Building an Antarctic Research Station | The B1M
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Building an Antarctic Research Station | The B1M


A basic function of the built environment
is to protect us from weather and changeable climate throughout the year. Many buildings
around the world achieve this in the face of some pretty extreme forces of nature, but
building a research centre in Antarctica is perhaps the toughest challenge of all. So
how is it done? Antarctica is the world’s coldest, driest
and windiest continent. Despite being almost twice the size of Australia, it’s also the
least populated with only 135 permanent residents. The environment is home to several scientific
research stations, including the British base at Halley Bay. The base sits on the Brunt
Ice Shelf; a 150 metre thick slab of ice that moves 400 meters closer to the sea each year. Temperatures at the base average -10 degrees
Celsius in the summer months and -20 in the winter. Temperatures as low as -56 have been known. Summer lasts for three months and provides
a window for aircraft and ships to bring materials, supplies and personnel to and from the remote
location. By contrast, winters last for nine months and include 105 days of total darkness
where the sun does not rise at all. The British have continually occupied a research
facility at Halley since 1957, albeit in several different guises as building technologies
and research capabilities have moved on. Several previous bases have been crushed by snow build-up
and the last station had moved to an area near the edge of the ice shelf that was at
risk of falling into the ocean. Hugh Broughton Architects and AECOM won a
competition to design the new research station, named Halley the Sixth. The station is formed
of several modular components arranged in a straight line that sits perpendicular to
the prevailing wind. This layout causes snow drifts to form on the leeward side, leaving
the windward side free from drifts and reducing snow management requirements. It also acts
to create a solid ice surface for vehicles to cross. The general build-up of snow was an important
factor to consider and was the undoing of several earlier bases as we mentioned. Snow
levels on the Brunt Ice Shelf rise by an average of one metre each year. To address this, the station’s modules are
supported on large steel skis and hydraulically driven legs that enable it to mechanically
climb out of the snow every year. As the ice shelf moves closer to ocean over time, the
modules can be lowered and towed by bulldozers to a new position further inland. Research labs, accommodation and energy centres
are housed in the station’s blue modules, whilst a large red module in the centre is
used for dining and social activities. The base is split into two independent parts for
life safety. Each has its own energy centre and is self-sustaining in case of emergency. The station is a microscopic self-supporting
and infrastructure-free community. Its home to a team of 52 people in those brief summer
months, and a mere 16 people in the winter. Those enduring the winter are at risk of Seasonal
Affected Disorder (SAD), so steps have been taken to create an uplifting interior design
that combats this condition. Constructing the
new research centre was far from easy. On top of the extreme climate, the construction
team led by Galliford Try had to ensure that the Environmental Protocols of the Antarctic
Treaty were met during their works. To overcome the factors of climate and environmental
legislation, the modules were pre-fabricated off-site. Each unit – formed of a steel
structure with highly insulated GRP panels – was first test-assembled in South Africa
before being taken to Antarctica on an ice-strengthened ship. Once there, the modules and other materials
were unloaded onto fragile sea ice with a maximum bearing capacity of just 9.5 tonnes,
before being towed on sledges up ramps and onto the top of the ice shelf 20 meters above. The new station was constructed over three
summers using a factory line approach at the site of the Halley the Fifth base, where the
construction teams were housed. Once assembled, the modules were taken by sledge to the new
site 15 kilometres away, effectively validating the relocation strategy. Get more from the definitive video channel
for construction by subscribing to The B1M.

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