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Picture a planet where it's always winter all year (by that I mean that there are technically no seasons and it's always sub-zero weather) so the colonizers make use of the most abundant materials available: Ice and Snow.

While there are subterranean settlings and cities carved into the side of glaciers, I was inspired by Inuit igloos made out of blocks of compacted snow, and while these are made to be temporary shelters for hunters, I wonder if in a planet where nothing never melts naturally it could be used to make at least the main structure of buildings, so the question: What are the structural limitations to using Snow and Water for construction? How high could they build? How long could it last accounting for sublimation? Things I have to be aware about, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Snow? Where does the snow come from? If the entire planet is always cold as in winter, from where does the water in the air come from to form clouds so that it snows? Remember that the Antarctic is a very dry desert. On our Earth it snows in winter at middle latitudes because the water in the ocean as low latitudes is warm and evaporates. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 24, 2022 at 0:40
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    $\begingroup$ If the colonists have body temperatures above the freezing point of water, "not long". $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Nov 24, 2022 at 0:41
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    $\begingroup$ You should look up "snow hotel" or the various ice festivals that have lots of sculptures. That will give info as to what has been done on earth for that sort of thing. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2022 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting also that the reason igloos work as well as they do is because snow has a lot of interstitial air in it, and so works as an excellent insulator. Not because it's a particularly good building material. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Nov 24, 2022 at 1:10
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    $\begingroup$ Even if it is always below freezing, ice sublimates. This will especially be true when the sun is shining directly on snow or ice. $\endgroup$
    – Boba Fit
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:06

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Pykrete

Pykrete is a material composed of 86% water and 14% wood pulp, and is pound-for-pound as strong as concrete. Of course, your planet doesn’t have convenient access to woodpulp, but I suspect you would get comparable (or likely superior) results with fiberglass reinforcement.

At that point, your limitations are approximately the same as those of concrete. So if you have enough rebar…

enter image description here

Well. The sky’s the limit.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, pykrete has less crushing strength than reinforced concrete, the link states by a factor of 3 which is huge, thus such skyscrapers would still be out of reach. Also to run a pykrete house one needs to implement cooling, as pykrete is a pretty bad heat conductor and the inside of a house would likely get warmed up to above zero by whatever energy radiated by inhabitants and their devices. So likely a practical limit for pykrete houses could be 2 to 6 floors without extra cooling, or probably up to 10 floors with cooling systems embedded in walls. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Vesper The compressive strength issue is a good point, though I suspect that the right fiber or polymer reinforcement would mitigate it. As for cooling… the outside temperature is below freezing. Cooling is a trivial issue. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 24, 2022 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ I'm a little concerned about sublimation. The structure would lose water from the outer surface, and so degrade. I'd expect this would involve the loss from the outer surface of some few millimeters per week, especially on the sunny side of a structure. $\endgroup$
    – Boba Fit
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ @BobaFit That’s actually one of the advantages of the composite material - once the thin layer of ice over the fibers is exposed, they act as both shield and insulator for the rest of the material. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 24, 2022 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ I thought the difficulty with building on compacted snow is stability of the structure relative to ground, not the integrity of the structure itself.? $\endgroup$
    – Argyll
    Nov 26, 2022 at 22:11

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