Voices

Behind the architecture of the UK's Antarctic station

By Hugh Broughton

05 September 2013 - 10:11

Halley VI is the UK’s most recent research station in Antarctica, where scientists study climate change and live in extreme conditions. The station’s architect, Hugh Broughton, talks about the design, the interiors and how he responded to architectural problems specific to this context.

Halley VI is special because it is the world’s first fully relocatable polar research station. The engineering overall is incredibly sophisticated and could provide some really useful pointers to people living in extreme conditions.

The interiors are made for the researchers’ psychological wellbeing

The Halley crew of 16 who man the station during the winter are isolated physically from the rest of the world for nine months of the year. For three of those months it is totally dark, minus 40-50 degrees outside, and they are often buffeted by high winds and stuck indoors for two to three weeks at a time.

Their internal living conditions inevitably play a large part in their psychological wellbeing. We put an enormous amount of effort into that. We worked with a colour psychologist to generate a palette of colours that could sustain them through the winter months. We invented a special alarm clock to wake them up with daylight simulation lamps to suppress melatonin and increase serotonin production helping them to feel a bit brighter in the morning.

Even when looking at the social module, we chose the timber veneers to go around the stairs carefully. We chose Lebanese cedar as it is the only wood to give off natural scent, which is important in a place where people are deprived of smells and senses. So we really did think about what we could do to help people. It is ground-breaking: never before has so much thought been given to interior design in the Antarctic.

What inspired the design – beyond pragmatic issues

The inspiration for the design for Halley VI is fundamentally based on pragmatic issues, such as responding to environment, wind direction, snow accumulation and low temperatures. It sits on a floating ice shelf, which every now and again cracks to create icebergs, so we needed to create a station that could be moved inland. Of course, inevitably there is a moment as a designer once you have satisfied all of those requirements where you can let your imagination and creativity flow. You come to look at other forms of inspiration, and I have to admit in my case we did look at different forms in Star Wars and also designs within the Thunderbirds series.

There are so many things you need to think about when designing an Antarctic research centre, both programmatic and environmental. First, you need to think about how cold it will get and how much light to introduce. Those are challenges that require certain responses, but there is a moment in any project when the architect finds their free hand. The lack of context in the Antarctic is an opportunity, but it can also be debilitating. These are practical buildings, run by governments of different nations and built to a budget, so it is not a total flight of fantasy, and sometimes you have to create something that really will be a proper platform for world-beating science, that will be a place exciting to live in, and that is still nonetheless responsive to its environment.

What’s different compared to Halley V

The British Antarctic Survey (for which Halley VI was built) has been working in the Antarctic for more than 50 years, they have an enormous amount of experience. They have tried loads of experiments, some of which worked, some of course didn’t. So when we started designing Halley VI, they actually gave us a booklet called ‘lessons learned’. There were a lot of lessons to be learned from Halley V. The doors, for example, stemmed from 50 years of designing doors in the Antarctic. It sounds simple but actually is very complicated because you’ve got to keep the ice out, keep the wind out.

I suppose the biggest deviation is that Halley VI is entirely mobile. It can be moved inland whenever there is a risk that the site it is sitting on may fracture off as an iceberg, whereas Halley V was locked into the ice.

The method of lifting Halley VI above the rising snow levels is much more advanced. Halley V required a crew of steel workers every summer season to slice the legs to realign them and then everybody on base to have to work in special scaffold baskets to jack the station up. At Halley VI it only takes between two to three people using the whole hydraulic system to jack the station above the rising snow level.

The differences are more fundamental than just engineering differences. Halley V was a very institutional building. It was arranged around a central corridor, with lots of cellular spaces off it. In Halley VI, we started all over again and I noticed how the bar, which is the focal point of social life in an Antarctic research centre, can also be a very divisive feature. At Halley V, the bar had a door into it, which was closed when a certain clique was in it. It could put other people off, they lacked confidence to go into the space and take part in communal activity. So we were very clear to do away with barriers, to create a much more inclusive open-plan living space where people could take part in conversation together or be on their own. That really started a whole new philosophy in laying out the research station.

Environmental impact

Antarctica is protected by a treaty with some very strict environmental protocols. Invariably, the designs have to meet those requirements, but the station is being used by scientists who are researching the impact of man upon the earth’s system. These are people at the forefront of the battle against global warming. The last thing they want to do is to build a station that will have a significant and negative impact on Antartica.

So, I suppose we were inspired at two levels. Halley VI is inevitably quite complicated because you are building in Antarctica, so there is something inherently unsustainable about that because there was nothing there to start with. You have to ship everything there and then build it. But once it’s there, you can minimise its impact on the environment. Halley VI has really made some significant inroads in that respect.

One of the biggest features is the reduced water usage. At Halley V, people would use around 120 litres of water a day, which is already two thirds of daily usage of a person living in the UK. But at Halley VI, they use only 20 litres, which is one eighth of the amount someone in the UK is using. We achieved that by combinations of technology and management. For example, people using the shower will turn off the water whilst applying the soap and when ready to rinse it turn it back on again. There has to be a certain discipline to do that.

On the other hand we also introduced many water-saving devices for showers and taps. The biggest feature is the vacuum drainage system, like you get on a boat or an aeroplane so that every time you flush the loo, you only use one litre instead of 10 used in the UK. That really helped to drive down water usage.

Some of the technologies employed at Halley VI, you would hope, will over time filter down and become more readily available and make an impact on the environmental sustainability of people living in other extreme locations.

An exhibition about architecture in the Antarctic – commissioned by the British Council and curated by The Arts Catalyst – is on at Architecture and Design Scotland at The Lighthouse in Glasgow from 26 July to 2 October 2013 and will then move to Manchester before touring internationally. Download the IceLab e-book.

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