Building Igloos

Or an Easier Winter Project: Snow Houses

Image: an Inuit-style igloo build on a homeowner's lawn.
A homemade igloo makes for a unique lawn decoration for the winter yard. David Beaulieu

Building igloos authentically entails using snow blocks cut out of deep, hard snow drifts. Such blocks are laid down, one course upon another, in circles of ever-decreasing circumference. The blocks are sloped so as to incline towards the center. As you get closer to the top of the structure, the blocks that you use will be both smaller and fewer in number, until the dome is finally closed.

The "fun" igloo in the photo above was built in a similar manner, but you can see an authentic igloo being built in the documentary classic, "Nanook of the North" by Robert Flaherty, 1922.

Unfortunately, the video doesn't play well in all browsers. I couldn't get it to play at all in Internet Explorer. If you use Firefox, when you get to the page, click "How to build an igloo in the arctic pole" on the right side of the page, which seems to give you access to the play button quicker (otherwise, it takes a long time to load). In this film you'll witness a genuine igloo-builder building an igloo in the time-honored manner, including Nanook's cutting a block of ice out of the frozen sea to be used as a window. But building igloos of this sort is often not feasible in areas with milder winters: the deep, hard snow drifts are simply lacking. Instead, it will generally be better to opt for building snow houses.

Family Craft for the Kids: Snow Houses

Are you concerned that your kids aren't enjoying enough good clean fun outdoors? Do today's kids spend too much time indoors in front of a television or computer screen?

They already know how to make a snowman ("been there, done that"), so that doesn't excite them much. Well, maybe you need to give them a new challenge, while occupying them with a family craft activity at the same time. Wouldn't you be interested in initiating a fun outdoor family activity that also provides decoration for an otherwise drab winter landscape?

Oh, and it's also free....

If so, and if you live in the snowy north, why not take your kids out on the lawn and begin building a fort out of the niveous construction material provided for free by Old Man Winter? You needn't build anything as fancy as an igloo. But the simple family craft idea described below is a great way to make the winter go faster. As you wait for the weather to get consistently cold enough for such an activity (so your "building material" doesn't melt), you'll find the early part of the winter passing quickly. For once, you'll find yourself craving Jack Frost's daily arrival -- and being disappointed when he fails to keep his appointment.

Make the Winter Pass More Quickly

By the time Jack Frost does make it apparent that he's here to stay for a while, Christmas and the holiday season are already history and you're skating through January. Time to begin construction. When you've finished building your snow house, you'll hope (again, uncharacteristically) that this year there will be no January thaw -- which would take a toll on your structure. But even should there be a thaw, after a bit of repair work and a return to colder temperatures, the snow house will survive until late February or early March.

And by then it's time to put winter games to rest and anticipate the arrival of spring.

Is An Ephemeral Structure Worth All This Work?

Yes, this is an ephemeral structure. But the blossoms on perennials are ephemeral, too. Does that mean perennials aren't worth the work? Certainly not; and your fort will be worth the work, too.

You need a box made of hard plastic to serve as a mold during this project. Spray the sides of the plastic box with Pam spray to make it easier to remove the finished snow blocks. Snow will be shoveled into this mold and tamped down, forming the necessary building blocks for the snow house. Besides tamping a powdery snow down firmly in the mold, pour some water evenly onto your snow as it lies in the mold. The water will freeze to become ice, giving you a more solid building block than you'd have with the snow alone.

However, if the snow in your yard is not powdery, but is sticky instead, you don't need to apply water. Just tamp it into the mold, remove it from the mold and use your newly-formed blocks immediately.

If you can get your hands on more than one mold, so much the better, when dealing with powdery snow. Otherwise, you have to wait for one block to harden before you can begin to mold another. In a 24-hour period during which the daytime temperature is in the 20s, you can make about 5 snow building blocks in this manner. The longer you can keep a powdery snow in the mold, the more solid the resulting building blocks will be. Rushing the blocks out of the mold will leave you with a weaker building material than if you are patient. If you plan on building a snow house of any significant size, obviously it will be slow going with only one mold (again, if the snow is sticky, this won't be a problem). But then, teaching children the virtue of patience is as important as showing them how to have fun!

Speaking of teaching the kids something..... Continue on to Page 2 to learn about the basic architecture lessons you can teach kids through building a snow house together as a family craft activity....

Working together on this fun family craft will not only make the winter pass more quickly and jazz up your winter landscape, but it also will provide an opportunity for you to teach your kids a few basic lessons in architecture. Armed with a tape measure, lay out the four corners for snow houses first. For unlike igloos, these structures will be rectangular.

Snow House Lesson #1

Begin by standing at one corner with the tape measure.

Have your child pull the tape out and walk to either of the nearer corners. If you've decided on a 10 X 10 snow house, then your child will walk 10'. Shovel a path through this 10-foot area to mark a line, indicating where one wall of your snow house will rest. Proceed this way around the projected perimeter of the snow house. To check that the corners are all square, have your child measure the two diagonals, which should be of equal length -- basic architecture lesson #1 derived from this fun family crafts project.

Snow House Lesson #2

Once you begin laying the blocks of the snow house, you'll want to finish the perimeter first (minus the hole for the entrance). Here's where basic architecture lesson #2 can be taught. Have your child use a level to make sure the tops of the blocks are all level. Where you find a snow block to be slightly askew, use an ice shim to make it level. When you've completed the perimeter and begin the second round of blocks, have your kid check not only for levelness, but also for plumbness, so that you'll have straight walls on both the horizontal and vertical planes of your snow house.

What way of teaching your children these elementary concepts could be more enjoyable than through this fun family crafts project?

Some variations are certainly possible on the construction style illustrated in the photo above. For instance, a more elaborate archway over the entrance could have been incorporated.

Or for a totally different style that furnishes your structure with a roof, try building an igloo, such as the igloo photographed for Page 1. If you're not interested in being such a purist, yet you still desire a roof for your structure, lay pine boughs across your walls.

Accessories for the Snow House

Spruce up your finished snow house with accessories afterwards, making creative use of whatever interesting stuff happens to be taking up space in the shed or garage. Maybe your children will have some ideas of their own for the finishing touches. One fun accessorizing idea is the use of torches, which will lend a medieval-castle look to your snow house. Here's a chance to dust off those mosquito torches that haven't been used since summer. Drive them into the top wall of the snow house. Light them for an hour or so some night and enjoy the eerie glow they cast over your snow castle.

So the next time you wonder why kids today don't seem to reach the same level of creativity that you exhibited in outdoor activities when you were growing up, take it upon yourself to lead the way by sharing some ideas with them. In the process, there'll be loads of fun and opportunities for practical lessons.

The winter will also seem to pass more quickly. And as long as the winter chill does stay in the air, your landscape will be graced by a focal point handcrafted by your own progeny.