Keeping Your Cool: Designing ice lounges

Boston (15)
Photos courtesy Iceculture

By Julian Bayley
Shortly after the famous Swedish Ice Hotel opened its doors in the early 1990s, interest in snow- and ice-sculpting hit an all-time high. The interest is continuing to build, with icy spin-offs in cities around the world fuelling a modern resurgence of these traditional art forms.

For centuries, artisans plied their trade using hand saws and chisels. However, in the last 15 years, ice carving has stepped into the 21st century—computer numeric controlled (CNC) equipment and a welter of power tools and specialized accessories equip modern-day sculptors with everything needed to operate efficiently (and above all, profitably).

Ice carving is a niche business, with most sculptors working alone or with a small staff. Other companies hire freelancers or employ more full-timers in house. Traditionally, the craft has centred around sculptures for weddings and hotel buffets, but since the advent of the aforementioned Ice Hotel in Jukkas Jarvi about 200 km (125 mi) north of the Arctic Circle, there has been a sharp focus on ice construction. Similar frozen hotels in Alaska and the Scandinavian countries, along with igloos in Germany and Austria, have led to larger construction projects.

Exactly where the idea of an ice lounge or bar that could duplicate the unique features of the original Ice Hotel originated is a matter of debate, but it is likely several people in the ice industry saw a business opportunity at around the same time. The goal was to build a refrigerated structure somewhere that could be accessed easily and economically by the general public. Locations in large shopping malls and inside strategically located hotels were obvious choices.

Making use of existing equipment and processes was the logical way to start; most installations employ use of a regular walk-in freezer, along with walls generally 100 mm (4 in.) thick or more with an insulation factor of R-30. The walk-in freezer is a box-like structure that comes in many different sizes. In a situation where the available space is an awkward shape, such was the case of a lounge close to the Sydney Opera House in Australia, individual insulated panels are used to negotiate the bends and curves of the location. Once the freezer has been installed, the ice interior can be completed.

This author’s company, based in Hensall, Ont., has designed and installed ice lounges in Canada and the United States, along with less-likely lands like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Thailand. In 2005, an ice restaurant was installed in a Dubai shopping mall (rather than a lounge, which could not meet the United Arab Emirates’ [UAE’s] alcohol restrictions). The restaurant has seen three refurbishings over the last nine years, and is still operating.

Concepts and basic strategies
The process to creating an ice lounge is similar to building a house. First, there has to be a suitable location acquired, then attention turns to planning permission, building permits, local bylaws, and other regulations that all have to be addressed.

The building material is where the first real differences appear. In Greenland and the central Canadian arctic, Inuit have built igloos for centuries. Although these structures are primarily constructed with blocks of snow, they can be built with ice blocks and survive against the impacts of rain, wind, and temperature. Ice roads are also successful, so the strength of this material cannot be questioned.

In one method, crystal-clear ice blocks, each measuring 1016 x 508 x 25 mm (40 x 20 x 10 in.) and weighing 594 kg (270 lb) form the walls, leaving the impression of being inside an ice house. These ‘slick’ blocks, as they are known, are manufactured in pairs in special tanks and take three days to produce.

However, there are no building codes for ice construction. Therefore, ice carvers must lean heavily on skills and experience, along with their knowledge of ice behaviour. Safety is a major consideration, as indeed it should be with all ice sculptures.

When an ice lounge is installed, local building inspectors, fire departments, and engineers are consulted regularly throughout the building process. While these personnel are well-qualified in their profession, they are not usually familiar with ice; the learning curve is steep. Rather than simply deny approvals, they work with the ice carvers to arrive at a workable solution for the project in hand, so there are many discussions between all parties.

Boston (1)
Walls are being built in the Frost Ice Bar in Boston. Using a nailboard fashioned from acrylic-coated marine plywood with sharp dry-wall nails protruding through underneath, the top of each layer is roughed up. Water squeezed between the layers freezes to make a strong bond.

An ice lounge is maintained at about −6 C (21 F). With hundreds of visitors entering and leaving the lounge every day, it is easy for temperatures to significantly fluctuate. Latent heat generated from visitors is a huge problem. Body heat causes condensation, which leads to sublimation of the ice inside the lounge. This situation is not helped by the air from the evaporators, which contributes to the ice shrinkage problem.

Safety is a major concern and every area where a problem might occur has to be covered. This is where common sense and a little ingenuity come into play. A lot of these issues can crop up in any ice sculpture situation.

Designers must establish how long a sculpture will be on display and have to assess whether the sculpture is inside or out, and be aware of the prevailing temperature in either situation. The sculpture has to be protected from wind (or drafts if contained within a larger structure), along with rain and sunlight. The design team must also ensure the structure is set up on a sturdy base, and includes efficient drainage in case of a melt-down.

