One of the world’s most ambitious offsite construction projects is underway in Antarctica. Siôn Geschwindt explores the nuts and bolts of the Scott Base redevelopment and its broader implications at a time of unprecedented global change
A deafening siren rang through the hallways of New Zealand’s Antarctic research station, waking a small band of scientists and personnel who call Scott Base ‘home’ during the long, dark winter.
The next day, Simon Shelton and his teammates sat down over breakfast, lamenting the base’s failing infrastructure. It’s the third night in a row the fire alarm has gone off, and they’re exhausted.
Shelton is an Antarctic veteran who has witnessed the gradual decline of Scott Base.
“Many of the base’s critical life-support systems are deteriorating and need replacement,” he tells Build in Digital. “Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and driest place on earth. That takes its toll on a building.”
Located on Pram Point, a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Ross Ice Shelf, Scott Base was established in 1957 by legendary explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and has been a hub of scientific research ever since.
The current base, comprising 11 separate buildings scattered across the hillside, was built in the 1980s and has served New Zealand well. But the buildings, facilities and systems are no longer fit-for-purpose.
“It’s become increasingly clear that we need new infrastructure that meets, or ideally exceeds, modern standards,” said Shelton.
In 2016, Antarctica New Zealand embarked on its most ambitious project to date: the Scott Base redevelopment.
The redevelopment, which secured NZ$344m (£176m) in government backing last year, involves the complete replacement of the current facility with a safe, environmentally sustainable scientific research base that will support New Zealand’s presence in Antarctica for the next 50 years. This includes finance for a new wind farm to power the base.
Antarctica New Zealand has selected a ‘dream team’ of international firms to execute the plan, including Leighs Construction, WSP, Steensen Varming, The Building Intelligence Group, Aecom, and UK-based Hugh Broughton Architects.
The entire base will be built offsite in New Zealand, broken into eight blocks, shipped across the Southern Ocean, and installed at Pram Point, all while maintaining a comprehensive science programme.
Although this sounds like a logistical nightmare, the developers are confident of their approach.
“By constructing the base in New Zealand, we can build year-round and fully commission the buildings, test equipment, and train staff on new base operations before the modules are shipped south, cutting construction time in half,” says Shelton, who is Antarctica New Zealand’s senior project manager for the redevelopment project.
Offsite construction – where building elements are manufactured in a factory setting and then transported to site – is not a new concept. Due to the lack of naturally occurring building materials in Antarctica, even Shackleton’s Hut was prefabricated in London before being shipped south in 1907.
These first huts were crude structures, occupied for only a season or two before being abandoned. But technological advancement and demand for more modern facilities has given rise to some of the coolest (pun intended) buildings on the planet.
Yet even though these state-of-the-art facilities were made from prefabricated elements, most were built incrementally over several years.
Scott Base on the other hand aims to be shipped and installed during just one building season. That’s 12 weeks.
This speedy delivery is partly thanks to volumetric modular building, a type of offsite construction where large modules are built and fully commissioned before being linked together onsite like a stack of LEGO bricks.
As Leighs Construction project manager, Iain Miller, puts it: “The less time on the ice the better.”
Permafrost, sub-zero temperatures, eight months of darkness, frozen seas, and extreme remoteness make building in Antarctica exceptionally difficult. And then there are strict environmental protocols to consider. If a penguin walks onto the construction site, all work must halt until the bird decides to leave.
Miller says that a traditional onsite build would take over 10 years.
Nuts and bolts
In many ways, building the base in New Zealand is the easy part. The real challenge is designing a base capable of enduring wind speeds up to 180kph, snowdrifts deep enough to crush buildings, temperatures cold enough to crack steel, tight space restrictions and a journey across the most treacherous ocean on Earth. Notwithstanding the combined threats of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and climate change.
Thankfully, architect Hugh Broughton is no stranger to designing buildings for extreme climates, having masterminded both the Halley VI British Antarctic Research Station and Juan Carlos 1 Spanish Antarctic Base. But out there, no two builds are the same.
“Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and driest place on earth – that takes its toll on a building”
In what is the biggest offsite construction project ever undertaken in Antarctica, the precedents are limited. “Most design aspects have been done before, but not all together and not in Antarctica,” says Will Parker, project director at global engineering firm, WSP, who worked closely with Broughton on the design.
To meet the requirements for a safe, sustainable base capable of lasting the next 50 years, Broughton travelled across the world to consult with international polar design experts. More than two years of brainstorming, testing and prototyping eventually led him to the winning design.
“The concept for the new base is actually quite simple,” says Broughton.
It comprises three inter-connected, aerodynamically shaped two-storey buildings, which step down the hillside of Pram Point. The three buildings are offset from each other and elevated above the ground to allow wind to flow underneath.
The upper building contains the living accommodation, a mix of single and twin bedrooms, ablution blocks and living spaces capable of supporting a summer population of 100 and a winter crew of 15. The lower level contains the medical suite, laundry, recreational spaces, food storage, shop, locker room, a welcome lounge and plant spaces.
A bridge links it to the central research building, with laboratories and offices on the upper level and an open-plan, deep-field science expedition preparation area below.
Another bridge links it to the lower building with workshops, an energy-saving wastewater treatment facility and reverse-osmosis desalination system for drinking water.
Long gone are the days when Antarctic bases were barebone huts where the core design principle was survival. The new Scott Base will be a fully functioning village, capable of withstanding the most extreme conditions on Earth and providing a veritable ‘home from home’.
