Hugh Broughton Architects and AECOM won the international RIBA competition to design the new Halley Research Station for the British Antarctic Survey on 9 July 2005. In January 2006 Hugh set off on the trip of a lifetime to visit the site for the new base. His journey took him from the UK via the Falkland Islands and the British base at Rothera on Adelaide Island, arriving at Halley on 19 January. He repeated the trip in February 2012, at the end of the construction period, shortly before Halley VI became operational. During his trips Hugh reported for the Architects’ Journal, Building Design and BBC Mundo.
Phil Wells, Halley VI Project Architect, visited the site in 2008, via CapeTown this time, and reported again for the Architects’ Journal.
Their diary entries are reproduced here and give an insight into our practice’s passion for the Antarctic.
On a summer morning in June 2004 I was getting ready for the school run with the Today programme playing in the background. My ears pricked up when I heard George Ferguson being introduced. He was being interviewed alongside the director of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Chris Rapley in preparation for the launch of a major architectural competition. As the interview progressed Professor Rapley began to list the characteristics of the architect they were looking for to design the new British research station at Halley on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica – a site subjected to temperatures as low as -56ºC, winds in excess of 100mph and with a winter of 105 days of total darkness. He mentioned experience in remote locations, ability to work far from the UK, prefabrication, extreme climate, complex logistics and total isolation. Leading a practice of only 4, I was instantly unable to put a tick against any of the boxes.
Eight and a half years on I am sitting in Cape Town International Airport about to board Flight D11 - an Ilyushin cargo plane, normally used by Gazprom to service rigs in Siberia, bound for the Russian research station at Novolazarevskaya. I am en route to visit the nearly complete Halley VI Antarctic Research Station, designed by my practice and AECOM and being constructed by Galliford Try International. It's a deeply emotional moment crowning a mountain of work by an army of people spread around the world. It has redirected our practice to a number of polar commissions for other countries and provided the most thrilling architectural journey along the way. In our design we have used materials I had barely heard of 9 years ago, met experts we never knew existed and visited countries across the globe.
All these thoughts mingle with the more immediate reality of a 6-hour journey ahead in the company of Caroline Lewis, the BAS logistics officer for Halley, a German radio operator returning to his base at Neumayer 3 and the Russian aircrew as we travel from the blue skies and summer temperatures of South Africa to the freezing wastes of Dronning Maudland. Temperatures there are already below -10ºC and falling every day as Antarctica lurches towards winter. It is the second last flight into the continent this season and I am hoping to catch the last one out in 7 days time. Already our departure has been postponed by 24 hours as the blue ice runway at Novo had been covered in thick snow after a violent blizzard. But despite the isolation and extreme climate this is a journey I wouldn't change for the world and my levels of excitement are already at fever pitch.
The Ilyushin touches down on a blue ice runway in the midst of a white desert. The Antarctic Logistics Centre International operates around 12 flights a year from Cape Town transporting cargo, scientists and technicians to the 6 research stations in Dronning Maud Land - a vast area the size of western Europe. Novo is their logistic centre and comprises a handful of shipping containers converted to provide dormitories for overnight accommodation, storage and a communications unit. Food is served in a heated insulated tent, toilets are housed in a small container on a sledge. Its a big step from the last time I was here in 2006, when the accommodation had strong resonance with the Cold War era. It is still feels like the end of the world - a desolate but beautiful place.
The cold bites despite my polar clothing and as I take photos my hands are soon totally numb. Cargo is unloaded by the Russian ground crew and assigned to waiting areas associated with each station. The Indians arrive with a sledge pulled by a Pisten Bully to take supplies back to their year round station at Maitri, only a few miles away. In the catering tent we drink tea with our German co-passenger. He had to travel to Cape Town for an operation on a slipped disc in his back before returning to over winter at Nuemayer 3 Station. He was lucky - 2 weeks later and his return to a hospital could have been nigh impossible.
Our stay at Novo is short. Within an hour we transfer to a Baslar DC-3, a refurbished twin prop plane originally built in 1944 for the RAF. The Canadian pilots offer to head off quickly. They are keen to get to Halley for lunch - the British menu offering more attractions than the Russian one. These pilots are heroes of aviation, flying missions across vast expanses of ice pockmarked with nunataks (rocky outcrops which protrude above the ice, in places over 3 Kms thick). There is no support system below. This is the most remote terrain on earth.
