House | The Canadian Encyclopedia



 House usually refers to a building that serves as living quarters for one or several families. House forms and building styles have changed throughout history in response to socioeconomic forces as well as to climatic conditions inherent to particular geographic locations.
Igloo-shaped Homes
Igloo-shaped houses show the influence of native forms on modern housing (Corel Professional Photos).
Ukrainian Settler
Ivan Lupul's Ukrainian home at Wostok, Alberta (courtesy Glenbow Archives/RCMP Museum, Regina).
Evolving House Style I
House styles have changed throughout history in response to socioeconomic forces as well as to climatic conditions (artwork by Carmen Jensen).
Elevation of Typical House, New France
Drawing of typical cross-section showing relation with elevation (drawing by Iffet Orbay).


 House usually refers to a building that serves as living quarters for one or several families. House forms and building styles have changed throughout history in response to socioeconomic forces as well as to climatic conditions inherent to particular geographic locations. In effect, houses are like mirrors that reflect both the living conditions and the cultural heritage of their builders.

Earliest Dwellings in Canada

The earliest dwellings in Canada were built and inhabited by Indigenous peoples. Viewed superficially, these buildings appear primitive, but although simple, they were sophisticated adaptations to a particular lifestyle and habitat, and in greater harmony with nature than most houses are today. The simplest dwellings were built by food gatherers and hunters, nomadic people who roamed Canada's extensive grasslands, forests and the arctic barrens of the North. Their nomadic existence precluded the establishment of permanent settlements, so these migrating peoples built temporary shelters. Some were constructed of available building materials near the campsite, and others were made of materials easily transported from camp to camp.

 Perhaps the most fascinating dwelling is the IGLOO, a snowhouse built by the INUIT living in the treeless tundra. These circular, dome-shaped structures had a raised sleeping platform facing the low entranceway. Working from the inside, the builder placed one snow block next to another in upward-spiraling rows, each block tipped slightly inward to narrow the circle until a dome structure resulted. The spiraling rows made scaffolding during construction unnecessary. Although snow may seem to be an unlikely building material for shelter, it has excellent insulating qualities. Insulation of the interior was often improved by lining walls and ceilings as well as the sleeping platform with caribou hides and seal skins. When the igloo began to melt in summer, it was abandoned and replaced by a seal-skin tent called tupiq, a portable dwelling like the TIPI, consisting of a framework of poles covered with seal skins.

The tipi was an ingenious dwelling used by several tribes, but mostly associated with the Plains Indigenous groups, who followed the immense bison (buffalo) herds that roamed the plains. The skeletal structure of the tipi was composed of 3 or 4 poles tied together at the top and then erected; up to 20 additional poles were placed against the tripod or tetrapod thus formed. A tailored buffalo-hide cover was placed on this skeleton and was staked or weighted down with stones all around the bottom edge. A smoke hole was left on top at the intersection of the poles and could be closed or adjusted with the help of 2 flaps of the hide cover, each attached to a separate freestanding pole. The fire was built near the centre, below the smoke hole, and the bedsteads of the family members were placed on the ground around the walls of the tipi, except at the doorway, which always faced the rising sun. Dome- or beehive-shaped and tipilike structures were the basic forms of indigenous temporary shelters in Canada, and were used by many native tribes.

The LONGHOUSE of the agricultural Indigenous peoples of Canada's northeastern woodlands was a communal dwelling. The interior was subdivided into a number of bays, each allocated to a single family. Each bay had a low sleeping bench against the outside wall, and between the facing bays ran a wide corridor down the length of the building. These longhouses were not substantial, since after a few years of tilling without fertilization, the exhausted soil nearby produced scanty crops and the Indigenous peoples abandoned their houses and moved on. A series of poles, arched to form a barrel-vault skeleton, supported the bark roof shingles and matting of the walls. Although each bay or cubicle was only about 2 m wide, the length of the longhouse would often exceed 20 m, from which we may conclude that it was not unusual for 20 families to live in one building.

More substantial dwellings were built by the coastal First Nations of British Columbia. Living in a temperate climate, with a plentiful supply of good building materials, the coastal Indigenous groups built large communal houses, each inhabited by a number of families. Their rich environment allowed a settled existence, which is reflected in the permanence of their homes. These impressive structures were low-pitched and gable-ended rectangular structures built of massive cedar posts and beams. Their interior arrangement, 2 facing rows of bays with sleeping platforms separated by a central corridor, was similar to the buildings of the eastern woodlands. Hearths were tended in the centre of the corridor, with the smoke escaping through apertures made when the roof planks were thrust aside by means of a pole. Most communal buildings had only a single entrance at one of the gable ends. The more leisured existence of the coastal Indigenous rgoups led to a significant art form of ornamentation of their dwellings and TOTEM POLES.

