical of them for requiring the annual completion of up to 168 financial reports by First Nations wishing to build housing on reserves (Fraser 2002).

Locked into funding arrangements with CMHC and INAC, band councils have difficulty asserting meaningful control over their housing programs. Though they retain some authority in decision-making, band councils are hampered both by low or declining levels of funding and a dense web of restrictions on their use of capital and operating funds (INAC 1990; RCAP 1996; Drossos 2003). Many communities lack skilled and experienced housing managers, planners and technicians—thus increasing the cost of housing due to inefficient operations and the outsourcing of contractors (INAC 1990). This means that training, labour and income are lost opportunities for economic development in many communities. Band councils often take on increased debt loads to cover the gap between INAC funding and actual costs, further restricting their ability to plan new construction or maintain existing homes (INAC 1990). Housing reforms in 1996 and funding programs developed in 2001 aimed to provide more access to and control over funding for housing (INAC 1990, 1996, 2000, 2004; CMHC 2006; RCAP 1996; Devine 1999; Carter and Polevychok 2004). These reforms and programs, however, have done little to increase the quantity and quality of on-reserve homes, where shortages are estimated between 20,000 and 30,000 houses, nation-wide (Patterson 2006; RCAP 1996). Homes that have been constructed are often of poor quality and not properly weatherized (INAC 2005; RCAP 1996; UN 2005). Housing designs are almost exclusively Eurocentric, frequently inappropriate to both climate and use, and generally devoid of any cultural significance that First Nations have typically placed in their homes (Gareau 2004, 2005). Without the responsibilities inherent in home ownership, community members living in band housing often have neither the knowledge nor the motivation to maintain homes (Marceau-Evans-Johnson and University of Victoria 2007). Without sufficient funding for maintenance, band councils are no more capable of sustaining housing stock than are individuals. As a result, many homes fall into disrepair. In 2006, 44% of on‐reserve homes were need of major repair and 26% were overcrowded, compared to 7 and 3%, respectively, for non‐Aboriginal Canadian homes (Statistics Canada 2008).

Compromised construction, insufficient maintenance and overcrowding yield increased moisture in the interior space. Rain and moisture are able to penetrate the building envelope while ineffective moisture removal and increased indoor moisture generation by occupants yield increased moisture levels, which are sufficiently high for mould growth. In a recent survey, it was estimated that 44% of on-reserve homes contained mould (NAHO 2006). In overcrowded conditions, viruses and bacteria are more easily spread (INAC 2005). As a result, many illnesses and diseases including tuberculosis and asthma are experienced in highly disproportionate numbers on First Nation reserves compared to the rest of Canada (Health Canada 2000; Adelsen 2005; McHardy and O’Sullivan 2004; Drossos 2003; Lawrence and Martin 2001).

Given all these factors, many First Nation communities have become detached—socially and psychologically—from their homes. Once a place to foster cultural identity, educate youth, and strengthen family bonds, often overcrowded and even dilapidated homes are now more closely linked to exacerbated social and health crises in many reserve communities.

Efforts to improve on-reserve housing

In response to the crisis, a small number of government and non-government organizations have sought to improve housing conditions by various means. Projects have made improvements in on-reserve housing programs in the areas of energy efficiency, renewable energy, community involvement, capacity building, flexible housing, and mould mitigation (CMHC 2002; Green 2004; Ouje-Bougoumou 2006; Office of Energy Efficiency 2005; Woloshyniuk et al. 2000).

Other studies have investigated the importance of housing design to First Nation culture and have proposed ways the connection between people and home might be renewed (Department of Housing and Urban Development 1993; Gareau 2004, 2005; Mackin 2004; Marshall 2005). Through community consultation, these studies have found that housing design should accommodate traditional cultural activities, foster cultural identity, strengthen family bonds, and educate youth. Architecturally, this can often be fostered through more open space concepts, integrated floor plans, dedicated space for outdoor activities, single-level housing to accommodate elders, larger kitchen components for traditional food preparation, and the use of local materials when possible (Department of Housing and Urban Development 1993; Gareau 2004, 2005; Mackin 2004; Marshall 2005).

