The House of Snow, in Ilulissat, Greenland, was developed by Architect Virginia San Fratello.
Courtesy Andreas Hoffmann The House of Snow, in Ilulissat, Greenland, was developed by Architect Virginia San Fratello.

3D printing in architecture has invited broad experimentation—with materials as well as contexts. A newly built structure in Greenland called the House of Snow further expands the conceptual realm of additive manufacturing. Designed by Virginia San Fratello, a partner of Rael San Fratello, the structure uses snow as a printing feedstock, featuring an array of exterior shelves that function as build surfaces for falling and wind-driven snow. Situated along Greenland’s coast near a rapidly melting glacier, the house also stands as a monument marking one of the front lines of climate change.

House of Snow.
Photo courtesy of Andreas Hoffmann. House of Snow.

A partner of Emerging Objects and co-author of “Printing Architecture: Innovative Recipes for 3D Printing” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018), San Fratello is a leading voice in additive manufacturing. Sawdust, salt, rubber, coffee, curry powder, and many other materials — she has shown that just about any substance in powder form is printable, including snow. Although the House of Snow is not printed in the literal sense, San Fratello’s extensive expertise with 3D printing technology inspired the cognitive leap to consider architecture as a “visual barometer” for precipitation in cold climates. And Greenland is unquestionably cold.

San Fratello’s experience designing, building, and collaborating with locals in the remote town of Ilulissat, along Greenland’s southwestern coast, is as fascinating as the monument she constructed there. In the following interview, she describes her odyssey to a captivating land in the middle of an accelerating transformation.

How did the House of Snow project come about?

The concept for the House of Snow came about on a snowy trip to Colorado several years ago. We had been 3D printing with the ground beneath our feet for many years and started to talk about the idea of 3D printing with snow. If I recall correctly there was some discussion about blowing water and letting it freeze (à la snowmaking at a ski resort) to create a snow 3D printer, but we pretty quickly realized that we didn't need to make a printer, the sky was already doing the work for us, we just needed to build platforms to collect and organize the falling snow in the way we wanted. So essentially I would say the idea emerged out of a conversation around 3D printing with locally abundant atmospheric materials. On the heels of that first conversation, I started 3D printing black panels with "snow catching" shelves (or build beds if you are a 3D printing person) and testing them in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and the San Luis Valley area in Colorado. These early tests were made of bioplastic and clay and helped me figure out the resolution needed to be able to see a black-and-white pattern or image emerge on the black panels when the snow fell. I was also thinking about how snow is such a good insulator and how we might think about utilizing snow's insulative properties to passively enhance a building's thermal performance as a way of reminding ourselves that traditional ways of utilizing abundant local materials have contemporary performative values as well.

3D printing workshop at the Ilulissat Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Andreas Hoffmann. 3D printing workshop at the Ilulissat Art Museum.

What was the process of traveling to Greenland like?

I traveled to Ilulissat, Greenland twice for the House of Snow. First in September 2023, summer, and second in January 2024, winter. The first trip was to do research. It was on this trip that I met Andreas Hoffman, the director of the Art Museum and the Arctic Culture Lab in Ilulissat. I also explored potential building sites for the construction and met with a carpenter who would help me build the house. Ilulissat sits on the edge of the Sermeq Kujalleq, or the Ilulissat Icefjord (in English) which is one of the world’s most productive glaciers and also the fastest-moving glacier in the world. It's also retreating; it has retreated 26 kilometers since 1850. As I write this I'm in Iceland, visiting the Breidamerkurjokull Glacier, which has retreated 150 meters just since this time last year. Residents of the Arctic see the effects of climate change every day, it is extreme here and the landscape is quickly changing.

What were your first impressions of the country?

