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Case Study | Canada’s Northern Schools

Project Name: Tuugaalik High School, Arviat Middle School, and Igloolik High School.
Construction Completion: 2016 – 2018.


In Canada’s Arctic, schools take on a much broader meaning within the community they serve. They become a cultural resource – a place to come together where stories are told, and where the community unites. As with any public space built in Northern Canada, the design and construction should preserve, promote and celebrate the Inuit’s values, culture and laws – which can be achieved by embracing the guiding principles of the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit.

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) means, “that which Inuit have always known to be true”; it embraces all aspects of traditional Inuit culture. Within the guiding principles are four fundamental or core natural laws, called maligait, which govern how the Inuit connect to one another and the environment. The maligait are:

1. Working for the common good.
2. Respecting all living things.
3. Maintaining harmony and balance.
4. Continually planning and preparing for the future.

With the IQ guiding principles in mind, we are passionate about respecting the opportunity presented to us to design buildings that reflect, honour, and celebrate the Inuit culture.

A closer look at the three northern schools:

Tuugaalik High School was completed on schedule in August 2016. It was constructed in two phases: Phase I encompassed the gymnasium, daycare and atrium space, and Phase II focused on the classroom wing.

Since opening, Tuugaalik High School has received recognition for its outstanding design from Learning By Design magazine and American School & University.

New Cape Dorset School’s construction is underway. The team was able to ship to the site all the blasting and excavation equipment on the last barge in the fall of 2017 in anticipation of steel arriving on the first sea-lift in the spring. The school will replace the hamlet’s Peter Pitseolak high school and is situated on a high point on the southeast edge of town. The school will accommodate 215 students in Grades 7 to 12 in a one level, 3,300 square metre facility.

Igloolik High School’s design is complete. Materials for the new build arrived via sea-lift in 2016 and construction is now underway. The school is targeted to open in June 2018. Igloolik is a small community located on an island in the Northwest Passage, well north of the Arctic Circle. The new high school has a planned enrolment of 230 and will feature: six, standard classrooms; and seven, specialty classrooms dedicated to a number of fields, including science, trades, and computers, as well as a daycare to encourage young mothers to continue their education. It will also feature a large gymnasium that will accommodate community needs in addition to student activities.

Arviat Middle School is awaiting approval to go to tender, now that construction documentation is complete. It is designed to accommodate 240 students and is intended to provide a multi-functional, flexible and adaptable facility that will be used primarily as a school, but also to serve the needs of the community, after hours. 


For all three projects, the two most formidable challenges are:

• working in extreme climate conditions,
• and the remoteness of the locations.

Climate challenges include large variations in temperature, wind-speed and natural light; and the remote locations mean that construction materials typically need to be shipped to the sites by barge – in shipments that are restricted to twice per year, summertime only.

Availability of workers is limited, and the contractors are required to shelter and feed all construction workers. Due to extremely cold winter temperatures, construction work needs to be suspended during winter months, until the buildings can be enclosed and heated.

Tuugaalik High School is located on a hillside of exposed rock, so extensive blasting was required to prepare the site. Due to the fact that there is no municipal water service, an extensive water storage system is required to feed the sprinkler system. Natural, or manmade interventions can severely disrupt schedules. In the case of this project, a heavy ice pack resulted in late delivery of construction materials; however, mitigation efforts resulted in no delay to the schedule.

Arviat Middle School is located on permafrost, which requires specialized footings to be designed in order to ensure that building stability is maintained. Care must be taken that heat is not transmitted through the footings to the permafrost, thereby destabilizing the building.

Igloolik High School, being so far north, has an even shorter building season than many other parts of the Arctic. Due to its location only two yearly sea-lifts are expected. This requires the contractor to undertake significant pre-planning with respect to shop drawings, shipping, and ensuring that sufficient spare parts are available. Lodging also has to be provided for all the construction workers. The short summer season requires almost continuous, round-the-clock construction to ensure that the building is enclosed before the arrival of the winter season.


When factoring in the challenges of harsh climate, seasonal accessibility for delivery of materials and construction, and the remote location, it is no surprise that construction costs in Northern Canada can run three times the cost of building in other areas of the country.

Few firms are able to design and build in the Arctic, and to do so while staying true to the IQ principles. It takes a team effort. We take an integrated approach, working closely with all stakeholders – and focusing on efficient, simple design for construction, ongoing operation and maintenance. Simplicity is key. With limited space on the barge, only the “right” quantities of materials are sent to the construction sites – and there are no stores to which to run if something is missing, breaks down or fails to perform.

We work closely with the community to capture current and future requirements of the schools, taking into consideration the environment, climate change, seasons, and the role of sunlight while being guided by the IQ principles. 

• We meet with local officials and community members to ensure better understanding of unique cultural and environmental factors.
• We present numerous design strategies for the community’s response, consensus and approval.
• We undertake extensive analyses of the unique climatic and environmental attributes of the community.
• We strive to find solutions, which go beyond schooling, but which support cultural, infrastructural and community health.

Tuugaalik High School is an excellent example of successful coordination and planning. The construction contract was bid during the winter months and awarded in early spring, thereby allowing the contractor to mobilize for early spring blasting of bedrock. The contractor was also able to expedite shop drawings, allowing sufficient material to be coordinated with the barge’s summer shipping season.

The construction of the high school has made good progress this past summer, in spite of a minor setback in the shipping schedule: The first shipment of material for the summer season was delayed by nearly a month, as a result of poor spring weather  Taking advantage of extended, summer daylight hours, the contractor was able to erect the superstructure and enclose the building, before the winter season settled in.

The importance of completing the building envelope is that it permits the building to be heated during its first full winter, as a partially completed assembly. This allows interior work to continue over the winter season, and any remaining exterior work to be completed in the spring of 2016.

A critical component of installing the building envelope is the insulated soffit underneath the building. The majority of buildings installed in the North are essentially floating boxes on stilts. Raising the building above the ground ensures that the permafrost below remains intact, and also prevents snow from drifting around the perimeter of the building.

Arviat Middle School is one of three schools in Arviat comprising a central campus within the community. The middle school was situated to create a “common”, otherwise known as “Kiva”. The common will be the central gathering place for all three schools. A front entry, drop off area, and an extensive recreation area for the village are planned for the common. To encourage the community in learning about their environmental heritage, the common is designed to be an extension of a large eco-park currently being designed for the region.

The incorporation of natural light and site orientation are several design features that are present throughout the facility. The main design feature of the school is the common/central-gathering area. All program elements, such as the classroom wing, gymnasium and daycare are plugged into and around this space to provide an area for use by the staff, students and community of Arviat.

Igloolik High School will be built at the edge of town. The expected growth of the town’s population is such that the school will soon find itself at the centre of town.  Realizing the importance of this change, Parkin located the building in a manner to create a large town square in conjunction with the Middle School and a newly-built community centre. The square will be able to serve as a focal point for celebrating the uniqueness of the community. Located on the side of a shallow hill, the design has made provision for a future amphitheatre, which can act as either an outdoor classroom or a community stage. The school is situated such that the atrium will receive the streaming of the first light following the winter solstice.


Three lessons learned with respect to our experience working in Canada’s Arctic:

• Architects need to understand, respect and adapt to unique cultural and environmental circumstances.
• Dialogue and consensus-building are keys to a good design.
• Construction documentation needs to address unique building requirements associated with extreme climatic, environmental, operational and logistical realities.


Editor’s note: this blog was originally published in November 2015 and the projects have been updated.  

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