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Bare Poles

Bare Poles: Building Design for High Latitudes

Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 209
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  • Book Info
    Bare Poles
    Book Description:

    Designing successfully for people in the world's coldest climates demands a broad understanding of site conditions and their unique social context. Until now such knowledge often lay unarticulated in the minds of a few experienced practitioners or in the disappearing traditions of aboriginal peoples.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8490-7
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. viii-ix)
    (pp. x-x)
    Harold Strub

    Buildings designed out of context frustrate everyone—users, owners and designers. Because they don’t fit the need, they are poorly cared for and do not last long. For lack of a home-grown design and construction industry, polar regions have imported copies of many such buildings from the midlatitudes over the past fifty years. Those buildings solved some problems but created others—a few passed their prime in the first five years of use. Others were derelict by age twenty. Modern buildings should have longer useful lives, and polar regions deserve better.

    A home-grown design and construction industry can take generations...

    (pp. xi-xii)
    Gino Pin

    I moved north to Yellowknife from Sudbury, Ontario, in October 1971. Unlike the people who have lived in the North for centuries, and earlier travellers who developed an intimate knowledge of the land by travelling its land and water routes, testing their physical and mental stamina at every step, I first saw the land from above, like most contemporary travellers. From the comfort of a Boeing 737 flying at 35,000 feet, the land below appeared to be a mosaic of earth and water textured to stimulate the senses. It was void of detail or signs of life but for the...


    • 1 ORIGINS
      (pp. 3-6)

      In 1969 the sight of footprints on the moon made the heart skip a beat. The photographs show deep tread marks in the lunar dust next to shiny pieces of equipment. Only a generation later it is hard to fathom how the prints were made and why. In the airless sunlight they will look fresh indefinitely. In a million years they could still be marking time.

      A million years? In 1976 Mary Leaky found footprints nearly four million years old. She uncovered them in an East African deposit of volcanic ash long since turned to stone. Leaky’s study concluded three...

      (pp. 7-10)

      The density of that small crowd by the plane, three person per square metre, is the equivalent of three million persons per square kilometre. But crowds are uncommon here. The density of the village is only 800 persons per square kilometre. The density of the Northwest Territories is a mere 0.019 persons per square kilometre, or about one person for every 52 kilometres of land. Compare this to the city of Toronto at 6,300 persons per square kilometre, and to Canada as a whole at 2.5 persons per square kilometre. The population of the Northwest Territories, more than 65,000 now,...

      (pp. 11-16)

      Human history has many instances of native societies being steam-rollered by colonizing societies. Whole peoples (the Beothuks in Newfoundland and the Arawaks in the Caribbean to name two) might disappear, overwhelmed, killed off by invaders. Exceptionally, the native society, with some unexpected advantage, might absorb the colonizing one over time through intermarriage, and turn the tables (as the Greeks turned their Roman conquerors into Greeks during the last century BC). In the Americas, in the “New World,” the rule, rather than the exception, has held sway for the last five centuries. Strength has been counted in weight of numbers, industrial...

      (pp. 17-20)

      Industrial society, none too careful where it treads, perceives polar regions as frozen landscapes sparsely peopled by rugged individuals coping fatalistically with impossible odds. Humans versus the environment is the standard theme of treatise, reportage, novel, and movie. The reality, what local people do and think ordinarily, staggering beneath the weight of romantic myth, barely makes itself felt beyond the regions’ boundaries. The myths, while interesting in themselves, do little to inform the people responsible for high latitude building design about the ordinary needs and concerns of the people that live there.

      By means of the “snapshots” that follow, this...


      (pp. 23-27)

      From the edge of the Devon Icecap the Sverdrup Glacier flows northward twenty kilometres through a U-shaped groove two kilometres wide—there are four doglegs—and empties into Jones Sound near 76 degrees north latitude. At its high end the ice surface is 1,200 metres above sea level, very white, smooth, and regal, but at the snout where the glacier calves noisily into the sea the surface is dirty, wrinkled, and crevassed. From the snout a view opens northward onto the dark cliffs of southern Ellesmere Island seventy kilometres across the sound. Invisible at the base of those cliffs lies...

