Antarctic Science Hub Takes Shape Amid Complex Construction Season

Antarctic Science Hub Takes Shape Amid Complex Construction Season

19 March 2021

A specialist construction team is making the 11,000km journey home to the UK after successfully completing the groundworks for a new state-of-the-art polar research building at British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Rothera Research Station, Antarctica.

Foundations for the new scientific support facility, the Discovery Building, were laid and perimeter wall erected this construction season. The new energy-efficient facility will support polar scientists who undertake vital research into climate change and biodiversity. The Discovery Building is part of a major programme commissioned by UKRI-NERC to modernise the UK’s Antarctic Infrastructure.

Delivering the new energy-efficient building is the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme (AIMP) partnership, which includes construction partner BAM and their team – design consultants Sweco, and Hugh Broughton Architects providing delivery design. Ramboll is acting as British Antarctic Survey’s Technical Advisors, with their team – architects NORR providing concept design and Turner & Townsend providing cost management. The partnership encompasses a range of suppliers and subcontractors providing exceptional knowledge, materials and equipment to execute remarkable results in extreme conditions.

The coronavirus pandemic presented major logistical challenges. Construction can only take place during the Antarctic summer months between December to May because of harsh winter conditions. As a result of logistical constraints from the Covid-19 pandemic, the 24-person construction team had just ten weeks to complete this season’s work. The team also spent two weeks in quarantine before departing the UK and starting their journey to Antarctica by ship in late November.

The construction team was able to lay 70 precast concrete foundations to support the building’s structural steel frame and install the 32 sections of perimeter wall. The team have placed approximately 3,500 tonnes of graded rock fill to create the formation level, ready for the ground floor slabs to be fitted next season.

The Discovery Building replaces six old buildings at the station and is expected to be completed in 2024. The new two-storey 4,500m² (gross internal area) facility has energy saving features, including thermally-efficient building envelope, heat recovery generators and thermal stores, and a ventilation system with air exchanges based on occupancy. The Discovery Building will use some renewable energy, including photovoltaic solar panels. To minimise snow accumulation around the entire perimeter of the building, it features a slight pitched roof and wind deflector, the largest of its kind in Antarctica.

The unique design of the building will cater for the wellbeing and collaboration aspects of living in Antarctica. Vibrant, open-plan offices have been designed to foster better collaboration bringing natural light in during the long, dark Antarctic winters.

Jon Ager, Director of the UK AIMP at British Antarctic Survey said: “This has been the most challenging year for the programme since its inception in 2017. We were forced to curtail this activity last season, to bring our team home safely as the world entered lockdown. It was therefore essential that we completed the groundworks this season so that when we return in December we have the best opportunity to complete a weathertight structure, and to prevent damage from the extreme Antarctic winter. Alongside our industry partners and wider supply chain, we can’t wait to return in a few months to start work on this vital polar building”.

Martin Bellamy, Managing Director, at BAM Nuttall said, “This is the end of a relatively short, but hugely successful season for the project and the team. Everyone in the partnership has worked brilliantly to deliver the work. The modernisation of the infrastructure in Antarctica is a true collaboration between science and industry. I’d like to thank everyone for the support and commitment during what has been a challenging time, globally.”

Bruce Wulff, Project Director at Ramboll said: “The Discovery Building is a one of a kind and pushes the boundaries of design in extreme Antarctic conditions. It also makes a significant contribution towards BAS’s objectives of reducing its carbon emissions and it’s great to see it starting to take shape.”

Stewart Craigie, Technical Director at Sweco said: “The close collaboration between owners, operators, constructors and designers has ensured the success of this project especially in this most challenging season with the reduced timeframe. It has been a privilege to play a small part in the team that have prepared the ground and set the foundations for the future seasons. We are definitely in a strong position to maintain our planned completion in 2024 and the team should be very proud of their achievements to date.”

Read more about the long-term AIMP. The programme aims to keep the UK at the forefront of climate, biodiversity and ocean research.