One thing about the property business is that it’s never boring. We like to think that we are pretty good at innovating new ways of creating space and having ideas that make a project happen. Then something comes along which makes us think again.
Right down at the bottom of the planet is where the British Antarctic Survey ply their trade. As challenging locations go it’s hard to think of anywhere more difficult, unless you are partial to a life underwater or inside the cone of an active volcano.
The history of the planet is literally captured right there in the ice. At the moment those clever people are trying to work out how to get the Lake Ellsworth drilling project back on track to discover more about how life can survive and thrive at the extremes – the extremophiles of Planet Earth.
Every Antarctic summer dozens of scientists (and a few extreme pen-pushers, journalists and tourists) join the overwinter maintenance team to study the climate past and present, and carry out experiments in this unique and pollution free environment. That presents an obvious problem; where will they live?
A series of research stations have been built since the 1920’s by the BAS, from the wooden huts of Halley I which lasted 12 years, to the steel structures of Halley V. Every single one of them has eventually succumbed to the shifting ice that tears apart the foundations, and the 1.5m of snow that crushes and collapses the roofs in a few short years, even with maintenance.
A decade ago, with Halley V coming to the end of its life-cycle an RIBA competition put out calls for designs for Halley VI on behalf of BAS.
Challenges included the shifting ice sheets and snow mentioned above, as well as the building being transported by ship to be offloaded onto the ice and then dragged ten miles by bulldozer to the site, making design problems like -30 degrees, 24 hour darkness and 30 m/s continuous wind speeds seem trivial.
Hugh Broughton Architects won the competition, and contracts for construction were exchanged in 2006. The winning design eschewed traditional methods and opted for a modular design that looked more like a Star Wars hunting lodge than a laboratory.
In essence, the seven linked pods raise all the living, science, administration and ancillary accommodation into the air along with the life support systems. Each pod has four legs that can be jacked up to allow snow to be bulldozed underneath, keeping the units above the snow and ice build up.
But there is another snag, and it’s a big one. The whole research complex moves about half a mile every year towards the edge of the glacier. Halley I, Halley II and Halley III have all eventually reappeared in the ice-cliff before crashing down into the ocean.
To get around this problem the legs of each pod have giant skis that also allows it to be towed to a new location, extending the lifetime of the whole complex much further into the future than was previously possible.
Construction of the Halley Vi Research Station completed this month (February 2013).You can read the whole, amazing, riveting, story on the British Antarctic Survey project blog.