    • 6 AIR AND FIRE
      (pp. 28-32)

      Human beings live at the bottom of an air ocean. Most live right on its floor. Some, Tibetan and Andean shepherds among others, live higher up, where stiff currents swirl around pointed reefs. Either way, humans need solid surfaces on which to walk and play. Unlike fish we cannot swim or hover in this sea. Air—60 times thinner than water—offers less resistance to human movement but also less support. Air is more mobile, more responsive to change. Its mobility allows the surplus energy received from the sun at low latitudes to be shifted to the energy-starved high latitudes....

      (pp. 33-38)

      A Lapp word, tundra, denotes polar plain. Tundra is the dominant vegetation region of northern Canada, extending from the arctic archipelago in the north to the edge of the taiga, the boreal forest, in the south. Vegetation cover is sparse next to zero toward the pole but nearly continuous at the southern limit and meagre in total biomass. Many of the species present have relatives at midlatitudes. Compared to lower latitudes the number of species is small, limiting the number of possible relations between species. A simple, unstable ecosystem results rather than a complex and stable one. Decline in one...


    • 8 SUNLIGHT
      (pp. 41-44)

      More intense every day, spring sunlight glances off the snow and embeds itself in the retina. There is no escape, the tundra and the sea ice offer little shade. Prolonged exposure leads to snow blindness and excruciating pain, the only antidote being a damp blindfold and three days of rest. In the spring, snow goggles, two horizontal slits in a strip of ivory or wood, are an essential piece of trail gear. In summer, because there is no snow cover to reflect the light, and in winter, because the sun is too low in the sky to matter, the danger...

      (pp. 45-47)

      Low air temperatures force people to conserve body heat, to take seriously the business of keeping warm. Each person must tend his or her own hearth to keep the flame inside alive. If the flame sputters there may be no warming sun, no wood fire, no hot food to boost body temperature again. Although the protection of a tent or snow house helps, only body metabolism and a space suit made of animal fur working together can keep body temperature near +35.6°C. A short, stocky body favours conservation of heat. A tall, thin one, with greater skin area for the...

      (pp. 48-52)

      Wind makes waves. Waves make the sea surface opaque; waves swallow kayaks. Freezing spray glazes the fishing line and the rocks along the shore. Freezing rain glazes the tundra, sometimes putting winter forage beyond the reach of muskoxen and caribou. Wind shifts the pack ice, opening impassable leads, closing them as suddenly to make impassable ridges with sails 10 metres high and keels 40 metres deep. Wind makes foam and pushes it to the lee shore of summer lakes. Wind makes the sky now mackerel, now streaked and mean, now clear. Wind makessastrugi, small snowdrifts like fish scales, packed...

    • 11 HUMIDITY
      (pp. 53-58)

      In winter the overland traveller fears wet clothing more than game hovering beyond weapons range or chance encounters with bears. Staying dry is essential to staying warm. Clothing soaked by a fall through thin ice freezes instantly at low air temperatures, putting recovery beyond reach. Even the routine build-up of perspiration inside a space suit made of animal fur can lead to hypothermia if left unchecked. Animal bodies at work generate waste heat. Human bodies perspire to lose some of the heat by evaporation. The resulting water vapour migrates through the fur of the space suit toward the zone of...


      (pp. 61-65)

      Manhattan on a clear night, seen from twelve thousand metres up, is breathtaking. Skyscrapers full of parcelled light grow skywards from the darkness as though etched on a silicon memory chip. Manhattan seems to be pure intelligence, a presence greater than the sum of its parts, proof that to humankind belongs the same majesty, the same complexity, the same momentum that humans attribute to other processes in nature. Seen from a grassy rise higher than the cottonwoods lining the river bed, the encampment of a hundred conical lodges on the opposite bank of the Little Big Horn River conveys the...

    • 13 SHELTER
      (pp. 66-70)

      Little used to the land, midlatitude city dwellers wear windbreakers and live in climate-controlled space modules. Inuit used to living continuously on the land wear climate-controlled space suits and live in windbreaks.

      The space module is a shirt-sleeve environment driven by fossil fuels controlled collectively. The space suit depends on body heat and relative humidity controlled by the individual. The modern space module’s reliability has relegated the traditional space suit to the status of cultural curiosity. With few exceptions, manufacturers design modern space suits to resist only brief periods of exposure to severe outside conditions at high latitudes. Early European...

