Siebel Center Igloo (Update 2)

Nine friends1 and I built an enormous igloo in the courtyard between Siebel Center and the NCSA building.

Igloo with Siebel Center in the background (Yun Young's picture) Siebel center sculpture and igloo

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.

The construction team admiring the progress (Ellick's picture)

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.

Laying the first bricks to form the wall Nathan and Yun Young mortaring the partially constructed wall with Alejandro and Kevin making bricks

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.

The first unsuccessful brick The first unsuccessful brick

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.

Using one trash can to compress a snow brick in the other trash can

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 unfinished spiraling wall near the end of the first day Starting the curve of the roof (Ellick's picture)

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.

Kevin and Yun Young inside the unfinished igloo (Ellick's picture)

The walls sloped more and more precariously.

Alejandro inside the unfinished igloo (Ellick's picture) Kevin mortaring the bricks (Ellick's picture) Yun Young smoothing the outside wall (Ellick's picture)

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.

Plugging the hole in the roof (Ellick's picture) Plugging the hole in the roof (Ellick's picture) Plugging the hole in the roof (Ellick's picture) Plugging the hole in the roof (Ellick's picture)

The igloo was enclosed! The final step was smoothing the inside and outside surfaces and reinforcing joints with snow and water.

Lucas and Jeremy smoothing the roof (Ellick's picture)

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.

Work crew (4:38 PM Saturday, January 9, 2010) Progress from above (Ellick's picture. 6:08 PM Saturday, January 9, 2010) Progress from above (Ellick's picture. 8:22 PM Saturday, January 9, 2010) Progress from above (Ellick's picture. 11:18 PM Saturday, January 9, 2010) Progress from above (Ellick's picture. 12:29 AM Sunday, January 10, 2010) Progress from above (Ellick's picture. 1:23 AM Sunday, January 10, 2010) Progress from above (Ellick's picture. 4:03 AM Sunday, January 10, 2010) Progress from above (Ellick's picture. 5:18 AM Sunday, January 10, 2010)

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.

The igloo is very popular with students walking through the courtyard

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.

Tree and igloo The igloo's room number: 19100 Siebel Center with signatures of the construction crew.

You can see more pictures in the gallery, Yun Young's Facebook album, or Kevin's Picasa album.

Update (January 12, 2010)

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.

Thanks to Jeff O. for posting the video.

Update 2: Aftermath (January 15, 2010)

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.

Aftermath (6:30 PM January 14, 2010)

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.

Aftermath (6:30 PM January 14, 2010)

Yun Young, Alejandro, and I paid our last respects and rescued the guestbook, which had been buried under the pile of snow.

Aftermath (6:30 PM January 14, 2010)

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!
—Your Advisor

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!
—Dr. Pam

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"

Too cool for school

Victoria needs to sleep


I think the best epitaph comes from Rajhans via Facebook:

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.


  1. Alejandro, Yun Young, Kevin, Nathan, Ellick, Jeff O., Lucas, Jeff D. and Jeremy


Carlos Says:

After hearing a running commentary from my brother (Alex) over the weekend, I’ve just seen the pictures. Congratulations to all the builders, the igloo is amazing! I’m sure the UIUC community will be delighted to see it.

CJ Says:

You guys ROCK! This was great to see on such a dreary Monday morning and brought back a lot of childhood Central Illinois winter memories. Thanks for the smile!

Margaret Taylor Says:

This sure brightened my day, it is so neat so see so many work together, brought back memories of yesteryear to this 73 year old gal!!
Thanks to Cynthia Coleman for sharing!!


Jamie Says:

Thanks for the reminder of why I adore UIUC engineers. Word is, this was an incredible bright spot to those working in Grainger today. Way to be. :)

Dave Paola Says:

This looks really, really awesome. Hope to stop by and check it out soon!

Jenn LaMontagne Says:

Thanks so much for bringing smiles to so many people’s faces today. We all felt like kids again playing in the igloo! Illinois CS students are so obviously the best! : )

Qingbo Zhu Says:

This is amazing. Great job!

Ragib Hasan Says:

Awesome job. Next task for you guys, hook up an ethernet port there :). Then people can move out of their cubicles into the igloo-lab :)

Ah …. miss the Siebel Center …. :(

Jessica Says:

Wow. You don’t see many of those nowdays. Great work with the garbage container as your mold. In days of old, they would saw blocks out of the snow.

Josh Smith Says:

Hahaha… you guys are awesome!!! I am sorry I was not there to help! I, too, miss the Siebel Center.

Bill Bartley Says:

Cool igloo! Sue said that I should see your website to see what you built and she was right. Nice job on the igloo!

Eric V Says:

That igloo is/was crazy awesome! You guys should do a fort or a castle next :) Or start some kind of igloo building contest at UIUC.

Barb Cicone Says:

Sorry to post this so late but I actually heard all about this on my way back to C-U from a family holiday get-together on WILL AM radio. You guys are famous, but I knew that all along! So proud to have know you all and my very best wishes for future endevors. Perhaps a sand castle in the summer???

Cari Says:

My mom (above) sent me the link to your site to share it with my 8 yr. old son. He is very much into Legos and thought that this was the neatest thing! He belives that some day he too might be able to build an igloo. Being in northern Illinios, we will definitely have enough snow for it! Thanks for sharing with us!

aunt claudia Says:

wonderful fun and creative! we had much snow in omaha this winter and your cousins enjoyed building an igloo tunnel in the front yard…not at all the same but fun nonetheless!!

Leave a Comment

Allowed Tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>