Basler DC-3 at Novo
En route to Halley
The flight to Halley takes 4 hours. With 10 minutes to landing we strain to get a view of the new station. The plane banks right and suddenly the thin line of modules comes into view for the first time. It has the tiny scale of a model set against the great white expanse of the Brunt Ice Shelf. Caroline has asked the pilot to carry out a low fly-by for the benefit of the architect. Down below there is great activity with skidoos, cranes and bulldozers moving around as if the station is preparing to take off itself.
The plane touches down on the snow runway and we taxi towards the small welcoming committee – the base commander, vehicles manager and the Halley Project Manager, Karl Tuplin. I can hardly wait to reach the new building. The plane has landed around a mile from the station, which is brightly lit by the low easterly sun. Our luggage is loaded onto a sledge and we board another, pulled at high speed by skidoo. We are quickly inside the boot room, taking off polar clothing. The room is strewn with boots, florescent jackets and oil stained boiler suits. It is hard to see the architecture. Emerging into the corridor of the command module it is clear that we have entered a construction site. Floors are covered in protective ply and even in this one module I can see there are teams installing ceilings, commissioning plant, fireproofing penetrations and installing ironmongery.
The decision to spend the winter in Halley VI, rather than maintaining Halley V, was taken at the start of February. Since then the construction team have been working hand in glove with the British Antarctic Survey, who are busy moving in equipment ranging from bed linen to sophisticated science instruments. The deadline for completion is only days away. The construction team will be leaving by ship and plane and the building has to be fully operational by then. All 109 people on base are working at a frenetic level to achieve completion. When finished Halley VI will be the most advanced research station in Antarctica. Right now it is in a state of organised chaos. I am staying in a bedroom in the new station – a special chance to experience living in our design.
After a briefing on station safety from the base commander I begin work – a walk around the base with Peter Willmott, the Galliford Try Project Manager. Quality is excellent although sometimes hard to see through the melee of moving in. We identify areas, which need minor design input and obvious points of snagging before I start work on a room-by-room snagging process. I will need to be quick. I have six days on site and 20,000 sq feet to check. I start with the most southerly module, which is used for science. It is the only blue module with a second floor - a 360 degree glazed observation deck for meteorological observations and ozone measurements which has quickly established itself as one of the most popular spaces on station. It is currently the fiefdom of Jon Shanklin, the BAS scientist who discovered the ozone hole in 1985, leading to the Montreal Protocol on the banning of CFCs - probably the single most important piece of global environmental legislation achieved to date. Jon has legendary status in BAS and this is his last season. He is thrilled with the ozone observation facilities. I watch him take a measurement using the Dobson Spectrophotometer. The team have together spent many hours perfecting the design of the opening hatch, which allows these measurements to be taken regularly every day.
By the end of the day I have completed my inspections of this module and am impressed by how few obvious faults I can find. Its extraordinary to be in the most isolated environment on the planet yet the quality is better than is often achieved in central London – a testament to the dedication of the extreme team at work here. Their season has been long and hard. The first team flew in from Punta Arenas in Chile at the end of October. They touched down at a transit camp on Union Glacier on the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf for a short stop over but ended up spending 3 weeks there, living in tents, before they could take off again – the weather was too consistently poor to fly.
First view of Halley VI
Sunset at Halley VI
Bad news. The weather is set to change for the worse and our flight departure has been brought forward. I will only get 72 hours at Halley. I immediately resolve to spend as little time sleeping as possible. I have to condense all the snagging into a very short period and get to work by 7am. I carry on through the day and eventually finish at 11pm with four modules complete, including the main social module. This is the central feature of the station. At the lower level it incorporates the kitchen, food stores and interconnecting open plan dining areas and a lounge space, currently filled with boxes of Antonio Citterio furniture. To reduce risk of damage the current dining space is kitted out with tables and chairs from the old base. A scaffold tower in the central atrium is being used for final decorations and installation of colour change lighting. In a normal summer the population of Halley will be around 52 people. It is currently running at twice that number. It is easy to see that the central module will become a pleasant and dynamic social space at the cutting edge of station design. The upper deck is reached by a spiral stair climbing within a drum, lined in curved veneered panels. We chose a Lebanese cedar to give a gentle aroma of nature within the barren frozen landscape. From the top landing you look down into the atrium, which is full of natural light, filtered through an inclined nanogel insulated Okalux glazed wall. It's the first feature atrium in Antarctica. Upstairs there is a gym and a TV lounge. Each room has a feature cockpit rooflight manufactured by Octatube in Delft, which will provide spectacular views of the southern lights in winter. Both rooms are currently strewn with equipment, bags of books and boxes of furniture. The veneered walls of the gym are protected by cardboard. We will not now see them cleaned and ready to use before we leave but it is still possible to imagine the rooms in use, helping to create a comfortable family atmosphere to draw the crew together in the winter.
