Few things on Earth are as inherently frustrating as trying to get some studying done in Antarctica, a giant land mass with fully formed intentions of freezing scientists’ asses off while slowly destroying their dreams. Though a U.S. research team finally reached the subglacial Lake Whillans just last week, two other attempts to study different, deeper lakes failed in their efforts in the last year alone. In such unsafe conditions, standard forms of research facilities have proven useful only temporarily. Since duct taping a bunch of space heaters together doesn’t seem like a smart idea, what’s the next best step?
A building on giant skis, that’s what. The Halley VI Antarctic research station opens today, February 5th, after years of construction and transporting from Cape Town, South Africa. The research station’s design, developed in part by Hugh Broughton Architects and engineer AECOM, was the winner of a design competition set up to figure out a way to combat the harsh Antarctic weather conditions. Should it work in practice like it does in theory, expect countries the world over to develop their own, and expect Japan’s to have a karaoke machine.
Over 50 scientists at a time will call the Halley VI home, probably the strangest home they’ve ever lived in. The facility is comprised of eight individual modules made from glass-reinforced plastic, all standing on retractable hydraulic legs, able to lift the buildings above the growing piles of snow and ice beneath them. Each of the modules is connected by a short, flexible corridor, and they all stand in a line perpendicular to prevailing winds, which helps to keep the ground beneath as clear as possible. There are seven blue modules, each housing laboratories and living quarters, while a large, central red module will serve as a social meeting space, with feel-good amenities such as a salad garden and a rock wall to climb. Since the living conditions aren’t exactly optimal for mental well-being, the designers have pulled no punches when it comes to making the inhabitants feel more comfortable, from lamps that simulate daylight to a use of cedar wood for its aromatic purposes.
The legs are truly what will help this project to last longer than its predecessors. Any one particular area sees an average of about three feet of snow pile up annually, and the ice sheets only move out towards the ocean at a rate of a quarter-mile each year. Too much snow on the ground? Go-go Gadget legs, and the Halley VI rises above. What if the snow is too high and the legs have been stretched to their limit? Get a bulldozer out there. The giant ski platforms the legs are set atop will slide through the snow when pulled, making the entire facility mobile, and just a few months of training away from a Winter Olympics gold medal.
“It has been a fascinating project,” says architect Hugh Broughton, “because it combines microscopic examples of many different building types – an operating theater, air traffic control, a power plant – rolled into 20,000 square feet.” And though I joked about it earlier, there actually are similar projects being developed from Korean, Spanish, and Indian scientists. In 20 years, Antarctica might look like a game of Centipede when viewed from space.