Acharya’s NRV School of Architecture
Vernacular architecture stems from the belief that
architecture is a balanced combination of logical
knowledge, divine inspiration and common sense.
It is the pure response to a particular person’s or society’s
building needs. It fulfils these needs because it is crafted by
the individual and society it is in.
The building methods are tested through trial-and-error by
the society of which they are built until their building
methods near perfection (over time) and are tailored to the
climatic, aesthetic, functional, and sociological needs of
their given society.
Vernacular architecture widely varies from the spectacular
Mayan Tikal and Machu Picchu temples to humble
dwellings like the African tree-houses and the Native
American log cabin.
The igloos of the Inuit (Greenland), rondavels of South
Africa, tin-and-thatch houses of Togo, yurts of
Mongolia, and the Bedouin tents are other classic examples
of vernacular dwellings.
Interestingly, public utility buildings like
granaries, fortifications and religious institutions are more
frequent vernacular structures than residential homes.
Most of these practices and ideas make the vernacular
seem exclusive to the realm of the exotic and the distant.
Yet, in the light of the truth, this type of architecture not
only is the most widespread way to build, but indeed most
of us were likely raised in vernacular homes, given that
atleast 90% of the world’s architecture is vernacular.
Local designs evolve in compliance with the economic
feasibility, topography and climate. Indigenous materials
are employed to create distinctive residences that merge
with the surrounding landscape. Even the interior spaces
are decorated in a fashion that evokes Nature.
With swelling populations, unstable ecology and economic
worries hitting hard, numerous architects around the
world are increasingly looking towards sustainable
solutions. They attempt to blend modern
architectural theories to vernacular building cultures and
often come up with strikingly surprising innovations. The
resultant is humane and ecologically sound buildings.
Tundra is land where it is too cold for trees to grow. Because
trees cannot grow on this land, which is frozen solid for all
but a few months of the year, lumber is in very short supply.
Farming is also impossible in the frozen ground, although
some grasses and mosses do grow in the summer months.
As a result, the Inuit people had to travel from season to
season, following their animal food sources.
In the summer, when the snow melted, Inuit lived in tent-like
huts made of animal skins stretched over a frame. In the
winter months, they depend on ice-fishing to sustain
themselves, which meant that they needed temporary winter
"Inuit" means "the people" in the Inuktitut language of
They are a group of culturally similar, nomadic and indigenous
people inhabiting the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and
Greenland -moving between summer/winter camps to hunt.
The Inuit and their Thule ancestors have lived in the eastern
Arctic for approximately 1000 years.
First European encounter was with Vikings in the 13th century.
Norse settlements failed due to fighting with 'small people‘
Ravaged by disease in the 19thcentury
Until the last century, igloos were built by native people of
northern Canada and Russia. Today, these parts of Canada are
called Labrador, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. Igloos
were also built by people in northern Alaska. For each of these
locations, the people had a different name.
The Inuit are traditionally hunters and fishermen.
Strong gender role component – but not absolute.
Family and community are very important.
Traditional storytelling, mythology, and dancing remain
important parts of the culture.
The Inuit lived in an environment that inspired a
mythology filled with shamanism and animist principles.
Although Inuit life has changed significantly over the past
century, many traditions continue.
The Inuktitut language is still spoken in many areas of the
Arctic and is common on radio and in television
The Eskimos traditionally had three types of houses:
A summer house, which was basically a tent
A winter house, which was usually partially dug into the
ground and covered with earth;
A snow or ice house. A dome-shaped dwelling constructed of
blocks of snow placed in an ascending spiral with a low
tunnel entrance. Although it can provide adequate protection
for weeks in severe cold, it was used almost exclusively as a
temporary shelter while travelling.
Igloos have remained a functional part of their cultural
The principles of design have been adopted by the Armed
Forces and explorers alike.
Caribou, seal, polar bear hide
Snow is a form of precipitation within the Earth's
atmosphere in the form of crystalline water ice, consisting
of snowflakes that fall from clouds. Since snow is
composed of small ice particles, it is a granular material.
Types of snow can be designated by the shape of the
flakes, the rate of accumulation, and the way the snow
collects on the ground.
The intensity of snowfall is determined by visibility.
There are three traditional types of igloos, all of different sizes and
all used for different purposes.
