Friday, January 28, 2011

The Second Attempt

A couple of weeks after my first attempt at igloo construction I was at it again. The snow was falling heavy through the night, there was already a great base of snow in the park and I was ready to build. I called Eitan to arrange a timeslot for our next igloo attempt. "Can you wait until 3PM or so he asked?" I said I could, but it turns out I couldn't. You see when you wake up in the morning with 16" of fresh snow right at your doorstep it is kind of impossible to wait until 3PM to start playing in the snow. I was up, the snow was ready and it was time to try to build another igloo.

I had done some more research in the last couple of weeks and uncovered a couple of important igloo building tips.

1. Cut your door
Don't try to build your doorway into the igloo from the start. Instead build the igloo without a door and just cut a door when you are done. Genius! This insures the igloo remains stable throughout the build.

2. The Snake Technique
Build your igloo like a snake coiled on itself. A stable igloo is not built of multiple rows like a brick-house but of one continuous line of bricks circling in on itself - like a snake coiled up. With this approach every new brick you set is supported by the bricks underneath it and by the brick that preceded it.

3. Start with a good base
This one is sort of a cheat, but also a really good way to get a head start on your igloo. You see you prepare the igloo site by piling up a whole bunch of snow for the foundation of your igloo. You can then start laying your bricks on this foundation (maybe 1 to 2 feet deep) and that means when your igloo is going up, you can dig out the foundation and your igloo is instantly 1 to 2 feet taller. Cheating? Maybe, but who cares your igloo is 1 to 2 feet taller.

The Build
Armed with these new tricks I headed out to the park. I picked a great spot right in the middle of an empty field and started preparing my site. I laid out the circumference of the igloo and started building the foundation. I basically just shoveled a whole lot of snow into the circle and smashed it down with my feet and shovel. This created a great platform upon which to build the igloo.

Alone in the middle of the park I started building bricks. As recently reported this constituted filling an empty yellow kitty litter bin with snow, packing it down tight, and then dumping it back out onto the ground. About an hour into my brick building phase a guy walked up to me and our conversation went something like this:

Stranger: "What are you doing out here?"
Me: "Building an igloo"
Stranger: "Cool"

[Stranger continues on his way and I continue making snow bricks. Stranger turns around, walks back to the snow quarry]

Stranger: "Want some help?"
Me: "Absolutely"

And with that the team was formed. The stranger turned out to be Winston. He was an igloo novice, but extremely eager to learn. I told him I was a rookie myself with just one failed igloo under my belt, but that I had high hopes for today's attempt. I showed Winston how to make bricks and after a couple aborted attempts he started popping out some decent snow bricks of his own. It turned out Winston was on his way to shovel out his car, came across the build site and decided that building an igloo just seemed like much more fun than shoveling out a car. I could not agree more.

After we had a hundred or so bricks chilling in the quarry (the undefined circle around the igloo's foundation) we started laying down the bricks. The snake technique worked perfectly. I dug out about half the height of a brick into the foundation and laid the first brick down (the cornerstone brick). I dug just a little bit less for each subsequent brick with the goal that when the complete first circle was complete the subsequent brick would land perfectly on top of the cornerstone brick. From there it was just as simple as putting down the bricks, cutting them a bit with the snow saw to get a tight fit and moving on up.

Winston and I passed the time getting to know each other and just having fun trying to build something totally awesome with just some snow, a snow saw and a couple empty kitty litter bins. As the igloo began to rise from the foundation I jumped over the now two-foot tall wall and shoveled out the foundation. This was important to do early on because all that snow would be hard to remove once the walls got too high. Winston and I took turns putting the bricks in place and making new bricks as we went along. One of us would stay inside the igloo while the other would place the bricks in place. The person on the inside is responsible for setting the brick just right and keeping it up while the next brick is laid, and the person the outside is responsible for pretty much everything else.

Since climbing over the rising igloo wall was no longer an option, I cut out a tiny door, maybe four bricks in size .Also as the igloo got taller we needed to use the snow saw a lot more. The bricks had to be cut in progressively tighter angles and the snow saw was indispensable.

As we reached the top of the igloo the whole endeavor took on a whole new energy. The igloo was now taller than my first attempt and I was not sure exactly how to cap this whole thing off. In science class at some point in my life I had learnt about the keystone of an arch and all that jazz, but this was snow and not stone. So we just kind of winged it and guess what…it worked. The igloo was complete. Winston and I shared a couple giant smiles and he went on his way. We had completed the entire igloo from start to finish in around three hours. I spent another hour or so outside building a path to the igloo (so anyone could visit without sinking into two feet of snow and widening the doorway so people wouldn’t accidentally damage the igloo while getting in and out. While I was putting the finishing touches on the igloo Jessica came out took some photos and a family stopped by and built a snowman to stand guard.

The second attempt was a smashing success. Thanks to continued freezing temperature the igloo stood for over a week. Every day when I went to work I would look over and just smile. Admittedly I would frequently visit the igloo after my work day, just to say hi. After three or four days the walls started to compress a little bit, and the igloo which originally fit three adults comfortably was becoming a little more snug every day. But, it was a freakin igloo. After the igloo collapsed two weeks later I could think of only one thing…I have got to build another one.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The First Prototype

A couple weeks ago, as Jess and I were walking across Harvard Yard we spotted this igloo in the distance. It was not a "complete igloo," as it was lacking a roof but it definitely piqued my curiosity. Not enough to walk across the snow field in my low-top shoes, but it was piqued. I filed a little note to myself - "next storm build igloo." And so when last weeks blizzard rolled in I knew what had to be done. I texted our good friend Eitan and asked him if he wanted in on the project. A couple minutes later the team was assembled.

