How Can We Rapidly Fabricate Natural Shelters in Extreme Climates?

Our goal for Digital Igloo was to create a rapidly deployable formwork system for extreme cold weather conditions. The project combines the use of snow and ice as natural building materials with the process of parametric modeling and digital fabrication techniques for the construction of a thin walled shelter. This project builds off of earlier research on pneumatic structures as form-finding and space-making devices.

The structure was intended to be used as a temporary shelter which constrained many aspects of the project. The building materials needed to be readily available and easy to use. Since the shelter was intended to be used in cold environments, ice and snow were explored as traditional building materials for temporary structures for their excellent insulative properties and compressive strength. Instead of using traditional igloo construction, the proposed process could be self-forming under wet, frozen conditions. The formwork needed for this process had to be lightweight, packable, and easily carried in a large backpack.

A structural form was developed to create a self-supporting thin-walled ice shell. This form utilized internal air pressure and catenary diaphragms to define and control the desired inflated shape. The parametric modeling process allowed for sectional variability of the catenary structure to optimize multiple interior and exterior spaces. CNC tools were used to fabricate a set of plastic panels which could be joined to make the inflatable structure. While fabric reinforcement was included to fortify and connect the catenary ribs, it was discovered that an ice shell of approximately 1/2" was capable of supporting itself without further bracing. After being formed in a day the entire structure melted the following week leaving no lasting physical trace of its existence.

This project was conducted in collaboration with Marshall Prado, under the guidance of David Mah from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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