Amid what experts are calling an acute accommodation shortage in Northern Canada, the Quebec government is preparing to test a new social housing unit it says is better adapted to harsh climates and Inuit culture.

Quebec's social housing agency says a pilot project carried out in the Ungava Bay-area village of Quaqtaq with two bodies that oversee accommodation in the north is expected to be ready for occupants early in the new year.

The project will test a new prototype adapted from one of the units in use: a one-level duplex, with two two-bedroom apartments in each half and a mechanical unit in the middle containing water tank, furnace and ventilation system.

However, this unit has been fitted with better insulation to increase energy efficiency; aerodynamic features to minimize the inconvenience of accumulated snow; and pile foundations which are better suited to shifting permafrost.

Jean-Francois Gravel, a technical expert for the housing agency, says the goal of the project is to test the various individual elements to see which ones may be adopted in future models.

"The idea is not necessarily to repeat this model itself on a large scale, but to see what works well," he said.

Gravel says the technical elements, such as air quality and energy efficiency, will be monitored online by the agency. Pile foundations, he says, are widely used elsewhere in Canada's North but are still under-studied in Quebec.

'Empowerment through architecture'

The families living there will also give their feedback on a number of changes to the floor plan based on the requests of a panel of Inuit residents during public consultations.

These include a combined living room, dining room and kitchen for large traditional family gatherings, as well as a cold porch for storing outdoor gear.

The design also includes a movable kitchen island to give more space options as well as a lockable cabinet for hunting gear, and large chopping blocks for preparing fish and game.

Alain Fournier, a founding partner at FGMDA Architectes, the firm that designed the model, said these functional elements contribute to a growing narrative he describes as "empowerment through architecture," where Inuit and First Nations communities are increasingly working with governments and architectural firms to design buildings that better represent them.

He points to a series of air terminals he's redesigned in the province's north in recent years — each with a theme chosen by the members of the community that relates to their culture.

He's designed one with a beluga theme, one the Arctic char and another that represent a traditional sled.

"These themes are integrated and expressed in the buildings and the integrated artwork," he said. "What's important is that ultimately it comes from them."

Waiting lists

When it comes to building social housing, however, Fournier said some factors limit what can be done. Building costs in the Subarctic are three times higher than in the south due to climate, remoteness and lack of skilled labour.

Higher-quality materials cost more, and that may mean building fewer homes at a time when the housing shortage in northern Quebec is estimated at between 900 and 1,000 units.

Gravel says the bill for the pilot project has yet to be tallied, although costs will be higher than for normal units. Nevertheless, Fournier said it can pay off in the long run.

"Any improvement on energy efficiency means your operating costs — heating bills — are much lower, and the money saved can go to building more units," he said.

Jimmy Okpik, the housing manager in Quaqtaq, says he doesn't know which residents will get to test out the new units, but he is sure there will be no shortage of volunteers.

"There's always a waiting list," he said. "The waiting list never goes away."