Standing firm on thin ice

27 July 2021

Architects working in Antarctica face numerous challenges, not least freezing temperatures and long periods of total darkness in the winter and near endless light in the summer. Despite these obstacles, architectural firms continue to build impressive, functional structures in these harsh environments. Brooke Theis asks polar architects including Hugh Broughton, whose work includes the Halley VI Antarctic Research Station and Juan Carlos 1 Spanish Antarctic Base, and Rick Petersen, principal at OZ Architects, about the unique challenges of building at the end of the earth.

The sun never rises during the winter months in Antarctica. Day after day, the continent is shrouded in darkness – in some parts for nine continuous months. Then, come summertime, residents are faced with 24-hours of strong, bright and unrelenting sunlight.

Light has the greatest influence on the human body’s circadian rhythms: too much or too little can completely thwart our sleep patterns, metabolism and hormones. This can lead to myriad health problems, including depression, diabetes and heart disease. So, it is imperative that those constructing living quarters on this formidable 14 million km landscape do so with clever lighting design to counter the natural cycle of the sun.

Although Antarctica covers about 10% of the Earth’s surface, no settlements were built there until 1902. When British explorers constructed one of the first permanent structures on the continent, they insulated it with felt and clad it in wood – the primary goal of which was to keep inhabitants alive. But, as one of the windiest and driest parts of the planet, where temperatures reach minus 56ºC, the hut was rendered unliveable for the first year due to the cold temperature and draughtiness.

In the decades since, an influx of scientists living and working in Antarctica, spurred by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty declaring the land a research zone for 12 nations, has necessitated architectural innovation. Though it is the only continent on the planet with no indigenous population, it is now home to about 5,000 people throughout the year – investigating everything from climate change and wildlife to the shifting of ice shelves – whose wellbeing could be in jeopardy without the correct balance of light and warmth. The architects entrusted to create Antarctica’s latest generation of cutting-edge stations are rising to the challenge, combining practicality with appealing, pioneering design – and the rest of the world is paying attention. As the continent’s human population is on the rise, Antarctica is becoming far less isolated from the rest of the world, and the companies behind these new spaces are responsible for firmly placing it on the map. Indeed, the increase in architectural intrigue around Antarctica is such that, in 2014, it became the first whole continent to ever be represented at the Venice Biennale.

Breaking the ice

Rick Petersen, the principal at OZ Architects, the Denver-based company hired by the National Science Foundation in 2012 to reconceive America’s McMurdo station on the southern tip of Ross Island, explains: “The idea is to get this station to be more efficient logistically as well as from an energy standpoint, so more money can go into the science being done there.” The station was first built in 1955 as a US Navy base beside an active volcano, and Petersen says that, over time, “it has grown haphazardly, and it lacks some functionality”. OZ Architects’ new construct is consolidating the existing 100 buildings into six connected structures, featuring large floor-to-ceiling windows, strategically lit communal areas, and shaded lodgings.

The benefits of capitalising on natural light during the daytime are countless, Petersen says, so the firm has positioned windows to overlook the ocean and the mountains, “to remind you why you’re there”. Hugh Broughton, the founder of his eponymous London-based architectural practice, who designed Halley VI, the British Antarctic Survey’s base – whose company is currently working on New Zealand’s Scott Base – agrees. “Antarctica is very beautiful, so being able to see the landscape is good for people’s wellbeing. Everyone tends to think you want to keep the windows as small as possible as they’re the greatest source of heat loss in the building, but windows have a massively important role to play, particularly in the Antarctic, because they help orientate people,” explains Broughton. He says that technological advances have meant that windows can now be much more thermally efficient than they used to be, so architects can afford to keep them generously sized, as opposed to reducing them down to “aeroplane-type proportions”.