Intent of this study

The intent of the study reported here was to engage with the First Nation community in an investigation of on-reserve housing with the goal of developing a culturally appropriate, environmentally responsive and energy-efficient housing type that the Nation could implement in future development of housing in their community. Emphasis in the study was put on a consultative design process that would directly engage community members in articulating needs and priorities and directly involve them in addressing these through the design process itself. The work was undertaken by Marceau-Evans-Johnson Architects (MEJA) in collaboration with researchers at the University of Victoria. The Haisla First Nation in Kitamaat, British Columbia agreed to partner in this study.

Section 2 of the article provides background on the Haisla First Nation. Section 3 describes the consultative design process. Sections 4 and 5 describe the outcomes from the two workshops held in the community. Section 6 presents the concept design solution which was developed for future housing in the community. In Sects. 7 and 8, recommendations based on the consultations are made and final thoughts on the consultative design process are given.

Haisla first nation and Kitamaat

Traditional Haisla First Nation territory totals over 4 million acres on the northwest coast of British Columbia. The Government of Canada recognizes only 1640 of these as Haisla territory. Kitamaat Village is located on the eastern edge of the Kitamaat Arm at the end of Douglas Channel (54º 0′ North and 128º 42′ West) (Figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1

Claimed Haisla traditional territory, Courtesy of Stonington Gallery

Currently, the population of the village is between 750 and 800 people of the 1,500 total members of the Haisla First Nation. The population size of the village has not changed significantly in the last 10 years, increasing by about 50 people.

There are 192 homes in Kitamaat Village. Therefore, there are on average about 4 people per household, though specific household composition varies and also fluctuates seasonally, related to resource collection and work opportunities.

Fig. 2

Kitamaat village site, courtesy of Government of British Columbia, Canada

The majority of the homes were built in the 1980s and 1990s, though a few date back as far the 1950s. Of the 192 homes, 50 are social homes meaning they are rent-to-own with monthly rent paid to the band, some of which is subsidized by CMHC.

The condition of homes is widely variable, as is the level of maintenance carried out on homes; some are in excellent condition, while others are falling into disrepair. A number of homes are slated for mould remediation. Overcrowding exists, with community members reporting 3-bedroom homes sheltering 9–10 people. The number of homes in an overcrowding situation is not documented.

A significant portion of the population (400–500 people) currently finds accommodation off the reserve, in the nearby town of Kitimat where other housing types are available, such as apartments, 4-plexes, and condominiums.


The study method centered on direct interaction with the Haisla First Nation to define housing needs and priorities within the community, and to develop physical housing models to reflect their culture and living patterns. The process was structured around three well-attended community workshops, held during the evening with food provided as a buffet. The first workshop was an open discussion forum facilitated by the architects, where community members expressed their housing priorities and needs. A community-defined housing priority list was then created by vote to establish direction for the second workshop. The second workshop was a gaming session in which community members, working in small groups and using design pieces with specific costs attached, designed housing for three different social groups identified as those most in need of housing during the first workshop. Based on the data gathered in these two workshops, the research team distilled Housing Principles to guide the production of a Concept Design for a housing unit. The third workshop was an informal discussion to review the Housing Principles and Concept Design. Following the third workshop, the Concept Design was finalized, composed as a report and submitted to the Band Council for their use in the future.

Establishing housing priorities

During Workshop 1, questions were asked relating to housing availability, traditional housing, type of occupants, indoor and outdoor activities, and the physical quality of homes, energy use and health. Workshop 1 was attended by approximately 25 community members, ranging in age from small children to elders. Food was served, buffet style, to all members of the community who attended. Workshop 1 lasted for approximately 3 h during which many participants spoke freely about their desires and frustrations with their current housing.

Ranked housing priorities

Several housing needs and priorities emanated from Workshop 1; each community member listed the top 3 housing needs, priorities and characteristics they felt to be the most important. The lists were cumulated to obtain an overall ranking, as presented below from most to least important in rank.

Affordability was the highest rated housing priority. While there is a mix of privately owned homes and socially assisted homes in the village, a central focus of discussion in Workshop 1 was the provision of socially assisted homes. Affordability is a two-fold characteristic. First, the Band Council has limited funding from federal organizations (i.e. CMHC and INAC) to construct and maintain homes. Second, due to unemployment and limited social assistance, some Band members have difficulty paying monthly rent and utility payments to the Band Council. During Workshop 1, a strong need was expressed for homes that could be constructed and maintained at low cost and that had low utility costs.