    • 14 OWNER
      (pp. 71-75)

      Nothing defeats excellence in architecture as much as low expectations. In the developed world urban populations are so accustomed to buildings that feel and look bad, and may even be dangerous to health, that better is hardly imagined, never expected. So few people have experienced better buildings that a person encountering one for the first time tends to blame an unexpected sensation of well-being on chance rather than on good architecture.

      Our basic expectations (shelter, power) exclude anything that makes sense in the larger picture. We find this acceptable in buildings, because humans excel at adapting to new environments no...

    • 15 LOGISTICS
      (pp. 76-79)

      Hunting and gathering means following game wherever game travels—the pattern of movement is seasonal but not fixed. One year may see the caribou pass through a major river crossing, the next, nothing. To the hunter, being on the move is normal and being held up in a base camp is unusual. Travel and subsistence are inseparable. Overland travel logistics consist of reducing equipment to essentials (ranging from tent pole and harpoon to thumb-sized amulet) and carrying it on dog sleds in winter or on boats and the backs of humans and dogs in summer. Mobility and acquisitiveness do not...

    • 16 BARRIERS
      (pp. 80-84)

      People living on the land developed space suits as primary thermal, air, and rain barriers. Their tents and snow houses worked as back-up, not substitute, barriers. There were no vapour barriers. Water vapour moved around humans with little interference. Damp clothing had to be taken out of service and dried out near the fire.

      Just sixty years ago central heating and insulated walls were a novelty in North America. The expression “building envelope” had no meaning. With increases in the standard of living, the pressure to improve comfort by building better envelopes became relentless. Once freed of wartime priorities, industry...

  10. V DESIGN

    • 17 PLACE
      (pp. 88-91)

      To high latitude societies dependent on the hunt, being in the right place at the right time of year was crucial in the choice of place to live. They made the best of the places where, for a few days or weeks, the fish usually ran or the caribou usually crossed. Permanence meant returning to the same places every year, for all or part of the season, as long as game was plentiful. Permanence today means settling in a single place. The experience needed to select a place for permanent, year-round settlement—a place for all seasons—never developed.


      (pp. 92-97)

      For the parents and grandparents of the last two generations there is a certain sense of exasperation every spring. Like sled dogs impatient for autumn’s first snowfall, they strain at the bonds preventing the move from the permanent settlement to the campsite on the land of their forebears, land just renewed by frost, snow melt, and waxing sunlight. Anxious to quit their hot, stuffy box of a house, they must be patient a while longer, stymied by school hours and school days that, however promising for the children and grandchildren, seem to chain life to a jerky rhythm completely out...

    • 19 GEOMETRY
      (pp. 98-104)

      People who have to make their own tools develop an acute sense of the possibilities of form. Aboriginals invented and produced clothing, shelter, tools, toys, games, and amulets—everything necessary to make life on the move both practical and rewarding. Anything that could not be carried on the back or in the mind was useless. Anything that could not be used within the confines of a small space had no future. Preference was given to games requiring play in turns, or in pairs—cat’s cradle, thread the needle, neck pull, leg wrestling—not to those needing a level field and...

      (pp. 105-108)

      People who are inseparable from the land, who depend on it for sustenance, do not lose their way.

      Startled awake from a deep sleep humans may experience a flash of panic punctuated by the thought, “Where am I?” Assuming that nature puts first things first this panic signals the importance of knowing exactly where a person stands in the known universe. Am I safe?

      Typically we pinpoint our location by means of spot checks of familiar sights and sounds around us.

      Landscape we learn to know, and shelter built with our own hands affirm our sense of security. People who...

    • 21 ENTRIES
      (pp. 109-112)

      Snow houses built to last a month or more have tunnels for entrances. Several metres long and just high enough to crawl through, they perform several functions. Most important, the tunnel works as a vertical air lock. Its ceiling height remains at or below the level of the sleeping platform, and so prevents cold outside air from rising into the living space and disturbing the warm air, heated by human bodies and an oil lamp, trapped under the dome.

      The tunnel’s length and position separate the living space from snow infiltration and wind noise. Hunting gear that would be buried...