Broughton’s company created the Halley VI station to sit on hydraulic stilts, so it is able to rise above snow drifts when needed – a design that responds to the station’s turbulent history, having first been constructed in 1956 but shut down little more than a decade later because it was covered in snow. Each rebuilding effort from Halley II until its present iteration proved to be complex and costly. So, in 2005, the British Antarctic Survey teamed up with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to sponsor a design competition to improve the station’s longevity – and indeed, Hugh Broughton Architects’ winning proposal is designed to last at least 20 years. Built atop a drifting ice shelf, it is possible that the station may need to be moved at some point, and this is made possible by skis placed at the base of its stilts.

Finding steady ground

Its location was particularly challenging to build on because all the materials were delivered by ship, meaning everything needed to be unloaded onto frozen sea ice, “which is only around one-to-two-metres thick”, says Broughton. “We couldn’t pre-fabricate whole buildings because otherwise they would be too heavy and just disappear through the sea ice. So, everything needed to be designed like a kind of flat-pack Ikea-type system, where parts were dragged across the sea ice and then all assembled on the site.”

For the New Zealand base, the company is able to entirely pre-fabricate the buildings because its location is hardier, reducing the amount of people needed on site, as well as environmental waste. “The challenges are different,” he says, “but they always revolve around climate and logistics.” These Antarctic stations all support an enormous variety of spaces, including bedrooms, dining-rooms, relaxation spaces, gyms, offices and laboratories, as well as industrial areas like vehicle workshops and cargo bays, which each require different lighting.

Both Petersen and Broughton emphasise the importance of controlling not just the intensity of light, but also its temperature so people are in tune with the natural rhythm of their bodies. “You want the temperature of the lighting to gently change to simulate the change in intensity that you’d expect in a normal day, to make sure circadian rhythms are supported,” explains Broughton, who suggests that temperature can help create a better sense of a work-life divide. “Lighting highlights your transition from zone to zone, so for example, the living spaces may have a warmer temperature of lighting, whereas laboratories may have slightly cooler lighting,” he says.

In the polar regions, the angle of the sun tends to be low, resulting in blinding sunlight coming through the windows. To counter this, Broughton’s team has introduced integral blinds to all the windows to cut out glare. OZ Architects decided there was no need for shading within the living areas of the McMurdo station, but like their contemporaries they will black out bedrooms at night, because, says Petersen, “when you’re trying to go to sleep, the sun is still out as though it were the height of your workday.” While the current lodgings don’t have shades formally installed, inhabitants have devised their own methods to stifle the glare, covering the windows in creative ways, using foil over them, or mattresses. Equally, Petersen stresses the significance of being able to open blinds and let in daylight to your bedroom when you wake up. “It helps you start your day, and you can see what the weather is like outside. It just connects you to the world that you’re in,” he says.

Illuminating the home

There can be serious consequences to not employing these measures for workers, and Broughton considers sensitive lighting to be a matter of health and safety. “You hear of people going into a kind of time-keeping freefall and they find themselves getting up later and later, particularly in the winter when it’s dark all the time, to the point that they’re getting up mid-afternoon and going to bed at five or six in the morning,” he says. “Not only is that not good for their general health, but also it excludes them from the community, so it has social and mental implications too.”

The primary work season is from October to March and “during that time, the sun just circles round for days and days”, says Petersen. By May or June it starts to sink down low, at which time the stations rely solely on electrical lighting. “During the dark months, it’s important to use daylight-simulation lamps, which can help balance people’s melatonin and serotonin,” Broughton says. “When we were designing the Halley VI Antarctic research station, we worked with Philips and developed an alarm clock that woke you up with a false dawn and helped balance melatonin and serotonin by tricking your body into thinking that it was daytime.”

While still relatively infantile, interest in Antarctic architecture is growing, partly due to the allure of building at the end of the Earth. However, it’s also a field of design that anticipates challenges and illuminates solutions closer to home. Due to the constant need for renovation and adaptation, you can be sure that those leading the way for more sustainable living in the world’s southernmost point will be setting a precedent for others building in much more accommodating climes.

Halley VI Antarctic Research Station, Antarctica – designed by Hugh Broughton.
Halley VI Antarctic Research Station, Antarctica – designed by Hugh Broughton.

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