Cold calling

The conditions are extreme, the engineering and logistical demands immense – the British Antarctic Survey has put out a challenge for a hi-tech design for its next station. David Fowler reports.

It’s one of the most demanding technical challenges this side of a space programme, but with a fraction of the budget.

Build a research centre in one of the most hostile environments on Earth, where average temperatures range from -5 degrees C in summer to -40 degrees C in winter. Make it comfortable for the scientists who will use it, design it to use minimal energy and leave no waste behind.

Overcome the fact that the snow level rises by 1.5m every year. Build it over two Antarctic summers, transporting everything to site over ice capable of carrying no more than six tonnes. Allow for the building having to be dismantled at the end of its 20-year life. And all for £19m.

That’s the brief for the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Halley VI station, currently the subject of a design competition that is certain to embrace technologies in areas such as energy, insulation and advanced materials drawn from sectors as diverse as aerospace, marine engineering and indoor climate control.

Six shortlisted consortiums are charged with developing innovative concepts to meet these formidable challenges. Next week they will submit their efforts and three will be selected to go on to the next stage. An exhibition of their concepts will go on display at the Royal Institute of British Architects later in the year.

Halley VI, BAS’s biggest-ever project, was launched because the existing 20-year-old Halley V station is slowly but surely falling victim to the Antarctic’s unforgiving environment. It is built on the 150m-thick Brunt ice shelf, which ‘flows’ out to sea at a rate of about 400m a year taking the research station with it. Periodically, a vast area of ice breaks off – an event known as ‘calving’ and likely to prove disastrous for the existing base.

‘We believe that by 2010 there’s a high risk the ice shelf will calve, with Halley V on the wrong side of the calving line,’ said Karl Tuplin, BAS project manager. ‘The shelf has extended further than ever before, and we think it will break back to the 1958 front.

‘BAS could have designed a new station itself, as it did the previous five, but decided on a competition to bring in fresh thinking from the engineering and technology community.’

‘We’re not trying to recreate the previous station but create something new,’ said Tuplin.

As well as meeting the needs of BAS, the station will have to comply with the environmental protocol of the Antarctic Treaty, which has come into force since the current station was built and imposes new restrictions on its environmental impact.

The six consortiums have been asked for concepts addressing specific issues under four headings: architecture and sustainability, structure and materials, environment and energy, and construction and logistics.

One of the biggest challenges will be getting the materials for the station to site. Prefabricating large sections of the building is ruled out by the weight limit of the sea ice, frozen seawater only a few metres thick on which any supplies have to be landed. BAS has Sno-Cats and D4 dozers available, but the sea ice can support only the weight of one of these plus a maximum of six tonnes depending on the condition of the ice. Any construction plant weighing more than this would have to be dismantled to land it and then be reassembled.

At first glance hovercraft transport might look like an option. But on the shelf ice the hovercraft sink into the top few metres of snow. Airlifting and then transporting by land from another country’s Antarctic station (Germany’s Neumeyer base is reachable and is supplied by air from South Africa) might be a possibility. Only light Twin Otter planes can land at Halley itself.

By sea supplies can be landed only in summer (December to mid-February). Construction is planned for the summer of 2006/7 and 2007/8 on the assumption that only one supply shipment will be possible each year.

The successful team will face three headaches once it gets to the site: the movement of the ice shelf, the build-up of snow, and the cold.

To deal with an accumulation of 1.5m of snow every year, previous Halleys were designed to be buried (see sidebar below). Halley V is supported on 20 extendable legs and is jacked up higher every year, but this is a major operation involving the entire station’s staff.

Supplies housed in containers or in barrels stacked on the ice also have to be periodically dug out.BAS is keen to minimise the amount of time spent on survival issues and maintenance, leaving the maximum time for the main business of scientific research. To minimise maintenance and stocks of spares, it wants the designs to be standardised wherever possible.

‘If 10 different pumps are used on the station you need 10 spares in store,’ said Tuplin. ‘If they’re all the same, even if over-specified for some applications, you only need one.’On energy, the designers are being asked to maximise the use of renewables and minimise fossil fuels. At present diesel generators provide electricity. But switching to renewables is more problematic than might be expected. For example, there is no sun for 100 days in winter.

Even the pitiless Antarctic wind is unreliable. Several days of gales can be followed by another few days of absolute calm. The cold temperatures create problems for wind turbine bearings. And a ‘mini-grid’ is needed to link the renewables with the standard generators.

Tuplin has doubts about whether heat pumps or fuel cells are sufficiently mature technologies to be used: ‘We want to take tried-and-tested technology and use it in a different way,’ he said. ‘Not brand-new technology, because for 10 months of the year you can’t get any help if it goes wrong.