The lack of available housing was the next priority. The length of the current waiting periods for rent or rent-to-own housing can be several years. This housing shortage is particularly difficult for younger people. Community members reported that many young men who have sought work outside Kitamaat now wish to return to the community. However, they cannot be immediately accommodated and are placed on long waiting lists. It was also reported that many young people are living with parents and/or grandparents and wish to have their own accommodation. Young people in the community form a large portion of the Band housing waiting list.

Durability was the next priority, as many homes in Kitamaat lack durability and quality, principally due to poor installation practices and an inappropriate housing type for the climate. Poor installation practices reported by the community include:

  • Closing in wet building materials before they dry (in a very wet climate).

  • Stove-top and bathroom exhaust vents that exhaust air into the attic space.

  • Improper compaction of fill material and use of organic fill in foundations, causing structural shifting and cracks in the envelope.

Further, many homes are pre-fabricated in metropolitan areas and are not built to withstand the heavy rainfall in Kitamaat. Examples of inadequate design for the climate include lack of overhangs, rainscreen cladding and transition space to the interior where outdoor clothing can dry. Due to these installation practices and housing types, building envelope components become water damaged and deteriorate. Further, the prolonged presence of moisture within the building envelop provides adequate conditions for mould growth. Community members strongly expressed the need for improved construction methods and materials to ensure structural integrity in the wet climate and minimize the risk of mould.

Accessibility was the next priority, particularly for elders. Several homes in the community have elevated ground floors with several steps up to the front door. This entrance style is burdensome for elders who have difficulty ascending and descending staircases. Though some homes have been equipped with an external elevator, these require continual maintenance and are burdensome to use. As a result, many elders seldom leave their homes and are unable to actively participate in the community. There is currently no elder home care facility in the community and a strong desire for one was expressed. Currently, elders must often be moved to other communities to receive home care and assistance, further preventing them from participating in community activities. Community members expressed the need for ground floor access for all new homes with doors that are at minimum three feet wide, allowing walkers and wheelchair access to homes. The focus on better access and a specific place for elders is related to both the elevated respect which elders enjoy in First Nations communities and their critical importance as repositories of cultural history and knowledge.

Mould was the next priority. It was expressed as a very serious concern by some community members, and is broadly acknowledged as a problem. 22% of Kitamaat homes contained mould in 2006. The impacts of mould can be severe, including allergies such as conjunctivitis allergic coryza, inflammation of the respiratory tract, bronchial asthma, skin eczema and nettle rash. Infectious diseases related to mould growth include asperigilloses and penicillioses. It was reported by community members that half of all school children in Kitamaat have missed some period of school due to chronic respiratory illnesses which may be related to mould. The presence of mould is due principally to the high levels of moisture in the interior space and building envelope, which result from:

  • Inadequate ventilation in attic spaces, kitchens and bathrooms,

  • Stove-top exhaust fans that exhaust moist air to the attic space,

  • Cracks in the building envelope which allow rainwater to enter

  • Absence of rainscreen cladding

  • Unsealed windows that allow rain water to enter

  • Overcrowded conditions which result in increased metabolic moisture generation and CO2

  • Increased instances of open-pot cooking characteristic of traditional food preparation for large groups

  • Occupants choosing not to use kitchen and bathroom fans due to the excessive noise they make, and ineffectiveness.

Capacity building was the next priority. Community members favoured a housing policy that would provide employment and training opportunities to community members in design, building and maintenance of homes. In particular, there was strong interest in starting a community-based sawmill operation to make use of Haisla-owned forest resources to manufacture wood products for new homes. There was also strong interest in providing education and training for home maintenance, particularly prevention of water-based structural damage and mould growth.

Energy efficiency was the next priority. Community members are very conscious of their utility bills. In some instances, housing occupants keep windows shut and turn-off their ventilation systems (in one case plugging up the ventilation duct) to prevent heat loss. This behaviour results in increased moisture content in the interior space and higher risk of mould growth. Community members favoured housing designs that are highly energy efficient and make use of renewable energy sources.