New House Forms

 With the European settlement of the St Lawrence Valley in the 17th century, a new house form was introduced to Canada. The early French Canadian settlers created a building tradition reminiscent of French architectural styles, but using Canadian building materials. Initially the farmhouses of the habitants were low, broad buildings constructed of wooden planks with a shingled high-pitched roof and gable verges. They were rectangular and usually divided into 2 rooms of unequal size, with a large masonry chimney rising from the cross wall. Timber was later replaced by fieldstone gathered from the clearing of the fields. Concurrently, other changes were introduced in response to the harsh climate: floor levels were raised well above grade and eaves became wider; the pitch of the gable verges became steeper until the hip was superseded by a gable; with the introduction of a second fireplace, chimneys were placed at the gable ends; a further extension of the eaves led to the typical curving bellcast roof covered with sheet metal. The verandah house with a gallery passage above snow level and wide eaves supported by a row of columns was a further evolution of the Québécois rural house.

The typical urban house in Québec had raised masonry gables with double chimneys and wall head corbels, and the roof structure was covered with sheet metal or tin tiles. These precautions were made necessary by the hazard of fire when houses were multistoreyed and had stone masonry walls with wooden floors and roofs. However, the use of wood planks for walls was also widespread in urban houses and, in later years, wood was often used in conjunction with an external cladding of brick. Many of the early urban houses were attractive structures with well-proportioned windows and doors, having few ornaments but characterized by a simple elegance.

 After the Conquest (1760), European traditions in rural house construction continued, not only with the application of the heritage brought from the British Isles but also with an American colonial architectural influence transplanted into Canada with the influx of the Loyalists. Stone masonry walls were gradually replaced by red-brick masonry, but wood continued to be the dominant building material for rural houses. On the prairies, where wood was scarce, early settlers often built SOD HOUSES.

19th Century

During the 19th century the most prevalent urban dwelling form in central and eastern Canada was the townhouse, in either attached or detached dwelling units. Reminiscent of the Georgian and Victorian townhouses of Great Britain, the Canadian townhouse, like its American counterpart, was less formal. Since few households had servants, Canadian townhouse dwellers placed their kitchen and scullery on the first floor, rather than in the basement, along with the principal reception rooms. In the Canadian townhouse, the living room, the entrance vestibule and stair hall occupied the front end of the house, and the dining room, kitchen and scullery the rear; the living and dining rooms were often separated from each other by an archway, with or without recessed sliding doors, a double-parlour type of arrangement. The bedrooms were located on the upper floors, with the master bedroom facing the street.

The width, size and appointment of the townhouse reflected the wealth of its occupants, but usually townhouses were 2-storeys high, with the ground-floor level raised half a floor above sidewalk level. Tenements and apartment buildings also made their appearance in cities during the 19th century. Tenements were built as minimum-standard living accommodation for low-wage earners, and apartment buildings were more commodious, designed as rental flats for the middle-income group. Neither type constituted a large proportion of the Canadian urban-housing stock and consequently the dire housing conditions experienced in Great Britain and in many large American cities never existed in Canada.

20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century, first the wealthy and later others moved to the outskirts of cities to live in detached houses on large lots along treed avenues to escape increased air pollution, crime, overcrowding and noise. This desire for a healthier living environment eventually resulted in the proliferation of dormitory suburbs. Single-family suburban homes were usually 2-storey dwellings with a spatial organization not unlike that of townhouses, with the principal rooms invariably occupying the front, or street side, of the house, and the secondary rooms placed towards the rear yard.

With the unpleasant memories of the industrial cities of Britain still fresh during the first decades of the 20th century, a combination of the garden-city home and the detached house became the ideal, appearing in surprising "imported" styles, such as Italianate and Queen Anne, as well as in simple frame houses and cottages. The rate of home ownership in urban areas also increased during this period and in Vancouver reached 80% by 1930. The élite often favoured ornate mansions and villas displaying a pastoral imagery based on old-English farmhouses or half-timbered Tudor revival mansions. These houses attempted to create an instant sense of history, of homes where generations had dwelt. This half-timbered motif was especially prevalent in Vancouver and Victoria, and was symbolic of the strong ties with the "Old Country," just as the California bungalow symbolized the informality of the new country.


 Bungalows originated in India as adaptations of indigenous dwellings by British colonial officers for their own use, and were subsequently copied in several other colonies with a hot and humid climate. Upon their return to England, colonial administrators first built bungalows as second homes near the seaside, but later also built them as permanent homes. In contrast to multilevel cottages and townhouses, single-level bungalows were particularly well-suited for elderly retired couples, such as those returning from the colonies. Eventually, however, the bungalow was "popularized" and dispersed all over the world, including North America, where it was especially favoured in California.

