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Indigenous architecture- with Brian K. Porter

Date Published: August 25, 2021

Construction can rub communities the wrong way. Architects roll in with a construction firm and big money decides what’s getting built and where. It’s no fun for the people who live there… but this isn’t how it has to work. Brian Porter runs Two Row Architect, and he tells us that they work differently from mainstream architects. The way they build is inclusive, involving the community right from the start. Their buildings are designed differently, leading to spaces that are both beautiful and wonderfully functional. He also tells us this is a way of building that people are hungry for… so perhaps Indigenous architecture is the future of building.

Brian Porter [preview]:

If you look at mainstream architecture, you know, there’s always this idea that the architects coming in have the lone flashlight, and they’re in this dark tunnel, and they’re kind of like leading the group out of the darkness in some direction that they’ve preconceived. Well, we don’t work that way. We kind of give everybody a flashlight, and we all work together to find our way out of the darkness.

Tim Coldwell:

This is Building Good. I’m Tim Coldwell.

Tim Coldwell:

We’ve all been rubbed the wrong way by a construction project, at some point. Maybe it’s a new glassy condo building that blocks the sunlight to your apartment, or a big housing development that brings a load of extra traffic to your previously sedate suburb. It’s rare for people to feel like they have a say in what gets built around their homes and in their communities.

And when community involvement does happen, it comes later, after decisions have been made. You see these signs that show a proposed development that’s already been agreed to; and maybe there’s a phone number you can call to raise complaints. The decisions are made; the best you can do is register your objection.

But why is it that way? Why don’t we get to sit with architects and construction companies and discuss what our neighbourhood needs and how we want to look, and function, before the design process even starts?


Tim Coldwell:

Well, actually, it can be more inclusive. And there are architects who already work this way. If you’re indigenous, it’s probably not a surprise to you that one of the architects that I’m talking about is as well. Brian Porter is a member of Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario. He is a founder of Two Row Architect, an indigenous firm that says their goal is to promote architecture that has a positive impact on nature, humanity, and our current sense of civilization. Brian approaches projects with a totally different mindset to mainstream architects. And I find this way of working really appealing.

I don’t think I’m the only one. Two Row is getting all kinds of business, because people are hungry for a more inclusive, community-led way of building.


Brian Porter:

I think if you talk to the different indigenous architects that are practicing across North America, I think there’s a real focus on community engagement, having talking circles with different representatives of the community, so you could really kind of understand their wants, and their needs, and their desires—from kind of like a grassroots level. It’s really about trying to collect the community voice. Trying to, you know, listen to their stories, which are really unique from one community to the next. And—and you know, how can you take inspiration from those stories and make their architecture, you know, a manifestation of the community itself?

I mean, if you look at mainstream architecture, you know, there’s always this kind of this idea that the architect’s coming in, you know, and they have the lone flashlight, and they’re in this dark tunnel, and they’re kind of like leading the group, you know, out of the darkness in some direction that they’ve preconceived. Well, we don’t work that way. We—we kind of give everybody a flashlight, and then we all work together to find our way out of the darkness. It’s not—it’s not one person. It’s—it’s more of a kind of a community-based approach. So I think that would be one thing that—that sets us apart.

Umm, I think the other thing would be really just trying to promote an architecture that’s really a product of its specific site and its specific location. So there’s an understanding about, you know, where the sun rises, where the sun sets, and how can we design an architecture that, you know, is impacted by that, that takes its clues from that—from prevailing wind direction—ah, you know, by using natural materials, you know, and putting them together in a way where, you know, they’re celebrated.

I’ve said this before that oftentimes, if you think about indigenous architecture, sometimes it’s easier to define what it is by saying what it isn’t. And you know, if you think of a lot of the modernist corporate architecture that—that’s still dominant in cities like Toronto, and Montreal, Vancouver, where they’re constructed out of reflective glass, all four sides look the same. It’s really about promoting a corporate image, oftentimes male-driven. An indigenous architecture, I think, honours women. It accepts the gifts that Mother Earth is offering, like passive solar heating, and taking energy from the Earth through geothermal, ah, systems.

Like you know, all of those things really speak to indigenous values as sort of like the prime forces behind shaping a building. And I think, you know, if you look at those indigenous architects that are practicing, you can kind of see a lot of that in their work. It’s really quite evident.

Tim Coldwell:

How do you think about energy use in the context of indigenous design? You know, I love the idea of accepting the gifts of Mother Earth. You know, the sunlight is not to be kept out. The rainfall is not be kept out. How do you think about energy use?

Brian Porter:

We often talk about the doctrine of planning for the seventh generation. If you reproduce every 20 years or so, that means you’re really looking at a lifecycle that’s 140 years versus, you know, if you pick up a typical RFP for any kind of federal or provincial project, oftentimes they’ll talk about, you know, they’re going to make their decisions based on a 40-year or a 50-year lifecycle for the structure. Ah, so we promote a viewpoint that—that’s, you know, a little bit longer.

