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What are the Best Architectural Styles for a Cold Climate?

Designing and building, whether its residential or commercial, always needs to be adapted to the climate of the area. There are many historical and innovative new techniques for building for cold climates. Join me in discovering some of the main architectural styles that are best for the snowiest places on earth. 

The History of Building for Cold Climate 

As you journey across the globe in this 800 foot walk, you’ll see that in the extreme climates when it is very warm or very cold, the climate becomes the one condition that overshadows everything else. The architecture becomes all about responding to the climate. But when we reach the more temperate climates or the milder climates, other factors like culture, heritage, politics and economy take over and become the main driving forces. There is a reason the hillsides of Santorini and other Greek islands are speckled with Cubist whitewashed homes. The white color reflects heat, and the flat roofs make for cool, breezy retreats in the evening, Bjarke Ingels explains to the gathered press. The Danish architect is sharply dressed in a fitted suit, his hair a meticulous mess. In the Arctic, the igloo is the dominant form of architecture, he adds, because its spherical shape, with relatively little surface area in respect to volume, minimizes heat loss. And in some villages in Yemen, buildings have peculiar chimneys that collect wind to create natural ventilation.

“Across the planet, people have found ways to work with the locally available material and techniques to respond to the local landscape and climate in ways that optimize human living conditions,” he says. Yet, nearly a century ago, these distinct architectural styles started to give way. Architects became less concerned about daylight, the thicknesses of walls and a building’s orientation when they could rely on advances in technology, such as electricity, air conditioning and mechanical ventilation. “In the end, architecture was just a big boring box,” says Ingels, “a container of space with all the quality being pumped or tube-fed from a room, like a gas guzzling basement, full of 

Most Greenlandic housing takes the form of archetypal, gable-roofed timber dwellings. Almost exclusively clad in timber due to the combined effects of tradition, malleability and a long established supply line from Denmark, most buildings have weathered well. Inuit have arrived in several waves over the past 4,500 years. The first arrivals were the Saqqaq Culture, walking here from what would later become Canada. The Dorset culture followed, also from the west, about 2,500 years ago. The last major immigration was the so-called Thule culture, which arrived in Greenland 1,000-1,100 years ago. These cultures are not named after their origin but after places where their remains were found.When we talk of Inuit houses, we are not talking about Inuit Architecture in a modern sense. The houses were not built to impress but to shelter. Inuit daily life was about survival, and the Inuit way of life reflected this in both housing, religions, and sustainability. Igloos are far from modern building techniques, but a very fascinating form of adaptation to cold climate with limited resources.

In the walled city of Novgorod in what is now called Russia, the Vikings built rustic log homes. In a land filled with trees, settlers will build a shelter from timber. Russia’s early architecture was primarily wood. Because there were no saws and drills in ancient times, trees were cut with axes and buildings were constructed with rough-hewn logs. Homes built by the Vikings were rectangular with steep, chalet-style roofs. The architecture of Norway has evolved in response to changing economic conditions, technological advances, demographic fluctuations and cultural shifts. While outside architectural influences are apparent in much of Norwegian architecture, they have often been adapted to meet Norwegian climatic conditions, including: harsh winters, high winds and, in coastal areas, salt spray.Two distinctive timber building traditions found their confluence in Norwegian architecture. One was the practice of log building with horizontal logs notched at the corners, a technique thought to have been imported from the peoples to the east of Scandinavia. The other was the stave building tradition, which can be seen in the stave churches dotted throughout Norway. The stave churches owe their longevity to architectural innovations that protected these large, complex wooden structures against water rot, precipitation, wind, and extreme temperatures. Most important was the introduction of massive sills underneath the staves (posts) to prevent them from rotting. 


What are the best Architectural Styles for Cold Climate ?

Some of the many challenges unique to buildings in cold, arctic, and subarctic climates include low temperatures and extreme temperature shifts, permafrost, remoteness, and limited utilities. Structures built in cold climates must meet these challenges while simultaneously maintaining occupant comfort and ideally minimizing the buildings’ impact on the environment. Ice dams, burst pipes, drafty rooms, dangerously slick stairways — if you live in a chilly climate, you’ve probably had to deal with at least one of these problems at some point. Thankfully, there are some design moves that can help you avoid (or at least mitigate) common winter woes.  Let’s look at some of the best architectural styles that are good for cold climates. 