A large and flexible space was the next priority. The need for large spaces to accommodate extended family gatherings and the preparation of foods for traditional feasting activities was expressed. Recognizing the increased cost of constructing large spaces, community members saw innovative and flexible housing designs as an alternative. For example, it was suggested that the kitchen and living room could be strategically designed such as to create an open space concept without increasing the footprint of the home. It was also suggested that a partition could be added within the living room to create a bedroom and could be removed when additional space was required for larger traditional gatherings.

Cultural aesthetics was the next priority. There was widespread interest in incorporating local cultural heritage into new housing designs. Post and beam construction methods (typical of traditional NW Coast housing) were desired, though it was recognized that such methods would be limited to small portions of the housing frame to maintain affordability. The entrance to the home was particularly emphasized. Community members wished to include carved or painted cultural symbols at both the inside and outside of the front entrance—a cultural tradition announcing identity and clan membership. The maximum use of wood throughout was desired, provided durability was sustained.

Food preparation was the next priority. Many community members felt that their homes lacked adequate space and facilities to accommodate traditional food preparation. Like many First Nations people living on traditional territories, the Haisla at Kitamaat provision themselves significantly by hunting, fishing, and food gathering. These activities require adequate processing and storage facilities. Space and equipment is required for cleaning, butchering, smoking, hanging, canning and storage of food products. Community members often used the kitchen for all of these activities. Interest was expressed in an increased size of a mud-room (or transition room) in proximity to the kitchen to allow more space for preliminary food preparation. An increased mudroom size would also facilitate wood cutting, equipment repair, equipment and food storage. Finally, community members expressed interest in larger freezers and traditional underground root cellars which would extend the availability of seasonal food types and their storage. A smokehouse is central to many Kitamaat homes and was emphasized as a crucial part of the home, particularly by men. In particular, community members discussed orienting the home and smokehouse in accordance with prevailing winds and locating the smokehouse in proximity to the driveway to allow the ease of loading and unloading of food products, especially fish.

Outdoor living was the next priority. Kitamaat experiences significant winter snowfall—and it is often heavy and wet. Thus, community members expressed the need for sufficient roof overhangs and roof-slopes in order to avoid snow sliding into work and access areas and unsafe weighting on roof structures. As well, there was a desire to place laundry facilities and clothesline within proximity to the area used for food preparation, so hunters and fishermen can clean their specialized clothing.

Social groups in key need

At the end of Workshop 1, community members were asked to identify the key social groups within Kitamaat they felt to most need housing. Results would then be used to focus the housing design process in Workshop 2. The identified social groups were:

(1) Singles—returning young people wishing to live in Kitamaat again and a younger generation wishing to leave extended households and live independently. 35% of community members are under 30 years old.

(2) Elders—there is no elder residence in the community. 33% of community members are at least 50 years old

(3) Extended families—inadequate housing space for multi-generational households who prefer to live together rather than separately.

Gaming session

Workshop 2 was an interactive session where community members produced housing designs for three types of residences, each of which addressed one of the key social groups identified in Sect. 4.2. These designs were:

(1) A 4-unit single apartment complex—3 individuals, 1 single parent with child

(2) A 6-unit elder residence—two couples and four individuals

(3) A home suitable for a family of 7-mother, father, 3 children, 2 grandparents

Workshop 2 was attended by 25 people, including all age groups (some children attended), each of whom worked on the housing design that was of most interest to him/her.

The key components of Workshop 2 were gaming pieces provided by Marceau-Evans-Johnson Architects which allowed community members to design their homes and yards in significant detail. Gaming pieces each had a dollar cost attached to their base, and included:

  • Floor pieces with variable floor area, colour-coded by room type and associated square foot costs

  • Indoor components (e.g. stairs, bed, toilet, sink, dishwasher, couch, TV, etc.)

  • Outdoor components (e.g. shed, garden, smokehouse, driveway, etc.)

  • Sun angles and position

  • Prevailing summer and winter wind directions

  • Natural features (e.g. trees, shrubs, etc.)

Two groups designed the family home, while one group designed the singles’ units and one group designed the elders’ residence. The singles unit design result is shown in Fig. 3. Lots that are currently available for building within the community were selected for each housing design. Once the housing designs were complete, the teams tallied up their total floor area and cost. The importance of affordability was evident in the complete designs, each of which was designed very modestly with minimal floor area.

