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Designing A City For Science At The Bottom Of The World

McMurdo Station–a 58-year-old research center in Antarctica–is finally receiving a sorely needed renovation. Co.Design spoke with the architects.

With glass-walled conference rooms, lounges, and open desk space, the renderings for the renovation of McMurdo Station could be mistaken for those of a state-of-the art office. Employees will be able to take lunch breaks in a communal cafeteria, pick up their mail from the on-site Post Office, stretch their legs in the gym, and get a trim at the barbershop.

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There’s a catch, though. They’ll be doing so in one of the most remote locations on Earth–Antarctica.

[Image: OZ Architecture]
First established as a U.S. Navy outpost in 1955, McMurdo Station is now a sprawling 160-acre scientific research center composed of over 100 small buildings. There, scientists are studying some of the most vital problems the world is facing today, like climate change, shrinking polar ice caps, arctic habitat loss, and sea-level rise.

Like most research centers in Antarctica, McMurdo was originally viewed as a temporary settlement; the structures weren’t built or planned with permanence in mind. Since it had no master plan guiding its growth, the station has expanded organically over the decades–today it has over 1,000 summer workers and 250 year-round employees. This has led to inefficiencies: It requires a lot of energy to heat, a lot of snow-clearing to travel between structures (and more maintenance staff), and a lot of traveling between buildings in high winds and sub-zero temperatures. As a result, scientists probably aren’t collaborating as much as they could be.

So in 2012, McMurdo’s operators–the National Science Foundation and defense contractor Leidos–decided that the site needed an overhaul to improve its scientific output, quality of life, and efficiency. The hope was that a new design would let the NSF and Leidos spend more money on research than maintenance and operations, and they looked to architecture as a solution.

[Photo: OZ Architecture]
“Everything is in the service of science down there,” says Rick Petersen, a principal at OZ Architecture, the Denver-based firm that designed McMurdo Station’s new master plan, which will begin construction in 2019. “The top priority is making more science out of what’s down there. If people are healthy, safe, and inspired, then they’ll do better work–and this goes for not just the scientists, but also the support staff.”

The master plan’s main conceit is consolidating the station’s 100-plus tiny structures into six larger buildings. As a whole, the station’s current buildings have a high ratio of surface to volume, which contributes to heat loss. Moreover, traveling between the 100 buildings is a logistical nightmare: The food warehouses are sited far from the cafeteria, so employees have to trek outside in high winds and frigid temperatures (which can dip to -18 degrees Fahrenheit), and clearing snow between buildings requires constant maintenance.

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To build the structures, OZ knew that prefabrication would be essential since transporting materials to McMurdo is difficult–as is employing construction labor. Petersen and his team designed modular buildings using structurally insulated panels (SIPs) that can fit in shipping containers and be assembled quickly on-site. The SIPs are composed of nearly 10 inches of foam, wood, and moisture-proof membranes that keep cold out and heat in. OZ specified these ultra-insulated SIPs, which have an R value of 72 (a measure of thermal resistance), for the station’s walls, roofs, and floors, which are raised over the site to help reduce heat loss. From the outside, the new station has an angular silhouette, which was engineered to prevent snow drifts from accumulating but also to give the station the appearance of an outcropping from the icy, rocky landscape.

“Think of it as an insulted thermos bottle lifted over the ground,” Petersen says of the design.

[Image: OZ Architecture]
While SIPs are a building technology that’s been around for decades, the composition for the panels going into McMurdo Station are different from most prefab structures. Antarctica’s environment is naturally very dry and the station’s indoor air is naturally more humid. It was important to keep moisture inside–hence the special membrane–so that it didn’t collect on the outside of buildings and freeze into ice. OZ also specified a “double wall” within the SIP so that if people nailed something onto the wall–hanging a picture, for example–they wouldn’t puncture the membrane.

Additionally, the SIPs are extra large; some are close to 40 feet long. That’s because the joint between panels is where heat transfer occurs, so OZ designed the building to have as few joints as possible. The limiting factor for this architectural detail was transportation: The SIPs still need to fit on a truck to get from the factory to the shipping port in Los Angeles, where everything sent to McMurdo Station originates. “Trucking regulations influenced the design of the station, which is kind of wild,” Petersen says.

Uniting the station into six modular buildings affords it new structural efficiency, energy efficiency, and logistical efficiency. Yet to Petersen, that’s only half of the story–the supporting characters to the lead role. The design’s architectural efficiency is all in service of intellectual efficiency.

[Image: OZ Architecture]
That the new design bears some hallmarks of creative offices and higher education is no accident: OZ Architecture wanted to instill a sense of community and collaboration in the station, which isn’t as robust as it could be in the current cluster of 100 buildings. The architects and McMurdo Station scientists believe that this approach will lead to better research. McMurdo Station itself is also a logistical hub for research in more remote places on the continent, and facilitating communication among all of the people who come through the campus could help bridge ideas.

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“We all know the best ideas and decisions get made when there are multiple inputs and views; it’s fostering collaboration,” Petersen says. “In the current station, the work areas and the decision makers are often separated. We’ve always tried to make environments where ideas and points of view can be brought together, whether it’s in a coworking space in Denver or if it’s down in a research center in Antarctica.”

OZ tried to make the common spaces feel as special as possible. As harsh as the Antarctic environment is, it’s also what draws many of the scientists to the station, and its landscapes are awe-inducing. The buildings have a low window-to-wall ratio to help with thermal efficiency, so the architects strategically placed glass (which is triple-walled) in the common areas so that people could have a communal connection the landscape.

“We’re looking to engage with the natural environment, but we have to be more sensitive to the natural environment, too,” Petersen says. “It’s truly reflecting this special place, and it can’t be confused with a building in Kansas city or anywhere else.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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