‘BAS expects that super-efficient insulation will have a part to play in maintaining internal temperatures. Paradoxically the current station gets too hot in summer because of solar gain combined with around 4kW of power being consumed by scientific equipment.

Building-management systems will have remote diagnostics accessible from BAS HQ in Cambridge via the internet.

Tuplin also said the current building is a bit too ‘functional’ and the new structure will try to create a more homely environment. As at the existing station, there will be a library, bar, gym, TV room and internet room. Staff have been surveyed on what else they’d like – a glass-roofed area where they can watch the aurora without having to go outside was a clear favourite.Regarding waste, a certain amount of treated sewage and grey water can be discharged into the ice.

But oil, empty oil drums, fuel, batteries, packing cases and the like will need to be recovered. The whole of Halley VI is to be designed to be removable at the end of its life or if an unexpected calving occurs. ‘The protocol allows you to stop dismantling at the ice level, but if we can design the station to be completely removable we will,’ said Tuplin.

BAS is aware that a relatively small high-tech company might have the solution to any of the array of challenges that will face the winning consortium. ‘I would like smaller companies with innovative technologies in power, waste management or insulation to get in touch with the project teams and argue the case for their products,’ he said.

In December the shortlist of three will be commissioned to develop their designs further, working with BAS. Expressions of interest are currently being sought from contractors for building the station, and the design teams will each be asked to form alliances with one of these.

The winning team will be awarded a design-and-build contract for the station next autumn, leaving a year to finalise the design and mobilise by the summer 2006/07 resupply shipment.

By 2010, when the current station could be facing its final reckoning from the ice, Halley VI should be ready to welcome the British scientists to their new technology-rich home.

<b>Shortlist of six finalists</b>

The skills of the shortlisted consortiums range from engineering, architecture, and boat design to interiors and colour psychology. A total of 86 expressions of interest were received, of which 12 went forward to an expert judging panel.

Companies can be included in multiple entries as sub-consultants – Arup, for example, is represented in three of the consortiums, the lead companies of which are listed below.

Buro Happold

Ian Liddell of consulting engineer Buro Happold, whose CV includes the Millennium Dome, said: ‘Key challenges are transport, the difficulty of getting things there in substantial pieces, and making the building pleasant inside for the scientists.

‘It’s a bit like designing a space station. Like a lunar module, it needs to be self-sufficient. The lunar habitat would be only moderately more difficult. We’re delving into different sorts of building forms – planes and ships are actually more comparable with Halley than a normal building.’

Faber Maunsell

Peter Ayres, project director and director of structural engineering at Faber Maunsell, said: ‘Halley VI is like building a ship in a bottle, and the route across the ice is the neck of the bottle.The key problem is the logistics of getting there. You’re very limited in the size of what you can take and the size of the plant you use to build it. Ironically Halley is more difficult than the South Pole itself, where they have the infrastructure to fly in Hercules aircraft all year round.’

Francis Design

Martin Francis, founder of Francis Design, is an architect and industrial designer who worked with Norman Foster in the 1970s. He began a second career as a naval architect in the late 1970s and has been responsible for numerous high-profile yachts and ships. Francis said: ‘Each of our projects is an autonomous structure designed to go into any sea and survive in extreme conditions. Halley VI is sitting on ice rather than in the ocean, but it needs a system for providing water, dealing with sewage and generating electricity. These are all standard for us.’ The Francis-led consortium includes BMT Nigel Gee & Associates, a specialist boat builder with expertise in hull design and composite structures.

Hopkins Architects

Hopkins Architects and Expedition Engineering has collaborated on several cutting-edge environmentally driven projects, including proposals for an offshore residential tower in the Middle East.

Make Places

The biggest surprise on the shortlist is Make Places: the firm was only founded in January by ex-Foster architect Ken Shuttleworth and has a staff of just 32. Project architect Gary Rawlings sees the big question as ‘how can we modularise the building to be constructed in a quick, easy manner in the Antarctic? Speed of construction is key.’ He believes there is considerable scope for using lightweight materials far more extensively than on previous Halleys.

Richard Rogers Partnership

This is a big-hitting group teaming architect Rogers and engineer Arup with BDSP, a specialist in mechanical, electrical and environmental engineering. Project architect Stephen Barrett said: ‘Not just the companies but the individuals in the team have worked extensively together.’ In particular the core Arup/Rogers team worked on the new control tower for Heathrow: ‘While that’s not an obvious parallel there are a surprising number of common factors,’ said Barrett. Collaborations with BDSP include the Welsh Assembly and a winery in Spain that featured a solar chimney for climate control.