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.
for semi-permanent, 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 igloos
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 Inuit designed the igloo to be warm, sturdy and easy to
construct. All it takes is a few simple tools and an
abundance of snow. The experienced igloo builder can put
one together in as little as one hour. Novice igloo builders
can expect it to take an average of three to six hours.
Saw/ large knife
Snow has an excellent insulative property.
A well-constructed igloo, coupled with a very
small oil lamp and plain old body heat, can warm an igloo
up to 40 degrees above the outside temperature.
It accomplishes this amazing feat thanks to several
The walls block the bitter wind
Snow and ice work as insulators to trap body heat inside the
igloo. Thus, the occupants of an igloo double as a furnace of
Insulation capabilities actually increase a few days after
construction. Body heat and sun exposure cause the inside of the
igloo to melt ever so slightly. When the igloo is unoccupied
during hunting expeditions, the melted snow freezes
over, turning into ice. Several days of gradual thawing and
refreezing turns the entire structure to solid ice, making it not
only super strong, but also warmer than ever.
Thermal conductivity of snow compared with that of
various other insulating materials:
gm / cubic cm
per cent air
Snow 0.39 57.5 6.4
0.28 69.5 2.49
0.14 84.7 1.52
Brick - - 1.5
Dry soil - - 3.3
Saw dust - - 1.2
Rock wool - - 0.94
The igloo does, in fact, melt inside, but not to a great
The snowflakes falling outside of the igloo, in the harsh
Alaskan winter, quickly melt when they land on its roof,
and provide a replacement layer of insulation for the igloo.
The ongoing freezing and re-freezing of the igloo, hardens
it and transforms the blocks of snow the Eskimos used in
the construction process into a solid, icy, domed refuge.
The igloo can now withstand the weight of a massive polar
bear, should one happen along and have the urge to play
"king of the mountain."
The primary use for an igloo was to serve as the winter
camp for a group of travelling families.
Some igloos would house only a single hunter or a small
group of hunters or fishermen, while larger igloos could
serve as community meeting centres--or even wrestling
During the summer, the people would travel to a summer
camp, and live in tents made of animal skins. However, an
igloo actually provides much better insulation than an
animal-skin tent, and so it works better for cold-weather
The food gathered during the winter would be stored in
small snow mounds outside the igloo.
Optimization through the application of a double curved
Efficiency in construction
Cultural and commercial requirements
The spherical shape is not dictated by aesthetics but by the
rough polar climate.
The surface area to volume ratio of a sphere is much lower than
that of a cube of the same volume. A rectangular building of the
same volume has 25% more surface area. Since the majority of a
building’s energy losses and unwanted gains are through the
surface material, a spherical shape can translate into drastic
reductions in transfer of heat.
A few other snow shelters to be noted are:
Snow mounds / Quinzhees
After World War II, the Inuit way of life greatly changed.
The outside world became much more interested in the
Arctic, and set up military bases and radar stations in the
All of the travel into the tundra meant that more
permanent building materials and jobs were available, and
so few Inuit still use igloos today.
However, other parts of the Inuit culture, including
mythology, storytelling, and the use of native languages
continue to thrive in the tundra.
It should also be kept in mind that vernacular architecture
can be overtly romanticized with a tendency to ignore the
multiple inconveniences and discomforts.
But, the challenge lies in finding befitting architectural
solutions that advantageously blend empirical science with
native traditions, in order to come up with an impeccable
Modern architects have been successful, time and again, in
building exquisite organic architectural designs that are
inspired from the earthy vernacular traditions in
Douglas Wilkinson, 1949
This classic short film shows how to make an igloo using only
snow and a knife.
Nanook of the north, 1922
This silent film by Robert J Flaherty is considered to be the
first ever feature length documentary.
Structural and thermal characteristics of snow shelters
Robert W. Elmer and William O. Pruitt, Jr.
• Field manual of U.S. antarctic program
How warm is an igloo
Rich Holihan, Dan Keeley, Daniel Lee, Powen Tu, Eric Yang
BEE 453 Spring 2003
Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs
Frank E. Kleinschmidt
National Earth Science Teachers’ Association
Library and Archives Canada
Climate and global dynamics
Inuit: People of the Arctic
Bill Hilman’s EduTech Research Project
Brandon University, Canada
I would like to express my gratitude to all those
who have extended their support and guidance for the
My heartfelt thanks to Mr. Ashutosh Sharma, IISc
Bangalore, for being a great source of inspiration and
for his enthusiastic support.