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Space Requirements and Utilization in Northern

Technical Series 94-211
Key Messages

•Northern housing has special design requirements including:

  • a second emergency exit near the bedrooms
  • an insulated, unheated vestibule to protect the entry door from freezing
  • a heated space for water and sewage storage tanks
  • dedicated storage room for bulk food and supplies
  • a main floor mechanical room with fire and noise separation from the living area, vented to outside with a gasket sealed door to prevent fumes from entering the living area
  • main floor laundry room
  • a cooler work space for equipment repair, home crafts and industry, cleaning game, etc. with separate vent to the outside
  • open plan living areas with guest sleeping space


The design and use of space for Northern housing must respond to several factors that are not common in the South, such as the method of providing services and the lack of basement space. Northern houses need to be more energy efficient and the design must respond to sun and snow patterns. In addition, the design should be flexible to reflect variations in material, equipment and labour availability in the communities in which homes are constructed.

Design Factors

Entry and Exits
A house should have both a primary and secondary (emergency) exit. The primary exit should be accessible at or near grade level and close to the outdoor work and storage areas. The secondary exit should be near the bedroom area.

Direct access to the exterior can result in high heat loss, condensation and frost build-up on the door frame. This makes the door difficult to close and will eventually damage the door and frame. The door lock may also freeze. To remedy these problems, a buffer zone between the interior and exterior is recommended. This buffer should be in the form of an unheated vestibule which is sealed from the rest of the house by insulated walls and a door. The walls and ceiling of the vestibule should also be insulated.

A snow porch may also be required to keep the space outside the entrance door relatively free of snow. The snow porch should be a covered structure open on one side only (away from the prevailing wind). The house should be oriented and designed to minimize snow drifts near the entrances.

Interior Storage
Interior storage requirements are a function of family size, lifestyle, the distance from the source of supply and the frequency of the supply. Many small communities have a retail outlet which only carries the necessities; residents must travel to larger centres for weekly or bi-weekly shopping. Other communities rely on sealift goods which arrive in late summer and fall. Storage must be provided for the year's supply of goods.

It is estimated that 5% of the net floor area in two-storey and 72% in single-storey houses should be set aside for storage.

A dedicated storage room with a door and adequate shelving should be used to store food and dry goods. Shelves should be sturdy and designed to accommodate large food items. This can be achieved by large vertical separations between shelves as well as large individual shelf areas. Adequate floor space should be provided for storing larger packages. It is desirable to have a separate temperature control for this room to keep it cool year round. Space should be allocated for a freezer although some communities have a communal freezer.

Items should not be stored underneath buildings, particularly if the space is used to control ventilation and snow drifting.

Mechanical Services
The location of the mechanical service room is dictated by the placement of fuel, water and sewage tanks, and the supply lines for heating and ventilation. Clearances should be maintained to meet fire regulations and permit access for maintenance. The mechanical room should have fire separation from the rest of the house and, if possible, be isolated from the living space to reduce noise. The room should be ventilated to the outside and the door should have a gasket seal to prevent fumes from entering living areas. Ideally, since these rooms require fewer windows, they should be placed on the north side of the house. Combustion ventilation devices should be tamper-proof and instructional signs should be provided. Plumbing lines and fixtures should be accessible and protected from the cold.

Laundry Space
Counter space and cleaning supply storage should be included in this area along with a laundry tub. The clothes dryer should be vented to the exterior.

Work Space
A work space should be provided for equipment repair, arts and crafts, storage of seasonal equipment, thawing food, etc. If a work space is included in the house, it should be located near the primary entrance with direct access to the exterior for convenience. It should have durable flooring and finishes. If possible it should include a floor drain but care should be taken to ensure that the trap does not freeze. If the room is to be used for stone carving, the ventilation system should not allow dust to pass to other parts of the house. A wall fan or vent door may be required to exhaust fumes if the room is to be used to repair fuel burning equipment or motors. The area should be maintained at cooler temperatures to allow slow defrosting of game.

Kitchen/Dining and Living Spaces
The layout of these areas is dependant on the cultural background and lifestyle of the user. In smaller communities, an open plan is best in order to accommodate a wide range of activities such as extended family visits. These areas can also double as occasional sleeping areas.

Designing these areas with few partition walls will give a feeling of space and can assist in distributing the heat from a central stove or furnace. It is beneficial to have the living areas on the south side of the house where they will receive the most sunlight during the heating season.

Near the kitchen, a built-in pantry for storage of bulk food items such as flour would be desirable. There must be adequate circulation space in front of and between the sink, stove and refrigerator. A window in front of the sink would be an asset for watching children playing in the yard. The cabinets used must be easily repairable from local resources. Wall finishes should be bright and provide a surface to attach objects. Instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, area rugs are recommended as they can be cleaned easier.

