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Inuusirvik Community Wellness Hub, Iqaluit, Nunavut

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PROJECT Inuusirvik Community Wellness Hub

ARCHITECTS Lateral Office Inc. (Design Architect); Verne Reimer Architecture Inc. (Prime Consultant)

TEXT Adele Weder

PHOTOS Andrew Latreille

As I entered the Inuusirvik Community Wellness Hub in Iqaluit last fall, it seemed like I was walking through a door into another universe. Aside from the hemispherical St. Jude’s Cathedral down the road, the building is mostly surrounded by starkly orthogonal edifices that relay no urban logic nor sense of place. Next door to the Wellness Hub is the windowless concrete hulk of NorthMart, one of the town’s main grocery stores. Beyond that are scores of former military housing units and recently built shoeboxes. But upon stepping into the Wellness Hub, a visitor is met with curves, birch plywood, and soft daylight seeping in from above. 

In contrast to the prefab sheds typical in Iqaluit, the community wellness hub is inflected by curved, indented spaces that deflect wind in the winter and offer green roof decks in milder weather.

The building opened late last year in Iqaluit’s downtown core and was instantly beloved. In a community that struggles with social and geographic isolation, the Wellness Hub could turn out to be the town’s most important new building in years. Spearheaded by Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre director Gwen Healey Akearok, and designed by Toronto-based Lateral Office with Winnipeg’s Verne Reimer Architects as prime consultant, the project offers a refreshing approach for designing in Arctic communities.

The Wellness Hub is a compact multi-purpose community centre that brings together many sorely needed services: counselling, daycare, wellness research centre, research library, food preparation, and gathering spaces. Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, is a fast-growing town of 8,000 residents, and such programs have been underserved for years. Equally important, it offers something more: a visceral connection to the rich local culture. 

Over a decade ago, Healey Akearok and other community members had begun conceiving of a place that would provide more of the essential community services necessary to local residents. At a serendipitous moment, she met Lateral Office partners Lola Sheppard and Mason White in 2012 while all three were researching health architecture in the Arctic. They then enlisted her as a collaborator for Arctic Adaptations, Lateral Office’s exhibition at the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Healey Akearok saw Sheppard and White as the logical choice of designers to help realize her vision. 

The next part of the puzzle came into place when the Research Centre acquired the abandoned house next door to its office in downtown Iqaluit.  The two lots, joined together, became the site for the project. 

From the start, Healey Akearok and the architects worked in an intensely collaborative manner, discussing form, program, cultural expression, and seasonality. In the course of their research prior to and after receiving the commission, White and Sheppard have made numerous treks to the region to understand its culture and geography. (Their observations and analyses of the North are the basis of their 2016 book Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory.) 

“The Arctic has always been like building on another planet,” says White. Or on planet Earth, he clarifies, it’s like building in a climate as extreme as the tropics, or the desert. “In Canada, this is our extreme environment.” 

he central rotunda is ringed by monitor windows, inspired by the tradition of using ice blocks to top an iglu or qaggiq. A bespoke floor captures ice floe patterns and includes Inuktitut syllabics, reminding visitors of the links between the land and language.

The extended winters of sub-zero temperatures, permafrost that precludes subgrade construction, high windspeeds with no trees to break the wind, and the sheer remoteness of the place require a completely different mindset and building approach, he explains. Take the usual challenges of construction—budget restraints, labour shortages, unexpected shipping delays—and multiply each one by five or six. There is no road route to Iqaluit: every object, person, and piece of material must be flown in or barged in—or sealifted in, in northern parlance. Both modes of transportation are enormously costly. Air transportation limits the size of construction components to be transported. Sealifts allow for larger components, but pose other difficulties: Frobisher Bay’s sometimes-unpredictable schedule of spring thaw and winter freeze delayed this particular project—among others—by half a year when one shipment of materials missed the delivery-schedule window. 

In recent years, the response to Iqaluit’s surging demand for housing has been the construction of subdivisions and sprawl. In contrast, the Wellness Hub has been constructed on two adjacent single-family house lots in the downtown core. Although it might seem like land is endless in the Arctic compared with the metropolises of the south, the imperative for density is arguably greater in such a community. Densification of the downtown core makes better use of the area’s limited infrastructure, it reduces the carbon emissions from inner-city travel, and it makes for mercifully shorter pedestrian journeys in the biting cold of winter. 

The rotunda’s back-lit vertical plywood panels include slotted linear perforations that recall Inuit snow goggles.

Both Healey Akearok and the Lateral Office principals caution against the stereotype of the region as buried in snow year-round. On one hand, Iqaluit is undeniably colder: average winter temperatures fall to minus 45 Celsius and rise to an average of just nine degrees in summer. On the other hand, the local Inuit who live and work on the land are intensely attuned to richly variegated annual cycles, and recognize six distinctive seasons over the course of the year, rather than the standard four.  

I spent most of last January in this town, when walking to a building a few hundred metres away required gearing up in head-to-toe Arc’teryx. On my second visit last fall, the earth was bare and raw, dusted with frost on colder mornings, but perfectly hospitable for walking around downtown or hiking the nearby Apex Trail. “Our seasons are different here, and they determine what people are doing throughout the year,” says Healey Akearok. “There are different hunting and harvesting seasons, and we wanted our building to support all those activities that happen throughout the year.” 

