Escape from the ghetto

Montreal architect wants to create livable public housing in Iqaluit


The City of Iqaluit wants to become a model of Arctic sustainability. The Nunavut Housing Corporation wants to build as many homes as it can, as quickly as possible.Enter Avi Friedman, the renowned Montreal architect known for The Grow Home, a single-family row house that could be built (back in the 1980s, when it was first designed) for $36,000 and is easy for the homeowner to renovate.

Now, he’s designed an entire neighbourhood for Iqaluit’s waterfront housing project that began last year, which is gradually replacing the aging, single-family stock with 10-plex buildings. Friedman said he drew inspiration for the project, which he presented to city council Monday, from the natural beauty of Iqaluit’s landscape.

“This is a wonderful, wonderful site and we should not give up the opportunity,” Friedman told councillors.

The blueprints depict a campus-like neighbourhood, with pathways running through a central square for people to congregate in. The buildings are oriented to reduce snowdrifts and absorb as much sunlight as possible. The parking lots are tucked away from passing view. There’s also space outside for carvers and room inside to prepare country food.

“What I’ve attempted to do is look at the (Inuit) culture and learn from it,” he said.

In last year’s federal budget, the Conservative government spent $200 million on easing Nunavut’s housing crisis. That means there’s pressure on the Nunavut Housing Corporation to build as many units as possible with the federal cash.

But the bottom line for social housing, said Friedman in a telephone interview from his Montreal home, is that ugly social housing might give people a roof over their heads, but also creates new social problems.

He mentioned the mid-century U.S. experiment in social housing which produced massive high-rise buildings holding hundreds of families. The result was ghettos, vandalism, crime and poverty.

“Once you build homes that are not appealing, not attractive, you stigmatize a portion of your population and you create new problems,” Friedman said. “And if some extra amount (of money) needs to be spent, it needs to be seen as an investment in people’s pride and livability.”

“If you start right, and you do the right thing from the beginning and you maintain high quality, it will be known around the world as a wonderful place.”

Coun. Glenn Williams said he thinks NHC can build the same number of units on the waterfront site for the same amount of money: about $1.9 million per 10-plex, according to NHC estimates.

“I think Dr. Friedman has identified how you can do that. (Public housing) doesn’t have to be boxes with people stuck in them,” he said.

Williams was disappointed no one from the housing corporation turned up for Friedman’s presentation and said the city has encountered apathy from NHC staff.

But Williams noted the largest landholder in the city is the housing corporation, and so city hall needs to get NHC on board if it wants to build a more livable, sustainable housing project.

“We want to work them. We want to do these things together. We have to.”

In an interview, NHC president Peter Scott said he didn’t hear of the meeting with Friedman until two hours before it started.

He’s had “a quick look” at Friedman’s design concept and liked it. The problem, he said, is that NHC’s orders for the coming construction season are “pretty much set,” which means construction on what Friedman designed couldn’t start until 2008 at the earliest.

But Scott said the housing corporation is open to looking at ways to incorporate Friedman’s designs into future phases of the project.

Scott said it’s important to ensure there are enough three-bedroom units in that development for larger families.

“I have some reluctance to continuing to pull three bedroom units out unless I can replace them with three-bedrooms,” he said.

City plans for the lot call for seven 10-unit buildings to eventually stand on the property. One was completed last summer and two more will be built this construction season.

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