Although I have so little time on station I can at least take advantage of the 24-hour daylight still available at this latitude. With my snagging complete for the day, I don my polar clothes and go for a reflective walk around the station. Although it is cloudy, there is a gentle glow on the horizon where the sun sets for a brief period, this will increase from now as days spiral towards total darkness. Cloud cover lifts temperatures from an earlier low and I am almost hot as I walk around the station checking skis, flexible connections and enjoying a moment at one with the project. The skis are both the building’s foundations and means of relocation when this section of the ice shelf threatens to calve away as an iceberg. I return inside around 11.30pm. With long days, low temperatures and fresh air sleep comes easily in Antarctica.
Hugh Broughton in central module atrium
Jon Shanklin takes ozone reading
The Antarctic construction season is only 10 weeks long. It has taken 4 seasons to construct Halley VI. In the final hours left on site the Galliford Try team are quickly retreating module by module and the appearance of the interior becomes increasingly apparent. The last of my snagging focuses on the two bedroom modules. The bedrooms, toilets and shower rooms were prefabricated by Servacom in Hull and have survived 3 winters with temperatures dropping to -55ºC before the heating was turned on. The bedrooms are designed for one person through the winter and two in the summer. By each bed there is a special alarm light incorporating a daylight simulation lamp to help prevent SAD, a design our team developed with Philips. The bathrooms take up the chamfered zones with generous thresholds and views onto the ice. These areas are decorated in bright colours. The palette was developed with Angela Wright, a colour psychologist, to help with module identification and to combat SAD. At the north end of the station is a quiet room. The protective coverings have at last been removed, the bookshelves have been put together and the room is complete bar the loose furniture. With only 14 winterers on base for the next 9 months it is easy to see this space being used for contemplation or quiet conversation away from the social hub of the central module.
When the snagging is complete I walk through the base with the BAS Project Manager, Karl Tuplin. We identify works to be completed over the following few days by the BAS carpenters and works which must now be left for the next season. With no emergency services and a hazardous climate outside, fire safety is of paramount importance. Through the design process this aspect occupied a significant portion of our time. Services run within the undercroft of each module formed by the steel space frame substructure. Fire stopping penetrations between the undercroft and accommodation space has been a lengthy process for the self named ‘undercroft rats’. It's a better working environment now the spaces are clean and warm but was less fun at the start of the season before the generators were turned on.
Clouds break and the sun comes out. Its a stunning Antarctic afternoon and the perfect time to review the exterior. Others have similar thoughts and there is a mass of activity at snow level – final tightening of metalwork bolts, removal of outgoing cargo to the BAS ship, docked against the sea ice 15kms away, and last minute application of numbering to the hydraulic legs to assist operators when the station is jacked. After years of hard work the GRP cladding system has emerged as a significant project success, with high quality finishes, exceptional U-values and very low levels of infiltration. Thermal imaging of the exterior by BAS shows no drop in performance across the sealed joints.
Mike Rose, the project science coordinator, takes me on the back of a skidoo to review the science cabooses. These are located around 1km from the base and are formed from converted shipping containers on steel legs and contain high tech electronics support to the field experiments. In the past these cabooses tended to be very hot in summer and unpleasantly cold in winter. Our work improved the levels of insulation, introduced an efficient heat exchange ventilation system and rationalised electric and data distribution. Outside the containers are painted bright yellow with red numbering for identification. The colour helps way finding when there is little definition between sky and snow and reduces summer heat gain. The last time I glimpsed one of these cabooses I was on the M1 going on holiday to the Dales and it was heading in the opposite direction on the back of a low loader heading to Immingham for export to Antarctica. Its good to be re-acquainted.
