Nine friends1 and I built an enormous igloo in the courtyard between Siebel Center and the NCSA building.
How enormous? It is nearly eight feet tall and eight and a half feet in diameter. The doorway is four feet high and two wide. All 10 of us could easily fit inside. We estimate that it took over 80 man-hours to complete: we worked from 5 to 8 PM on Friday, then from 4 PM Saturday to 5 AM (!!!) Sunday. In that time, the temperature never got above 15° F.
It was a team effort. Yun Young and Alejandro deserve credit for initiating the construction and for their inspiring enthusiasm. Ellick documented the construction process with over 600 pictures (some of which I have used with his permission here). Nathan, being the tallest, was instrumental in completing the roof. Jeff O., Kevin, and Alejandro formed an efficient snow-brick-making machine. Lucas, Jeff D., and Jeremy provided much-needed reinforcement when they arrived near the end of construction. Finally, I helped for a few hours on the first night, then observed, supported (read: bought pizza), and provided unsolicited engineering advice on the second night.
None of us expected it would turn out so big or take so long to complete. Construction was completely unplanned and proceeded organically by trial and error. We eventually converged on the following process: pack snow into bricks, lay the bricks, pack the gaps with snow, smooth the edges, and spray water on the surface to strengthen the walls.
We created bricks by packing snow into two small trash cans. It was difficult to form the dry, powdery snow into solid bricks. Our first attempts did not turn out very well.
However, Alejandro realized he could use one trash can to compress the snow inside the other. After that, he became the brickmaking expert. He could produce solid bricks that slid out of the molds like muffins out of a muffin tin. Later, he found we could alternate the wide and narrow ends of the bricks to make the joints flush.
At the end of the first night, we had three uneven layers of bricks. But there was a problem: they rose straight up, not inward as is needed to form the roof of a proper igloo. We seriously considered simply making an open snow fort. However, after adjusting the pattern of bricks on the second night, the walls started curving inward.
The next challenge was the doorway. Compressed snow has zero tensile strength (as we learned through bitter experience), but somehow we were able to make a lintel by forming a rough stairstepped arch.
The walls sloped more and more precariously.
A small opening remained at the peak of the igloo. This was the most difficult part because it was too large for a single brick and the surface was too steep to hold more bricks. Yun Young and Kevin furiously packed handfulls of snow around the edge, spraying many bottlesful of water to make sure the snow stuck. Eventually, the hole shrunk enough that Nathan and Alejandro could jam three bricks together to form a peak at the top of the igloo. They filled the remaining space with rubble.
The igloo was enclosed! The final step was smoothing the inside and outside surfaces and reinforcing joints with snow and water.
Frozen to the bone and exhausted, we collapsed on the couches inside Siebel Center.
Here is an overhead view of how the igloo came together.
The next morning, Yun Young, Kevin, Ellick, and I visited the igloo in daylight. We met a group of students who complimented us on the project. Throughout the day we observed many other people stopping to look and take pictures.
We are all incredibly proud with what built and hope that others who pass by Siebel Center will enjoy it for however long it lasts.
The igloo has been extremely popular. We saw a steady stream of visitors all day yesterday, and our guestbook already has several pages of signatures. It even caught the attention of the local news. WILL radio and WCIA both briefly mentioned the igloo, and WICD, the local ABC affiliate, interviewed Alejandro and Yun Young.
A full day of above-freezing temperatures and light rain proved too much for the igloo. It had noticeably shrunk, and the sides had been bulging outward all day. It finally collapsed yesterday evening around 6:30 PM.
Judging from the orientation of the debris, it looks like the walls exploded outward and roof fell straight down onto the floor. Only the right side of the door frame remained standing.
Yun Young, Alejandro, and I paid our last respects and rescued the guestbook, which had been buried under the pile of snow.
Here are some of the best quotes from the guestbook.
You've brought joy to many.
Amazing – I'm tempted to skip work today and just chill in your igloo
This is what the Blue Waters building should be. I love it.
Sweet! will you come to my house & build one for my kids?
Get back to work!
You have a marvelous island of quiet in the busy world & it was great fun watching you build it
I've been trapped outside for the weekend.
Thank you for a shelter from the wild beasts.
The end was near the light shines through.
Godspeed to all who may encounter this oasis of warmth.
Great igloo. How about an ice pane window? We love it.
—Erin and Spencer
So proud to be an alum of UI!
Is this igloo internet accessible too?! [It was! —ed.]
—Jill & Tom
This is a real gift to our community . Many people have stopped to enjoy your creation. Thank you!
—Mark & Teddy
Wow this is one of "the seven wonders of UIUC"
This igloo is not just a shelter; no sir for that purpose has been thwarted by modern architecture. It is actually an icon of something very very special - the perseverance which grad students show in making something completely useless yet incredibly beautiful. Its a symbol of all the free time grad life provides and the crazy ideas it fills us with; ideas of finding ways of killing that free time. Who invented Ping Pong - I am sure it was a student of Confucius. Who created Olympics - the grad student mentioned somewhere in Illiad. Gustave Eiffel was a grad student too! And so, dear Yum Yum [Yun Young's nickname. —ed.], this Igloo is not anyone's baby - its bigger than a baby or for that matter, any of us. It is indeed one of the foremost exemplar of the primary grad student trait I have so painstakingly just described.
Goodbye, Siebel Center igloo. You were a testament to friendship, teamwork, and determination despite cold and discomfort. While you may have at first appeared completely useless, you brought joy to everyone who passed by.