Designing a Better Antarctic Base for Science

The largest community on Antarctica is set for a series of radical upgrades to its decaying infrastructure.

A rendering of a modern building with many windows in Antarctica
A rendering of the exterior of the new McMurdo station in Antarctica (Oz Architecture)

Decades after the National Science Foundation took over the old McMurdo naval base in Antarctica, and five years after design work began, there are renderings of the plan for a new McMurdo.

The OZ Architecture design will consolidate the current 105 buildings into six large, insulated, modern buildings. The new McMurdo is of this moment: It looks like an Apple Store.

A rendering of the lecture hall at the new McMurdo station (OZ Architecture)

Perched on volcanic gravel near the Ross Ice Shelf, McMurdo is the largest community in Antarctica with over 1,200 residents during summer and about a quarter as many during the winter. Many are scientists, but the support staff includes workers from all the trades—plumbers, carpenters, HVAC specialists, IT folks.

The old McMurdo was constructed for the International Geophysical Year of 1957 by a special group from the U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion called “Task Force 43.” It was part of Operation Deep Freeze, the overarching U.S. military movement into Antarctica. Film from the time shows what a brutal task it was. Tractors dragged sleds laden with construction materials bumping over sea ice. It was bleak.

Frame from Navy documentary on Operation Deep Freeze (U.S. Navy)

The most salient fact from the construction process is that McMurdo was never intended as a permanent settlement. And yet, there it is, sitting by the volcano, pressed into service by the “beakers,” as the Navy guys called the scientists taking over.

McMurdo Station in 1972 (National Science Foundation)
McMurdo station now (OZ Architecture)

As one might imagine, there are problems with adapting a transient military facility into a permanent scientific research base. In 2012, a Blue Ribbon Panel catalogued all the facilities’ needs in Antarctica. That led to the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science, which selected OZ Architecture to do a master plan for the site.

“This is a career highlight to be challenged to create a community that is new and remote and in a hostile environment where you want to provide well-being,” said Rick Petersen, a principal at OZ. “This is the main logistical hub to support really groundbreaking science that affects the whole globe.”

The extant and future designs of McMurdo Station (OZ Architecture)

Petersen said the design was an attempt to maximize energy efficiency and increase the logistical logic of the site while also providing for the mental and physical needs of the people at the base.

The walls have an R value, a measurement of insulation, of 72, five to seven times what you probably have in your house. The windows are triple-pane and the best insulated (or “highest performance”) out there. That should reduce the use of diesel generators on site to some degree.

The buildings, like many Antarctic structures such as the newish Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and the British Halley VI, are lifted off the ground, even though (unlike most others) they aren’t designed to be moved. The situation at McMurdo is different: There is “a matrix of ice” in the ground, which they don’t want to warm with heat from the buildings. So, OZ designed insulated boxes lofted above the permafrost. Skirts around the bottom of the building prevent ice and snow from building up underneath them. (Petersen and Halley VI architect Hugh Broughton know and consult with each other.)

The British Halley VI station (British Antarctic Survey)

Logistics is a core consideration of the new McMurdo plan. Right now, warehouses and facilities that need the cargo in them are not well-placed. “There are 22 different warehouses scattered about the community, so there is a challenge in getting equipment or food from one to the other,” Petersen told me. “Things are spread out. It requires pickup trucks and vehicles to move things from one warehouse to another.”

Just to carry out the basics of camp life, like making food, requires schlepping to a warehouse and back to the production facility. In the new design, there are interior routes to key locations, although there are also ways to pop outside to escape the relentlessness of confinement.

The current design sounds great. It was built with input from years of listening to experienced personnel. But Petersen knows that they can’t get everything right, so they designed the buildings to be adaptable to changing needs and circumstances.

A rendering of a new McMurdo workspace (OZ Architecture)

“The different work groups adapted the current buildings not only to optimize how they work, but also to reflect their culture,” Petersen said. “There are basically neighborhoods” that correspond to the type of workers who spend time there, from science outfitters to carpenters.

“We have to understand that the buildings we’re creating today and building in the next few years are going to outlast the people and programs that will first be using them,” he said.

A rendering of the warehouse in the new McMurdo (OZ Architecture)

The new buildings will be prefabricated and shipped to the site in containers. Construction will begin in 2019 and should take about five years.