1. Gable Roofs

Complicated roof designs invite problems — pine needles, snow and ice can accumulate in nooks and crannies, causing major damage. A simple gable roof is strong and sturdy, and sheds snow easily. A gable roof is the simple classic design of a triangle-like roof with a peak in the middle. Additionally, when snow accumulates on a sloped roof, an icy barrier called a roof dam could form at its edges. This issue generally occurs when the roof temperature is above freezing and the indoor heat rises, but the temperature below the roof is still below freezing. However, proactive measures to improve insulation and airtightness can prevent ice dams. Choosing between metal or shingling materials is a choice every homeowner has to make. While all roof types have their pros and cons, metal roofing is more durable against winter weather. Metal roofing is less likely to develop leaks than shingles are. The metal’s smooth texture also makes it easier for snow and ice to slide off. Considering that one of the most common winter roofing problems is snow and ice piling up and putting weight on the roof, this is an important factor.


2. South Facing Windows

Maximize sunlight with banks of windows positioned on the south-facing side of your home to take in the most light and warmth each day. On the north side, windows should be minimal. Each position has different requirements in terms of glazing, so talk to a window pro to get advice that’s specific to your home. During the day, the low winter sun can shine through windows are to allow heat energy to be absorbed into the building’s thermal mass. While windows allow heat into a building to be absorbed, their thin and transparent nature also allows heat to escape a building. In order to keep this from happening in cold climates, it is recommended that the glass panes are doubled (double glazing) or even tripled. An insulated window covering or thick shade can also be used to help insulate the windows and help keep the heat in the building after the sun goes down. South-facing windows allow sunlight to enter the house and hit the floors and/or walls. These surfaces, which are usually made of masonry, absorb the heat during the day and release them as indoor air cools down during the night. The result of this is that homes with south-facing windows will need to spend less on heating. Southern facing windows (southern solar glazing) are a vital component for a passive solar design and building. Because the southern side of the building is the side that will potentially receive sunlight throughout the day, most passive solar buildings will feature glass dominating the southern side.


3. Loose-fill Fiberglass Insulation

Blown-in insulation is a pneumatic installation, meaning it is insulation blown into place with the help of a blowing machine.  Otherwise known as “loose-fill,” this fiber glass insulation is energy efficient, and useful for insulating hard-to-cover spaces, such as sloped ceilings, midfloors, open attic areas, floors and walls.  If you live in a particularly cold climate, consider going with loose-fill fiberglass insulation. This insulation material has a high R-Value range of R30 to R60, making it perfect for climate zones that come with high R-Value recommendations. Loose fill fiberglass dominates the new construction housing market.   As many homeowners know, builders are under tremendous pressure to deliver a beautiful new home while cutting costs and staying within budget. After a few years, blown-in insulation tends to settle downward by a few inches, which slightly reduces its overall thermal resistance (known as R-value), because it leaves a small section at the top of the stud space uninsulated. Blowing in additional insulation is an option, but most homeowners forego this step because it’s such a small area.


4. Central Fireplace with Chimney

Many homeowners want a fireplace in their homes and one of the main reasons to have one especially during the winter is to help heat your home throughout the season. Fireplaces are designed to keep you warm however, the cold temperatures can have a negative impact on your chimney. You want to make sure you have the right placement of the fireplace in the home: the highest point on your roof is also the safest place for things like a chimney or vent pipe to go. Since water and snow run down the roof and collect along the eaves, the top is the least-likely spot for snow and ice to build up and cause a leak.


5. Baseboards 

The junction between your wall and floor is notoriously bad about creating drafts. On most old houses there have been enough coats of paint that this isn’t an issue but if you notice the joint between the baseboard and the plaster is not sealed, go ahead and caulk and paint it. It’s easy to seal up small cracks between your walls and baseboards with the right materials and a little prep work. Caulk is basically a do-it-yourselfer’s best friend, the way it closes little cracks in wood and drywall alike created by uneven walls and misjudged cuts. In addition to filling gaps and making the joinery look flawless, this sealant serves as an important barrier to keep both critters and drafts out of spaces where they shouldn’t be. Plus, caulk fills in dust-collecting crevices, making baseboards easier to clean. 


6. Covered Entranceway 

The orientation, layout, or protection of building entrances and exits is also a task where the knowledge gained from an ice and snow assessment can be useful. Questions such as the following can be addressed in a timely and cost effective manner: Orientation to prominent winter winds, potential for snow infiltration, and placement and detailing of canopies, wing-walls, wind screens, etc., as effective protection for building entrances and exits. A sheltered entrance makes is safer and more comfortable for you — and for visitors waiting for you to answer your door. Think about adding a portico, covered porch or covered breezeway to your home.


What are the Best Materials for Cold Climate?

1. Brick 

As long as bricks are not applied during cold weather, they make a great building material for cold weather. This is especially true if they are properly insulated and taken care of. Adding the right insulation injection is key to keeping heat in and cold out. In addition, it is important to make sure bricks are free from cracks and other damages prior to winter. Otherwise, moisture can enter through weak spots and remain trapped there. As temperatures fluctuate, the water will expand (freeze) and decrease in volume (melt), a process known as the freeze-thaw cycle. This puts a lot of pressure on brick and will eventually cause it to crack and crumble.