To fly to Greenland you need to go through Iceland or Denmark even though it is part of the continent of North America. It takes a considerable amount of time to get there when traveling from California, where I live. The ice sheet of Greenland is a blinding mass of whiteness, only the edges of which are legible and occupiable. It is unimaginably beautiful from the sky, the ocean, and the land. The icebergs that calve off of the Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier can be up to 100 meters tall, the height of a 30-story building, and they float by the village and the view changes every day.

How did you endure the long, sunless Ilulissat winter in January?

The second time I went to Greenland I arrived on January 13, the day the sun first appeared over the horizon again after six weeks of darkness. That day the whole town hiked about a mile out to the edge of the Icefjord to see the sunrise.. and set! We had coffee and did sun salutations. It was a beautiful ritual and it takes place every year. There was ambient light for about an hour that day, but things changed quickly. For the first week I was there the days got longer by about 30 minutes a day and by the time I left the days were getting longer by about 10 minutes a day. I stayed for roughly five weeks. I loved the darkness, it was so peaceful, I would wake up only to the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow outside my window, but otherwise, it was quiet and dark, and I slept so well. I don't know if humans can really hibernate, but part of me felt like that's what I was doing during the darkness and it somehow felt very restorative after an intense work year in the US that had left me feeling somewhat depleted.

That said, everyone gets up and goes to school and work in complete darkness, most folks could be seen going for walks or running errands during the few light hours of the day. There was a hill in town, next to the gas station, where every day during the few daylight hours you could see and hear the children sliding down the hill on cardboard boxes. The locals know how to celebrate and take advantage of that small window of light, but life certainly goes on in the darkness as well.

What are the locals in Ilulissat like, and how did they respond to your project proposal and development?

The local community in Ilulissat is largely Greenlandic and to a smaller extent Danish. I had several opportunities, both formally and informally, to engage the community. The most successful of which I would say was around 3D printing. When I arrived in Ilulissat I asked the director of the Art Museum if there was a 3D printer in town and he said yes, the museum has one but we've never taken it out of the box because no one knows how to use it. So I took it out of the box, set it up, and started 3D printing scale models of my design proposal for the House of Snow. On Culture Day, I demonstrated the use of the 3D printer and over 150 locals came to the museum in part to see the 3D printer in action. The printer ended up being an excellent vehicle for sharing the design of the House of Snow, it brought people in because they were curious about the technology and gave me a chance to show them the models I had 3D printed and to ask their opinion about the avittat motif on the facade of the House of Snow while they were there. Mostly it was the women who recognized the pattern on the surface of the building but interestingly they were not critical of the pattern or my choice to use it on the architecture.

While I was there I stayed and worked in the ILLU art and science hub which has glass doors at the main entrance. It's located just down the street from the local school and almost every afternoon some children from the school would peer in and ask to come inside. They were curious about who I was and what I was doing there. Over cookies, we would draw, sometimes portraits of each other and sometimes Avittat designs on fold-out patterns of the building form.

The House of Snow is located on a strip of land between the historic Zion church and the Disko Bay. It's a protected zone in which no one is allowed to build because at times the water level rises to cover this particular piece of land. It is the land where the church originally stood but has since been relocated about 50 meters further inland to protect it from flooding. When the structure started going up some of the locals were critical of the piece mostly because of the location. When we decided to locate it there we were fully aware that the area is protected and so in cooperation with the National Museum and the municipality, we were allowed to set up the building at this spot temporarily. It will be up until this summer. Because of this history, the House of Snow can also be seen as a memorial to the church, which is one of the reasons the structure has the form it does, so yes, it does harken a religious monument and has a temple-like form to it, quite intentionally. The final project elicited a variety of responses from the community, some people love it and think it's beautiful, they like the avittat patterning and the snow-collecting aspect of the facade, which they find interesting and some people hate it and think it's ugly. A fairly extensive Facebook debate about the merits of the piece emerged over the 48 hours after the project was complete and because of that a lot of the community has come out to see the installation and the opening was very well attended. It reminded me of the time my studio built the Sol Grotto in the University of California Berkeley Botanical Garden. We designed and built an installation out of glass rods from the bankrupt Solyndra, and the installation became an object of ridicule for critics, which ironically ultimately led to a 200% increase in visitors to the garden. So I would say if the Facebook discourse can bring the community out to see the architecture and to discuss ideas around using snow as a building material, using traditional patterning to create local and meaningful building designs, and the insertion of contemporary art and architecture into a fairly conservative and historic urban fabric in a worthwhile way, then the social media debate did something useful.

