Styrofoam igloos: A 1950s cure for the Inuit housing crisis

A 1961 photo that shows a Styrofoam igloo in the Inuit community of Kinngait. (Library and Archives Canada/Charles Gimpel)

By Scott Dumonceaux
Trent University

The COVID-19 pandemic and outbreaks in several communities across Nunavut have brought the Inuit housing crisis into focus. Inadequate and unsafe housing is endemic in many Inuit communities and has been blamed for poor health outcomes and susceptibility to infectious disease for decades.

And these problems have historical roots. Canada has been running federal government housing programs for 65 years in the North, including experimental Styrofoam igloos that were tested at Kinngait, Nunavut from 1956 to 1960.

The only reporting of the Styrofoam igloo project was in the children’s section of The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia on Sept. 9, 1960. The headline read: “Eskimos Find Plastic Igloo Better Than Snow Houses!” The article informed its young readers that the plastic version of the traditional Inuit housing structure was made from 18 inch by 36 inch Styrofoam blocks, held together by wooden meat skewers and adhesive.

The idea of housing people in Styrofoam huts seems laughably inadequate and even callous today, particularly when compared to housing standards for non-Indigenous Canadians. But the use of Styrofoam igloos is one of the few instances where the Canadian government tried providing Inuit with culturally sensitive housing.

styrofoam igloo
Experimental styrofoam igloo constructed in the community that was known then as Cape Dorset, Northwest Territories.
(Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada fonds/a114847)

Where did Styrofoam igloos come from?

Until the 1950s, it was federal policy that Inuit communities should continue their traditional ways of life with little interference. By 1955, however, there was a growing consensus that the government should provide a basic standard of living to all people living in Canada, convincing the government to change its policy.

Over the next five years, a number of experimental housing structures were tested in Inuit communities, including the Styrofoam igloos, Styrofoam quonset-style huts built in Iqaluit, and double-wall canvas tents. These projects were intended to solve high instances of illness and infant mortality associated with traditional self-built structures while maintaining existing forms of Inuit housing.

The Styrofoam igloos were the brainchild of James Houston of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, who, according to The Age, came upon the idea of using Styrofoam, a petroleum-based product developed in the 1940s, to build a more moisture resistant igloo.

An Inuit man named Pitsulak, who was “famous as a fast builder of snow igloos,” The Age wrote, was brought south to Ottawa to cut the Styrofoam blocks for a test igloo, built “on a circular floor of two layers of plywood with Styrofoam inlaid between them.” The resulting 18-foot (5.5 metre) diameter structure was then disassembled, shipped to Kinngait and reassembled by Pitsulak.

person standing beside styrofoam igloo
A visitor to Canada’s far north stands beside a Styrofoam igloo.
(Library and Archives Canada/Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds/e010836042)

Designed to fit traditional mobility

The Styrofoam igloos and other housing models tested in the 1950s were designed to fit in with traditional Inuit mobility, subsistence practices and mimic existing forms of Inuit housing. They were also developed by people with experience living and working in the Arctic. Houston had travelled throughout the Canadian Arctic and regularly visited Inuit communities as a promoter of Inuit art and printmaking. He considered himself familiar with Inuit housing needs. The involvement of Pitsulak also brought significant knowledge and experience to the project.

The Styrofoam igloos are also a reflection of the post-war ideology of “high modernity,” a belief that science and technology could be used for social benefit. “Suddenly the white man jumped ahead,” The Age declared, producing a Styrofoam igloo “so superior to the one of snow blocks … that the Eskimo has even praised the efficiency of the new invention.”

But what the Inuit community at Kinngait actually thought of the plastic structures is unknown. And it was exactly because the Styrofoam igloos were designed to align with Inuit culture that they were discontinued.

At the end of the 1950s, the government had begun to encourage Inuit communities to abandon the mobility and subsistence practices that culturally sensitive housing supported, and live in permanent settlements where they believed it would be easier to administer social programs and bolster Canada’s Arctic sovereignty claims.

