Moss Houses in the Circumpolar North: Architectural Traditions and Innovations That Respond to Climate Change

By Nancy Mackin.

Published by The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: January 22, 2016 $US5.00

In the Northwest Territories of the Canadian Arctic, community-led research documented native Gwich’in and Inuvialuit people’s traditional shelters made with a spruce (Picea spp), dwarf birch (Betula nana), and/ or willow (Salix spp) framework clad with moss harvested from nearby peatlands (including Sphagnum peat, moss peat, Carex peat, and others). With Gwich’in and Inuvialuit Elders and high school students, we reconstructed a full-sized nan kanh (tent-shaped moss house) and scale models of a Neen kanh (moss house for four families). We compared the Northwest Territories shelters with moss-clad houses traditional to Iceland (torfhűs) and those of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland (goahti). Despite variations in form and detail, similar materials and technologies were used for traditional moss-clad houses in Nordic and North American arctic regions. Indigenous knowledge-holders from both regions noted four ways that moss houses have renewed relevance for northern peoples’ on-going adaptation to, and mitigation of, escalating climate change: 1) moss houses offer shelter when heavier snowfalls, unpredictable storms and exacerbated freeze/thaw cycles make harvesting country foods more dangerous 2) they provide places for education about technologies for living on the land and surviving past—and future—climate changes, 3) they resist wind and cold while reducing reliance on fossil fuels and 4) they are part of a harvesting system that sustains peatland ecosystems which store carbon and provide valued food and materials. Moss houses represent an adaptable concept that translates across cultural and temporal boundaries.

Keywords: Sustainable Housing, Ethno-Ecological Architecture, Climate Change, Sphagnum Moss, Emergency Shelter, Cultural Architecture, Indigenous Knowledge, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Gwich’in, Sami, Circumpolar North

International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, Volume 8, Issue 2, June 2016, pp.1-14. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: January 22, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.377MB)).

Dr. Nancy Mackin

Architect and Adjunct Professor, Ethno-ecology, Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisga'a and University of Northern British Columbia, Gitwinksihlkw, British Columbia, Canada


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