A daycare facility, with rooms for toddlers and infants, includes yellow walls to mark the scooped entry, and lower windows that encourage all ages to look outside.

Part of that support is a recognition of the different ways that space is used by the local community. The hunters’ bounty must be brought into the building’s food-preparation room, where the carcasses are butchered right on the floor. The option of dragging freshly harvested seals, caribou, and beluga through the common spaces of the building is a non-starter, so in starkly practical design terms, a large, separate ingress point was required. The opening started out as a hatch and evolved into a full-size door at the unloading level of a vehicle, once the design team had figured out how to resolve the related code requirements. 

The relationship of the Inuit people to the land is central to their culture, notes Healey Akearok. She worked with the architects to find contemporary ways to express that relationship visually and address it pragmatically. The syncopated corrugated-metal cladding is evocative of the shimmering sea, she notes. It’s also light on the land, in keeping with the values of contemporary environmentalists and age-old Indigenous traditions, and it’s less expensive to bring in than heavier cladding materials. 

Many Indigenous cultures favour circular forms, reflecting the historic rationality of domed structures. The iglu is the most widely known of those forms, but as Healey Akearok points out, there are other curvilinear forms that remain contemporary and are familiar to Inuit residents: the qammaq (a temporal structure, like a tent) or the qaggig (a very large iglu, built on four smaller ones to form a large gathering space). Even the iconic iglu, which I took to be anachronistic as a housing type, is still in use, albeit more as a secondary dwelling. 

“Those round forms are out on the land; they are what’s familiar to people here,” says Healey Akearok. “You just don’t see them in the towns.” For Lateral Office, the design directive to visually reinterpret the cultural norm required a creative approach. “We told them: ‘You’re not going to get a dome; we just don’t have the budget for that,” recalls White. “And, by the way, we do love rectangles!” 

Although Iqaluit is filled with rectangular buildings, that standard is strongly associated with its years as a colonial military outpost, as well as with expeditiously built government housing. “We all agreed that a rectangle wasn’t an acceptable form,” says Healey Akearok. “So they came back with five different concepts, and everyone let them know which one was their favourite.” 

The final design resolution involved rethinking the conventional mode of architectural curvilinearity, seeing the challenge more in conceptual terms. “We didn’t take the iglu as a form,” says White. “The iglu as a form would be a cartoon building. Instead, we took elements of an iglu, the spirit and aspects of an iglu, and used them selectively.” Instead of configuring the massing as a dome or tacking on rounded shapes, the design team embedded curves as subtractions rather than additions. 

The footprint is orthogonal, and the basic massing is close to cubic, but the subtractions—which read as five “scoops”—break the orthogonality of the volume and transform it into a different form altogether. These curved, indented spaces on the corners and front entrance help deflect wind in the harsher months, offer outdoor space in the milder seasons, and provide access to the green roof decks of tundra and moss. Snow will collect in the scooped-out spaces in the winter, but that’s all right, says White: “The snow will insulate the building: this the Inuit have taught us.” 

The drum-like rotunda provides a central point of orientation on the upper floor, which includes a community library, along with office and meeting spaces for Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre.

The design also embodies the concept of an iglu in its treatment of light. Iqaluit receives as little as four hours of daylight in the winter, but up to a full 22 hours of daylight in high summer. That cyclical shift required the architects to favour indirect glazing, in order to shield the occupants from being flooded by light in June, while still allowing light in during the dark months of winter. 

The rotunda at the centre of the building embeds curvilinearity into the entire sequence of interior spaces that surround it. The tundra roof and clerestory glazing atop the rotunda bring landscape, light, and views into the building in an indirect manner, acting in a similar manner to the fenestration pattern of an iglu. The rotunda itself—a wood-sheathed cylinder embedded with Inuit art—serves as a performance hall and social hub of the building. “At the top of this cylinder of space at the heart of the building is a full ring of windows, which is one of the ways you’d bring light into an iglu,” says White.  

Iqaluit is now one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada and will need a profusion of new buildings in the years to come. For Sheppard and White, this burgeoning demand is both an architectural opportunity and an imperative to design responsibly in a locale with a starkly different climate and way of living within it. 

For all their years of research, the Wellness Hub is the first completed building for Lateral Office, whose principals hold academic positions at the architecture schools at the universities of Toronto and Waterloo. Their practice has long been more focused on raising questions than chasing commissions. “There is a wider conversation about circumpolar architectural typology: What is an arctic vernacular today?” says White. “This building is a response to that question, but it is not the response. We’re just happy that this building can contribute to the wider conversation.”

Adele Weder is a contributing editor to Canadian Architect.

CLIENT Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre | ARCHITECT TEAM Lateral Office Inc.—Mason White (FRAIC), Lola Sheppard, Kearon Roy Taylor. Verne Reimer Architecture Inc.—Verne Reimer (FRAIC), Jeff Penner (MRAIC), Daryl Holloway, Stephen Meijer, Youchen Wang. | STRUCTURAL/MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL WSP Canada Inc. | LANDSCAPE Lateral Office Inc. with Roxanne Miller, Sopranature (green roof); and WSP Canada Inc. (civil) | INTERIORS Lateral Office Inc. | CONTRACTOR NCC Development Ltd. | PROJECT MANAGEMENT Colliers Project Leaders and MLPM Inc. |  AREA 883 m2 | BUDGET $10.2 M | COMPLETION November 2023

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 553 kWh/m2/year