June 26, 2013

Come in From the Cold: Hugh Broughton’s Antarctic Research Station

Location, location, location. For superb magnetic-field study and upper-atmospheric observation—as well as an incomparable view of the ozone hole, discovered here—may we recommend the Brunt Ice shelf? Floating ice that’s comfortingly thick, 490 feet, it is advantageously located on the Weddell Sea in Antarctica, only 900 miles from the South Pole. Since 1956, the shelf has been home to the Halley Research Station, the remotest of five bases operated by the British Antarctica Survey. Halley VI, the facility’s newest iteration, is the last word in scientific polar residences.

Hugh Broughton Architects, in association with AECOM’s civil, structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers, took eight years to complete the $40 million project. Halley VI boasts previously unheard-of Antarctic amenities: a soaring recreation area, a spiral staircase, expanses of high-performance glazing for unrivaled views of the Aurora Australis, a palette of calming or invigorating colors customized by a consultant who’s also a practicing psychologist, and “alarm clocks” that employ simulated daylight to gently wake you—and adjust your blood-cell balance during the three winter months of total darkness. (During the summer, on the other hand, the sun never sets.)

Best of all, you can take Halley VI with you. Because the ice shelf moves toward the sea at a rate of 1,300 feet a year, the station rests on legs footed with skis that make it towable, like a train. As the ice goes implacably west, the station can go periodically east. the legs are hydraulic, capable of extending to keep its independent but connected modules above the snow line. Every year, another 3 feet falls—and never melts. Did we mention the cold?

Halley I, a pitched-roof hut with kennels, and successors II through IV were either swept away, covered and crushed, or dismantled for fear of both. “Life-critical is a condition that enters every design decision you make,” Hugh Broughton says. Air temperature around Halley can fall to minus 69 degrees Fahrenheit, and 100-mile-an-hour winds tend to make things feel chillier, in fact colder than the Arctic Circle, Antarctica’s closest rival.

When AECOM principal Michael Wright first visited the Halley site, he recalls, “We flew 1,500 miles from an initial base. For hundreds of miles, nothing but ice. It’s then that you realize how isolated people are at Halley, how impressive it is to build in that environment. What you don’t do is take risks.”

It was innovation in the absence of risk, using tried-and-true technologies in a novel setting, that made Broughton and Wright’s design, led equally by architecture and engineering, the winner in the Halley VI competition sponsored by the British Antarctic Survey and the Royal Institute of British Architects. The two men had no experience building in Antarctic extremes. Neither had Foster + Partners or Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, which also competed.

Halley VI is the world’s first research station to be fully mobile. It comprises seven 1,600-square-foot modules, housing laboratories, offices, and bedrooms, “pit rooms” in researcher parlance, plus the 5,100-square-foot main module, dedicated to community living and dining. The modules are arranged desert-caravan style: in a row perpendicular to the prevailing wind, which tends to drive the snow away and therefore keep the skis free to move. For safety, the caravan can split into two shorter caravans, each self-sustaining.

The modules have an 8-inch-thick composite “skin” so tightly insulated that heat thrown off by the electrical generators is enough to keep the entire station warm. As for interior innovations, Halley VI offers unprecedentedly generous dimensions, from the recreation area’s double height to the end-to-end corridor’s extra width, intended to combat claustrophobia. In addition to all the transparent glazing, such as in the observation pockets at the top of the main module, there are stretches of translucent aerogel.

Previous research stations were “seen as ultimately pragmatic,” Broughton says. “Our start-point was to create spaces of joy.” He likens Halley V to an oil rig: boxy, noisy, unrelenting. Halley VI has a “quiet” room, and a stroll through the entire facility offers moments of contemplation. Pause at a corridor window, and you feel intimately connected with the outside scene. Natural wood, for example Lebanese cedar veneer, introduces reassuring scents otherwise absent from the environment. It’s important to engender, in a vacuum, the emotional qualities in being human and alive.

“If you can embrace the isolation, Antarctica is amazing,” Halley VI station leader Agnieszka Fryckowska says. It’s minus 22 degrees on a May afternoon when we speak, and she has just run a “missing person” scenario with her crew of 13. (Going up to as many as 52 in summer.) She’s the only woman right now. At best, the male-female ratio is 10 to one.

So far, Fryckowska enjoys life at Halley VI. “It’s like a new house. We need time to see how it works,” she says. One part remains tough, she concedes: “You can’t decide one day you’re going to stop playing the game—and leave. You’re stuck.”

Project Team
Sarah Besley; Philip Wells; Luca Rendina; Grenville Herrald; Max Martin; Adam Knight: Hugh Broughton Architects: Structural Engineers. Colour Affects: Color Consultant. Billings Design Associates: Cladding Consultant. Joyce & Reddington: Woodwork. Lewes Design Contracts: Stair Contractor. Galliford Try: General Contractor.

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