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Icehotel entrance under construction. ICEHOTEL 365. Photo: Asaf Kliger
an ice hotel that will remain until the spring is one thing. Building a
permanent ice hotel is completely different. This is something that
Michael Uhland, Project Manager at COWI, is well aware of.
Icehotel 365 has opened in Jukkasjärvi in northern Sweden. An ice hotel with a temperature of minus 5 degrees all year round – which is cooled by the sun, has 20 rooms, a bar and an art gallery. And everything is made of ice.
The hotel was built in record time. And there have been more challenges than Michael Uhland could ever have imagined when he took on the job of project manager.
“It’s difficult to rank your experiences in life. But I can definitely say that this has been a unique experience and will remain a memory for life.”
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Just over a year ago, COWI decided to establish itself in northern Sweden. The company opened an office in Luleå and based Michael Uhland in Kiruna, which is 19 kilometres from Jukkasjärvi.
When Yngve Bergqvist, entrepreneur and the creator behind the classic Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi, which has been built every spring for many years, decided to realise an old dream, he turned to COWI’s local office.
“I’d long had a vision of building a permanent ice hotel instead of the classic Icehotel, which is built in the autumn and melts in the spring. Initially, I’d imagined just a few rooms.
Just to be able to offer something, when in the middle of summer a few tourists from Japan arrive, surprised, wondering where the Icehotel is. I had to point at the river and say: ‘it has melted and gone back to where it came from’,” says Yngve Bergqvist.
In the end there were not just ‘a few rooms’. The project expanded into an ice hotel measuring 1,900 m2.
“We’re now talking about something completely different,” says Michael Uhland, and continues:
“We weren’t building an ice rink, but a hotel made of ice that would be there permanently, on a site that has the midnight sun 100 days a year.”
Yngve Bergqvist had specific requirements:
“I wanted to use local subcontractors and the building needed to be environmentally sustainable in the long term. And I said ‘you have 18 weeks, from the start of the construction work until it is opened’.”
No sooner said than done.
“The building had to be unique in the world, and this was also true of its production. We have designed, built and inspected, and procured subcontractors. All at the same time,” says Michael Uhland.
The first and possibly the greatest challenge was not making sure the new hotel did not melt. It was actually the foundations.
The location of the hotel is where the ice store for the classic Icehotel used to be. Thick ice blocks were required to build a new ice hotel every year. And it was not possible to ‘harvest’ them from the river in the autumn, as there is hardly any ice at that time of year. So these one-metre thick blocks had to be sawn out during the coldest part of winter and then stored until the construction work started in the autumn.
So the new hotel will be built on this storage place.
“This site has stored huge amounts of ice for 25 years. Few people had thought about what had happened to the ground after being exposed to permanent minus degrees for such a long time,” says Michael Uhland.
The answer was permafrost. And how do you build on this? And what happens if the permafrost thaws? To find the answers, Michael Uhland had to start the construction process by calling in geotechnical engineers. They carried out a soil survey and analysed core samples in the lab.
“We discovered that the permafrost reached just over 5 metres down into the ground. So the solution was to drive 144 poles to a depth of 8 metres in order to achieve a stable foundation.”
Photo: Johan Ylitalo
But this was not the last of the challenges caused by the foundations. If you build a permanent ice hotel over permafrost, there is a clear risk that it could continue to go deeper into the ground. It could eventually go down further than the eight metres of piling.
“The solution was thick soil insulation with heating cables underneath. We want to maintain exactly the right temperature under the insulation, so the permafrost neither increases or decreases,” explains Michael Uhland.
“As an engineer, you rarely venture into unknown territory. You have normally done most of the work already, or you have documentation showing how someone else has done it. For this project, I really had to be humble and willing to learn new things. A week didn’t go by when I didn’t come across a challenge that I’d never heard of before.”
A new experience was ‘snice’. This is the construction material invented by Yngve Bergqvist and his builder.
It is a mixture of snow and ice that can be spread on a surface with good adhesion. But for this to work, the temperature of the building has to be below zero.
So how do you build an ice hotel that does not melt?
“It is all about minimising the amount of cold that is lost. This is why the hotel has a grass roof and the walls at the outer edges are relatively low. It’s actually like building a gigantic vacuum flask, keeping the cold inside the hotel,” says Michael Uhland.
And then there was the requirement for sustainability. In the long term.
The idea for this came early on in the process. Exploiting the major enemy of the ice hotel – the sun. With 100 days of midnight sun, the solar energy that threatens to melt the hotel can instead be used to cool it down.
“We have built a solar power plant that measures more than 600 m2 and produces 75 kW. This has to cover all the energy that is needed for the hotel and a little extra,” says Michael Uhland.
Icebar by Jukkasjärvi. Tribute design: Elin julin Marinus Vroom. Photo: Asaf Kliger
Having completed the foundations and solving the problem of cooling the hotel, he then had to tackle the next problem – the hot rooms in the ice hotel.
One of the new features of Icehotel 365 is the nine luxury suites, which each have their own spa area. This means that in a hotel that is minus 5 degrees, you need to be able to go directly from your suite into your own spa, which is plus 24 degrees.
“We needed to have two completely different systems, one hot and one cold, and they had to be separate. We solved the problem of moving between the cold room and the hot spa by using special airlocks,” says Yngve Bergqvist.
“This is completely new. And I think that it is going to enhance the experience of staying in a completely unique hotel.”
Yngve Bergqvist is also convinced that the new Icehotel 365 will be a success among visitors.
“We had good demand for these new rooms even before construction started at the hotel. And this has just continued,” he said.
Ice can also wear out. This is particularly true of the larger spaces, such as the ice bar in the hotel, where many people congregate. It is not the physical contact that wears the ice, but the thermal energy from people, which rises up to the ceiling. This destroys the ice in the long term.
This is why an ice hotel needs to have an extremely sophisticated ventilation system, which continually blows cold air around, while removing the hot air.
“These are the kinds of things that we as engineers love to get our teeth into. But the normal visitor doesn’t see any of this. One thing I have really learnt from Yngve Bergqvist and his design team is that the crucial factor is how people feel when they are in the hotel,” says Michael Uhland.
“We’ve put in a huge amount of work to give them that extra special feeling. A premium feeling. And this is where I’ve learnt the most, working closely with designers and artists, while still getting the construction process to work. This is where you really need to have respect for each other’s disciplines.”
To make the tight construction deadline, Michael Uhland had to use two and sometimes three shifts. With all the subcontractors, all the technical challenges and all the different disciplines that can easily get in the way and disrupt each other.
“This is a dream job for a project manager. Provided that you enjoy challenges …”
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