      (pp. 113-121)

      Native architecture at high latitudes makes small demands on the capacity of the soil to support structures. The structures are light and conduct their loads evenly to the ground. If the ground surface moves, the structures flex to absorb the movement. The snow house dome slumps to fit the new situation without disintegrating. The heat inside, from oil lamps and bodies, does not thaw the frozen foundation to the point of instability until the spring. No problem.

      For a log house resting on a mud sill, a continuous strip of timber set in the ground under the walls, there is...

    • 23 WALLS
      (pp. 122-125)

      At the end of a day’s walk, within or beyond the tree line, finding shelter from the wind becomes the first priority. The wind steals body heat; it drives rain and snow into eyes and ears. The lee of a stand of spruce or an outcrop offers basic shelter. But it is nothing compared to the walls of a tent or snow house.

      The snow house wall is both windbreak and blanket. Containing large amounts of still air, the snow in the wall insulates the occupants against the cold air outside.

      The wall of a tent also acts as windbreak...

    • 24 WINDOWS
      (pp. 126-131)

      Inside the snow house, just above the entry tunnel, a patch of daylight pokes through the dome. A small skylight diffuses light from a pane of sheet ice wedged into the snow block structure. Minutes pass before the eyes adjust to the dimness of the interior. Finally, the patch of daylight becomes an indicator of the weather outside: bright sunlight, high cloud or low cloud, moonlight. From the outside, during the long polar night, that patch of light reverses itself, becoming a patch of lamplight distinguishable at a distance: a beacon, a sign of life, of warmth and shelter, of...

    • 25 DOORS
      (pp. 132-134)

      In the teeth of a blizzard, a snow house, however hastily built, seems to work a miracle. The occupant wedges a block of snow into the outer entrance of the tunnel. The tunnel protects the inner doorway from the elements. A tunnel floor lower than the sleeping platform forms a vertical air trap to prevent cold outdoor air from welling up into the living space. An inner door is not necessary.

      In the summer tent a flap of caribou skin takes over from the snow block. The flap stays closed when the wind is up or the flies are out,...

    • 26 ROOFS
      (pp. 135-140)

      Snow house, summer tent, tipi: all had roofs that looked and performed like walls. Only the immovable houses—the sod house, or the house made of field stone topped by skins stretched over whale ribs—had roofs distinguishable from walls.

      Twenty and thirty years ago many flat roofs built at midlatitudes in North America failed prematurely in spectacular ways. The roofing membrane might develop large cracks or blisters, or it might simply blow away in a high wind. The trouble started when architects and builders began to use traditional roofing materials in new ways without considering the consequences. Even worse,...

    • 27 MATERIALS
      (pp. 141-146)

      A rock rolling down a slope releases potential energy. A well-built cairn conserves this energy. Suppose for a moment that this energy could be transformed one night into the red glow of hot coals. The barren ground shorelines would light up like ruby necklaces, each hot spot representing an act of human diligence.

      People raised those piles of stone. Their cairns, caches, traps, and foundations are quite unlike any rock pile left by receding glaciers or spring floods or freeze-thaw. They stand out against the light. Each rock is small enough to be handled by a human working alone but...

    • 28 SERVICES
      (pp. 147-153)

      Build compact shelters to keep demand for “services” low. Open the hole at the top to let fresh air in at the bottom; close it for warmth. Gather enough deadwood to burn tomorrow; let the residue return to the land. Drink water upstream; pollute downstream. Waste little; leave the rest to the dogs. Drop rejects anywhere outside; move camp to a fresh campsite. Shut out the spring sun with goggles; let pupils dilate to gather the dim light of polar night.

      People who spend most of their lives indoors want to control their surroundings: the air temperature, humidity, noise, air...

    (pp. 154-154)

    The glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris has become a symbol of the museum’s resurgent popularity. It marks the new entrance to what used to a rabbit warren of a palace housing national art treasures. It opens down to a huge orientation place below ground which neatly directs the visitor to any the three main gallery wings. The frustrations of warren have evaporated because visitors know where they stand at any moment and where they have go to meet the piece or period that interests them. Thanks to this pyramid and to three smaller skylights, the...


      (pp. 164-182)
      (pp. 183-190)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 191-195)
  14. [Illustration]
    (pp. 196-196)