Modular Design in the Anarctica
The most remote settlement on earth isn’t on the windswept shelves of Antarctica or the barren tundra of the Arctic. It’s actually Tristan da Cunha, an island in the middle of the South Atlantic. Visiting takes roughly 40 days of travel from London, where the architect Hugh Broughton—who recently designed a health center on Tristan—is based.
“Rather bizarrely, I think it may be the first project that we’ve designed and will be completed—because it’s under construction at the moment—[but that] we may not yet get to visit,” he says.
It’s bizarre because Broughton’s work as an architect has taken him to some of the most inhospitable, difficult-to-access landscapes on earth. The small U.K. firm first rose to international prominence in 2004, when it won a competition to design the sixth Halley Research Station, an Antarctic science base on the Brunt Ice Shelf—a thick wedge of ice on the edge of the continent.
To understand just how tough it is to build on this floating patch of ice, consider that the first five Halley stations were all destroyed. The first four were consumed by the ice, crushed and buried forever—this photo, from 1993, shows the masticated remains of Halley III being spit into the ocean. Halley V was demolished in 2012. Broughton’s solution was both utterly simple and incredibly radical (so much so that it’s been compared to the avant-garde ideas of architects from the ‘60s and ‘70s): give the buildings legs. Literally. Halley VI, which opened in 2013, is built on long skis that make it possible to tow each module to a new location when the ice shelf threatens to destroy it.
Halley VI’s mobility is now being tested for the first time. Last year, the British Antarctic Survey realized that a dangerous chasm was emerging near the station—a chasm that could eventually turn this section of the ice shelf into a full-fledged iceberg, taking the $32 million research station with it. Then, in October, a new crack emerged along Halley’s resupply route. Now, the Survey is preparing to move the station ever so slowly, to a new location where it will be safe from the maw of the ice. Because summer is so short, the ice shelf is so inhospitable, and the station’s science is so complex, the project will take two years.
While Broughton won’t be directly involved with the move, he has a detailed understanding of how it will work. After determining the ideal location for the base, crews will decouple its eight tall, modular pods and slowly tow them away using tractors. It’s an immensely precise process, Broughton explains: The station needs to be close enough to the ocean so as not to waste fuel transporting goods to and from the supply ship, but not so far inland that it’s threatened by a massive crevasse field where the ice connects to the actual continent.
Architects rarely have to think in terms of polar shipping logistics or fuel rations. But Broughton’s work in Antarctica has made him an expert in this niche field that combines housing with extreme environmental engineering and construction logistics. It’s design for survival in the most literal way. Since Halley VI, his firm has drawn up Antarctic research station designs for Spain, Brazil, and South Korea, as well as a station for the U.S. proposed for the Greenland Ice Cap.
Fittingly, much of Broughton’s other built work is focused on what the firm calls “sensitive locations,” like historic buildings and landmark locations. Polar architecture, in its own way, is also “sensitive.” Until recently, the buildings that house the researchers, engineers, and employees who work in these remote regions have been designed more like spaceships, designed first for survival in deep cold, deep dark, and deep isolation.
Halley VI wasn’t just radical because it had legs, it was radical because it was human-centered: The firm took issues like visual and sensory deprivation into account, and even created a module that was double-height and had a wide picture window—insulated with aerogel—contradicting the traditional logic of design in extreme environments. In a climate where the sun doesn’t rise for more than 100 days and temperatures can reach -70 degrees Fahrenheit, having a comfortable bedroom or pleasant social space matters a lot more. “People just really love that space,” Broughton says. “To the point of almost moving the dining room furniture from the dining space to sit underneath that big window.” Design can play a profound role in the social and mental health of inhabitants of any climate, including the most extreme.
The spaceship comparison is apt; in fact, Broughton has worked with NASA on deep space design. Perhaps a trip to Mars and a year working on an Antarctic ice shelf aren’t so different. The same goes for life on Tristan—the deeply isolated island of roughly 300 inhabitants—where Broughton’s firm is building a health center, a project that represents the application of its polar expertise to a less extreme, but even more remote, location. “It’s really been quite recently that we’ve made the effort to make the transformation from extreme polar projects to projects just in very remote locations in slightly more temperate environments,” says Broughton.
The health center is being entirely prefabricated in a Swedish factory, right down to electrical and HVAC details embedded in the wall panels. The modules will be shipped to Tristan, since it has no airstrip. While the building technology isn’t very advanced—it needs to be accessible enough that local residents can repair everything if it breaks down—the project itself is carefully coordinated, since there’s no way to deliver spare parts or missing details to the island. Every light fitting, every window, and every detail must be accounted for, and simple enough for a non-professional to fix. Just getting construction materials to the island takes months, but the entire prefab building will take five months to build.
It’s not so dissimilar from having to think about fuel costs and shipping schedules in Antarctica. “Without the Antarctic experience we would have found it very hard to do,” Broughton says. “You have to consider so carefully that there’s very little escape from these buildings. They’re going to make a big impression on a very small community, and therefore you want to get them absolutely right.”
Broughton visited Halley VI after it was completed and got a chance to experience life there—though a storm cut the trip short after threatening to trap them at the base all winter. (“I would have really been able to do the world’s best post-occupancy valuation,” Broughton laughs). Things as small as each base member having their own window and better sound insulation were transformative. “Halley V was a very functional engineering-oriented, 25-year-old building,” he says. “These were all things people had been sort of denied, in a way, in the previous base.”
Projects like Halley VI play a critical role in our understanding of the climate and planetary science. The data that comes from these frozen places represents the bellwether for a changing world, which is why governments go to great lengths to sustain and protect them. While Halley is being slowly moved over the next two years, both the U.K. and U.S. will grapple with their own structural changes back home, led by new, isolationist governments. “[These projects] rely on collaboration between other nations,” Broughton says. He points to the planned $300 million redevelopment of the U.S.-led McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the largest polar research station in existence. The fate of many such projects could depend on how politicians interpret their purpose as infrastructure or science.
Meanwhile, the latest update from Tristan last week reported that construction on the new health center is already taking shape—despite a delay due, predictably, to bad weather.