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At Home on the Ice, and Beyond
Jamais Cascio, 5 Jan 05

As Régine reported in November, the British Antarctic Survey is holding a competition, through the auspices of the Royal Institute of British Architects, for the design of their new "Halley 6" habitat. In early November, they narrowed the selection to six; they've now brought the choices down to the final three, and the architects are set to journey to the Antarctic site to begin the last phase of design.

The requirements (PDF) for the habitat were fairly strict. The conditions at the Brunt Ice Shelf, the location of the Halley research station, are extreme, even for Antarctica. High winds are a constant problem, the winter temperature drops well below -50°C, and the "ground" itself is a thick layer of unstable ice. Halley stations 1-4 were crushed by moving ice; Halley 5 (PDF) survives still, but is reaching the end of its usable life, and is expected to float away on broken ice by 2010.

Halley 6 is intended to come online in 2008/9, and must last 20 years. On top of being able to withstand Antarctic conditions, the design needed to be usable, and to meet a variety of treaty-required environmental regulations:

The expected life of the facility is 20 years and the component parts of the facility must be capable of being removed from the Antarctic in their entirety at the end of their design life to meet legal requirements of the Antarctic Treaty.

The final station design will operate with a minimal environmental footprint and minimal fossil fuel consumption, and be designed for simple, easy operation and maintenance allowing staff resources to be optimised for science rather than survival. Interior spaces, whilst being functional and comfortable, must be stimulating. Concepts for building services installations must be justified in relation to wholelife costs (from inception to installations through to operation, overhaul and, ultimately, replacement) both financially and environmentally.

The three final designs, by UK firms Buro Happold, Faber Maunsell, and the apparently website-less Hopkins Architects, have some clear similarities: the use of legs-on-jacks to keep the habitat above the crushing ice; low, broad facilities to better shelter against the 80-knot winds; and modular construction to facilitate transportation and assembly. The differences are in the details: the Bur Happold design emphasizes livability and the social needs of a crew of 50+ cut off from the rest of the world for months; the Faber Maunsell design is exceptionally modular and reconfigurable; and the Hopkins design includes "walking building" elements, allowing the units actually to move under their own power if necessary.

While interesting in their own right, the Halley 6 habitat designs are also practice for architectural design for an unstable climate. We probably won't need Antarctic-caliber shelters even if global warming kicks off a whiplash ice age, but the design techniques used to come up with these habitats -- the combined focus on efficiency, livability, and survivability -- are precisely what will be needed as we get more big storms and wild weather. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, for example, should consider holding a design competition for efficient, livable and sustainable homes able to survive the strong winds and flooding which hit during hurricanes.

Halley 6 designs could also be considered rough drafts of what human habs on Mars might look like. The conditions, if by no means identical, are similar in temperature and (at least during the winter) isolation. The need is undoubtedly far off, but it doesn't hurt to imagine.

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