Learning from Ancient Architecture #1: Insulating with Igloos in the Arctic


If you scroll down a little (or click here) you’ll remember that a few weeks ago, we posted about Chicago’s coldest day in recorded history. And then, for fun, we sought out the world’s coldest recorded temperature (-129 F!). Not that Antarctica has any permanent residents or anything (it doesn’t) but wondering how people kept alive in the cold before Central Heating laid the foundation for the first of a series of posts we’re doing on ancient architectural techniques, and how some of them can inform a more sustainable future.   At moss we try to draw from passive design principles to make our projects more sustainable, cost-effective, and energy-efficient. The regionally-based architecture of yore kept homes comfortable and dry passively, by working with landscape, orientation and and local materials. Today’s post is about how communities protected themselves from the bitter cold in the arctic with  one of nature’s great insulators: snow.


Everyone’s favorite ancient house has got to be the igloo. Mostly used by the native Inuits in the Canadian Arctic and the Thule region of Greenland, Igloos were usually not permanent residences, but temporary shelters that were built on hunting trips. The purpose of an Igloo is to cut ferociously cold arctic winds and keep body heat from escaping via snow’s excellent insulation properties. They are constructed by cutting thick bricks from packed snow; the interior then melts with human occupation, strengthening the Igloo as a layer of ice re-hardens. This yields a structure that can withstand winds and curious animals, and that is also considerably warmer and cozier inside than outside. With an outdoor temperature of -49 F, an igloo’s interior temperature can range from 19–61 F, quite comfortable, especially when clothed in caribou hides. Igloos need holes for ventiliation, as CO2 can actually build up to dangerous levels inside because packed snow is so air tight. People are advised to create raised platforms to sleep on for this reason (CO2 is heavy and sinks), as well as to stay warmer.

moss green architect quinzee


A Quinzhee is far less sturdy than an Igloo, and doesn’t require the same type of hard-packed snow. Also unlike an Igloo, the Quinzhee is still built frequently today for camping trips in snowy areas (hey, it’s cheaper than an RV.) Originally used by the Athabascan Indians of Alaska, it is basically a hollowed out pile of snow. Like the Igloo, the interior of a Quinzhee can insulate well against frigid temperatures.

Modern uses

This dazzlingly gorgeous “igloo village” (above) in Finland is a contemporary display of igloos in all their glory. Guests can spend the night in an Igloo hotel (down sleeping bags, socks, and a hood are provided) or in a special thermal glass igloo, or even get married in a beautiful snow chapel.

walls of ice

This portable structure, dubbed the “unavailability shelter,” by its creators, Norwegian architecture firm Garterfuglen, uses frozen lake water as its walls. Upon them melting (or the frame being dismantled), it can be easily transported to the next location. Ideal for ice fishing, or a bit of solitude in a gleaming arctic wonderland, the hut looks like a giant lantern when a few candles are lit inside. We’d like to see one of these near Lake Michigan. Via Dezeen.

That segues nicely into our next post on ancient architecture, which will be on Yurts and other pack up n’ go homes. Check back next week!