Susane Havelka, Postdoctoral Fellow

Photo by Vikram Bhatt

Cover photo by Emelie Desrochers-Turgeon

Susane Havelka received her PhD from the School of Architecture in 2018. Her thesis research was focused on the rise of a hybrid housing design tradition in Canada’s Eastern Arctic. Today, she is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Memorial University of Newfoundland, developing new and sustainable technologies to promote affordable housing.

Q: Let’s start by this: How did you decide to do the PhD?

It’s something I always wanted to do but didn’t have the opportunity to do because I was living abroad for work, and because I ended up having three children in three different countries—always with the same husband, I should say [laughing]. When I came back to Canada—the country where I was born—with my three children in elementary school and high school, I thought it was the right time and the right opportunity to go back to school. So that’s what I did, after 20 years as a practicing architect. 

Q: What do you value most about your time in the PhD? 

It felt as though I had never left academia or university life. I fell right back into it. I loved every minute because I was pursuing something which I am passionate about, which is cold climate housing in indigenous northern communities. At this point in my career, I really wanted to delve more deeply into the issues that surrounded the housing crisis in the North, and I felt like there was something I could contribute. Being in contact with people and engaging with community members got me hooked. I was really happy as a researcher to be able to give a voice to people who wouldn’t necessarily have a voice on this particular subject matter. I enjoyed everything from the relationship with my supervisors to the relationships with my colleagues, the communities and to teaching, etc. Everything was incredibly enjoyable. 

Q: What role did your supervisor play during your PhD? 

The most important supervisor I had was an anthropologist who teaches in the Department of Geography at McGill called George Wenzel. He has been working in a particular community in Nunavut on Baffin Island for over 40 years and even has a cabin up there. He took me on my first trip to Baffin Island and introduced me to the community. That was the perfect beginning of a very nice relationship that we’ve had ever since. 

He communicated a tremendous amount of in-depth knowledge. He’s an anthropologist who knows the Inuktitut language and was able to share a perspective which was completely different from the one the media was portraying about the North. He had also lived there for several years as a young researcher back in the 70s. I really not only enjoyed, but benefited from his incredibly deep understanding of the North. 

Q: What a great opportunity it must have been to be able to travel to the North with such a supervisor. 

It was a real blessing. I got to know one community in depth and that’s what led me to try to understand what was happening there and what their cultural landscape was about. Even though my specialty was cold climate housing, what I found fascinating were all the components and the additions that people were building, either adjacent to their existing government houses or in between their houses and out on the land. These constructions reflected their own personal needs that were not being met by the government houses. 

I became so interested in these additions and these constructions. It led me to really understand the whole notion of self-building and the level of well-being that comes with self-building. Now, the nature of my postdoc fellowship is on that very aspect: self-building and well-being. I’m looking in various communities in western Canada, in Greenland, and Alaska where there are multiple examples of self-built constructions and housing. 

Susane Havelka remembers learning about the link between self-building and wellbeing during her PhD, leading her to her current focus in her postdoc.

Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges for you in finishing the PhD and what helped you overcome them? 

All in all, I don’t think there were really any severe challenges that I needed to overcome. Perhaps the largest challenge is always self-doubt—whether or not you can actually complete a PhD and whether you have the stamina and the perseverance to get through it. But I am extremely persistent, so there were just a few moments where I thought “oh, can I really get through this?” I was at the point in my life where my children were already more autonomous, so that was not something that was conflicting at all, but I did have aging parents and an ill mother, and that took a lot of my energy. 

Q:  What was your path like after your PhD? 

I applied for a postdoc immediately after my PhD. In the first six months or so, I co-wrote my first book—which is now released—on a project that I worked on in 2017 up in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik. The book is called Blueprint for a Hack: leveraging informal building practices. Together with two colleagues from McGill who were part of the Minimum Cost Housing Group, we worked together with the winners of the CCA Design Charrette that we organized the year before, on a project for the North, only using materials that were found locally. 

When things go to the North, they stay in the North. Whatever isn’t used during a construction build gets tossed and sent to the local dump or landfill, so there are lots of materials left over that people can re-use and they do. We decided to create what’s called a “hackathon” or design charrette around that idea to satisfy a local need. 

We worked with local students to design and build what they wanted to add to the public realm: a shelter for a skating rink so that kids could put on their ice skates while protected from strong winds. We built it using a leftover shipping container that we found at the landfill, as well as all sorts of wooden pallets to create a floor, huge tires from different trucks to raise it off the ground and three septic tanks as a foundation for the platform or stage next to it, etc. We had a lot of fun building and designing it together in four days. That project actually won one of the RAIC National Urban Design Awards in Ottawa last year. 

As of October of last year, I became a postdoc fellow at Memorial University where I’m involved in two pan-national research projects through CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) and SSHRC as well as ArcticNet, working on housing insecurity in the North, trying to eliminate hidden homelessness. We are several dozen researchers working on this partnership at the same time, while my own research is on self-building and wellbeing. I’m also working on a project in the Cree community of Eastmain near James Bay, a project that was commissioned by the community to look at their existing housing and wellbeing and to understand the links between the two. 

Everything is falling into place. I’m an extremely busy researcher and that’s really what I love to do. I don’t know what I’ll do after my postdoc, but for the next two years, I’ve got a lot of interesting work ahead of me. 

Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD?

Keep speaking to as many people as you possibly can to inform the process. Speaking to colleagues and to other students is always very helpful because it’s impossible to get through the whole thing completely on your own. There are a tremendous amount of resources at McGill for PhD students, whether it’s the librarians or people within departments, etc. These connections can help advance your work. 

Keep going to conferences. I think going to conferences was a very important part of my learning process. Submitting abstracts to conferences was also very helpful in terms of putting ideas together succinctly. I also participated in a project which was called “Three Minutes to Save the World” (now called the 3-Minute Thesis) which is for PhD students to put together a three-minute elevator pitch on their project. It was a very helpful and interesting process in front of an audience of people from all sorts of different fields, to see how you can speak about your thesis in public with one image and a very short text.

Q: Is there something you wish you knew before starting the PhD? 

I don’t think I could have imagined what I’ve accomplished today as I started my PhD. Stay open to opportunities and ideas and to people around you. I even created a non for profit called dada-Dome Project where I am working with indigenous friends and colleagues to adapt a simple affordable building system for the North. The PhD has led me in all sorts of directions that I could never have imagined.

I highly recommend doing a PhD. I have to say it probably was the six best years of my professional life. I loved it! 

Many thanks to Susane for sharing her PhD narrative!

Cover photo by Emelie Desrochers-Turgeon

This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.