When it’s time to rebuild a research installation in one of the world’s most punishing climates, where do you turn? To the Mile High City, of course.
This week, the international architecture firm Stantec’s Denver office announced that it has been selected as lead designer on a project that will significantly redesign McMurdo Station, the main operating center for US research in and around Antarctica. It is up to Stantec project manager Merlin Maley and his team to create schematic drawings of two critical new buildings planned for McMurdo – a 285-bed building and a “core” operating center – and to work with clients over the next eight years Bring these and other structures up and running on the ice-filled southern continent.
The effort is part of the National Science Foundation’s AIMS project. AIMS – or Modernizing Antarctic Infrastructure for Science – is focused on updating McMurdo to ensure it can serve US research on Antarctica for decades to come.
“The great thing about the AIMS project is that we are streamlining operating costs at McMurdo Station so that we can really focus more on science,” said Maley. “The aim of the project is to really consolidate the number of buildings on site and get scientists on the ice and into base camps for their exploration and research by spending less time in McMurdo gathering supplies.”
According to Maley, who visited McMurdo late last year, there are now more than 90 main buildings at the station, a layout that lends itself to energy, water and human inefficiency. The structures were added piece by piece as the mission at McMurdo grew and evolved. The station was established as a naval base in 1955 before finally being converted into a center for scientific operations in 1968.
When the new lodging and core buildings are completed, dormitories, offices, communal kitchens and dining rooms, emergency operations, field support and back-of-house commercial services such as carpentry and metalworking will be housed in just two large buildings.
The Denver Stantec office, formerly RNL Design, was won over by the AIMS project subcontractor, Parsons, as a design partner for the structures. It is up to Parsons to erect the building on the bare volcanic rock on which the McMurdo Station is located. But Maley has a lot to worry about before starting work. For one thing, concrete cannot be poured wet in Antarctica, so everything – including the foundation pieces for the two buildings – must be pre-cast and shipped from Port Hueneme, California. The first boat for the accommodation building is scheduled to leave early next year.
“It’s interesting to be working on a project that is always about building the boat,” said Maley. “If we miss the boat, they won’t be able to build anything down there for the next summer construction season.”
Maley and the Stantec Denver office have experience designing structures for mountain communities in cold weather in Colorado, Wyoming and elsewhere, and have a background in maintenance and infrastructure facilities such as the RTD light rail maintenance facility in Englewood.
It’s not the only Denver-based company with fingerprints on the McMurdo Station project. OZ Architecture created the master plan that guides the redevelopment efforts.
For Maley, working on a project that will have to withstand the widest, coldest and driest climate on earth on the most remote continent is not only cool, it also contributes to a higher mission.
The importance of research in Antarctica, particularly with regard to climate change, is “beyond what I can understand,” he said.