House of Snow detail.
Photo courtesy of Andreas Hoffmann. House of Snow detail.

How did you think to adopt Avittat embroidery patterns as a design inspiration for the architecture?

When I was working on the prototypes for the building in California and Colorado I was experimenting with Nordic fair isle patterns on the building facade. I was interested in the references that one might make to wool sweaters and warm clothing. When I arrived in Greenland, the Nordic patterning didn't seem to fit and it was suggested to me by members of the community that I use avittat patterning instead. Avittat is considered to be one of the finest forms of embroidery in Greenlandic arts and crafts. Dyed sealskin leather strips of a few millimeters in size are sewn on a white or black piece of seal skin and create colorful expressions of Greenlandic identity. Embroidery was brought to Greenland by the Moravians in the mid-1700s and was transformed through the use of local materials and tastes. The colors in the embroidery were originally used to signify a woman's age or marital status and whether they were from East, West, or North Greenland. Nowadays, embroidery is not used as a signifier in that way, it's simply a beautiful craft but it is almost exclusively a gendered skill. I loved the idea of transforming the avittat embroidery into a motif on the building's facade. I hoped that it would culturally signify Greenland and give the architecture both a local and feminine identity.

How do the Avittat patterns shape individual identity in traditional use?

While in Ilulissat I was given a book from 1987 by Helga Bruun de Neergaard called “Avittat: Greenlandic Sealskin Embroideries. Helga traveled around Greenland and documented the various patterns that women in the different towns were using. All of the patterns start with a square grid, and each block in the grid is assigned a color and the colors make patterns. Patterns are mostly geometric, horizontal, and vertical lines, diagonal lines, diamond shapes, and arrow shapes are pervasive. Sometimes flowers, snowflakes, or other more figurative motifs arise. I started with a very simple diagram from the book and transformed it to be more horizontal since I was working with linear lumber pieces and I then "value-engineered" the design so that it could be made with the 30 pieces of lumber that were in stock at the local hardware store. All of the building materials in Greenland need to be imported and I didn't want to import any additional materials for this project. So the design on the surface of the building is not a copy, but rather a pattern that has been inspired by Avittat and transformed to suit the medium and the material resources at hand.

The House's simple architectural form, with its dramatically pitched roof and black color, is suggestive of a religious monument or other culturally symbolic structure. How did you decide on the building form?

The form references the church, but the steep roof also does a very good job of collecting and holding the snow which is another reason for the shape. The shelves on the building facade create a white pattern on a black background, but the pitched roof does the opposite and you can see the black pattern on a white background. I was interested in learning from both scenarios. Maybe there is another snow-catching building in the future that will build on what I learned through this one.

House of Snow door entrance.
Photo courtesy of Andreas Hoffmann. House of Snow door entrance.

Could you describe some of the significant architectural elements in addition to the snow ledges?

The House of Snow has a hidden door and an exposed window. The door faces the street and has the show-catching shelves on it so the pattern is not broken. When you get close to the building you can see the door, but from a distance, you cannot. Visitors can go inside and be protected from the wind while they look out and enjoy a framed view of the icebergs calving off of the glacier.

How did your knowledge of 3D printing extend to the construction or daily "performance" of the House of Snow?

