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A nearly complete, medium-sized igloo.
Note the excavation under the door and the unfinished exterior.

An igloo (Inuit language: iglu, Inuktitut syllabics: แƒแ’กแ“—, "house", plural: iglooit or igluit, but in English commonly igloos), or snowhouse, is a type of shelter built out of snow, originally built by the Inuit. Iglu is the Inuit word for a house or home built out of any material, and is not restricted exclusively to snowhouses but includes traditional tents, sod houses, homes constructed of driftwood and modern buildings.

Igloo as a snowhouse

When referring to a snowhouse, igloos are shelters constructed from blocks of snow, generally in the form of a dome. Although igloos are usually associated with all Inuit, they were predominantly constructed by people of Canadamarker's Central Arctic and Greenlandmarker's Thulemarker area. Other Inuit people tended to use snow to insulate their houses which consisted of whalebone and hides. Snow was used because the air pockets trapped in it make it an insulator. On the outside, temperatures may be as low as , but on the inside the temperature may range from to when warmed by body heat alone.

Traditional types

An igloo's snowbrick laying method.
There were three traditional types of igloos, all of different sizes and all used for different purposes.

The smallest was constructed as a temporary shelter, usually only used for one or two nights. These were built and used during hunting trips, often on open sea ice.

Next in size was the semi-permanent, intermediate-sized family dwelling. This was usually a single room dwelling that housed one or two families. Often there were several of these in a small area, which formed an "Inuit village".

The largest of the igloos was normally built in groups of two. One of the buildings was a temporary structure built for special occasions, the other built nearby for living. These might have had up to five rooms and housed up to 20 people. A large igloo might have been constructed from several smaller igloos attached by their tunnels, giving common access to the outside. These were used to hold community feasts and traditional dances.


The Central Inuit, especially those around the Davis Straitmarker, lined the living area with skin, which could increase the temperature within from around to .


The snow used to build an igloo must have sufficient structural strength to be cut and stacked in the appropriate manner. The best snow to use for this purpose is snow which has been blown by wind, which can serve to compact and interlock the ice crystals. The hole left in the snow where the blocks are cut from is usually used as the lower half of the shelter. Sometimes, a short tunnel is constructed at the entrance to reduce wind and heat loss when the door is opened. Due to snow's excellent insulating properties, inhabited igloos are surprisingly comfortable and warm inside. In some cases a single block of ice is inserted to allow light into the igloo.

Architecturally, the igloo is unique in that it is a dome that can be raised out of independent blocks leaning on each other and polished to fit without an additional supporting structure during construction. The igloo, if correctly built, will support the weight of a person standing on the roof. Also, in the traditional Inuit igloo the heat from the kudlik (qulliq) (stone lamp) causes the interior to melt slightly. This melting and refreezing builds up an ice sheet and contributes to the strength of the igloo.The sleeping platform is a raised area compared to where one enters the igloo. Because warmer air rises and cooler air settles, the entrance area will act as a cold trap whereas the sleeping area will hold whatever heat is generated by a stove, lamp or body heat.

In popular use

In heraldry, the igloo appears as the crest in the coat of arms hi Nunavutmarker.

Nanook of the North

The 1922 documentary Nanook of the North contains the oldest surviving movie footage of an Inuit constructing an igloo. In the film, Nanook (real name Allakariallak) builds a large family igloo as well as a smaller igloo for sled pups. Nanook demonstrates the use of an ivory knife to cut and trim snow block, as well as the use of clear ice for a window. His igloo was built in about one hour, and was large enough for five people. The igloo was cross-sectioned for filmmaking, so interior shots could be made. See "External links" for video footage.

See also


  1. The Mackenzie Inuit Winter House
  2. Reconstructing traditional Inuit house forms using three-dimensional interactive computer modelling
  3. How Warm is an Igloo?, BEE453 Spring 2003 (PDF)
  4. What house-builders can learn from igloos, 2008, Dan Cruickshank, BBC

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