Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


This has to be one of the most extreme places on the planet to be building a new home. On the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica the temperature can drop down to minus 55 centigrade and over a metre of snow falls every year. The winds can gust at over 100 miles per hour while the ice shelf itself is moving at least 400 metres a year, carrying you towards the sea and eventually tipping you over an ice cliff or 'calving' – breaking off in vast chunks so that you float off on the ocean clinging to a massive iceberg. Added to that, for at least 100 days of the year the sun doesn't make it above the horizon.

In this remote, frozen landscape architect Hugh Broughton is building a new and totally unique prefabricated, modular, high tech and relocatable research station for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) which will be home to as many as 50 people at a time. A cross between a house, a ship and a space craft sitting on giant skis, the 22.5m Halley VI is one of the most exciting buildings to grace the Antarctic and this far flung outpost of what's left of the British Empire.

There has been a Halley research station – named after the astronomer Edmund Halley – on the Brunt Ice Shelf since 1956. The first four stations disappeared under the snow and ice and the current station – Halley V – is expected to last until 2010. Halley is the most southerly and remote of the five permanently staffed BAS stations in the Antarctic, nearly 1000 miles from the main British base of Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula. This is where the hole in the ozone layer was first discovered, in 1985, and Halley has long proved itself of global significance as a pivotal site for monitoring climate change, weather patterns and key atmospheric processes.

"There are colder places and windier places in the Antarctic, but no more dynamic place," says Broughton. "It is the most demanding station site in the Antarctic because it's on ice that is moving all the time and the only way we can deliver materials and supplies is by ship onto the summer sea ice and then up to the Brunt Ice Shelf – which is 150 metres thick – and from there to Halley. Halley VI will be the first truly modular research station in the Antarctic and also the first fully moveable station. The technical challenges in building the new station are enormous but we also have to remember the human factor, that this is a home from home, and that's one of the reasons we won the competition to build Halley VI."

For Broughton and his practice it certainly is an extraordinary commission. Back in 2003, when BAS first started thinking about launching a design competition to draw in new ideas for the creation of Halley VI, Hugh Broughton Architects was a small and little known London practice manned by Broughton and a couple of other architects. Broughton teamed up with engineering consultants Faber Maunsell – one of the largest engineering firms in the UK and part of a world wide company – to develop one of the 86 design proposals entered into the first round of the competition, run in association with the Royal Institute of British Architects.

"We wanted something really innovative," says BAS Senior Project Manager, Karl Tuplin. "Over the last 50 years we have built five stations at Halley and have learnt from each one but BAS wanted to go out to industry and to architects and see what they thought of the problem. Hugh and Faber Maunsell eventually won because they not only gave us the relocatable building that we needed but also because the modular approach they came up with gives us a great deal of flexibility, both with the number of modules we can build and the way they are built."

Broughton and Faber Maunsell's entry was one of six shortlisted designs from some of the country's leading architectural practices and engineers, including Richard Rogers, Ken Shuttleworth of Make Architects and Sir Michael Hopkins, who came up with a walking building. But it was Broughton who went on to win in July 2005.

"I remember going to the launch of the competition and thinking there wasn't a job that we were less likely to win," says Broughton. "You had to have experience of working in remote locations, experience of design and build contracts, prefabrication and engineering led design and as a practice we couldn't put a tick against a single box. Yet, with Faber Maunsell, we won and the job did provide a level playing field in the sense that nobody could claim to have designed an Antarctic base. All the lords and knights of British architecture could beat us hands down when it comes to designing an airport or library but when it came to an Antarctic research station they were no better placed than a small office like ours."

