The "passive igloo project"

 ... is a project about living and life.



The aim is to pass through an arctic winter in a self-sufficient dwelling without the use of non-renewable energy.
A challenge.


At a turning point where humanity cannot continue to practise business as usual, inherited from the ancestral struggle for survival, it is useful to question ourselves about the meaning and implications of our actions. In this context, the passive igloo questiones the themes of habitat and live.

We progress when we leave our comfort zone ... and to cast off for adventure is a good way to leave our comfort zone. Thus we hope to progress.


The passive igloo is a minimal habitat designed to serve as a scientific base camp and dwelling to accommodate a team of six during an arctic winter. These conditions challenge climate protection while providing adequate conditions for living and work in complete self-sufficiency.

The energy concept is based on the complementarity of efficiency measures (thermal insulation and heat recovery) and three sources of energy (sun, wind, envinronmental heat). These are coupled to storage systems (heat and electricity) and an optimized energy management system.

Who can do most can do least

The passive igloo is a demonstration project that illustrates that simple and robust constructive and technical solutions may challenge low-cost energy scarcity in a credible way.

Transposed to temperate climates, the experience feedback will be useful to outline the habitat of tomorrow, providing more independence and quality of life to its inhabitants.


The first passive building was … a boat

The passive igloo demonstration project celebrates Fridthof Nansen's Fram that sucessfully passed several winters in the arctic.

Fidthof Nansen's Fram in 1883

The Fram was designed and built to the standard of the best techniques available by the middle of the 18th century. Today, the Fram is recognised as beeing the first passive 'building'. The demonstration projet shall remind us that heating is not a fatality : Nansen reports that the stove proved close to useless due to the efficiency of ... thermal insulation.

The passive igloo is … a boat

Sailboats are the ultimate passive machines. They combine ancient knowhow with high tech and illustrate the enormous potential and field for creativity in making use of renewable energy in an exemplary way. The issue of fundamental needs is addressed in depth (subsistence design). The 'igloo' is part of a 60 foot (19m) sailboat and designed to serve as a scientific base camp to accommodate a team of six during an arctic winter.

The passive igloo demonstration project explores the viability of single-dwelling self-sufficiency and explores how simple and robust solutions and techniques may succeed to eventually overcome dependence on conventional energy sources. The objective: a self-sufficient wintering in the artic, relying on renewable energies. The harsh conditions (extreme cold, small size, independence, relyability) require adaptation and optimisation of standard technology. This opens a field of opportunities for applied research and may reveal new useful design perspectives for the ‘dwelling of after tomorrow’.


The concept is based on three fundamentals : autonomy, efficiency and sobriety. These are developed hereafter.

The heat production is based on an innovative wind-heat coupling system : wind energy (plus some solar energy) is transformed into electric power that is used to drive a heat-pump system making use of heat from the 'warm' water below the ice shelf. Small size electric and thermal heat storage systems make heating energy available during periods without wind or sun.


Due to specific space use, comfort requirements differ depending on variations in space and time. The destiction into three clearly identified thermal zones, implies specific design strategies such as adaptation of insulation, ventilation or buffer spaces.

High performance thermal insulation reduces transfer heat losses to a minimum. Without heating, the internal heat gains (body heat, cooking and other activities) result in a living temperature inside the “igloo” beeing 25°C above outside temperature.

Graph shows evolution of granted minimum inside temperature (orange), ambient temperature (blue) und solar radiation (yellow) for a period ranging from winter to springtime

The fresh, cold air (that may drop below -30°C) is pre-heated by seawater (approx -2°C), before beeing processed through a heat recovery system that takes advantage of heat from the warm extracted air. Residual heat from exhaust air is used to produce potable water from condensing water and by melting snow and ice.

During periods of extreme cold temperatures icing may occur around and inside the heat exchangers requiring special techniques, such as water stirrers, alternating exchanger plates, …


During the periods of extreme cold, the energy for auxiliary heating is provided by wind generators that are set up on the ice shelf or on the land nearby. The electric power is transformed into heat and stored in a water tank located in the core of the “Igloo”.

The energy self-sufficiency and independence is almost granted. An auxiliary heating system maybe be needed in case of an extended period of extreme low temperatures and/or the absence of wind. In this case, there is still the need for a solution since the extreme climatic conditions do not allow any mistake.

Graph shows evolution of boiler temperature (red), average daily ambient temperature (blue) and energy output from wind generators (dark blue) over 3 winters.

Heat coils may be substituted with a heat pump system drawing energy from the liquid and warm (-2°C) water below the ice shelf. In a land-based configuration, sea water may be substituted by fresh or ground water or ground-heat. The hat-pump adds complexity, but reduces the number or power of wind turbines by a factor of three.


The living space is designed for a crew of 10-12 during summer. However, during the winter expedition, it is suited to accommodate a team of 3-6. Even though comfortable, the living area is only 5 sqm per person, which requires careful design to make optimal use of space.

The living space is designed to accommodate a crew of 10-12 during summer or 3-6 during the winter. Even though comfortable, the living area is only 5 sqm per person, which requires careful design to make optimal use of space.

Thermal comfort will be adapted to the climatic conditions and the availability of energy, complemented by technical clothing during periods of extreme cold in absence of the sun during the arctic winter.

A carefully handled construction avoids useless weight, therefore saves resources and embedded energy. Altogether the weight sums up to roughly 20 metric tons, 60% of which go to ballast and the reinforced alloy hull. The igloo itself weighs less than 1500kg.

More than 95% of materials used are easily recyclable (steel, aluminium, lead, polystyrene, wood). Useless finishing, such as decorative painting, has been avoided.

Waste management

An on-board micro-composting unit serves sewage treatment and allows for convenient management of organic waste and other biodegradable materials during long-term stationary settings.

A composting unit treats sewage and organic waste and produces compost that may eventually be used for auxiliary heating (under study).

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More information on the boat .. here



peter.gallinelli March 2015