Failure to address these concerns can result in injury, or water-damaged wood floors, carpeting, and furnishings—all problems that can promote legal problems with expensive results.

How to build
When building an ice lounge, the wall blocks are first installed, about 127 mm (5 in.) inside the insulated walk-in freezer walls. The ice blocks are laid similarly to a traditional masonry wall and are securely welded together by what ice-carvers call ‘glue’—water squirted between the blocks. They are then sanded smooth and polished by applying a torch to the surface.

The reason for leaving a gap between the ice blocks and freezer wall is a technique that addresses the aforementioned issue of sublimation. Secondly, a false ceiling about 1 m (3 ft) below the freezer ceiling is installed and covers the complete freezer roof with a gap of about 127 mm (5 in.) around all four sides. The purpose is twofold—not only does it hide the evaporators, but it also helps to reduce noise inside the lounge.

Air from evaporators flows across the top of the false ceiling and drops naturally in the 127-mm (5-in.) gap between the ice and freezer walls. It returns to the centre of the lounge through holes in the wall base and then flows back to the evaporators through a grille in the middle of the false ceiling.

Attached to the freezer is an anteroom that generally can accommodate up to 50 visitors. This room is maintained at 0 C  (32 F) and is where visitors are chilled down before entering the lounge itself. They often watch a video, which serves as a distraction so they remain completely unaware latent heat is being removed from their bodies. They feel no discomfort, but the overall result is that on entering the ice lounge, body heat is no longer such a serious factor and maintaining a constant low temperature is much easier on the evaporators that do not have to work as hard to keep the temperature at the desired level.

There is another important aspect with the anteroom. Visitors go to the lounge for the ‘ice experience,’ and with up to 50 people dressing in insulated capes, there is a lot of interaction between visitors, which helps with the atmosphere.

Chill House Toronto (1)
A coloured Toronto cityscape in the wall of the Chill Ice House shows the esthetic potential of frozen water.

From Canada to the world
Challenges crop up when the location is in countries where temperatures often hit 60 C (140 F) or hotter. Locations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, and some Mediterranean countries create problems for the construction crew. The ice is carved in the studio in Canada and is then labelled and packaged carefully before being loaded into freezer containers.

Packing a shipment of ice has its challenges, too. The containers have to be loaded in such a way that the components needed to start the build have to come out of the container first.

There are not many regulations governing ice being used for ice sculpture and construction. Packaged ice—the cubes sold for human consumption—have to adhere to rigid safety standards, both in production and handling. Ice is now classed as a food product and, as such, has to comply with the same standards as a restaurant would. When exporting ice, for example, this author has the water and ice tested for purity by an independent laboratory to prevent shipments from being held up when entering a foreign country.

The journey abroad can take seven to eight weeks, and then the ice has to be transported to the location, generally by road. For a Dubai project on which this author worked, three containers of ice were on a large ship that was unloaded on the dock where the containers sat for five weeks due to a strike. Luckily, these containers were in the middle of a large batch of other containers, and were protected from the sun. Given the temperatures, the company was convinced heat would have damaged the cargo despite a reefer fitted to containers and tractor trailers to keep the cargo cold. However, the ice arrived in perfect condition and sublimation was not a factor.

Dubai (5)
Ice seating and chandelier in the Chillout ice restaurant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Close to $1 million was spent on light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for the project.

The problem emerged however, when unloading the container at a new shopping mall. The truck backed up to the dock to find the ceiling of the dock was 1 m (3 ft) too low—the answer was to unload everything by hand and get it into the building as soon as possible. This was no easy task when working in extreme heat, and having to watch the building products melting in front of your eyes.

On another occasion, 30-m2 (320-sf) containers had to be off-loaded into smaller containers able to fit on a ferry to one of the Greek Islands. When ice is loaded into the container at the Hensall, Ont., plant, care is taken during the process to figure out which components are needed first. The installation team had to juggle the load at night to avoid exposure to the hot sun.

For the most part, the ice lounge is a permanent installation, so it is imperative the construction is professionally completed. The ice does sublimate over time and has to be replaced every so often. Walls will remain intact for up to 18 months, but some of the other components such as tables, bar countertops, décor sculptures, and seating will require replacement after three months or so.

Some spare components are included in the initial shipment, and are put into commercial storage for this purpose. Maintenance of an ice lounge can be expensive, so designers and the construction crew take every precaution in the building process. The ice lounge is a highly profitable business with an attractive return on investment (ROI)—however, unnecessary maintenance can affect the bottom line significantly.

JulianBayley (2)Julian Bayley founded Iceculture with his late wife 30 years ago; after a recent succession plan, the company remains a family business and he continues to take part in large-scale projects around the world. In 2007, Bayley became the first Canadian inducted in the National Ice Carving Association (NICA) Hall of Fame. He can be reached via e-mail at


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