The coolest house on earth

The Halley research station can sleep up to 52 scientists, withstand freezing polar winds and ski itself out of danger. Steve Connor unwraps plans for the British Antarctic Survey's spectacular new base camp
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The Independent Online

A futuristic building that looks more like a Moon base than a terrestrial research centre, the sixth Halley research station since 1957 will be built to withstand some of the most extreme weather conditions known to man. Yet the spectacular design will have a far more earthly role to play when it is finally completed for use in four years' time. Instead of probing for life on other planets, the British Antarctic Survey's new centre will be used for studying climate change and the ozone layer.

The station is designed to withstand winter temperatures of minus 56C and wind speeds of 90mph. Moreover, the prefabricated, modular construction stands on steel skis so that it can be towed further inland when the moving ice shelf on which it rests threatens to fall into the sea - an inevitable process known as iceberg calving. It can also be jacked up on its steel legs to prevent it being buried by the inevitable snowstorms.

Up to 52 scientists can live in the base during the summer months, with a crew of 16 being able to inhabit it through the long Antarctic winter when the sun does not rise above the horizon for three months and there is total darkness for 55 consecutive days. The research station will be precariously located on the 150m-thick floating Brunt Ice Shelf. "Unlike the current research station, this one is built on skis and can be towed to safety if it gets too close to the edge of the ice shelf for comfort," says Professor Chris Rapley, the director of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge.

The designers Faber Maunsell and Hugh Broughton Architects won the competition for the new £19m research station on the grounds of cost and being able to satisfy all the necessary technical and scientific requirements. The two other designs on the final shortlist also envisaged a station built on stilts, and one even went as far as to propose a system of walking legs.

Each mechanical leg of the new Halley VI station can be jacked up to allow engineers to pack ice and snow underneath each "foot". This means that the entire station can be raised to prevent it from being buried in snow and ice - the fate of four previous Halley research stations.

One of the key features of the winning design is the low impact the research station should have on the pristine Antarctic environment. It is designed to be energy efficient, and even the human sewage will be dried and incinerated rather than being dumped under the snow.

Peter Ayres, project director of Faber Maunsell, says that one of the goals of the project was to ensure the research station complied fully with the Antarctic treaty on the environment. "Minimising environmental impact during construction and lifespan has been a big issue for our design," he says. "Each highly insulated module incorporates low energy and sustainable principles to help to reduce the station's environmental impact. When it comes to eventual decommissioning, the station can be easily moved and taken apart. We consider Halley VI to be a visitor to Antarctica, not a resident."

The station consists of two platforms - north and south - each with six interconnected modules that house bedrooms, an observation lounge and research laboratories. A special central module will be the social focus of the station, with a dining room, spaces for recreational activities such as pool and table-tennis, a gym, a sauna, a hydrotherapy bath and a music room.

A helical staircase will take the residents to an upper deck where there will be a TV lounge, library and offices. In the long, dark winter months the window blinds of this atrium will be illuminated by coloured lights that are designed to emulate the changing daylight of a more temperate latitude. Lettuces and other edible plants will be grown hydroponically in this area to provide crews with the refreshing sight of greenery, as well as supplying them with three fresh salads a week. A "colour psychologist" has been consulted over the interior decor, to help avert the onset of the midwinter blues.

Hugh Broughton, the architect, says that several factors have had to be taken into consideration, such as the residents' comfort, the scientific experiments that have to be carried out, and the ease with which the station can be shipped and assembled in situ.

"From the outset we researched the processes involved in Halley, and used this knowledge to inform our thinking. The iconic architecture grew from the function of the building," says Broughton. "Our design maximises flexibility. Modules can be used for a large number of activities ranging from laboratories to recreation to plant rooms."

The first module will be built next year and the whole construction is scheduled to be operating within four years. A key factor in the construction is that each element of a module should not weigh more than six tons so that there is little risk of them falling through the thinner sea ice as they are transported to the thicker ice shelf - a huge slab of ice that forms on land but slips into the ocean to form a floating platform up to 200m thick.

Each module of the research station will weigh around 60 tons, which is light enough for them to be towed individually by two bulldozers. The larger middle module will weigh about 120 tons and will need three bulldozers to pull it further inland as the ice shelf moves closer to the sea.

The existing Halley V research station is expected to fall into the sea within the next 10 years. However, the British Antarctic Survey will decommission and remove it long before this is due to occur.