UNLESS IT’S MINUS-40 OR SQUALLING, Richard Carbonnier spends most every spare moment on a tundra hill hammering, digging, drilling and trying not to get frostbite. For the past two years, the 52-year-old architect has been single-handedly slogging away on his tubular eco-home in Pond Inlet, a hamlet of about 1,300 people on Nunavut’s Baffin Island. “It’s painful at times,” he says of winter work. “When you touch a tool, it freezes to your fingertips.”
In a place that runs on diesel fuel, where every toothbrush, car and apple must be flown or barged in, Mr. Carbonnier’s dwelling offers an energy-smart alternative — and a peculiar new landmark that may be a blueprint for Arctic housing. Amid the hamlet’s homogeneous rows of prefab dwellings, Mr. Carbonnier’s 100-square-metre “Inukshuk Residence” looks like giant plumbing fixtures or knocked-over soup cans. Ditching the conventional four-cornered approach, his design is a raised trio of fused aluminum cylinders.
The tubes are intended to better withstand the area’s wicked winds and allow interior heat to circulate more evenly. “It’s a pretty amusing layout,” he concedes, but with reason: it allows the house to be “less intrusive on the land.”
The unique design exploits whatever the Arctic desert will give up – mainly wind and round-the-clock summer sun. Solar panels and two 1,000-watt wind turbines will help cut his use of diesel fuel, and his appliances are all compact and low energy. He has engineered a water-recycling system that shunts treated grey water into the toilet. Almost all his metal posts and tanks were scavenged from the dump (what locals call their Canadian Tire).
When the bizarre frame first unfolded on the hillside, other residents in Pond Inlet were skeptical. “It was kind of weird at first glance,” says Nathan Ootoova, a maintenance employee with the community’s housing association. “But I think it’ll work. We should have more of them.”
As climate change appears to be warming the Arctic first and fastest, Mr. Carbonnier’s house sits ready for shifting permafrost and all the associated structural problems it can wreak. He mounted the cylinders tripod-style on three “floating pod” foundations which he dug (with just a shovel and a pick) a metre into the ground just above the permafrost layer.
“When the ground shifts, I can just jack up the house on one side,” he says, boasting that his compact foundations are less intrusive than the typical slabs and piles on which most local homes rest. “Growth is very slow in the Arctic; it can take 100 years for things to come back.”
His new home includes two bedrooms (one tube each) and a living area. The kitchen lies where the three cylinders converge, and is well lit by a skylight. A compact wood pellet stove will be his main heating source. All his materials cost him about $60,000, and he reckons his design could be built for just over $200,000 if anyone wanted to replicate it.
An early draft of the house was born in Montreal more than a decade ago, when Mr. Carbonnier was doing a masters doctorate focusing on extreme environments and Arctic habitation. He had to abandon his studies to go back to work — designing high-tech labs for firms in Virginia and Massachusetts — but when he saw a job posting for a project officer with the Nunavut government in 2004, he jumped at the chance to live in the Arctic and breathe life into his old drawings.
When he pulled out the plans, he quickly realized that “doing it with books is not the same as being up here.” “The Arctic is a mythical thing down here. Once you start living here, it’s not mythical anymore. It’s reality.” The reality included unpredictable, sometimes terrible, weather, long periods of darkness, and meticulous planning for the once-a-year barge schedule that would bring most of his materials.
Still, Mr. Carbonnier has relished the challenges of building in a remote Arctic community. He has happily laboured after work and on weekends, almost always alone. “I’m not one to sit around and watch TV,” he says. He plans to move into his cylindrical dwelling later this fall.