Fig. 3

Singles unit design from gaming session, prepared by Tracey Mactavish and Marie-Odile Marceau and property of MEJA

At the end of the workshop, community members were asked to select one housing design which would be further developed by the research team (i.e. detailed building envelope specifications, heating and ventilation systems, estimated construction costs, etc.).

After much discussion, the singles’ unit was selected for several reasons. First, single people are a very large contingent of the waiting list for housing and this group is also very diverse, including single parents, young men returning to the village after working away, and elders. Second, a singles’ unit would be small (650 sq. ft), and would cost less than a family home, meaning more units could be built assuming the same yearly housing budget. Consequently, small units like this could make an impact on overcrowding. Small units could also function as “starter homes” for young people or first-time home owners, providing a measuring stick in terms of responsibility, allowing them to earn the “next step” to a larger home if their family grew. Finally, duplex, triplex and fourplex designs would better utilize land and service infrastructure than single, detached units. The singles apartment site design result is shown in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4

Singles apartment site design from gaming session, prepared by Tracey Mactavish and Marie-Odile Marceau and property of MEJA

Concept design for singles housing unit

What is concept design?

Following Workshop 2, work began on developing the concept design for a singles housing unit. Concept design is the first phase in the design of a project in which the documented housing principles are prioritized in order for a design to proceed in a unified and coherent way. Housing and site characteristics are investigated from a number of possibilities that respond to identified housing principles, which can sometimes conflict. Critical to this phase is developing an understanding of the nature of the site (exposure, etc.), resolving the space planning of the unit and understanding the community’s aesthetic objective.

For a typical construction project, concept design is followed by design development that includes detailed descriptions of house dimensions, spatial arrangements, building envelope design and heating and ventilations systems design. The design development stage is followed by the completion of construction drawings and finally by construction.

Client and site description

The client profile for the singles units includes single individuals ranging in age from early 20’s to elders, male or female. Flexibility is required within the unit for a second person, such as a child or a spouse.

Two trapezoid-shaped lots within a new subdivision in Kitamaat were selected as sites which could be combined for the singles housing units. The lots are oriented in an east–west direction providing long exposure to the south and views towards the Channel and western mountains. Soil is largely sand and gravel. A creek runs at the back of the site, just before the grade rises to the east approximately 2 m. Natural coniferous forest has been retained at an approximate height of 20 m.

Design options

A balance was sought between all of the housing principles identified in Workshops 1 and 2, with an emphasis placed on affordability; other housing principles were incorporated into the construction method and product selection whenever possible.

To address affordability, the total floor area of each unit is only 750 ft2. This is 100 ft2 larger than the floor area originally designed during the Workshop 2 gaming session, but is still modest. Design emphasis was on simplicity; complicated details are avoided to minimize cost and provide for ease of construction. The envelope is basic wood-frame construction with economical scissor trusses that can be built without specialized labour. A traditional post-and-beam design was necessarily excluded due to the high cost of materials, the required special equipment, and the required construction knowledge which, at this time, would have to come from outside the community.

Units were designed as both two-storey and one-storey duplexes, as shown in Fig. 5. A duplex design requires less materials and excavated land per unit than individual units, thus reducing construction and infrastructural costs. The concept design remains flexible to permit the construction of a triplex or fourplex, further reducing construction and infrastructural costs per unit. Cost estimates for both the one-storey and two-storey duplexes could meet the CMHC maximum unit price standard of $120,000 per unit (2006 pricing for semi-detached, one-bedroom in Northern BC), provided that economical choices are made regarding finishes and mechanical systems.

Fig. 5

Singles apartment site design from gaming session. Shown in image are the two-storey design, one-storey design, work area and smokehouse. Prepared by Tracey Mactavish and Marie-Odile Marceau and property of MEJA

To address lack of available housing, higher density housing is used (i.e. higher number of people per area of land). A two-storey duplex is placed on one lot and a one- or two-storey triplex on the adjacent lot. While increasing density, this arrangement still allows adequate yard space for traditional activities and parking for cars and boats. The design provides accommodation for five people on the housing waitlist, reduces the construction cost per unit and makes more efficient use of service infrastructure. Further, the reduced cost per unit frees more funding to be used to construct additional homes, helping to alleviate the housing availability crisis. The design is sufficiently simple to allow multiple configurations that match future lot characteristics. For example, units could be stacked to a maximum of two storeys and attached side-to-side, indefinitely. Critical factors for repeat of the design include a south orientation for the long wall in the living area and the position of the entry relative to the street.

