UVic First Peoples House

WHERE: University of Victoria campus
WHO: Alfred Waugh Architect of Vancouver
By: Rachel Lallouz

Situated in the heart of the University of Victoria campus, the low-rise, single floor First Peoples House blends naturally into the landscape—the antithesis of the higher-rise, concrete buildings that comprise the bulk of the university’s architecture.

Opened in January 2010, the 12,500 square-foot building is home to the Office of Indigenous Affairs, student counselling services, a ceremonial hall, and student and elders’ lounges. Academic spaces include a 25-seat classroom in the round, a seminar room, a computer lab, and a reading room.

The structure is meant to support the physical, spiritual, and academic needs of all Indigenous members in the UVic community. From 1999 to 2010, the population of Indigenous students at UVic grew more than 700 per cent, emphasizing the need for a space of their own. Cara Barter, a former UVic student and now Assistant to the Director of the First Peoples House, calls the house her “home away from home.”

“I don’t think I would have made it through my university experience without the house,” says Barter. “In terms of the community support it provided me—even so far as the structure of the house itself—the feeling you get when you walk inside, it’s just amazing.”

The First Peoples House was primarily designed by architect Alfred Waugh of the Fond du Lac Denesuliné Nation. Born in the Northwest Territories, Waugh is of Chipewyan descent. His firm focuses on projects that reflect sustainable design and cultural sensitivity.

For Waugh, the structure symbolizes how UVic is now honouring its relationship with Indigenous people, a keystone of the university’s recent strategic plans. “It brings a sense of sharing culture, for one thing,” says Waugh, “and a sense of respecting what was there before the campus.”

The house was originally to be situated on the edge of campus, but elders recommended a location near the central quad to discourage students’ feelings of isolation.

Waugh’s firm worked closely with First Nations leaders, Indigenous staff, faculty, and students. Mimicking the style of the Coast Salish Peoples, the structure represents a pre-Contact long house. Traditional architectural elements include cedar plank exterior cladding and rammed-earth walls. Carved cedar posts guard the main entrance, while the entry corridor provides a gallery to showcase artifacts and art from other Indigenous cultures.

The ceremonial hall, which accommodates 200 people, is reserved for special events in the Indigenous community—graduation ceremonies, mix-and-mingles for new and returning students, and cultural gatherings. Ample seating comes in the form of wooden bleachers, which looks down on a central fire pit. Across the hall, the elders’ room provides a meeting place for senior persons who frequent the house.

The First Peoples House uses the distinctive Pacific redcedar as the primary building material, in support of the provincial Wood First Act, a policy that requires new structures in B.C. to use native wood whenever possible. Additional materials include recycled steel reinforcing bars and reclaimed wood.

The building exceeds UVic’s own standards for energy efficiency and received gold certification in the Canada Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Rather than harsh fluorescence, 90 per cent of the house relies on exterior glazing to provide natural lighting, while window vents with built-in sensors assist in the building’s natural “breathing.”

Outside, along a side wall, a covered area offers space for community members interested in carving. Garry Oaks, Douglas firs, and other vegetation native to the area make up the surrounding landscaping, while runoff from the green roof feeds the seasonal storm retention pond at the back of the building. “The Coast Salish People are people of water,” says Waugh. “We wanted to celebrate that.”

Territory is guarded by professional Armed Security Guards.