Without my knowledge of 3D printing, I don't think I would have built this project. For me, the building really acts like a powder-based 3D printer without the binding or sintering element. In this case, the powder is deposited on the build beds, layer by layer, and builds up to create a predetermined form that has been designed in the computer. Powder 3D printers tend to be relatively expensive, and to my knowledge, there are no entry-level powder 3D printers on the market which means this technology is inaccessible to most. I originally wanted to 3D print this building, but that would have been too expensive and too slow so I decided to let the building be a 3D printer instead of being 3D printed. The building is a kind of handcrafted 3D printer that uses local materials.

How did you construct this building during the middle of winter?

I constructed the building with the help of Neils Kristian, a local carpenter. I fabricated the facade panels and snow-catching shelves, and painted the structure, with the help of my friend Jamie Principe. It was very cold outside, I would estimate an average of -10--20 while I was there, and so I did all of the fabrication in a workshop with very simple tools, pencil, miter saw, drill, etc... The cladding is made of Scandinavian plywood and lumber strips that are back-screwed in place. It's a very simple assembly. Neils Kristian then installed my prefabricated panels on the frame onsite and we brought over one of the cranes that is used to lift the boats in and out of the harbor to place the roof, which took 5 minutes. The locals are very adept at working outside in the snow and the sub-zero temperatures. I had permission from the local municipality to install the House of Snow from January - May 2024 which is why I chose to work when I did.

When we talked previously, you mentioned that Greenland had an unusually warm winter this year and that the House of Snow received more rain than expected. How are the locals in Ilulissat adapting to climate change?

Greenland has experienced warming temperatures over the last several years due to climate change, leading to various effects including increased melting of ice sheets and glaciers. This can result in changes in precipitation patterns, including instances where rain falls instead of snow, particularly during warmer seasons or in regions where temperatures hover around the freezing point. I also learned that the increase in rain and decrease in snow led to problems with the health of the , dogs. Constant moisture can lead to skin irritation and create favorable conditions for bacterial or fungal infections, such as hot spots or dermatitis. When the dogs are exposed to wet and cold conditions it can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of respiratory infections, such as kennel cough or pneumonia. Wet and muddy conditions can cause irritation, abrasions, or infections on the dogs' paw pads, known as pododermatitis or "snowballing," where snow or mud clumps between the toes. Ilulissat is a town of about 4,500 people and 4,000 sled dogs so these health problems affect the dogs of many of the locals.

What can non-Greenlanders learn from your experience visiting the country? Or, put another way, what should outsiders appreciate about Greenland that we might not typically consider?

Greenland has stunning natural beauty, and unique landscapes including massive ice sheets, glaciers, fjords, and rugged coastlines. Its climate is also distinctive, characterized by Arctic conditions with long, cold winters and short, cool summers. However, Greenland is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Greenland is experiencing warming temperatures at a rate faster than the global average. This rapid warming is causing significant changes to the landscape, including the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, thawing permafrost, and alterations to ecosystems. These changes not only affect the physical appearance of Greenland's landscape but also have broader implications for the environment, wildlife, and indigenous communities that rely on the region's resources for their livelihoods.

Greenland has very unique traditions that are not like any other in the world because the locals have both a unique set of materials to work with and also because there are perhaps fewer material resources to work with. Some of these traditions have faded as contemporary and industrialized materials and products have been imported, but some of them are still very much alive. It's a place that for me seems to very uniquely have one foot in both worlds, for example, you can just as easily get around by dogsled as by snowmobile, you can have whale for dinner in the home of a local alongside pasta imported from Italy and you can admire the 250,000-year-old glacier from the rooftop of the ultra-contemporary Icefjord center, which is a quite stunning piece of architecture designed by Dorte Mandrup. It's a magnificent place to look back and contemplate while thinking about how to design forward.

Credits: The House of Snow has been developed by Architect Virginia San Fratello with support from San José State University in collaboration with Ronald Rael, Jamie Principe, the Arctic Culture Lab, and Ilulissat Art Museum with support by STARK A/S Ilulissat and ST & SØN ApS with permission by Avannaata municipality and the National Museum of Greenland.

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