The structures also failed to meet cost-efficiency and durability standards and did not conform to national building codes.

styrofoam igloo and other housing alternatives
Three types of housing: a Styrofoam igloo, a wooden pre-fabricated house and a canvas tent.
(Library and Archives Canada/Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds/e010835896 Credit: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton)

The case for relevant housing

Housing built in Inuit communities after 1960 mirrored structures found commonly in Canada’s south. But this form of housing has proven ill-suited to Inuit needs.

Early models lacked space for butchering, storing food, repairing hunting equipment and were not built to withstand Arctic weather. Housing designed for southern families was ill-suited to Inuit cultural values like extended family cohesion and preference for open domestic space. Structures were also quickly over-crowded and failed to solve health concerns.

A 2017 Senate report showed that many of these issues persist in Inuit communities, with structures similar to those built in the ‘50s and ’60s still being occupied today. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.

Read more:
Housing is health: Coronavirus highlights the dangers of the housing crisis in Canada’s North

The Styrofoam igloos may not have been “Better Than Snow Houses,” as The Age boldly stated, but they are an eccentric example of what can happen when Inuit housing projects are developed with cultural sensitivity and lived experience in mind. Solving the Inuit housing crisis will require cultural consultation and well-funded housing that once again reflects Inuit needs.

Scott Dumonceaux, Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North Postdoctoral Fellow, School for the Study of Canada, Trent University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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(27) Comments:

  1. Posted by articrick on

    Lol, experts from a land that never sees snow.

    • Posted by No Comparison on

      Much of Nunavut gets very little snow when compared to the snow belt regions, particularly Iqaluit, practical desert that it is. Can’t compare temperatures of course.

      • Posted by articrick on

        No comparison? You know that you are comparing Nunavut to Australia. Not sure you know where Australia is?

        • Posted by Familiar Indeed on

          I’m quite familiar, that is why I know that there is no comparing temperatures between Australia and Nunavut.

  2. Posted by Thomassie Mangiok on

    Pretty darn awesome, no reason why we people of the arctic shouldn’t innovate now. With some funding and support, why not?

  3. Posted by Manapik on

    What happened to the promised free housing and other necessities of life promised to Inuit when they were coerced to colonizing in settlements?

    • Posted by Crack Shack on

      There was never a promise to supply all Inuit with free housing forever.
      None. Never.
      It’s about time we stopped recycling this ridiculously self-serving myth and got serious about building homes instead of waiting for the Feds to do it all for us and wipe our butts for us too.
      The money is out there we just need people and groups ready to do the heavy lifting. No one is going to dump billions of dollars in cash on us to meet every need but we sure as hell can be doing a LOT more than we are currently.

    • Posted by Reality Check, 1 2 1 2 on

      That is a myth

    • Posted by Reality on

      If you think you were coerced into moving into settlements, why not reclaim your power, show them who’s boss, and move back onto the land. The fact that NOBODY is doing this sure weakens your coercion argument.

    • Posted by hermann kliest on

      As always, government have forked tongues. go ahead and experiment on eskimos, they won’t mind, they’ll obey all new comers to the north. But beware, old kliest will not tolerate anything any more what’s dish out to me…so shouldn’t Nunavut. WHAT a dumb experiment, but this old inuk, happens to be expert on mainstream Canadians, so there’s lot of out-of-place experts on societies.

      • Posted by Conspiracy on

        You give the Federal government too much credit to come up with this stuff. The federal government of today cant even figure out how to order vaccines. Do you really believe the federal government of a bygone era had any real plan? Whoever is perpetuating this myth of free housing for all Inuit into the future needs to shut up already. If it isn’t in the Nunavut Agreement, it is a myth.

