A Track Record in the Trackless Wilderness

A Track Record in the Trackless Wilderness

FRP is very durable in exterior applications. This comes as a surprise to some people, possibly individuals scarred in early life by visions of 1960’s fiberglass siding that had grown “fuzzy” due to breakdown of the top layer of resin. Resins and coating techniques have improved considerably since then, and modern FRP is extremely durable and long-lived, even under UV exposure.

Case in point, the Igloo. Originally designed and first manufactured in 1982 by the late Malcolm Wallhead, they have been in production ever since. They are still manufactured in Tasmania, currently by Penguin Composites under license from the design originators, Icewall One, also of Tasmania. Their primary use has been in exploration in Antarctica, with 16 different countries using them on the bottom of the world.

The Icewall One Igloo is a modular system. The basic unit is a 10-foot diameter truncated sphere, assembled from 8 wall panels and four self-supporting floor panels. It can be extended into a longhouse-type structure by splitting the base unit in two and infilling with full-width vaulted “hallway” panels and floors.

It is designed to ship to its site either unassembled or fully-assembled. The unassembled pieces can ship on the back of a truck, and be built in the field by two or three people with simple hand tools in about one hour. An assembled Igloo is designed to be flown underneath a helicopter at speeds up to 70 knots. (The aluminum tie-down lugs on the lower sides also act as hoist attachment points.)  A basic unit weighs approximately 540 lbs (245 kg).

There are plain wall panels, and others with a window or a door. There is a top escape hatch option. There are also optional fiberglass furnishing, such as bunks and shelves. Most of the 197 igloos sold since 1982 have been customized to some extent, either in the factory or by the user.  Factory mods include extended flat top roofs, doorway extensions, interior partitions, interior bathrooms, etc.   In tropical climes, they are often outfitted with an exterior-mounted air conditioner. There are units in Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Japan, New Zealand and USA.

An Igloo basic unit can fit four fiber-glass bunks with the door partially blocked. The company recommends 3 bunks, which leaves space in the middle for a narrow bed or sleeping bag.

The wall and floor panels are fiberglass-and-foam sandwiches. The provide some thermal insulation, with an R-value of approximately R=5. According to Icewall One principal Anthea Wallhead, living conditions inside are somewhat dependent on Igloo size and outside temperature, but Igloos have been outfitted with small heaters. “I have photos of some people in Antarctica with outer heavy-duty jackets, and some with just jumpers etc.,” reports Wallhead.

If correctly assembled and tied down properly, Igloos have a life expectancy of 20-30 years in some of the harshest environments on the planet. “The Australian Antarctic Division is only now replacing some Igloos they have had for over 20 years,” writes Wallhead, and adds that the most common causes of wear or failure are objects hitting the Igloo, poorly secured doors, damaged components not replaced, bad helicopter landings, and erosion over time from windborne particles gradually scouring the surface. The structure can withstand winds of up to 186 MPH (300 km/hr).

That track record is particularly impressive considering that there was a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica for much of the past 20 years. The ozone layer normally protects us from a portion of the sun’s UV emissions, and for a while, the hole was bad enough that people in southern Argentina were reporting unprecedented sunburn problems and increases in cancer rates among young people. The Igloos survived this period, though, which should put an end to fears about fuzzy, UV-damaged 1960’s fiberglass.


All images courtesy of Icewall One.