Ten minutes of intensive research on the internet led me to believe that this whole igloo project would be a piece of cake. Major thanks to Matthias Wandel for his thorough write-up on modern igloo building practice. Now although igloos have been built for thousands of years, building an igloo in a park with fresh snow is a completely different matter. Traditional igloos are built with already compressed and packed snow; the kind of rock hard snow that snow plows love to encase your car in. In our case we were going to be working with freshly fallen snow before it got trampled on by Harvard kids building snowmen and other frozen sculpture.

Let's first lay out the basics of igloo construction and then we can walkthrough what went right and what went wrong with igloo v1.0. The first thing you need when building a sizeable igloo is a whole lot of snow. Luckily we just happen to live across the street from a giant park. If it was large enough for the Continental Army to make camp in for the winter, it must surely be large enough to supply raw materials for a simple two person igloo. Second you need a good form to build your snow bricks. Ours included a couple of rubbermaid containers (bad) and a giant kitty litter bin (good).

Unfortunately I don't have photos of our entire igloo building process. But I will walk you through our build step by step (or how I wish our build had proceeded), so you can try this in your own park. Building an igloo in a public space is highly recommended. For one - tons of people come by and say things like "awesome igloo", or "nice igloo", or "what are you building", to which you can respond "an awesome nice igloo." Second, a park is filled with passerbys whom you can enlist in your igloo building endevour (not for the super fun part of laying the bricks, but the more tedious brick building phase)

Step 1 - Choose a site
Since you are going to be collecting snow for your bricks it is important to pick your site in the middle of your snow field. This will greatly reduce the amount of walking you will have to do while building your bricks.

Step 2 - Prep the site
The igloo is essentially a dome you live in. Draw a circle on the snow field that is large enough for two adults to stand in. I put the handle of our snow shovel at what would be the center of our igloo and rotated it until it drew a full circle in the snow.

Step 3 - Build some bricks
The basic concept here is you have a brick-like form, you tightly pack some snow into it and you turn it upside down. You do that around 150 times and you have enough bricks for an igloo. The key to brick making is to let the bricks set before trying to work with them. I would wait at least ten minutes, but thirty would be even better. When you pack the snow into the form it melts a little, and the idea is that letting it set before handling it allows the melted snow to refreeze into a solid brick. Think of the outdoors as one giant freezing cold kiln.

As for forms it is important that your form be sturdy and deep enough so you can stack your bricks. We began the build with some rubbermaid containers which started to crack and fall apart before we have even completed the first ring of our igloo. The issue with your standard household container is that under stress they will bend and crack. Luckily one of our neighbors had just thrown out a giant kitty litter bin which turns out to be a nearly perfect brick shape and also is made from really sturdy plastic. So if you have a cat or no someone who does, or don't mind digging through some trash, find yourself some of these. I recommend at least two (because who wants to build an igloo all alone) and some extra for the occasional volunteer who wanders into your construction site. (Those really sturdy blue recycling bins might also do the trick)

As you are building bricks remember to note which are your oldest and therefore most set and frozen bricks. You will be tempted to start building your igloo right away, but you need to resist that temptation. An igloo with a weak foundation will just not work.

Step 4 - Build your Igloo
Start laying down your bricks along the circle you drew in the snow. The bricks should be as tightly spaced as possible. Fill in the cracks with loose snow and try to make sure your ring is fairly level. Any early imperfections will be greatly magnified when you are on your fifth or sixth level so be careful. After your first ring is complete start on the second level. The key is to stack the second level an inch or two in from the first level. This is how you build your dome and hopefully have all your walls meet each other. Also you want to make sure the bricks are offset from the layer below, just like you would when building a brick wall.

I would like to tell you how to finish your igloo off, but to be honest, igloo v1.0 was never finished. We made some crucial mistakes I have tried to correct for in this post, but I don't know exactly how to finish off an igloo because I never have. That is an excercise for igloo v2.0.

What didn't work
1. Do not build a doorway into your igloo in advance. The entranceway will just lead to instability in your dome as you put it together. A doorway should be cut into the igloo after it is finished.
2. Do not start building your igloo before you have lots of bricks ready to go. As you build your ever shrinking circles you will want to have extra bricks on hand to pack together and keep the growing arch intact. If you don't have extra bricks you may suffer a cave in.
3. Make sure each of your levels is as uniform as possible. One side of our build was a little off and this led to multiple cave-ins when our igloo reached any significant height.

What worked
1. Build your igloo with friends.
2. Pick a public place so kids can play in your igloo for days after the storm and you can walk by and say to yourself - "that's my igloo". Or a spontaneous fashion shoot might take place.

Anyway, thats all for now. Stay tuned for the next storm when Igloo v2.0 comes to life. I just purchased a snow-saw with the hopes that it will assist in carving the bricks in the late stages of the igloo build and also...I have a snow saw. How ridiculous is that.

Major thanks to Jess for shooting these pics.