The problems that Broughton had to deal with in the design of Halley VI – which will house around 50 scientists and support crew in the short but highly productive Antarctic summer (December to February) and a skeleton crew of 16 wintering for the rest of the year – did not just include the extreme temperatures and the need to relocate. The current Halley V is a raised station on steel legs and to avoid getting buried in the snow it can be manually jacked up, but this takes a team of steel workers the full three summer months and requires the whole base to get involved in the complex jacking process over the course of a few key days. For Halley VI a more sophisticated jacking system was needed, leading to the idea of placing the base modules on hydraulic legs – attached to giant skis – which can be raised up above the rising snow line mechanically with the assistance of the base bulldozers in just a week or so, start to finish.

"The base is obviously elevated to cope with the rising snow levels and is jackable, so it can climb out of the rising snow," says Broughton. "And with the base resting on giant skis, it means we can disconnect the various modules and tow them to a new site when the need comes to escape drifting away on future icebergs. It will be the world's first truly relocatable station.

"Using the hydraulic system, when it's time to relocate, each module can be dropped down closer to the surface of the snow to make it more stable, attached to bulldozers and with each module weighing around 70 to 80 tonnes, it can be pulled at a speed of around one or two miles an hour to a new site, perhaps six or seven miles away, where the modules can be drawn back together and re-elevated for the next five to ten years."

The design of the station itself sees the creation of a series of modular structures lined up together like train carriages and forming two distinct elevated platforms, linked by an access bridge, each with its own individual power generating unit. So if one platform is damaged by fire or another disaster the other should remain unscathed and allow life to carry on, even in the depths of the Antarctic winter when rescue is all but impossible. The principles of self sufficiency, safety and flexibility carry right through the design of the new base.

"Nine months of the year you are cut off and if something goes wrong then the only people who will save you will be yourselves," says Karl Tuplin. "So when you design buildings in the Antarctic you do have to create a refuge, somewhere to go, if there's a major incident, especially fire. If one side of Halley VI does burn down then everyone can move across and survive on the other platform and having the two energy modules at either end means that if you lose one of them for whatever reason you can keep going with the other."

There will be eight modules in all, including two energy modules, two for sleeping, two for science laboratories, one for offices and a final, larger, central module for communal living and eating, forming 21,000 square feet in all. Apart from this larger central hub, all the modules will be the same basic dimensions with interchangeable components. Prefabricated in the UK, Europe and South Africa, they will be delivered to the Antarctic on a chartered Russian ice strengthened ship this December as bare steel frames sitting on their giant skis ready to be loaded onto fragile sea ice, up ramps carved into the cliffs of the Brunt Ice Shelf and then towed to the site of Halley V- about 7 miles away – which will be used as the construction base while the new station is built. Every load coming off the ship can only be a maximum of 9.5 tonnes in weight, otherwise it could disappear through the one to two metre thick sea ice.

"Every day of construction is vital for us," says Tuplin. "We only have 10 to 12 weeks from December to February and if the ship gets in late or the weather closes in and we have to leave early then yes, it will cause big problems, and the condition of the sea ice for unloading is also a key factor. We have to think of contingencies all the way through...."

The steel framed modules will be coated in highly insulated and lightweight plastic panels – reinforced with glass – within an assembly line system that maximises the modest three month annual construction period. With construction starting this December, after a series of rehearsals, testing and training, the new station should be finished by December 2009 if all goes well and can then be towed to its new position on the ice shelf, while the old station is dismantled and removed.

"We are using a factory line approach to the construction, starting with the frame," says Broughton. "We then add the floor cassettes to give us a working platform and put in the bedrooms, which come in pods – derived from volume hotel building – made in a factory in Hull. They slot into place and then we put on the glass reinforced plastic cladding, which is highly insulated and has a one stage installation process. It's been used in other Antarctic stations but also by Airbus."

The modular nature of the station and the adaptability of the different modules allows for changes and updates to the layouts of the laboratories and other units in the station, which should last at least 20 years, twice the life span of Halley V. Under the Antarctic Treaty – which defers any territorial claims on Antarctica indefinitely – and its protocols there are regularly updated guidelines on the waste produced or left behind by Antarctic stations and Halley VI will exceed these with a new waste incineration system, while also introducing a more sophisticated system for melting snow into water for use in the base. At the end of its life, Halley VI can be dismantled and removed in its entirety – unlike most other stations – lending it the title of visitor rather than resident.

