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Generational Resilience

Indigenous Architect Kelly Edzerza-Bapty explores what means to truly live in a place.

What does it mean to truly live in a place? To adapt and evolve and expand into and become a part of a space? To know somewhere fully? 

Inevitably, all non-Indigenous people have moved to these places that we call home from somewhere else. The languages that we have and our knowledge of building come from other origins, Swiss or Austrian village styles replicated in the communities that we have built.  

We came here for the beauty, nature, the mountains, and the lifestyle that comes from being surrounded by glaciers and freshwater abundance. The majority of us move here for access – access to snowy peaks and fresh powder lines, or climbing rocks and summiting mountains. Some, to feel connection, some, to feel isolation, and for some it means gaining access to seeing something much bigger than ourselves. Whatever the reason – we are privileged.  

For those who have ever built a snow fort and slept in it, or ventured onto an icefield for an expedition, another level of understanding is gained: an appreciation for the simplicity of survival. Whether it’s choosing the right clothing layers for a ski trip, or running around at night to elevate one’s body temperature before sliding into an ice-cold mummy bag and sealing in for the night — adapting to extreme conditions promotes knowledge of and respect for one’s environment. 

As an architect who works primarily in remote Indigenous communities, I have been intrigued by how our people would have lived in a winter climate. On my first trip onto the Juneau Icefield, I sat under the dancing auroras, wondering how my ancestors had not only survived but thrived in this climate. Clearly, our Nations learned enough in these landscapes over thousands of years to be able to develop complex linguistics, intricate plant medicines, textiles, art forms and regional dwellings. 

Looking at the crisis of climate change and at the individual and collective work towards reconciling our relationship with our Indigenous communities as Canadians, we would be wise to pay attention to the knowledge of building which was adapted in the winter regions and provided a basis for cultures to grow and thrive. There is a history of living within this region that we have yet to tap into. It can provide a basis for thinking about living in a region for future generations. 

I have travelled extensively for work — from K’ahsho Got’ine on the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories, to the arid British Columbia Interior and the North Coast. I have come to learn that many communities across the Interior and the northern zones would build winter dwellings that utilized ground heat as a heat-sink and as a means to insulate. The best-known example of this is the pit house, used throughout the Columbia, Fraser and Skeena river basins. Early records from the national parks era in the Banff and Bow Valley areas document kigulis (Secwépemc pit houses) throughout the region, some estimated at 10,800 years old, with continual usage over 1000 years for some of the timbers. 

The first archaeological site in Alberta, and the first professionally registered site in Canada, was a kiguli complex along the Bow River, mapped in 1913 but lost to recreational development in 1926. The extensive overlap of use by distinct Indigenous groups in the wilderness-rich areas of the Columbia and Bow Valley regions, merits the inquiry to understand the relationship in living within this bounty that extended for thousands of years. This space must have been a confluence not only of wildlife but of Nations: Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, Tsuut’ina, Ktunaxa, Secwépemc, Dene and Mountain Cree people having claim to extended use and overlapping occupancy. 

The longhouses of the Tsimshian, Haida and Łingít peoples on the northern coast had their bases set into the ground in order to make use of ground heat, and the buildings were covered with a timber frame and hand-honed planks. As for the kigulis, a pit was dug into the earth as a foundation, a timber frame was erected and various layers of smaller logs, branches or woven mats and clay would enclose the dwelling and offer water resistance. This was then covered with an earthen and sod roof, with space for a smoke hole/entrance from above. These buildings are outstanding examples of how Indigenous people have lived in these climates for millennia — evolving and adapting, learning from the seasons and the animals about how to live resiliently. 

In my practice, I have been working towards defining resilience and sustainability through an Indigenous lens, and I have coined a term that I refer to as “Generational Architecture” — a way to consider what it means to design communities and buildings that will be here for our future generations. 

In the months leading up to and during the week following the forest fire that engulfed the community of Lytton and the Lytton First Nation reserves, I worked on a building project proposal that incorporated the building science of shieshkin or kigulis (pit houses) for an organization called Nzen’man’, to design a fire-resilient structure that would last for generations. The word nzen’man’ means bird’s nest in the Nlaka’pamux nɬeʔkepmxcín language, and the building resembled a bird hugging its nest. The central core of the building represents the body of the bird and would be built like a pit house, featuring a timber frame and an earthen skin, with the two program wings stretched out on either side of the structure. To make use of the natural landform, the building is set into the hillside with a solar orientation and gathers heat from the ground in a geothermal system, its rammed-earth wall mass holding the heat. This design incorporating the building’s own sourced heating and cooling and the use of rammed earth and local timber will significantly reduce its carbon footprint, and serves as a model of “Generational Architecture”. 

The Canadian standard for measuring the sustainability of structures is in GHG metrics and Net-zero, or Passive Haus, standards. We can achieve these standards if we come closer to understanding the essence of building within the land and the local resources and start to apply Indigenous principles in order to reduce our carbon footprints and extend the lifespans of our buildings. 

As we think about climate change and what that will look like for communities surrounded by forests, these are the questions we must ask: How do we build fire resilience into our communities and infrastructure? How do we adapt to be mindful of our carbon footprints now, and to build mindfully for our future generations? 

Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, is a member of the Tāłtān Nation in the Northwest corner of BC, she resides in Golden, and is Principal of Obsidian Architecture. As the first Indigenous Female Architect from a BC Nation, Kelly is focused towards Indigenous authorship, the revitalization of Indigenous cultural spaces and localized building practices. Kelly is also the co-creator of ReMatriate, that seeks to render Indigenous Women visibly empowered. @rematri