Skip to content

Antarctic Architecture

Post date:

Earlier, I’d thought I’d continue my Miscellaneous Meditations Upon the Reading of The Autopoeisis of Architecture but instead …

* * *

A lot of the information in this post about Antarctic Architecture comes from the Cool Antarctica website. It has a brief history of Antarctic research station buildings. The first ones, around 1900, were much like ordinary buildings. This one, Douglas Mawson Main Base (Aust.) was built in 1912. The timber and all other materials were taken there along with the builders to build them. Sure, there’s rock in Antarctica but it’s not worth going there just to get regional materials points. Prefabrication makes more sense. Besides, building can only be done during summer and even then it’s not that balmy. Summer lasts from November to February and once it’s over you have no visitors until November again. Aircraft can’t fly there because of wind and boats can’t sail there because the sea is frozen.

This next image is Halley I (UK) a couple of years after it was built in 1957. The Halley Bases are built on a moving ice shelf where snow accumulates at about 1.2m to 1.5m per year. After about 10 years, the weight of snow crushes the buildings. When Halley I was abandoned, it was 14m under and the internal temperature was -18°C. Time to move.

During the winter, somebody found the time to make this wonderful drawing.

Halley II was built in 1967. It had extra reinforcing to help support the snow but was abandoned after seven years.

Halley III was designed to be buried by ice and withstand the pressure for longer. It was basically steel tubes with buildings inside them and not in direct contact with the ice. Here’s it being built.

Halley III lasted for 12 years but eventually had to be abandoned in 1983 because it was too deep under the ice to access safely. Like Halleys I and II before it, Halley III was carried along with the moving ice to the edge of the ice shelf and dumped in the ocean.

In 1985, just two years after Halley IV was completed, it was obvious that building on the ground was not a good idea. Wind patterns over and around the building created snow-buildup that blocked doors and windows and created uneven stresses in the structure, allowing heat to escape. Not good.

These weren’t the only problems. Melting water creates waterproofing problems in Antarctica, as it does everywhere else. Moreover, over the years, better insulation meant that poor ventilation and condensation became a problem and burning fuel to keep warm created the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. These are also general problems of indoor environment quality most anywhere. There are also problems with the visual environment. Okay, for 10 months of the year nobody’s looking but honestly! Here’s two images of Australia’s Davis Station (begun 1957).

Now, in Antarctica, if you’re trying to make your way home and it’s getting dark or starting to snow, you really don’t want your research station to “blend into” the environment so much that you can’t see it. Red, or yellow, or green or blue are all good colours for a research station to be. But why have all of them? A little piece of a foreign land that is forever Ken Done?

Here’s Scott Base (NZ, approx. 1957) all painted an “eye-catching” shade of Chelsea Cucumber green. Honest.

Here’s Halley V (UK, 1992), built in what was to become standard practice – place the building on steel supports that can be raised to keep the building above the snow. This also has the advantage of making it possible to have windows AND to see out of them. Those windows must be small however since they’re a major source of heat loss when the temperature difference is around -70°C.

It’s not really possible to weld steel when the temperature’s less than -10° and so a special clamp was developed so the steel frame could be fixed by people wearing very thick gloves. A similar problem exists in space. Somebody – I don’t remember who– once said about spacesuit design “If a person can’t use their hands in space, it’s pointless sending them there”.  Anyway, here’s an image of that steel clamping system.

The fixings are cast from blackheart malleable iron that can tolerate temperatures down to -50°C. Good work lindapter! (See here for other mechanical properties of blackheart malleable cast iron.)

Halley V was on steel supports but additional buildings around the main building were built on skis so they could be moved around each year and not get buried. These two techniques enabled Halley V to function for longer than any of the previous bases, and so were incorporated into Halley VI of which there are some good pics here.

Halley VI has had enough coverage in the architectural press (Faber Maunsell and Hugh Broughton Architects, 2005), but here’s what British Antarctic Survey likes about it.

The design of Halley VI combines the benefits of the jackable and ski-based buildings in use at Halley V. The station is to be made up of eight individual modules, which are connected together by short, flexible corridors. The modules are kept above the snow surface using hydraulic legs mounted on skis. As well as keeping the buildings above the rising snow level the new design will allow the station to be periodically relocated across distances of many kilometres. If the station must be moved the individual modules* are designed to be separated, towed across the ice shelf by bulldozer, then reconnected again at the new site. This makes it possible for the station to remain a safe distance from the edge of the ice shelf.

* A modular configuration is also wise in case of fire (as everyone’s not left without a place to sleep).

Many of Halley VI’s improvements have to do with a smaller environmental footprint.

  • bio-reactors for sewage treatment
  • computer-controlled hydraulic jacks to minimise jack-up time and manpower
  • a melt tank into which is bulldozed snow that melts to provide fresh water
  • vacuum toilets
  • water-saving taps and showers
  • solar-thermal and PV panels to supplement the summer power demand (because of more people) and reduce the reliance upon diesel generators

If all this seems rather excessive for such a small facility, it’s worthwhile remembering that buildings in the Antarctic have probably the largest construction carbon footprint of any buildings in the world. Everything has to be flown or shipped there and anything that can’t fit into an LC-130 (Hercules) aircraft can’t be flown there. The new South Pole Station (US) took 9,070 tonnes of materials that were flown to Antartica from New Zealand, after having been shipped from the US. Moreover, these bases run on diesel fuel. A Hercules aircraft uses two gallons of fuel for every gallon it delivers.

Finally, we have here the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica (Belgium, 2004). It’s not built on an ice shelf like Halley, so it doesn’t have to be moved. Also, it’s built on rock and raised above the brow of the hill (a “nuntak”) so the wind will prevent snow from accumulating. It doesn’t have to be jacked up. It is the first zero-emission Antarctic base running entirely on solar and wind energy.

Here’s a link to the website of Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. It shows how the building incorporates passive design by letting the sun come in. Windows are triple glazed with a 40cm gap between layers.

Most of the heating is passive, generated by waste heat from electrical systems, computers, lighting and people. Heat loss is minimised by nine different layers of insulation,

any by having a high-performance heat exchange system, that introduces fresh air, expels stale air, and also moves the recovered heat around the building.

The station uses a mixture of solar and wind power. Wind is big in Antartica – with constant speeds of 125km/h and gusts of 300km/h. There are nine heavy-duty turbines. 

It has 379.5m2 of PV panels generating 50.6kWh.

It has 24m2 of solar thermal panels.

Lead-acid batteries are used to store electricity but these will be replaced by fuel cells.

The available energy and the energy demand are managed and energy is distributed according to a strict set of rules.

All of the elements in the electrical system are managed together to realise a system that is three times as efficient as any network elsewhere.

All water comes from melting snow and there is no lack of that. The station features an advanced water treatment system that treats 100% of grey and black water. 60% of all water is reused. That which can’t be reused is treated in accordance with The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty before being disposed of down a crevasse. The water treatment system includes two bioreactors – one aerobic and one anaerobic, treatment by active carbon, as well as UV treatment and pH correction. The bioreactors and filtration units are similar to those developed for space travel.

To summarise, it does The Shelter Thing well.

Here, there’s a video showing the building of Princess Elisabeth Antarctica (26 mins 2 sec., in Dutch) but here’s a video of the opening.


A final thanks, to everyone really, but especially the people responsible for Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. Making it possible for 20 people to live and work in Antartica is not  much different from having 6 people live and work on the International Space Station. The techniques and technologies used for the extreme environment and resource limitations of space are being applied in the extreme environment of Antarctica that is also one of the last places on Earth we haven’t made a total mess of.