2. Wood 

Wood is a versatile and affordable building material. In cold climates, it is essential to use woods that are resistant to rot and decay. Wood can be used for both the framing and finish of a structure. Many types of wood can be used in construction. For example, Cedar and redwood are two good choices because they are resistant to rot and decay.  Pine is another option, but it is not as durable as cedar or redwood. Framing with wood is a common practice in cold climate regions because it helps to insulate the structure from cold weather.  There are also many finishes that can be applied to wooden structures to help them resist the elements.


Mass timber is a generic term that encompasses products of various sizes and functions, like glue-laminated (glulam) beams, laminated veneer lumber (LVL), nail-laminated timber (NLT), and dowel-laminated timber (DLT). But the most common and most familiar form of mass timber, the one that has opened up the most new architectural possibilities, is cross-laminated timber (CLT).Slabs of wood this large can match or exceed the performance of concrete and steel. CLT can be used to make floors, walls, ceilings — entire buildings. The world’s tallest mass timber structure, at 18 stories and over 280 feet, was recently built in Norway; there’s an 80-story wooden tower proposed for Chicago.

3. Stone 

Natural stone is suitable to either hot and dry climates to cold and humid environments. Not many materials are capable of adapt and resist a wide range of climate changes.Radiant heat is a good provider of heat and warmth from the floor up the room without any cold areas. Due to its properties, some natural stones are a great heat conductor which means that they transfer heat in an efficient way throughout the heating cable to the surface. They also have a great retaining rate making the system efficient. This means that it will heat up quickly and keep warm with less energy and less time-consuming. Some natural stones are a great option to use is these cases. When it rains during colder climates, it usually tends to freeze. The water that seeps into the pavers also freezes and expands, which can lead to expansion and further breakage of the stone (the pressure cracks the stone). So, to avoid that type of incident, we need to choose the right type of stone, with low porosity and high durability; or, apply the stone with that in mind making sure the fixing system allows the water to cycle. There exist two test procedures for this purpose: “Determination of Frost Resistance” and “Determination of Resistance to Aging by Thermal Shock”. Natural stone is a great heat conductor, meanwhile, it is resistant to fire and helps prevent and protect the areas where applied.

4. Cold Roof

Cool roof construction is another option suggested to combat cold weather issues from the roof down. A cool roof involves higher insulation values paired with light colored roofing materials. This has a noticeable impact on snow melt rate. Raised insulation tends to reduce potential heat loss from a building’s interior, while light colored materials tend to reduce solar absorbance. By combining these two elements, you can impact the amount of water present following a period of heavy snow.

In addition, adding several thin layers of living greenery to your roof can help combat cold weather. This adds roughness and reduces sliding by absorbing rainwater runoff. In addition, it provides extra insulation. Of course, it’s important that your roof can withstand the extra weight that will come with adding vegetation to your rooftop, especially as it soaks up moisture and becomes heavier during cold and wet months.


5. Insulated Concrete Forms

ICF is growing in popularity. It is a hollow foam block made of expanded polystyrene (EPS) and steel reinforced concrete. These blocks are stacked in the shape of the exterior walls of your building and then usually reinforced with a steel rebar before being filled with concrete. From there, ICFs are covered with rock, brick, stucco or a variety of other building materials. While a plywood home is going to cost less money than ICF, there are many benefits to spending a little more. For one, ICF homes tend to save homeowners as much as thirty to seventy percent in energy consumption and costs, offering benefits to both the consumer and the environment.



Building materials and approaches have been shifting over time, and new technologies have become available to us. While many of these technologies can provide additional insulation, and perhaps save on you on heating bills, they can also be toxic and have negative side effects. Depending on your priorities, it will be important to do your research and find out what building materials suit your needs, both in terms of climate adaption, and sustainability. After so many advances, many architects and designers are also turning back to traditional materials like wood and brick to build in ways that are adaptive, natural and sustainable, as well as beautiful. When it comes to newer technologies, they can totally change the shape of our approach to building. For example, when we introduce air conditioning and advanced heating systems, we change our buildings to become sealed to retain the temperature control on the inside. On the other hand, when buildings used to be built to adapt to the natural conditions of the area, they needed to be adaptable, and breathe with the environment. Breezier buildings were built for hot climates, and while you want insulation for cold climates, they were also built to naturally absorb the heat from outside. 


In thinking about building for the future, it’s important to take the innovations we’ve been gifted over the centuries and also take into consideration the wisdom of centuries of tradition. When you’re building or renovating your home, consider your own needs, as well as the needs of the environment around you, and how the two can work in symbiosis. 

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