Meet The Firm That’s Reimagining Life in Antarctica

The largest community on the planet’s coldest continent needs a smaller, smarter facility to continue its crucial work. It may be on the verge of getting one.

How do you solve a problem like McMurdo? More than a hundred structures perched next to a frozen sea, near a volcano, McMurdo Station was originally built to support human life in one of the planet’s most hostile climates for an operational lifespan of two years. It just turned 62. This aging complex is the primary logistical facility for the pursuit of science in Antarctica and at the South Pole. Without it our avenues to understanding our planet and its fragile ecosystem become severely more limited. 

Established by the U.S. Navy in late 1955, McMurdo is now run by the National Science Foundation (NSF). After years of patchwork additions, the small group of huts has become a sprawling jumble of 105 buildings spread over 164 acres, where old naval barracks sit in the shadow of modern scientific structures. The lack of any master plan has resulted in an inefficient and difficult place to live and work for the station’s residents, who fluctuate from about 150 very hardy souls in winter to roughly 900 in summer. The NSF says a complete overhaul is essential. 

To achieve this, it formed the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science program (AIMS) and hired Colorado-based OZ Architecture, which has built sustainable facilities in environmentally sensitive areas like the Grand Canyon. Vast energy and resources are needed to sustain this community, which includes not only scientists, but service and logistical staff and more, in a climate where average temperatures hover at 0°F. 

The new McMurdo must accomplish a multitude of goals. It has to reduce energy demand so the fuel tanker that supplies the station annually can cut its load from 4.6 million gallons of jet fuel to 800,000. It has to make the icy landscape a safer environment for workers, so no one will ever again have to tie themselves to a rope to venture between buildings during storms. And, of course, it has to advance the mission. "It’s all in support of the science," says Rick Petersen, OZ’s project lead. 

Unveiled in 2017, OZ Architecture’s plan to renew McMurdo Station consists of a 300,000-square-foot, nine-building campus that will provide for all aspects of living and working at the bottom of the Earth: labs, offices, a cafe, a post office, a gym, a barbershop, lounges, a cutting-edge lecture hall, and more. The new design contains big ideas for reducing McMurdo’s lighting, heating, and water-energy demands, as well as minute details for improving residents’ quality of life. In the dorms, lights will cycle through the natural phases of the sun to support well-being. (With only one sunrise and sunset a year in Antarctica, a person’s circadian rhythm can get pretty confused.) The benches in the hallways are intended to promote community and the sharing of ideas, says architect Rick Petersen: "When a scientist in one realm has a conversation by bumping into another in the hallway, there may be an exchange that advances both of their realms."

OZ’s solutions range from the simple—putting the pantry next to the kitchen, not across a frozen roadway—to the more complicated, like improving the skin-to-volume ratio of the buildings using an igloo model. Consolidating the current 105 buildings into nine efficient structures would achieve both these goals and lessen energy demands. Fewer buildings would also mean fewer bodies needed to maintain them, reducing personnel. Finally, cutting the cost of doing business in Antarctica could play well in Washington, where the budget will have to be approved. 

Petersen’s design calls for double-wall enclosures with outer structural insulated panels and inner stud walls. Optimized foam insulation would provide an R-value of 72, and expanses of triple-glazed, low-e coated windows would be strategically placed to provide light and reduce heat loss while improving gain. 

Instead of an ugly "mining camp," as Anthony Bourdain once described McMurdo, the new station, scheduled for completion in 2027, is being billed as a marvel of modern architecture on Earth’s most remote continent. Says Petersen: "Working as an architect to support a mission like this is a career high."

Take Five 

OZ Architecture shares its five-point plan to make McMurdo Station more energy-efficient.

1 Consolidation  Using the igloo as a geometric model, the new plan calls for condensing McMurdo Station into fewer, larger structures so that minimal surface area encloses maximum volume.   2 Thermal Jacketing  In architect and project lead Rick Petersen’s recommended layout, spaces that require less heat, like warehouses, would act as physical buffers, "thermally jacketing" areas that require more heat, like offices.   3 Waste-Heat Recapture  Waste-heat recycling will promote energy sharing across the various program functions. "We are using heat-exchangers to capture and redirect waste heat from generator exhaust stacks and wastewater drains," says Petersen.   4 Double Wall  OZ proposed a double-wall envelope with structural insulated panels outside and stud walls inside, for a total thermal resistance of R-72. (For reference, in less extreme climates, Passivhaus buildings usually have R-40 to R-60 walls.)   5 Triple-Glazed Windows  Triple-glazed, low-e coated windows would account for 11 percent of the building envelope, welcoming in the otherworldly landscape. Says Petersen: "The views give you a sense of inspiration to remind you of why you’re there." 


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