Architect with career in Nunavut gets honorary degree from OCAD university

Harriet Burdett-Moulton, 69, has designed more than 200 buildings in Nunavut during her career as architect and now she is being recognized for her work.

This summer she received an honorary degree from OCAD university in Toronto and earlier this year she was made a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

She moved to what was then Frobisher Bay, N.W.T., on a two-year government contract in February 1980. She and her husband then started the first architecture firm in the eastern Arctic, where they practiced for nine years before selling.

In total, Burdett-Moulton was based in Iqaluit, Nunavut, for 23 years. She continues to work on Nunavut-based projects with Stantec, from her home in Dartmouth, N.S.

Her first project in Nunavut was the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit. The team renovated and moved a Hudson Bay Company building from Apex to Iqaluit, via a track through the mud in the bay they made during an especially low tide.

Traditional Labrador upbringing

Born in Cartwright, Labrador, Burdett-Moulton is Métis with Inuit roots. She lived a traditional nomadic life as a child, moving between three houses with the changing seasons. Neither of her parents attended school beyond grade three.

"They valued education very highly because they realized it was the only way to survive in a modern world," Burdett-Moulton said.

She says that's why she was so pleased to receive the honorary degree. Her first degree was in education and she taught for two years, before meeting a group of architect students burning their models at the end of term in the studio.

She enrolled in architecture school a few weeks later and graduated in 1976, soon after she moved North.

"I understood the body language of the people, I understood the climate, I understood where they were coming from in their attitudes and thoughts."

Building for the Arctic

Burdett-Moulton used her upbringing in her approach to her design projects.

"In all the work that I've done, we've tried hard to involve the user group, so that they have a say in what they want and how they want to use it," she said.

"If the people feel they own the building or they have a vested interest in it, they tend to keep it clean, free from graffiti and abuse."

She says the unique public consultation process required in Nunavut made developing ideas with the users possible and the example that stands out to her was the Piqqusilirivvik cultural centre in Clyde River, Nunavut.

The centre is a rare education building not based on a classroom format, so she canvassed elders, education experts and the community for ideas and went back to the drawing board more than once.

Burdett-Moulton also said, she's had to watch her design drawings closely in the past for tampering by engineers and building partners less familiar with the North — in one instance adding and then re-adding lights over a set of oil tanks, because as she explained to the engineer, while oil is only delivered during the day, "the day is dark in [Pangnirtung] in February."

But more than for dark or cold weather, Burdett-Moulton designs buildings for Inuit and their needs.

With the Sanatuliqsarvik trade school in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, the design was meant to encourage women to take up the trades. Counters were lowered to more usable heights and appropriately-sized equipment was brought in from Japan.

This was one of the rare cases when she had to source items from abroad. With the challenges around shipping to the Arctic, building systems have to be simple enough to be fixed with whatever is around, as the wait can be months for specialized parts.

"If you can design a building that will survive in the North, it will survive almost anywhere," she said.

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