Maintained in the North: Experts say homegrown talent key to school longevity
Many of Nunavut’s existing school buildings were designed for the south, but that’s changing
This story is the third in a three-part series examining the state of Nunavut’s school infrastructure and how it impacts the delivery of education in the territory. Look back at Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Arctic experts say the future of school construction in Nunavut involves bigger buildings, using more durable building materials and methods, and educating Nunavummiut in the trades.
“A lot of our construction was formatted for the south, and then put in the North,” said John Pearson, Nunavut Arctic College’s chair of construction trades.
And it shows.
In 2022, Nunavut school staff filed a total of 3,907 service requests for repairs ranging from plumbing issues to broken locks to cleaning up fuel spills.
The most serious of these maintenance issues resulted in 31 school closures and the loss of 111.5 school days over two years.
“It comes down to the types of materials that are used, how that construction is executed, but then more importantly how the building is maintained,” said Clarence Synard, president and CEO of NCC Development Ltd.
Synard said that as with any type of building, small issues that go unaddressed in schools can easily become bigger and more expensive problems down the road.
One key to avoiding this, he said, is to set up communities to successfully maintain those buildings on their own through preventative maintenance and skills training.
“The individuals that are building it from the communities are also the best individuals to maintain it,” Synard said.
“They are not just reading a how-to manual or different things they need to do. They actually understand the concept behind how a building was constructed.”
It’s also much cheaper to support local talent and build homegrown trades programs than it is to fly in builders from outside the territory, Synard said.
“I think the biggest issue is just having the personnel trained [and] available to do the required maintenance,” he said.
At Nunavut Arctic College, Pearson and Albert Netser, the dean of trades and technology, hope a three-year housing maintainer program headquartered at the Rankin Inlet campus will help.
Established about 11 years ago, the program teaches students skills related to maintaining and repairing buildings, like heating, electrical, carpentry, flooring and insulation.
It’s a program specially designed for servicing buildings in the North, Pearson said.
“Engineers and architects are actually getting up to very good speed and they realize [the impact of] those severe weather conditions,” he said.
Graduates have gone on to help maintain houses, buildings at mining projects, and the occasional school, like Nunavut Arctic College where they studied.
Netser said the curriculum is being updated to bring students up to speed on new materials and innovations in construction that they’ll see out in the real world.
“I think it’s very important to train our people in the North to not only maintain the buildings but to be part of the decision-making process,” Netser said.
Justin Leclair, an architect at Parkin Architecture Ltd., agrees.
Beyond the bare minimum
The Ottawa-based design and architecture company has built schools in Nunavut such as Kugaaruk’s Arviligruaq Ilinniarvik School, Kimmirut’s Peter Pitseolak High School and Naujaat’s Tuugaalik High School.
A big part of the design process takes into account the way the school will be used. For many small communities, schools aren’t just where classes happen, they’re also community halls, sports centres and emergency shelters.
“When we’re building a school, we’re not building it to bare minimum student populations, we’re building it to what is being projected out,” Leclair said.
That’s what the team is doing for its next major project, a renovation of Coral Harbour’s Sakku School, originally built in 1979. The work will include a large addition, a new community learning centre and a new daycare.
Many of the schools built between the 1970s and 1990s underestimated the rapid population growth that would take place over the next decades and how that would wear on the buildings, Leclair said.
Many older schools were built from wood, a material that deteriorates faster in cold climates, and very limited steel.
“Think of how many times a door would be open throughout the day [with] hundreds of students coming and going throughout the week,” Leclair said.
“Part of how we’re designing and building these schools is to be able to withstand a bit of that high usage and abuse that it will take over time.”
Leclair said Parkin Architecture has designed the new Sakku School building to accommodate up to 450 students, about double the number currently enrolled there.
Extensive school renovations, like the one at Sakku school, also include redundancy plans. That’s when builders install a variety of mechanical systems so that if one fails, such as baseboard heaters, another system can take over while the first system is fixed.
Or, like Pearson explained, builders will install multiple small boilers in a school instead of just one big one, so that backup heating supplies are always available.
“That’s something that simply wasn’t considered even 30 to 40 years ago, because there just wasn’t the mechanical space provided within the school,” Leclair said.
“The goal from the engineering side is just to really keep it simple.”
The high cost of quality
Constructing schools that can last for decades does have a high cost.
“The Arctic is an extreme environment that you’re building in, and materials tend to last half as long,” Leclair said.
It can easily be “four to five times” the cost to build a school in Nunavut compared to one of a similar size in Ottawa, for example. The Sakku School renovation is projected to cost $65 million.
Education Minister Pamela Gross said that sending out tenders early could help to limit costs.
Tenders are government work orders for renovations or construction projects that developers can bid on.
Issuing them earlier could give developers more time to find sustainable and affordable materials and methods to construct in the North, Gross said.
Buildings have a lifespan. But with the right materials and consistent maintenance, there’s no reason why a building in Nunavut shouldn’t last as long as a building down south, Synard said.
Pearson, at Nunavut Arctic College, agrees.
“I think the future looks very bright,” he said.