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Designing for the most extreme place on Earth

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Hugh Broughton staffer and former AJ technical editor Felix Mara reports from a recent LFA event on designing in Antarctica

Those seeking relief from summer congestion during the London Festival of Architecture found solace last Thursday when members of the Halley VI project team were joined by one of its current residents speaking live from the Antarctic research station. ‘It’s minus 35° C outside at the moment and we haven’t seen the sun for a month and a half’, said Winter Station leader Tom Welsh. The festival event was held at the Institution of Structural Engineers, which has just been transformed by Halley VI’s designer Hugh Broughton Architects and was chaired by Malcolm Reading.   

‘Some of the things we do as architects were put under the spotlight by this project’, said the founder of Malcolm Reading Consultants, and panellist Jane Francis, director of Halley VI’s client the British Antarctic Survey, explained that NASA is now taking an interest in the station, testing how people adapt.

Practice founder Hugh Broughton explained how everyone working on Halley VI was very receptive to new ideas: ‘When we suggested putting the station’s modules on large steel skis, they just asked whether we could make them bigger.’ However, with maximum temperatures of minus 5° C, natural ventilation was one idea that didn’t have much traction. ‘Halley VI was about ideas-driven design rather than calculations’ said AECOM senior engineering director Peter Ayres. ‘Hugh did amazing work developing sealant technology with the supply chain.’ Virgin Trains was consulted when the design team was looking at ways to connect the station modules. Galliford Try international operations director John Hammerton observed that people are the most important factor in construction projects and that he could quickly tell whether or not someone was excited by the project.

As the panellists noted, the Halley VI project was inherently cross-disciplinary and specialists not only benefited from their colleagues’ expertise but also saw things from their perspective. Broughton was engrossed in the project’s social challenges, and also its unique technical problems: ‘We developed a vacuum flushing system’, said Broughton. ‘This means that only one litre of water, rather than nine, is needed to flush the WCs.’ Transported fuel is at a high premium, and this saves energy, because the station’s water supply is produced by melting ice.’ Ductile steel was specified for the structure because it is suited to working at low temperatures. At the other end of the scale, Hugh Broughton Architects and AECOM also explored the aerodynamics of Halley VI, developing a linear arrangement of small modules, beneficial to snow management. The modular approach also allowed for more flexible cost modelling. ‘With all the other station modules blue, the red social module anchors things’, Ayres noted. ‘Now you sound like an architect’, said Broughton.

As Hammerton explained, Halley VI had two budgets, one for construction which crept up from £20 to £30 million and then down to £25 million, and one for logistics which was also £25 million, covering unusual expenses such as Halley VI’s chef.

Halley VI is inaccessible for most of the year, and Station Leader Tom Welsh is spending the winter at the station, where scientists continue their investigations and measure the ozone hole, taking advantage of the unique conditions 900 miles from the South Pole. ‘What did you eat today?’, asked one member of the audience. The answer was not, as Reading jested, penguins, and Welsh read out a mouth-watering list of exotic Halley VI fare which included gin and tonic sorbet. ‘You sound very relaxed, unlike members of the audience who have to get on the Central Line after this event’, said Reading. ‘It’s incredibly stress-free and relaxing, not having to think about money’ replied Welsh.

When did you last go outside, and how long did it take you to get dressed?’ asked writer and journalist Ruth Slavid, whose book on ‘Ice Station: The Creation of Halley VI’ launches this week.

Welsh recounted his ‘mad dash across the bridge’ used to connect the accommodation and services in the station modules, which need to be isolated in emergencies. ‘Normally It takes me fifteen minutes to get ready’, he said, itemising a long inventory of clothing. ‘It’s possible to get ready faster, but you would get very hot while you were dressing.’ It isn’t really feasible to go out to exercise in deepest winter, so people staying at the station exercise in a well-equipped gym, a good way to establish a routine, which is essential. The proposed internal climbing frame was vetoed because there was an alcoholic drinks servery nearby.

‘A big part of working life down there involves managing conditions’, said Reading. ‘You need to balance privacy and social experience when you winter over.’ Accommodation is shared during the summer. ‘One of the things you have to sort out very quickly is who snores, which becomes critically important’, said Hammerton.

Compared to its predecessors, which date back to 1956, Halley VI is a five star facility. Francis described early designs for stations that were like tubes which became embedded in the snow and had to be entered through a shaft. As Broughton elaborated, this shaft was also used for sewage treatment ventilation.

‘Socially, the experience is very intense because we’re living on top of one another’, Welsh observed. ‘Each person will have a down day every now and then, and will rely on the others to bring them up.’ ‘It sounds like working in an architects’ office’, said Reading.

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