How a 1950s experiment brought foam igloos to Kinngait, Nunavut

In 1950s Cape Dorset, a northern service officer and Inuit artist came together to create a wild experiment in locally-designed housing.

The 1950s experiment in ‘culturally sensitive’ housing offers lessons for the North today

James Houston, the northern service officer in Kinngait, sits atop one of the Durofoam igloos he helped design in Kinngait. (Submitted by the Houston family)

In the black-and-white photos in Canada's national archives, it looks just like an igloo on Kinngait's rocky shores.

But something is off: there's no snow on the ground. Boats in the water and scrubby tundra grass prove this is no winter scene — it's the middle of summer.

That's because it's not blocks of ice forming the walls of these igloos, but a polystyrene called Durofoam — the product of a wild experiment in one northern community in the late 1950s.

Though today the notion of foam housing may be seen as, in the words of one researcher, "laughably inadequate and even callous," former residents remember the experiment as an example of a spirit of collaboration in the northern communities of the 1950s.

During that time, Canada was increasing its efforts to exert sovereignty in the North by encouraging Inuit to abandon a traditional nomadic lifestyle and settle in permanent communities.

Key to this project were northern service officers or NSOs. Often among the first white residents in these new communities, they were charged with representing the federal government, delivering social programs, and developing local economies that could justify these settlements' existence.

The first of these officers was James Houston, who arrived in Kinngait, Nunavut — then called Cape Dorset, N.W.T. — by dogsled with his young family in the early 1950s.

"He had the responsibility for representing all government departments in that area," said John Houston, his son, who grew up in Kinngait and now makes films about the North.

A foam brick igloo on the rocky shores of Kinngait. The open water shows this is a summer scene. (Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada fonds/a114847)

"So one of the things was economic development, and another part of it was housing, tourism, you know, possibly even … research and development."

All those things came together when James Houston travelled south with Peter Pitseolak, a Kinngait man who John Houston described as "kind of a genius."

For a summer exhibition, Pitseolak was asked to make an igloo out of hard foam bricks to demonstrate how it was done.

"Somewhere along the line, my father got the idea — 'Wait a second, maybe these things could be used in the Arctic somehow,' " Houston said.

Jimmy Manning, Pitseolak's grandson and Houston's close friend, said at that time in Kinngait, more and more families were leaving the nomadic life and settling in the community, leading to a major housing shortage.

Pitseolak builds a polystyrene igloo using pre-cut pieces of foam. The idea came from a demonstration igloo built for a Canadian expo, Houston said. (Submitted by the Houston family)

Houston said his father immediately saw the potential of Pitseolak's design.

"Maybe they could help to expand the housing stock," he said of the foam brick creations. "Maybe they could be useful in tourism, [or] maybe Inuit who were still kind of transitioning between a nomadic lifestyle and community lifestyle could … use these, because they were portable. They could be used on the land."

After Houston negotiated a supply of Durofoam with a company in Kitchener, Ont., that wanted to cold-test its product in the Arctic, Pitseolak cut the design and brought the pieces to Kinngait.

As a teenager in Kinngait, Manning remembers watching local crews assemble the igloos using tar to bond the pieces.

"It was so interesting to see," he said. "It was up in no time."

A foam brick igloo sits on a Kinngait road next to western-style housing. As Inuit families abandoned a nomadic lifestyle and settled in Kinngait, the community suffered a major housing shortage. (Library and Archives Canada/Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds/e010835896)

Housing and hosting

For a while, the igloos enjoyed a brief heyday. A few families were housed in them, including a local elder, Andrew Kingwatsiak, and some of Manning's friends.

"We would visit and we'd go for tea and warm up and in wintertime," said Manning. He remembered how light would filter through the foam, even at night, lighting up the inside.

Some were used to host tourists at a nearby camp, part of an early attempt at "adventure tourism," Houston said. The National Film Board even used one as a set, according to Manning.

"It was kind of a part of the landscape in a weird way," he said.

Elder Andrew Kingwatsiak, right, in one of the polystyrene igloos. Kingwatsiak did not have the use of his legs, and died when an igloo caught fire. (Submitted by the Houston family)

The idea even attracted international attention. Writing in The Conversation, Scott Dumonceaux, a post-doctoral fellow at Trent University who studies the Canadian North, described an Australian newspaper fawning over the idea, calling them "better than snow houses" (albeit in the children's section).

Today, Dumonceaux wrote, "the idea of housing people in [polystyrene] huts seems laughably inadequate and even callous ... particularly when compared to housing standards for non-Indigenous Canadians."

And indeed, even at the time, residents noted that the igloos had their problems. Houston remembers them as poorly insulated, needing more than the traditional single oil lamp, or qulliq, that heats igloos made from snow.

Manning remembers the opposite.

"Let me tell you, it was awful hot in there," he said. "It's very windproof. And you could not really put too much heat in there. Otherwise you're sweating."

Manning, far left, and his family in one of the foam igloos. He said that inside the igloos it was 'awful hot.' (Submitted by the Houston family)

But the idea really fell out of favour after a tragic accident that revealed a dangerous flaw in their design.

"We were watching a black-and-white 16-millimetre film in our old school," Manning recalled, "and when they were changing one of the wheels in the projector … everyone came out to have a cigarette and fresh air, a little bit."

"Then somebody saw a very black smoke shooting right up into the air."

The igloo owned by Kingwatsiak, the elder, had caught fire, and was quickly engulfed in flames. Kingwatsiak, who didn't have use of his legs, died in the fire.

The accident highlighted the dangers of using the foam bricks as a building material. But Kinngait was changing, too — as more families settled, more moved into western-style homes.

Pitseolak surveys an incomplete Styrofoam igloo. Dumonceaux, the researcher, says the igloos were a rare and early example of the Canadian government collaborating on local solutions to housing issues. (Submitted by the Houston family)

'A grand experiment'

Today, the igloos are gone from Kinngait. But Dumonceaux, the researcher, says they should be remembered as a rare moment in history when the Canadian government tried to provide "culturally sensitive" housing.

"To find out that … there was a kind of local participation in their designs, and that they were trying to fit in with the needs of those communities, was surprising to me," he said.

For Houston, the story is illustrative of the wild experimentation happening in northern communities in that era, as residents tried their hands at everything from printmaking to commercial eiderdown gathering. Some things stuck, and some didn't.

James Houston shows off some local carvings to Inuit children in Kinngait. Houston is also credited with encouraging the development of a local carving and printmaking industry in Kinngait, one of several experiments in building a local economy he spearheaded in the 1950s. (From left to right: Leah Qaqqasiq, Taina Nowdlak, James Houston, Levi Nutaralaaq, Joanasie Maniapik, Sheepa Ishulutaq, Rosie Veevee, Miluqtuarjuk Arnaqquq, Towkie Qappik.) (Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada fonds/a189969)

"Everything was a grand experiment back then," he said.

"I remember the Kinngait of … my youth, as a place of tremendous brainstorming between the Inuit and the qallunaat," or settlers. "They were saying, you know, 'How on earth are we going to prevail? How are we going to invent a way forward together?' "

"It strikes me that that's something that we could use a lot more of today," he said.

Manning, in Kinngait, agrees. He said it might not be time to give up on pre-fabricated igloos just yet.

"That idea … came up about 10 years ago when … we were talking about, you know, oh my goodness, we're really, really short of housing," he said. 

"It was the wrong material. But, you know, maybe it's something that can be tried again."

Houston stands next to one of the igloos in Kinngait. (Submitted by the Houston family)