Bungalows were built extensively in Canadian suburbs where land prices were more reasonable. The bungalow bespoke a new lifestyle associated with the easier climate and informality of California. It featured indoor-outdoor rooms, verandahs and patios. Today, the suburban bungalow is usually built of wood with an external cladding of wood or masonry, with gyproc on the inside. It is prevalent among every income group, as a modest home or as a luxurious rambling ranch house. In recognition of an earlier heritage exemplified by the woodwork of the Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples, British Columbian architects evolved a regional style in domestic architecture, characterized by cedar siding and the shed roof.

Alternatives to the Bungalow

The suburban sprawl has, however, resulted in increased distances between the city and new suburbs. To economize on land, and in response to the effects of the energy crisis on transportation, alternatives to the bungalow have been introduced, such as the split-level house, followed more recently by a return to 2 traditional house forms: the 2-storey, single-family home and the attached townhouse.

Along with the proliferation of single-family dwellings in the suburbs, multifamily residential accommodations in cities also underwent changes during this century. The apartment house attracted people who could not afford larger accommodation or who preferred to live in the city for proximity to work and entertainment. To spread more equitably the higher cost of urban land as well as to share the maintenance costs of amenities such as swimming pools, apartment houses evolved into large building complexes, including fitness and entertainment centres and sometimes retail space. Masonry load-bearing construction was replaced by steel or concrete structural frames, paralleling the development of office towers. With higher buildings, upper-storey apartments offered more dramatic views, and the ultimate in luxurious urban living became the penthouse apartment (see CONDOMINIUMS).

 The principal shared features in 20th-century Canadian housing design are informality, functionalism and hygiene. Informality has been encouraged by the increasing unavailability of servants and with it the abandonment of inconvenient and redundant features of housing design, such as sculleries, butler's pantries and service corridors. The en suite arrangement of drawing and dining rooms has been replaced by a less formal, open plan, where the principal living spaces flow into each other. New socioeconomic realities place an emphasis on functionalism; functional houses are designed not so much to impress occasional visitors as to make living in them comfortable.

Perhaps the design, size and location of the kitchen in modern houses best illustrate the new movement; the ill-equipped, dark kitchen relegated to an obscure corner of the old house has been replaced by a well-equipped, sunny and efficient space adjacent to the dining area, or often combined with it. Much greater attention is given to the layout of bedrooms and bathrooms so that reasonable privacy can be enjoyed by each member of the family. Healthful living conditions imply ample access to light and air, as well as good sanitary services. Large picture windows and glass walls in domestic architecture place a new focus on views and thereby a greater awareness of the outdoor environment. Areas such as terraces, patios and gardens are perceived as extensions, or outdoor rooms, of the house. Their connection with the interior, as well as their landscape treatment, have become important design features.

Until the 1970s the choice of housing accommodation in Canada was polarized between low-density, single-family suburban houses and high-density, multifamily urban apartment houses. With the emergence of demographic changes and a greater awareness of diminishing energy supplies, new dwelling forms are being developed that avoid both extremes. Medium-density and medium-rise urban dwellings that are well lit and ventilated, often having more than one exposure, have already made an appearance in large cities of Canada. Another emerging trend involves mixed zoning, whereby housing can be built in combination with commercial and office buildings. Occupying the upper floors of a building, this housing resembles penthouse accommodation with ample access to sun, air and view, away from street noises, but still close to the urban and cultural facilities of a lively city.

Demographic shifts and socioeconomic forces in this century have brought into existence a variety of specialized housing for the elderly and the handicapped, and for single persons, students, communards and others. The same common design criteria of informality, functionalism and hygiene also govern the layout of specialized housing.

The energy crisis which began in the early 1970s stirred the consciousness of many designers to conserve energy. The simplest approach was the use of passive solar energy, by means of an optimum orientation of the dwelling towards the sun. Another approach entailed the active collection of solar energy through solar panels and storage in some form of thermal mass until required. The obvious advantages inherent in subterranean structures led to the earth-shelter movement, which promised warmth, quiet and energy efficiency, but underground homes have yet to gain popularity.

Canadian cities have inherited many substantial old buildings near central areas that no longer serve their intended purpose, and many of these abandoned buildings have been successfully converted into multifamily housing. Many, such as schools, warehouses and factories, are not only inherently solid structures but also have high ceilings which make them eminently suited for conversion into spacious and attractive dwellings. This opportunity has been exploited by architects in most of our large cities and has resulted in exciting, unconventional residential architecture.

The need to provide affordable multiunit and cluster housing with home comfort, privacy, outdoor extensions, as well as access to sunlight, air and good views for urban dwellers is an ongoing challenge in the architectural profession. The best of Canadian housing developments are close to ideal, but the majority, especially those that are affordable to many, have some distance to go.