So the longer viewpoint you take, I think, the more important it is to think about, you know, energy usage, about designing a robust and non-toxic building envelope, you know, natural ventilation, ah, heating low, cooling high, trying to work with those natural forces that we know are always going to—always going to be there. So if Mother Nature is going to give us temperate energy six feet below the surface of the ground, like why wouldn’t you want to tap into that?

I think we’re starting to see that with the industry in general. You know, there’s a lot more discussion around, ah, Net Zero and, ah, the well standards that are being—are being developed. So I think, you know, society and the construction industry, as a whole, is kind of starting to wake up a little bit. They’re starting to give value, you know, to some of the things that we’ve known and been practicing for, you know, 30,000 years in North America. It’s finally starting to take hold a little bit. So I’m, ah—you know, I’m grateful for that.

You know, and it also extends to things like promoting biodiversity on sites. Thinking about stewardship of the land. Thinking about resources as not like stormwater, you know, we’re seeing it more like rain, and understanding that rain has every right to be on a site, you know, kind of as much as we do. I’m glad to sort of be practicing, you know, in 2020 when some of those values are starting to come more to the forefront.

Tim Coldwell:

Yeah. You know, we were doing a project in Edmonton: the Blatchford airport redevelopment. So it’s the redevelopment of an old airport, you know, a future community for 20,000 people or so. And we built the district energy system. So it’s a huge geothermal exchange. They don’t actually hook up to the gas system. Are you seeing indigenous design-thinking get expressed at community planning levels?

Brian Porter:

No, absolutely. I think it—that thought is becoming a little bit more prevalent. We’re—we’re working with, ah, a major developer. We—we haven’t started but we’ve talked about it. And ah, he has a tract of land north of Toronto. And what he’s talking about doing is taking that—that piece of land, it’s quite large, I think it’s like 500 acres—and he wants to have the community designed through the lens of indigenous values.

We’ll be identifying, ah, nature preserves. We’ll be identifying wildlife corridors. I think the housing won’t end up being 3,000 square-foot monster homes with 600 square-foot backyards. I think it’ll be something that’ll be a little bit more equitable, where that’s going to afford us the—the luxury of having more of the site, you know, turned over to, ah, community-focused activities. When I say “community,” I’m not just thinking about people. I’m thinking about flora, fauna, animals, wildlife. That, you know, if you were kind of to get up in the air and kind of look down on it, you’d see it represent more of a balance, ah, between, you know, all of those different forces that would come to play.

And I think the nice part about it is he thinks that mainstream society is at a point now where, you know, they’re tired of living in standard subdivisions. They’re starting to feel like there’s no camaraderie. There’s no culture. There’s no shared agriculture. So he—he thinks that there’s actually going to be a market for this and that he can generate, you know, as much revenue through developing this model, because people are ready for a change. They know that subdivisions aren’t working.

He’s also, you know, excited about incorporating some of that, ah, larger-scale infrastucture like district energy systems, systems that gather and sort waste for recycling, you know, high-speed Internet for communications. You know, like all of those things that—that modern-day society, you know, that we could benefit from but really looking at them, you know, in a wholistic way and trying to make strong ties to—to the indigenous value systems that, ah, you know, are pretty prevalent in some of the, you know, the traditional settlements that—that are still out there.

Tim Coldwell:

I love the line about instead of having the architect carry one flashlight, we give everybody a flashlight and we find our way out of the darkness together. I think that’s great.

I have the honour of being involved in a Net Zero project, ah, with Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, or in the community of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, for the First Nations Technical Institute. It’s Net Zero. It’s mass timber. I just think it’s cool to be able to build a building in my home community. And what we did on that project is we’re using Integrative Project Delivery as the delivery method. And it’s this idea of giving everybody a flashlight. And we’ve set a goal of at least 80 per cent indigenous economic participation in the project.

I remember the first conversation I had with our client there. And it was, you know, basically for 150 years, guys have been coming to communities, you know, getting out of BMWs and wearing thousand-dollar suits, telling the community what it is that they need. You know, the typical way that construction would get down in a community is you hire a contractor from out of community, and they go hire all their buddies, which are subcontractors from out of community. And the community gets the table scraps—for lack of a better term—in terms of the benefit of the work.

So we’re really interested in turning that on its head and maximizing, ah, the impact with the community. And I know you’ve done a lot of that over the years. Can you just unpack the key aspects to be successful in that sort of an endeavour, from your perspective?

Brian Porter:

When we first started the firm in 1992, and started to, ah, get clients, to be honest, we kind of benefitted from a bit of reverse-discrimination, where my blood quantum got me in the door. It didn’t win us the job but it—it sort of, you know, we got our foot in the door. You know, we had a pretty decent capture rate back in those days. But, you know, we—we came to understand that some of those communities didn’t want to hire general contractors for those reasons that you just spoke of.