The trend towards smaller families throughout the North may diminish demand for large bedroom capacity. Closet space in the bedroom is often used for overflow storage so there should be provision for shelving.

The location of the bathroom is dictated by proximity to the mechanical room and sewage connection point. Natural lighting and ventilation are desirable.

Housing Examples

Figure 1 illustrates one of the houses provided under the Housing Assistance Program by the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation. This particular model was constructed by a homeowner in Pond Inlet, NWT. The occupant of the house likes the layout and finds the house warm and easy to heat. The heating system is a central oil-fired furnace with a ductwork system installed in a false floor. Water and sewage services are provided by holding tanks.

Figure 1:Plan of a Home in Pond Inlet, NWT
Figure 1: Plan of a Home in Pond Inlet, NWT Enlarged Image

Figure 2 illustrates a home built in Island Lake, Manitoba, a community with limited electrical and other services.

Figure 2: Plan of a Home in Island Lake, Manitoba
Figure 2: Plan of a Home in Island Lake, Manitoba, Enlarged Image

It relies on a woodstove located on the lower floor for heating. The open plan allows the warm air to rise; return air grilles are located at various points around the perimeter of the upper floor. Sewage is handled via a honeybucket system (a seat on a bucket lined with a disposable bag). The occupants find that the house is efficient and reliable and keeps the heat in. It is easy to maintain and has lots of room. In the summer, the family moves to the lower level which is much cooler.

Special Requirements

Space requirements and use vary in the North according to the type, location and lifestyle of the community. Generally, communities have evolved along three different paths. They developed naturally due to the presence of resources, were planned by the government, or exist to serve mines. The economy within these communities ranges from a southern oriented wage economy to a subsistence economy. Special requirements for these different communities are outlined below.

Predominantly Non-Native and Southern Oriented Communities within the Wage Economy
The interior space requirements are not very different from southern requirements except for extra space required for the storage of food received by yearly sealift. If the home lacks a basement, space should be allocated for a workroom for hobbies and crafts.

Two-thirds of the site should be set aside for exterior space requirements. An unheated shed attached to the building can be used to store recreational equipment, tools and winter food. A separate storage area should be provided for combustibles. Yard space for pets and children's recreation is desirable. Access for service vehicles should be near the road and situated so that it can be kept clear of snow. Parking in front of the unit is recommended for convenience and security.

Communities Dominated by a Mixed Economy of Wage Employment, Social Assistance and Renewable Resource Activities
Additional storage space is required in these smaller communities. The communities typically have small retail outlets that only handle the bare necessities; the residents must go out of the community for large shopping trips. Utility work rooms are desired for equipment repair or storage. The living space requirements vary with the size of the family. In the past, northern communities consisted of extended families living together and therefore required larger house. The size and make-up of families has been reduced in many areas. Needs have shifted from dwellings with numerous bedrooms to smaller units.

Small Communities Dominated by the Subsistence Economy
These small communities experience varying and overlapping patterns of movement at different times of the year. The people are involved in resource harvesting, trading, and seasonal wage employment. The families rely on locally harvested food and therefore need a workspace for cleaning and preparation of game. This should be near a sink and have surfaces which are easy to clean and maintain. Other requirements include utility rooms, work rooms and cold spaces for storage of items such as fur garments, spare parts for snowmobiles, and food. Space for bulk food storage should be included.

The interior living space is similar to those in the other communities, but with greater emphasis on visiting and socializing as a form of entertainment. This is especially true in winter months. The kitchen/living room area should be capable of accommodating casual visitors and extended family gatherings. It is a social embarrassment in the native culture to have to turn away visitors due to lack of room. Accommodation of overnight visitors could be provided by fold-out beds, trundles or folding cots.

More outdoor space is required for items such as snowmobiles, sleds, fish racks, and animals. A storage shed with minimum dimensions of 2.4 m x 2.4 m (8 ft. x 8 ft.) is required for storage of trapping equipment, outboard motors, tools and replacement parts. A sheltered work area near the outdoor shed, supplied with electricity, is useful for equipment repair. Space should be provided for a smoke house or drying rack which is usually of pole construction up to 4 m x 4 m (13 ft. x 13 ft.). Additional storage may be provided by using a frame and wall tent. An area near the house is needed for wood cutting and for storage of cord wood. Areas should also be set aside for dog pens, an outdoor play area and perhaps a garden.


Careful consideration must be devoted to the process of providing housing in the North. Not only is northern housing different from southern, but requirements will vary according to the lifestyle of the occupants and the location of the community.


Architectural and Planning Considerations, a compendium of CMHC reports.

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