When we return to base the winterers are preparing for a night out. It's a tradition that the wintering team are invited to dinner on the BAS ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, on its last night before leaving Halley. They dress up in jacket and tie and depart in a Sno-Cat for the coast. At Halley VI the summer chef has prepared steak and chips as a final meal for the construction team. Later on the ‘film of the season’, shot by the BAS cameraman is shown in the central module and people settle down with a drink to watch. LED lights are at last connected and illuminate the veneer panels of the stair hub. Along the bedroom corridors all the construction materials have been removed and the space has been hoovered. Within days the station will transform from construction site to the most comfortable research base in Antarctica.
Around the base oil drums placed at 15m intervals in a 5km circumference define the station perimeter, beyond which special permits and radios are needed. People run, walk and ski around the drum line to take exercise. As I walk around after dinner, the temperature has dropped to -19ºC, the sun is setting and a pink glow lights the horizon. At one point I stop and chat to one of the steel crew who has already walked round 3 times. It's a last chance for us both to see the building from every angle. As I reach the end of the circuit a skua appears from nowhere and starts to circle around me. These scavenging birds can dive bomb you if you get too close to their young. This is not likely here but I am relieved when it disappears.
Hugh Broughton and Karl Tuplin, BAS project manager
Spiral stair hub
The morning breaks with increasingly bad conditions – driving snow and poor visibility. The Basler arrived the pervious day and the Canadian crew have enjoyed another night at Halley VI, cashing in on the steaks and film show. They are totally unphased by the weather. The base is full of activity as 17 of us prepare to depart by plane and another 50 prepare to leave on the ship. As others pack I quickly take a last chance to walk through the base before wrenching myself away to board the Sno-Cat for the short drive out to the skiway. We transfer luggage from the sledge to the plane and quickly climb aboard. The co-pilot breaks the bond between the skis of the plane and the ice with a quick belt from a rubber sledgehammer. The engines start up and we ascend into the clouds without even a last glimpse at Halley VI. I can only hope that I will get another chance to return and see the station in use.
We arrive at Novo four hours later to find a beautiful clear and warm day. Eventually teams from Norway, Germany, India, Belgium, Finland and Russia will be transferred by the Baslers to the base to catch the Ilyushin back to Cape Town but tonight we will have the place to ourselves. We will spend two nights here, sleeping in a converted shipping container, 9 to a room, taking our meals in the tent and wandering around the old vehicles and other detritus of this Russian staging post. These stopovers help to emphasise the difficulties of moving around Antarctica in direct contrast to the comforts of Halley VI. It is clear that the station we have designed is an extraordinary exception to the norm – a feeling which buoys us all as we while away the hours in our cabin.
As we are further north the sun sets for much longer and for the first time on any of my visits to Antarctica, I get to see a starry polar night. Within a few weeks the number of visible stars will multiply by many times and be complimented by dramatic displays of the Aurora Australis. We have already logged our interest in photos from the winter team of the new station lit by the aurora.
Last view of Halley VI
The idle passing of time at Novo is suddenly interrupted on Monday morning by a knock at the door and instructions from our Russian hosts to load up the sledge ready for departure on the Ilyushin, which arrived from Cape Town yesterday afternoon. During the preceding day and early this morning groups from other stations have been congregating at Novo and we are now all assembled and begin to board the plane. When I flew out there were only 6 passengers. On the return there are over 50. The Russian and Norwegians challenge each other to drink as much vodka and aquavit as possible before take off and then spend the majority of the flight looking decidedly green. The speed with which the Ilysuhin transports crews from sub-zero to sub-tropical is psychologically disturbing. One minute you are wrapped up in multiple layers and insulated orange boiler suits, the next you are stripped down to t-shirts and shorts.
Back in Cape Town we are just in time for dinner on the waterfront. It's a moment to reflect on the extraordinary achievements 4500kms further south. Eight years ago as I struggled through a refurbishment of a basement office in Soho, I neither dreamed that I could be designing an Antarctic Research Station nor that one day I would be sitting in a South African restaurant surrounded by polar scientists raising a glass to the success of Halley VI.