So we—we would quite often enter into two contracts. We would sign a typical comprehensive consultant services contract, where we were the architect and we hired the engineers. But oftentimes we—we signed a second contract, where we were kind of like project managers, where we would take the job, sit with the community, we would break it down into trade divisions, and really work with them to understand which parts of the project they were comfortable doing with their own forces. And that, you know, it’d typically be, ah, you know, framing, ah, sometimes pouring concrete. And then we would, ah, usually, ah, pre-qualify some of the other trades from the surrounding communities; and that would typically be the mechanical contractor, the electricians.

So instead of, ah, administering one contract with a general contractor, sometimes we were administering 25 contracts. So that meant that, you know, every month instead of doing one certificate of payment, we might be doing 10 or 12, depending on, ah, where we were in the construction schedule. So it was a lot of work for us. It was a lot of administration, but it was very rewarding. So we always said, you know, don’t do it unless you can, ah, capture, you know, anywhere from 40 per cent, at the low end, to maybe 80—80, 85, 90 per cent indigenous participation on the high end.

And so we did that. Like in a lot of cases, we got right up, you know, into the 70 to 80 per cent categories, where most of the work was being done by local forces. The economic development impact was huge in those communities. You know, paycheques were getting signed regularly that were, you know, good, decent, construction-market wages. And those communities, you know, weren’t used to that.

Tim Coldwell:

I think you hit it—the nail on the head is you’ve got to understand what the community’s capabilities are, and start with that. And so there’s no question there’s more work to it, but I think it’s more meaningful work. And that’s really how you deliver benefit for the communities, for sure.

Brian Porter:

Well, I think the other piece that we learned was there was a lot more camaraderie on the job site, you know, when the project was getting built by, you know, the fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles. You know, vandalism dropped. There was more community pride. But also like even in the job trailers, we were finding that people weren’t afraid to make suggestions, because they knew we had set up this kind of environment where their opinion was going to be valued. But it—it takes work, I think, to set up that kind of environment where the painter, the carpenter, the drywaller, where everybody feels that their opinion matters and that their voice is going to be heard. It doesn’t come natural; you really have to work at it.

Tim Coldwell:

I’m on a journey of self-discovery. I’m status Mohawk, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, but didn’t grow up in community. And so it’s been this really exciting journey to get reconnected to roots.

And one of the things that our client said to me is there’s this idea of being of one mind in Mohawk culture. And the IPD delivery method has this decision making that’s baked in, where contractually in the contract there has to be unanimous approval. So that’s kind of cool. You know, there’s the longhouses and clans. And inside of this contract there’s these teams called “Project Implementation” teams. And you kind of break the project up into sectors, and they work with each other. And the decision-making between those groups are—is unanimous. And they kind of talk with each other.

So there’s this kind of analogy that the Project Implementation teams are kind of like clans in the longhouse, and you all have to be of one mind when making decisions. And you invite the community into the big room. And all sorts of innovation definitely comes out from involving the folks who are doing the work in the actual design of the project—the electrician or plumber that’s actually doing the work—is a really powerful idea.

When I first met you, I was kind of struck by this idea. Your website talks about buildings as allegory. And the way I kind of come at this is there’s a lot of our clients, across Canada, who are—are having a moment of awakening in terms of indigenous and how they can reconcile with the indigenous folks, ah, in Canada. And what often ends up happening is there’s a conversation with us about, “Well, we should get some art in the building, and some sculptures, and, you know, maybe we’re going to paint a mural” or something like that. And I’ve always thought that that’s kind of a little too late. Can you give a couple of examples of how indigenous truth can actually be expressed in the building itself? What does that actually look like?

Brian Porter:

You know, we still have clients coming to us that are interested in indigenous representation—yeah, something that’s, you know, fairly two-dimensional. And we’re always trying to look at from a wider lens and say, well—well, why don’t we think about indigenous values instead? And you know, I think there needs to be—as I was saying—a structure that, you know: is fine-tuned with the natural environment; that incorporates building technology. Right? If you could take an indigenous person from, say, 400 years ago, put him in a time-tunnel and introduce them to the world today, you know, what would they be interested in? What kinds of building products would they like? What types of, ah, systems would they appreciate?

You know, I don’t—I don’t think it would be log cabins. I think they’d take a look at log cabins and they would say, “With all this technology that you have, why wouldn’t you get more value out of taking down that tree? Like if you’ve got the ability to make plywood, if you’ve got the ability to take faster-growing, cheaper species and convert them into CLT products or strand board, like why wouldn’t—why wouldn’t you be doing that instead of cutting down these mature trees?” Or they’d be saying, “You know, if you have access to geothermal energy systems, why wouldn’t you be incorporating those into the structure?”