To address housing durability, the concept design features a building envelope equipped with a rain screen assembly (i.e. airspace between the cladding and remaining building envelope). This configuration is able to withstand repeated wetting from wind-driven rain in the coastal climate without allowing water or moisture to enter the building envelope. Water penetrating porous cladding is simply drained down through the airspace and away from the envelope. An economical slab-on-grade foundation provides foundational stability and allows for an at-grade entry. Double glazed, low-e vinyl windows prevent condensation on the interior window surface. Fiberglass shingle roofing provides an effective barrier to rain penetration.

To address accessibility, a slab-on-grade construction with access at the ground floor allows easy access for elders. The entrance to the unit is located in the middle of the floor plan, minimizing circulation space and bringing visitors into the centre of living activity. An increased bathroom size to accommodate elders is also included as an option. A floor-plan of the concept design is shown in Fig. 6.

Fig. 6

Singles unit floor-plan, prepared by Tracey Mactavish and Marie-Odile Marceau and property of MEJA

To address mould concerns, adequate ventilation in the concept design is provided to keep moisture levels low enough to prevent the growth of mould. Inlet vents are placed in each bedroom and living space, with exhaust fans in each kitchen and bathroom. In the design development stage, it is recommended that the selected ventilation system be sufficiently quiet and have heat recovery capability, in order to prevent housing occupants from shutting off ventilation to reduce noise and conserve energy. To further reduce noise, it is recommended that the HRV system be installed away from the living space, possibly in utility rooms.

To address capacity building, the use of wood-framed construction and wood-based exterior finishes throughout encourages the use of local materials and labour.

To address energy efficiency, the unit features a large south-facing window to maximize solar gain. A concrete interior partition absorbs solar energy during the day and releases the energy as heat at night, reducing night-time heating costs. The unit also features double-pane low-emissivity windows and typical levels of insulation for the foundation, walls, and roof. Heat recovery ventilation is strongly recommended as it provides a low-cost and low-maintenance method to reduce heating energy costs.

To address the need for a large and flexible space, strategies were explored for staggering floor plates, alternating the position of the entry doors and entry stairs, with issues of privacy, visibility of the entrance, shelter of the entrance and the size and shape of the house itself in mind. An open floor-plan with 50% glazing on the south-facing wall provides abundant daylight to the unit, making the living area feel expansive. An open plan without walls between lounging, eating and cooking areas facilitates space transformation when hosting dinners or gatherings. Alternate kitchen arrangements were explored to maximize flexibility in the main living space. Service and sleeping areas are relegated to the north side of the building to maintain the open space concept. An additional bedroom can be added very simply with an additional partition.

To address cultural aesthetics, opportunities for cultural expression through symbols have been focused around the entryway of both units, with wood trellis/canopy designs that could incorporate painted clan symbols, carvings or other cultural motifs. Traditional ‘crests’ (most often representations of animals) among the Haisla represent both the kin groupings to which people belong, and their rights to land and sea resources. As such, they are the essence of establishing a new home on traditionally occupied lands because they represent ‘belonging’ to the place. Importantly, it is not just that a house belongs to a family; the family belongs to a specific cultural place and so becomes both socially situated and geographically located via culturally appropriate representations placed on a house. This design encourages that kind of expression by providing space to include it.

To address food preparation, alternate kitchen arrangements were explored to build in more freezer and pantry storage. Exterior food storage was explored in the form of a root cellar built in tandem with the smokehouse.

To address outdoor living, the northern entry is designed as an indoor/outdoor transition zone. When entering, a person moves from an exterior covered area to an interior mudroom/storage and then into the interior space. The southern entry is a sliding door with extensive southern glazing, allowing easy access to exterior storage and a visual connection to the yard. Planning of the area surrounding the house is very basic, with ample area for vehicle and boat storage and for direct vehicle access to the smokehouse and exterior storage area. Units have been positioned to give the entry visual presence from the street and to provide south-facing exterior living and working areas for both lots. A shared smokehouse and root cellar, work bench area and exterior eating area are included in the design.

