Extreme machine

Hugh Broughton designs for life at the end of the world.

When London-based Hugh Broughton Architects won the competition to build Halley VI, Britain’s latest Antarctic research station, the outfit had never built anything like it. It was 2005, and a year earlier the firm had entered the competition almost on a whim. ‘They were looking for a practice with a large portfolio of projects to draw upon, with lots of experience in sustainability and prefabrication,’ recalls founding director Hugh Broughton, laughing, ‘and a proven track record that included work abroad and remote installations.’ At the time, his office was renovating a basement in Soho and doing some office refurbs in the UK, having completed only one project abroad, the Malaysian headquarters of the British Council in Kuala Lumpur.
But such is the power of a spark that captures the imagination that Broughton, who quickly understood that the main challenges presented by Halley VI would be of a technical nature, decided to team up with a group of engineers from Faber Maunsell (now Aecom) and prepare a proposal for the competition. The engineers, one of whom had spent years with the United States Antarctic Program, led the bid. The group was shortlisted in December 2004 and won the competition in July 2005, prevailing over the likes of Richard Rogers, Hopkins Architects and Make.

Halley is in a pretty unique location, even for the Antarctic, isn’t it?
HUGH BROUGHTON: The main landmass of Antarctica is covered by ice 6 or 7 km thick. Halley is in a really bizarre place called the Brunt Ice Shelf, where the ice has flowed off the main continent and is actually bobbing about on the sea. It’s attached, but it doesn’t stand on terra firma – the sea is underneath the shelf. And it’s moving constantly in a westerly direction at a speed of about 400 m per annum. So it’s a very dynamic site that is always at risk of calving off as an iceberg. And because it’s at a low point in the ice shelf, cold air drops off the main continent. As it drops, it increases in speed, buffeting the station with very strong, freezing winds that regularly blow at speeds of up to 160 kph, mostly from the same direction.

If it’s so inhospitable, why is the station located there?
It’s a very good spot for research purposes, because it is at exactly the right latitude – about 75 degrees south – for studying the interaction between solar particles and the earth’s atmosphere. You get spectacular auroras there. It’s also at the extreme edge of the British claim on Antarctica, so there’s a geopolitical reason for the location as well. Lastly, it’s next to the sea and accessible to ships, which makes it easier and less expensive to service than an inland station that is very difficult to get to. The location is backed by a combination of geopolitical, logistical and scientific reasons.

As the name suggests, this is the sixth in a series of Halley research stations. Why so many?
The combination of snowfall and drifting means the snow level rises by 1.5 m every year in that part of the Antarctic. Everything you leave on the surface gets buried under 1.5 m of snow. Halley V was supported by steel legs that went down into the ice. Because the ice was moving, the legs got distorted – in different directions. Every year they had to send a team of steel- workers to the station to cut off the legs with welding equipment and weld in a plate for new legs. The foundations were getting buried deeper and deeper. Maintenance was very labour-inten- sive and very expensive. Halley VI’s legs rest on giant skis that function as a foundation, which spreads the load, but there’s an added benefit. When you disconnect one module from another, you can use the skis to transport them.

What was the design concept for Halley VI?
The idea was a modular design for everything that was needed at the station: bedrooms, offices, labs, operating theatre and two energy centres. The buildings had to be in a straight line, allowing snow drifts to form on the leeward side. The cross section of each module is designed to let natural light into the centre of the unit. As you pass from one module to another, you have what I think of as 'a sense of arrival'; the ceilings compress and then lift up , the corridor slightly widens, and you get natural light coming through. This sequence prevents the modular design from being a relentless circulation system.

What about social spaces?
For those, we developed a special red central module, which is the heart of the station. It needed to be bigger than the others to accommodate the dining room, the kitchen, the bar, the TV lounge and the gym – all in the same space. It became this special two-storey module with domed rooflights on the top floor, where people can stand when the aurora is flashing all around and get as much of the experience as possible.

Tell me about the features of Halley VI that make life
pleasant, especially during the long, dark winter.
It’s completely dark for 105 days of the year, so there’s a serious psychological light-deprivation issue. We put a lot of effort into lighting for the bedrooms, including special alarm- clock lights that simulate daylight and help to rebalance natural melatonin. We worked with a colour psychologist to develop a special palette intended to help people get through the long, dark months. Blue used for floors and bedroom walls is sup- posed to be calming, and orange duvets are meant to help you sleep.
In the social module, we lined the staircase walls with a veneer of Lebanese cedar. It’s one of the few veneers that give off a scent, and people living in the Antarctic are deprived of sensory elements. Special glazing in the main atrium consists of clear windows with a view of the ice outside and super-insulated translucent panels that contain aerogel, a material with a very high level of thermal performance and a property that lets natural light pass through.

Apart from the extreme weather, Halley is not a destination that’s easy to reach.
You can fly some provisions to the site, but only certain aircraft can fly into Halley, as it’s a long way from anywhere and doesn’t have a proper runway. Bringing things to the station by ship entails a load-bearing issue, because everything has to be dragged across the sea ice. Every now and then you hit a soft spot and your vehicle plummets through a hole. The load-bearing maximum on this sea ice is 9.5 tonnes, according to the BAS (British Antarctic Survey). Everything needed to sustain the base or to build a new one has to comply with that weight limit. You can't prefabricate whole buildings; you can only do it in 'kit form'.

Is Halley VI more sustainable than previous British research stations?
At Halley V they were using 120 litres of water per person per day. At Halley VI that number has been reduced to 20, thanks to the use of aerated showers, taps and fittings – but also, and primarily, to the introduction of a vacuum drainage system like you get on an aeroplane.

You also installed a bioreactor that uses bacteria to treat sewage, creating little or no waste. Did you learn a lot about sustainable technologies while working on the project?
Yes, we did. Ultimately, though, building in the Antarctic isn’t really sustainable, because it’s such a remote location. It takes so much energy to get there and so much energy to run the building. Halley is a little bit like a Formula 1 racing car, where you’re applying very high-tech solutions to very small problems. If you could find ways to mass-market these solutions, now that would be interesting.

You faced so many constraints, such as having only ten weeks a year in which conditions were suitable for construction. Did this project come with more constraints than anything you’d done before?
The constraints at Halley were just different. We had no planning constraints, no preservation or cultural constraints,  no urban constraints, no prescribed pattern of streets. The constraints just came in a different package.

You’re doing a laboratory in Greenland, again with Aecom, for the US government. You also did the concept design for the Spanish research station in the Antarctic and you've entered design competitions for the Indian and South Korean Antarctic stations. Will you eventually be typecast as ‘extreme environment’ architects?
There aren’t that many people who do buildings in this particular sector. If you’re going to be typecast and seen as a leader in one specific field of architecture, that’s not a bad thing. 

Appeared in MARK Issue 45 , Aug/Sep 2013


All photos by James Morris