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First Nations consultation critical to inspiring and challenging project designs, says architect

Don Procter
First Nations consultation critical to inspiring and challenging project designs, says architect

Paying heed to what clients have to say in the early stages of design is especially important to architect Vivian Manasc when her firm Manasc Isaac Architects takes on projects in First Nations communities.

“If you listen carefully…you will end up with buildings that are more inspiring, more beautiful and more challenging of convention,” Manasc told an audience recently at a webinar called New Wood Buildings in First Nations and Metis Communities.

Manasc said successful wood designs for First Nations start with a community engagement process to get residents “to share what they would like.

“We try to draw inspiration from what they are asking for. We’re not trying to sell anybody anything.”

Those consultations can be with a handful of residents or even hundreds of residents. Age groups range from kids to elders, she told the webinar audience at the Wood Solutions Conference, an annual wood design and building event put on recently by Wood WORKS!

“These conversations can be critical to the success of the design of these buildings,” she said.

A new K6 school being designed in Saddle Lake, Alta., governed by the Cree Nation is a prime example. The wood building “focuses on 21st century learning.” It integrates Indigenous culture into the design to ensure it is passed on to the next generation.

The Alberta-based architect is no stranger to working with Indigenous peoples. The firm has designed buildings with the First Nations, Metis and Inuit across the Prairie provinces and the North since the mid-1980s.

Wood is the material of choice because Manasc realized early in her career that Indigenous people had experience with it. They can repair it and maintain it, she told the audience.

“They didn’t have much in the way of skills working with other materials.”

While the architect specifies non-wood products occasionally, those materials “have to be sustainable and appropriate for the community,” she said, noting at times building codes require other materials.

Although it can be less difficult to access wood materials than other material types — and it is less costly to ship to isolated regions — wood is not without its challenges. For example, while it might be harvested and milled locally, the lumber still has to be transported to a southern Canada fabricator to produce the final product, such as glulam or cross-laminated timber.

“It would be really cool if there was a way to short circuit some of those steps in the process,” she added.

Manasc said shipping any material to the Far North can be “a huge challenge.”

In the case of the firm’s design of the Grise Fiord Health Centre on Ellesmere Island there was only one barge shipment per year.

“Every last piece of the building materials (right down to the screws) had to be on that barge,” she explained.

“It’s a good reason to have buildings made of wood because they are relatively compact, easy to fit into a container.”

Another benefit of wood is speed of construction, an important quality in the short building season in the North, she said.

Manasc said while the firm’s process of developing a design on First Nations projects has some correlation with methods employed on conventional projects, the process takes a path in line with First Nations beliefs.

Calling it the “Seven Teachings,” she said design doesn’t start with problem solving — common in conventional projects — but rather with “envisioning the project with courage” through guidance from the clients.

The final step is a critique she calls an evaluation “with honesty” of the finished building.

For many of its First Nations designs, Manasc Isaac has collaborated with Wood WORKS! and Western Archrib, a design and fabrication company of glue-laminated structural wood systems.

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