If you take a look at some of the constructs—the indigenous constructs that I really appreciate—like lacrosse stick, snowshoe, birchbark canoe—there’s an idea about craftsmanship and they all perform their function really, really well but their beauty comes, you know, in how they’re made, how their materials are expressed, how the work that they’re being asked to do kind of aligns with their natural properties. And it becomes the aesthetic for the—the thing itself. Right? Like.

So indigeneity doesn’t just get siloed in representation. It gets expressed in the construction technique, in a landscape that, ah, is about re-establishing native species that are self-seeding and naturally drought-resistant. It’s about capturing rainwater and—and using it when we can, and kind of celebrating the way that it gets captured. It’s all those things.

And ah, I’m hopeful because on a lot of the projects we’re working on now, it—it seems like we’re working more with interdisciplinary teams. So at the beginning of the project, the engineers are there at the table, the landscape architect is there, sometimes the arborist is there. And everyone is getting to kind of express an opinion more early on. You know, it’s making for, you know, richer, more dynamic, more sustainable structures. I think—I think mainstream society is finally learning a little bit, you know, that indigenous values are really, ah, good for everybody.

Tim Coldwell:

So, Brian, the Haudenosaunee are a matriarchal society. And ah, there’s a whole process in terms of how decisions are made. And traditionally, architecture has been very male-dominated. How does that female perspective get expressed? What’s a good way of thinking about that?

Brian Porter:

Yeah. It’s kind of interesting you mention that. We’re right—right now, we’re working for the University of Victoria. We’re in the, ah, contract document stage of an expansion to their Law faculty, which they’re calling the National Centre For Indigenous Laws. And one of the marching orders we got from the clients, fairly early on, was they said they wanted this to be a feminine building. And it’s never been put to me that way.

So what we’ve taken that to mean is we’ve got a real kind of…. We’re—we’re working to try to get a real seamless connection between indoor and outdoor spaces. You know, as you kind of walk through, as you circulate through the building, you’re given these gilmpses into forested areas, landscaped spaces. So the whole idea of seeing the changing seasons becomes part of the curriculum for the whole facility. We’re trying to tie the building back to the, ah, the cultural teachings. And ah, you know, a lot of the, ah, traditional ceremonies are all based on the thirteen Moon cycles. You know, certain things happen in the spring, the summer, the fall, and the winter. And it ties in really quite closely to the—to the cultural calendar that the Coast Salish, ah, use.

We had the luxury of a lady out there, an Elder lady, took us through their Moon cycles and what each month represents to them. It was really interesting. And—and we’re trying to kind of embody some of that, you know, in the structure. This will be a new character, and it will kind of add to the dialogue—contribute to, ah, the dialogue, for sure.

Tim Coldwell:

That’s awesome.

I guess, going—zooming out big picture. You know, these conversations around reconciliation in Canada, and recent discoveries at—at schools, ah, residential schools. How should the average listener, in Canada, think about indigenous architecture? What’s the one big thing that you’d—you’d have them think about?

Brian Porter:

To begin, I mean, I don’t—I don’t feel like reconciliation is for me. I mean, I—you know, I think reconciliation is for the mainstream, ah, society. And ah, I think the one thing I think they should understand is like this isn’t something that they should be afraid of. You know, the, ah, Toronto Council Fire is building a spirit garden on the southwest corner of Nathan Phillips Square. You know, Toronto’s this mecca tourism spot. And people are coming from all over the world. So finally, you know, the indigenous community will have its piece, you know, right on the front door of the City of Toronto. And it’s a good thing for Toronto; it’s a good thing for us; it’s a good thing for visitors. 

Sharing is important, right? Like why not share? Ah, I mean, that was the intention of those treaties. And I think Canada really needs to kind of like, you know, step up and honour the treaties, honour their word. The more mainstream people that—that can see, you know, the value in that, that long term it’s in everyone’s best interests, ah, you know, I’m hopeful to see what comes out of the next 10 years or so.


Tim Coldwell:

That was Brian K. Porter, founder and principal at Two Row Architect. Thanks so much for spending half-an-hour with Brian and me. After that conversation, I’m really excited to see more of his work, and what the future holds for architecture.

We’ve got plenty more more Building Good to come, so hit the “Follow” button. And if you like what we’re doing here and want to help us build good, leave a rating or a review, or just tell a friend about the show. It helps other people find us, and we love reading your reviews.

Building Good is a Vocal Fry Studios production. The executive producer is Jay Cockburn. Our associate producer is Kattie Laur, with production assistance from Jessica Loughlin. I’m Tim Coldwell. Thanks for listening.

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Two Row architect is guiding the realignment of mainstream ways of thinking on their journey towards Indigenous ways of knowing, being, design, and architecture. 

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