“Scott Base is like a microcosm of society, with everything you need to live and work throughout the year,” says Broughton.
All three buildings have a state-of-the-art fire suppression system – a critical feature in a place where evacuating outside might be just as deadly.
The buildings’ hull is constructed from a steel frame, clad with metal-composite insulated panels. Glass-reinforced plastic installed at key points will help the building withstand wind pressures four times greater than the average house.
The interior has been ‘beefed up’ for the ocean voyage, and the building materials carefully tested to ensure they are fit-for-purpose.
The design phase, fortunately unhindered by the pandemic, is almost complete and the redevelopment in full swing. Infrastructure for long-term science experiments and two geomagnetic huts were installed last summer season, and site investigations have been underway for the past two years.
New Zealand’s first prefabricated factory is being assembled in Timaru, where the offsite construction area is being prepared for 2026 completion, after which the base will be shipped south.
Breaking the ice
Before shipping, the base will be constructed, tested, commissioned, and then divided into eight separate modules, each weighing 1,000 tonnes. Each section will be welded to the deck of a massive ice-strengthened heavy transport vessel, one of only four of its kind in the world.
The ship will transport the new base 3,723km across the Southern Ocean. The voyage cannot proceed unless wave heights are below 6.5m.
“There’s a narrow window of opportunity,” says Miller. “Timing is critical. Too early and the sea ice is too thick, too late and the weather becomes treacherous.”
Even in summer, the sea ice around Scott Base is thick, which means the transport vessel will have to follow a polar-rated icebreaker ship as it carves a channel through 50km of the Ross Ice Shelf.
With a cargo bay bigger than a football pitch and a carrying capacity of 16,000 tonnes, the transport vessel’s sheer size makes site access and mooring at Scott Base particularly challenging.
To accommodate the behemoth, a temporary wharf, bollards, and ramps will be constructed at Scott Base to facilitate what’s known as a ‘Mediterranean mooring’ – a challenging manoeuvre akin to perpendicular parking a car backwards… just on a much bigger scale.
Once the ship has moored, each module will be carefully placed onto self-propelled modular transporters (SPMT) – giant platforms on wheels – which will haul each section to its final resting place.
The modules will then be lowered onto a series of piles secured deep into the permafrost and then bolted back together. Once the new base is installed, the old one will be decommissioned and as much as possible recycled.
This exceptionally complex redevelopment will take six years to complete, at a time when the construction industry and the global economy as a whole faces unprecedented challenges.
“Construction is already facing challenging times, and the unique conditions of Antarctica make it all the more difficult,” says Miller.
Shortages of essential raw material products and soaring costs have put mounting pressure on construction, a sector already grappling with labour shortages, poor productivity, and a post-pandemic project backlog. Add surging fuel prices to the mix, and it’s easy to see what project managers like Miller are up against.
Amid these constraints, many in the industry are turning to Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) such as offsite and modular building.
Global management consulting firm McKinsey estimates that these methods can cut project delivery times, reduce costs, and significantly boost sustainability through the reduction of waste and carbon emissions.
“The team is constantly working to drive down costs and keep the project viable”
Digital technologies are also key, says Antarctica New Zealand’s Simon Shelton, which is precisely why the redevelopment team has adopted an integrated Building Management System (BMS), a SCADA system to manage the energy grid, and Building Information Modelling (BIM) for design, operating, and maintaining documentation to keep projects on time and on budget.
“Given the state of the construction industry at the moment and the challenges of this particular project, we are acutely aware of the cost constraints,” said Jon Ager, Antarctica New Zealand’s project director for the Scott Base redevelopment.
“The team, under the guidance of our quantity surveyor, AECOM, is constantly working to come up with ways to drive down costs and keep the project viable.”
Of the NZ$344m (£176m) granted for the project, $30m (£15.4m) will be allocated for the new wind farm and the rest split between onsite and offsite construction and logistics.
While some have questioned whether the redevelopment is worth the cost, it is hard to put a price tag on New Zealand’s continued presence on the continent.
The big picture
New Zealand was one of 12 original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which set aside the continent for ‘peace and science’.
Antarctic research has led to several key scientific discoveries and provides a window into how the planet is changing.
“Research to understand how climate change affects Antarctica, and the flow-on impacts to Aotearoa New Zealand and the rest of the world, is critically important,” said New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, in a statement last year.
Retaining an ongoing presence in Antarctica is also geopolitical. A forgotten wasteland for most of human history, Antarctica is now attracting increased global attention, due partly to its possible mineral wealth.
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Burgeoned by the rising demand for resources, interest in mining in Antarctica is only likely to grow, says one recent study. Discussion of future mineral prospecting in the region has already begun, led by China and Russia.
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty bans all mining activities, and most Antarctic scientists agree that conserving the world’s last great wilderness must be prioritised and the treaty’s conditions strengthened further.
The Scott Base redevelopment is one key piece of this puzzle and will be critical in upholding New Zealand’s scientific and strategic interests. But in many ways, it could offer a glimpse into the future of building in general.
As the climate crisis worsens, architects, engineers, and contractors will have to build better structures with fewer resources and design buildings to withstand extreme climates. Construction using the most modern methods and digital tech may soon become the norm.
Main image: Mount Erebus looms over the current Scott Base (credit: Antarctica New Zealand)
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