When thinking about my ongoing Tiny House History series (of which we are really making up based on a bit of criteria including lessons gained, sustainability of dwelling, actual realistic occupancy, etc) and then thinking about the month of December and the winter season in general I was almost miffed at where to take this post. I laughingly suggested to myself that I should delve into the world of igloos and think about their contributions to the tiny house world. However, after thinking about it in my own intellectual spectrum I reasoned that because they are little more than one open room comprised of seasonal snow and ice they wouldn’t really constitute a house or any sort of even semi-permanent structure. But for fun I dug in a little deeper. I was surprised and then captivated by the entire Intuit culture and Greenland in general. Let’s dig in, shall we?
It’s important to first get some definitions out of the way. First and foremost, what is an Inuit? Often confused with Eskimos or some small cartoon figure with a furry hood covering his/her face, a person of direct Inuit descent is of a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and the United States. The Greenlandic Inuit specifically are the descendants of migrations from Canada and are citizens of Denmark, although not of the European Union. The Wikipedia entry is quite robust and can offer a lot more information on this people group.
What I found more fascinating as I continued to research is that the Inuits lived in and from their natural surroundings and in order to do so had to become versatile in their dwellings which – by necessity – had to be easy to construct and located close to good hunting and fishing. While we think of only Igloos the Inuit also had a more stable and permanent structure called a turf hut that they lived in for long stretches of time. They also had mobile tents made from animal hide to protect them from the direct cold and then, of course, the igloo, which is absolutely a temporary shelter (as I first believed) made of snow and ice.
Up until the mid-1950s there were still areas in Greenland where the Inuits lived in what Westerners would label as primitive. However, the structures were adequate and rather advanced in regards to passive temperature control.
While turf huts are still visible on the landscape the design and actual structures have almost completely been resigned to local museum faire. The turf hut – a low, square, stone structure supported by wooden beams of driftwood – was robust, sturdy, and well insulated. They could, in fact, be more or less, permanent structures. Turf huts were also located close to the sea so that Inuits could travel easily by kayak and canoe and so seal hunting was more accessible.
turf hut photo courtesy of Ultima Thule
interior photo of turf house © Bryan & Cherry Alexander Photography / ArcticPhoto
The word ‘igloo’ is a mid-19th century Inuit word (iglu) which means ‘house’. And while an igloo is a bit of a primitive (read: sparse) house, it can provide shelter from temperature and conditions most closely thought of with hypothermia and death. The igloo is actually a one-room “tent” made of large blocks of snow that are cut out in different sizes with a special snow knife. The blocks are then placed on top of each other in a gradual spiral creating a bit of a dome shape. The key is that they are not made of packed snow that ultimately freezes. Igloos were found almost entirely in an area very north of Greenland where the sea was frozen through in winter. After further investigation I would hardly say igloos have had much impact on the tiny house community and more to do with the survivalist set or prepper group.
Whatever the case we are again reminded that tiny houses have been around a lot longer than we want to give credit for. They have bounced in between cultures from continent to continent impacting the people and rewriting the architectural history books!
Other posts in the Tiny House History series:
- Was There A House On Plymouth Rock?
- Tiny House Tub (or boat for those of you without sea legs): Part 1
- Tiny House Tub (or boat for those of you without sea legs): Part 2
- Tiny House Tub (or boat for those of you without sea legs): Part 3
- A Life Lived Under The Earth
- WOODn’t You Love A Tiny House On Wheels?
- Camping or Living: RVs as Tiny Houses
- Finding Freedom: a return to Usonia