  4. Posted by Just Wondering on

    I have always wondered about the homes shown in the multitude reports with mold, broken windows and doors and damaged drywall, leaky pipes and the list goes on; why does the report never include photos of the new homes prior to occupancy. Glistening floors, clean walls, state of the art heating, ventilation, well insulated, new appliances. Yes, every new Public Housing includes new appliances. So how come, within months often times, many of these new units, which cost over 850,000.00, 2021, NHC average cost, can these new homes appear in a report with the aforementioned issues. Of course like the highly popular reports of substandard conditions, there are many units which have been occupied for many, many years with no signs of damages. What could possibly be the issue? What influences can turn something new into something substandard? So look a little deeper when examining the “unacceptable housing conditions”. Check the facts, ask the questions, get all the answers, then considered the billions of dollars which have been spent over the decades.

    • Posted by Ignoramous on

      The older decrepit units did not cost anywhere close to the 850000 a modern unit costs today. And it’s simple having over crowding in a house will cause damage that is seen in housing report’s, when you got 12 people couped up in a 2 bedroom unit stuff is bound to break and deteriorate faster than the average home from a number of different reasons. You’re out here talking about “check the facts” when you got a modern high priced estimate labelled to all housing units that for the most part are not built like high costing estimate housing has for houses today compared to the cheaper older decrepit units that are conplained about

      • Posted by James on

        I have lived on northern reserves for many years. They are falling apart because their is no pride of ownership. The band’s own it so the tenants don’t bother doing upkeep instead. They wait for media to knowhow bad it is so they get more funding.
        Chiefs that tell members to repair their homes get voted out and chiefs that promise to get new homes get voted in

        Hard ware stores sell almost nothing up there because they expect government to fix it one day or give a new one. No pride

        Government has to stop building and start teaching maintenance while telling them this house has to last 80 years if it doesn’t they won’t get a new one.

        Plus giving them ownership would help and be frank with them; thereis no reason. To live here anymore, either live off the land and don’t. Ask for money or move to an area where you can get a job and earn for yourself.

    • Posted by aputi on

      it’s up to the tenant to keep the unit clean,plus no common sense these days

    • Posted by Ray Nartey on

      It’s because theres no economic viability to this place and never will be.

    • Posted by Iqalummiuq on

      When a family gets an apartment/house what every you wanna call it, the size of the apartment is based on the family size. In realty once the family moves in, their extended family moves in. Family from other communities will also move in. Over crowding, extra moisture ect… all add to the damage of the apartment.
      When a community has a waiting list of 100+ building a 5plex only puts a dent in the problem. The slow rate of houses being built is causing the over crowding.

    • Posted by Anomak Niptanatiak on

      The dependency was created so the white southern capitalists could control the ‘Natives’ for the Norths natural resources, working just fine you know for them but not for the descendants like me, Inuk.

  5. Posted by Superman on

    Can you still purchase these? Would love to make a little fortress of solitude down by the water.

    • Posted by smile guy on

      would like to have these right outside the bars. nice place to go for some privacy when you meet a new friend.

  6. Posted by carl jorgensen on

    Isn’t styrofoam highly flammable? Might turn a cooking accident into a disaster.

  7. Posted by Ned Flanders on

    Fun history lesson.
    Who’d a thunk.
    Thank you.

  8. Posted by Uvaali on

    Modify them to leggo-style with fireproofing similar to tents. Would be light and easy to assemble. Can’t afford plywood now for cabins.

  9. Posted by obvious solution on

    The Inuit should reclaim their nomadic lifestyle in Igloos and tents with support from the government. It’s bound to be cheaper and more popular than overcrowded, dilapidated houses.

    • Posted by James on

      Why any support from government. They. Lived there for long time without any. Government should provide protection and only help when it comes time to stop them from doing something traditional that I is hurting environment (hunting endangered species etc)

  10. Posted by Kenn Harper on

    The move into housing in permanent communities had nothing to do with bolstering Canadian sovereignty. Lazy or biased journalism.

    There is nothing culturally sensitive about a construction material that will burn so quickly the fumes will kill you before you can get out.

    A styrofoam igloo fire in Kinngait killed the renowned leader Kingwatsiak.

  11. Posted by iWonder on

    Among the battery of woke neologisms that have seeped into public discourse one of the most grating to me has to be references to “lived experience.” Has the author thought through the obvious redundance of calling experience ‘lived’ or is this speech code little more than pure mimicry?

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