Timelapse: Igloo Construction

Timelapse: Igloo Construction

When people think of the Arctic, visions of endless snow, overcast skies, and oppressive temperatures are usually the first thing that come to mind. With Connecticut experiencing a near-“Arctic” winter of its own in 2011, Trails of Freedom set out to Hubbard Park in Meriden, Connecticut to create a structure that epitomizes early Arctic life… the igloo.

Igloos are a type of shelter constructed entirely out of snow and traditionally built by the Inuits, an indigenous people of the Arctic superbly adapted to life in frigid climates. In the Inuit language, the term ‘iglu’ roughly translates to ‘home’ and generally refers to a house of any kind, whether it be a snow-shelter, a tent, a wood-framed structure, or a modern building. But, probably because other cultures further south of the Inuits generally had their own terms for most buildings, the word ‘igloo’ was adapted to denote only that ingenious snow hut that remains a popular icon of the Inuit’s arctic lifestyle to this day.

While there are potentially many ways that snow shelters can be constructed, Trails of Freedom’s goal in this experiment was to draw from the time-tested skill of Inuit builders and construct an igloo using their techniques.

TAKING SOME TIPS FROM THE INUITS

Igloos, as you may know, are built by assembling a dome-shaped structure with blocks of snow. You’ll find that many modern attempts at igloo-building tend to use blocks created by packing snow into a rectangular mold. But the Inuits did not use molds… and neither did Trails of Freedom. Instead, we cut the blocks directly from the blanket of packed snow. This technique requires that parallel channels are carved from the snow bed, after which snow blocks can literally by chopped and “quarried” directly from the ground.

The Inuit’s style of construction also has a few hallmarks lost to many of today’s backyard experimenters. First of all, the Inuit igloo was generally built upwards using a sort of ‘ramp’ technique whereby the walls are assembled in a continuous spiral that eventually terminates at the center of the ceiling (you can see this technique being employed in the video when the pitch of the growing walls are smoothed throughout construction). This is in stark contrast to the technique used for constructing modern brick buildings in which bricks are laid in flat, horizontal layers.

In addition, the entrance to the Inuit igloo was generally not ‘built’ into the structure from the ground up, as this would’ve compromised its integrity. Instead, the igloo was built with solid walls all-around. At least one individual would literally build his or herself into the growing structure and then cut the entrance out of the wall after the dome was complete and structurally sound. Trails of Freedom built their igloo with this method in mind, but for technical reasons, the entrance had to be cut shortly before the dome was entirely complete.

WHERE WE DIVERGED

That we succeeded at using Inuit techniques to build a complete igloo was quite the accomplishment for a team of New Englanders, but we did diverge from the Inuit Way in few instances and we’re obliged to tell all.

As mentioned earlier, we were forced to cut our entrance a tad bit early… roughly after 3/4 of the dome was constructed. The Inuit would usually have waited until the dome was complete. There were a few reasons for this split from the traditional method. First of all, we were unable to cut snow blocks from the inner diameter of the igloo, which meant that each block had to be handed over the steadily growing walls from outside of the structure. This worked for a long time, until our igloo began to grow too high to safely hand the blocks over the taller, more complete walls. Solving this dilemma meant cutting the entrance early, permitting us to slide the final few snow blocks inside the structure where they could be positioned and incorporated into the closing ceiling. Since the Inuit generally didn’t make their igloos as tall as ours (which was roughly 6 feet tall on the outside), they probably wouldn’t have run into the same difficulty of passing bricks around, either.

In all, it would usually take between 30 minutes and an hour for a pair of skilled Inuit builders to fully construct an igloo. Our team of five completed the structure only after several hours. So, while we did successfully use their techniques, it’s safe to say we don’t possess the experience and refinement of the Inuit people that invented this type of building. Much of our construction time involved “on-the-job” learning, figuring out how to apply the Inuit’s techniques in real-world building conditions. Toward the latter half of construction, it was clear that the team was becoming much more comfortable with the essential skills and that efficiency was steadily improving.

PROJECT OUTLINE

Goal: Construct an igloo in the style of the Inuit
Team: 5 people
Tools Used: (2) Fiskars 22″ Machetes
(1) Gerber Folding Saw
Igloo Dimensions: Approx. 6′ (or more) outer height
Approx. 5′ 8″ inner ceiling height

2 Comments

  1. John Coleman 8 years ago

    Is the Igloo still standing? Also did you notice if the temperature seemed warmer inside the igloo? I understand the inside would only get down to 32 degrees radiant as opposed to the outside chill factors affecting the body.

    • Trails of Freedom 8 years ago

      Sadly, a warm streak came through and the igloo began to crumble the next day. With the rain and sleet we’ve had recently, I’d be surprised if it’s still standing now. The igloo was rather warm, actually. Since the snow walls are still semi-translucent (even at 6-8 inches thick), the radiant energy of the Sun can actually heat the interior quite well. Couple that with the fact that snow is a superb insulator, and you’ve got a relatively comfortable snow house!

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