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Green and culturally appropriate building design

As part of the Clayoquot Forest Communities Program ‘Qwii-qwiq-sap: Standing Tree to Standing Home’ initiative (Qwii-qwiq-sap meaning ‘transformation’ in the Nuu-chah-nulth language), the Green and Culturally Appropriate Building Design Project aimed to help guide the building of homes for Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The design of the homes took into account cultural design elements, such as the traditional long house design; use of local harvested materials, such as cedar; geography, climate, and community demographics. It has been estimated that there is a need for 200-plus homes to be built in the region over the next 40 years. Coupled with this is a desire to change how current homes are designed and built.

Learning from the past

In earlier times, “Buildings were constructed without nails,” recalls Earl Maquinna George, in Living on the Edge: Nuu-Chah-Nulth History from an Ahousaht Chief’s Perspective.

“The timbers and boards fitted into grooves and were locked together at the corners so that they wouldn’t move in the wind. The siding of the buildings, made of cedar boards one to two inches thick … were buried in the sand and weighted down with the piles of rocks, and then set at an angle, leaning inward to the building. The roof was framed so that boards would fit partly on top of each other, overlapping all the way down. The builders were careful to start the roof boards from the southeast end of the building so that the wind had no force over the slope of the building. There were two holes towards each end of the building, at the north and south ends, for smoke to go through.”—Earl Maquinna George

George paints a picture of a house designed and created to be respectful to cultural traditions as well as being climatically appropriate and environmentally smart. These were homes that paid tribute to the region and culture, but at the same time were able to withstand the unique rainforest climatic conditions such as those found in Clayoquot Sound and the surrounding area. These homes took into account cultural traditions of accommodating multiple generations of families under one roof without sacrificing space.

The Green and Culturally Appropriate Building Design Project aims to account for and support cultural traditions which worked so well for hundreds of years. At Ecotrust Canada we are working to create much-needed safe and comfortable homes, combining best practices and technologies with a respect for cultural needs, while still addressing current circumstances.

A necessary change

Why was there a need for this?

  • Weathering the climate: Nuu-chah-nulth communities are located in a temperate rainforest, which brings with it unique, rainy conditions. Many of the existing homes have not weathered this well, and were in dire need of replacement.
  • Climate change: Climate change projections show warmer, wetter winters, which will serve to increase problems of humidity and mould. Housing adaptation strategies are now more necessary than ever.
  • Housing statistics: Existing housing stock is under enormous pressure from a growing population. Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation populations have doubled in the last 10 years, but the housing supply has not grown with it.
  • Staying power: Indigenous peoples are deeply connected to place and committed to staying in their terri-tories. Homes that have equal staying power are required. Currently, poorly built homes last only around seven to 15 years where 100-year homes are needed.
  • Recognizing health and wealth of tradition: There has been an increasing resurgence of interest and belief in heritage and cultural knowledge and practices. By embracing their language, histories and traditions, the Nuu-chah-nulth have facilitated an awareness of past building methodologies.

Issues in existing housing this project hoped to address included water ingress and drainage; mould, mildew, fungus and air quality; crowded rooms and privacy issues; affordability; support for use of local materials and labour; and a deep cultural rootedness that sees families desiring to stay together and age in place. An important opportunity existed to plan community growth with buildings suited for climate and culture, and respectful of both environment and community well-being.

Project goals

The project aimed to engage the community and gather meaningful knowledge, concerns and observations from those who will actually be living in the homes. Our desire wasn’t to impose standard housing solutions, but to listen to and learn from the community. We wanted to be respectful to their community needs, their heritage and their territories. The project was also meant to support the use of local materials and labour. We worked with the Nuu-chah-nulth people to:

  • Design culturally relevant homes and other community buildings;
  • Ensure the design addresses energy efficiency, climatic conditions and affordability;
  • Support the region in implementing the design into their local policies and planning;
  • Identify innovative approaches to financing the construction of these homes;
  • Build capacities and partnerships that will support this vision.

Our approach

To achieve the vision of a green and culturally appropriate building design, created by and for the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, our work took the following approach:

  • Discovery: Information and ideas gleaned from interviews with members of the communities.
  • Learning: Take into account learnings from the past, from elders and local experts.
  • Appropriate building science: Work together to create comfortable shelters that recognize the importance of health and safety.
  • Green design: Respect natural concepts, local resources and low-tech solutions.
  • Visioning: Increase community awareness of how housing impacts their well-being and that of the regional economy.

Future solutions

An outcome of this project was to offer a prototype home-design, including working drawings.

  • The prototype design would be simple and flexible, allowing for expansion as a family requires. The roof would be pitched to overcome excessive rainfall issues, it would also be oriented to good solar exposure and aspect. This would also allow occupants opportunities to take advantage of passive green solutions such as solar water heating.
  • The home would be 1.5 to 2 storeys tall to encourage indoor air to circulate within. Cross ventilation would be a basic requirement for all rooms where layouts permit.
  • The home would be raised a couple of feet off the ground for further climatic adaptability, but with easy access to the main floor.
  • The use of wood, a natural and time tested building material, which is a good source of carbon sequestration, was promoted.
  • Wood would be obtained from local sources, such as the First Nations-owned, Forest Stewardship Council®-certified, Iisaak Forest Resources mill.


  • UBC School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture
  • ISIS, Sauder School of Business, UBC
  • David Wong, Architect
  • Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations: Ahousaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, Toquaht, Yuutu?it?aht, Hesquiaht


We are deeply grateful to the Real Estate Foundation of BC. Their support has served as the cornerstone for this process.

We also thank the following organizations for funding many of the summary reports that accompanied this work:


REPORT: Building For The Future (Ecotrust Canada 2015)

BRIEFING: Green and Culturally Appropriate Design (Ecotrust Canada)

Healing Borken Lands – Regional (Tla-o-qui-aht Nations and Ecotrust Canada)

Assessment of Sustainable and Cultural Housing (ISIS 2011)

Part 1: Interviews and Findings (David Wong 2011)

Part 2: Prototype Home Design (David Wong 2011)

Prototype Home Design A (UBC M. Arch. students 2011)

Open House Presentation (Ecotrust Canada 2012)