Energy use is also being carefully rethought, with a series of programmes – including experiments with solar energy and wind turbines – to reduce energy consumption, which becomes a big issue in the Antarctic, not only because of the sensitivity of the frozen landscape but because of the massive costs of shipping in drums of jet fuel to run the generators.

But the new residents of Halley VI will also notice a major leap in the quality of their lives through the design and detailing of the interiors of the new station. Halley V has been little more than rudimentary as a home and Broughton has taken care to listen to the demands of BAS staff. On a visit to the Antarctic last January, along with Faber Maunsell project director Peter Ayres, Broughton found himself trying to think out every detail that might be needed, sitting among the frozen wastes trying to work out things like how many shelves each bedroom might need. BAS crew produced a wish list of things they'd like to see in the new station from better sound insulation to quite spaces, more storage and a larger gym, all of which have been worked into the new station.

"As an architect, one of the really intriguing aspects of designing a building for the Antarctica is the human factor," says Broughton. "The station needs to respond to quite a varied population between winter and summer but also sustain people as if it were their home when they are completely isolated from the rest of the world. For three months it's totally dark and whatever we can do architecturally to help people cope with that will have a significant impact on people's productivity and well being."

The central living module will make the biggest difference to daily life at Halley VI. This is a larger, double height unit with banks of glazing forming an atrium with a sense of space that's largely unheard of in Antarctic stations. This communal zone will have space for a bar, dining area, television lounges and internet access points with room enough for a possible greenhouse that could be used to grow salad greens by hydroponics.

If this sounds space age, then it reflects the multi-facetted nature of a building like Halley VI. It has many cross overs with the space industry – which has been following the development of Antarctic stations to see what it can learn for space station and moon or Martian bases – as well as marine and aviation engineering. The connectors used to hold the Halley VI modules together were developed for trains, while the cladding is more commonly used on aircraft.

"One of the things that I have really enjoyed about the project is that there is an inevitable technology transfer involved in designing something like this," says Broughton, "where you have to look way beyond the construction industry for inspiration and solutions. The people making the steel frame are marine lift manufacturers. The vacuum drainage system is much more commonly used on planes and boats. It is rather like designing a boat on legs."

Designing Halley VI has led Broughton into a lot of interesting conversations about other modular buildings for extreme living, as well as a narrowly run contest to design a new Antarctic station for India, where Broughton reached the final two before losing out to a German firm. Halley VI sits within a general resurgence of interest in Antarctica and developing a new generation of research stations. The old model of allowing stations to be buried under snow to create subterranean bases has been largely outdated and the new. longer lasting breed are generally raised up above the snow with jackable legs. The Germans are currently building a new station – Neumeyer III – as an elevated platform and the same goes for the soon to be completed Amundsen-Scott American station at the South Pole. Two years ago a new Franco-Italian base, Concordia, was completed resembling two giant drums raised up on stilts. At the same time a number of countries are looking to establish their first presence in the region.

For BAS, the new station – part of a 36m total spend on building afresh and taking apart the old base – reaffirms Halley's key position in monitoring climate change, the ozone layer and atmospheric change, a crucial part in a complex global jigsaw of climate science. For Broughton it is not just the trip of a lifetime but the commission of a lifetime. The practice has other work with its own challenges – including including the revamping of Maidstone Museum – but nothing quite like Halley VI.

"I hope I'll get to go down there one more time," say Broughton. "It gets under your skin – you talk to anyone involved in the Antarctic and they just love it. And just think, 100 years after Scott and Shackleton we are now building Halley VI. When you think of them dragging their sledges or using dogs and now we are building plastic space pods on a floating ice shelf, with 24/7 internet access and phone calls charged at local rates."