Recommendations for future housing development

Looking beyond the singles housing unit, future planning in Kitamaat should ideally include housing types for a broader range of people. Current provisions of large 3-bedroom homes in numbers of 7 per year, while meeting a strong need in the community, are not sustainable for the Band and leave distinct groups of people (i.e. singles and elders) without the opportunity to live in the village. Maximizing efficient land use in a crowded area and reducing the costs of utilities by building more than one unit per lot when considering smaller units is a recommended strategy, maximizing the number of units that can be constructed before having to develop a new subdivision on a limited land base.

Several initiatives can be undertaken to promote awareness of humidity levels and mould growth within the home. First, it is recommended that devices that measure humidity (i.e. humidstats) are installed in both the kitchen and bathroom. When humidity levels are too high, occupants would be signalled and could then respond by using exhaust fans or opening a window. Second, the distribution of locally produced, culturally relevant posters that provide information on mould growth and prevention may be an effective method to mitigate and prevent mould growth. Posters should be located in high-humidity areas such as the kitchen and bathrooms. Third, educational lessons about moisture and mould can be given to school children, who could return home to help educate other family members and encourage moisture mitigation.

Finally, there is a strong need for standards within Kitamaat housing policy that identify mandatory building materials and quality control procedures for construction and maintenance. These standards would help ensure that durable, weather-resistant homes are built by experienced and accountable tradesmen. The standard would be developed locally, written in plain language and enforced by the community.


The concept design document is a work in progress and is intended as a starting point for the Haisla First Nation as they continue to develop a future direction for their housing program. The design process and housing principles identified in this study are not limited to the development of the concept design but can also be useful in guiding future housing development within Kitamaat village and beyond to other Indigenous communities.

Should other researchers embark on a similar process, more complete community ownership of the process should be carefully considered. While this work had many of the elements of community-based research, control over decision-making about actual construction was not part of the structure. The workshop consultation process was well attended and there were a number of individuals who attended all three workshops and consistently provided meaningful input, advice and clear insights. Yet, there was some resistance to decision-making and no real leadership engagement. In particular, there was no commitment by the Band Council in terms of future housing direction and policy. This lack of commitment may have been due, in part, to an imminent Band Council election at the time of the consultations and a subsequent change in personnel.

A strong recommendation for future projects would be to set up a project team—perhaps a steering committee—at the outset that includes diverse community membership with highly respected individuals as participants. This team could be made up of elders, builders and other interested community members and would ultimately have the responsibility for either direct decision-making, or at least be able to influence decision-making processes among the community’s elected leaders, whoever they might be. Such a project team could transcend, at least in part, the vicissitudes of transitory political authority related to housing on reserves. Further, the project team would give the study better focus and help ensure there is an ongoing drive within the community to continue the project and see it through various stages of funding and development, independent of the architectural, engineering and academic study team. It would also be at arm’s length from the changing Band Council membership—for too close an engagement with leaders who come and go could also mean a lack of follow-through. The first task of a project team would be to identify future steps to propel the ideas and recommendations made within the concept design report into future action.

Finally, the concept design may be applied in other communities as an example of a process and as a source for design ideas that identify similar housing needs and priorities on reserves, especially on the NW Coast area of North America. The concept has great relevance for rapidly growing populations on limited land-bases associated with reservations throughout the region.


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We are grateful to: members of the Kitamaat First Nation for their participation in this study; BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources (BCMEMPR) for financial support and Christina Ianniciello of BCMEMPR for coordination of funding; Dennis Flynn, Housing Manger, Kitamaat Village Council for on-site coordination.

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Correspondence to Peter Wild.

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MacTavish, T., Marceau, MO., Optis, M. et al. A participatory process for the design of housing for a First Nations Community. J Hous and the Built Environ 27, 207–224 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10901-011-9253-6

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  • First nations
  • Aboriginal peoples
  • On-reserve housing
  • Community consultation
  • Housing design process