Development of a Remote Station Architecture – McMurdo Station, Antarctica

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The growth of scientific stations in remote regions can be characterized as expediently planned constructions, phased over many years. Construction and transportation costs, logistics, energy and time will frequently mandate permanency to any structure constructed at a station. The first buildings erected will often remain monuments to the first presence at the site. However, their use may change greatly from their original intent, as pilot stage shelters for initial explorations.

This paper describes the phases of development that McMurdo Station, Antarctica underwent, the problems that have occurred from improperly planned construction and how the design development of a new building type since 1984 has resolved these issues. Specific aspects of the new building solution have the potential for practical application to building needs in remote regions other than Antarctica.



The author, Joseph Ferraro, AlA, has been involved in the design of laboratory and support buildings at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, since 1984. Together with Lee Davis, AlA, he directed the programming and design of the Replacement Science Facility, later renamed the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center, while a principal at The CJS Group Architects, Ltd. The center was opened and dedicated on November 7, 1991 after seven years of development. The building combines the needs of several different scientific disciplines in a single structure which has planned expansion capabilities. The structure replaces outmoded buildings erected in the 1950’s for the First International Geophysical Year Scientific Conference.

In 1988 Mr. Ferraro co-founded a new firm, Ferraro Choi And Associates, Ltd., where he and Mr. Davis continue design work for the National Science Foundation at McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica. He has continued his architectural education at the University of Hawaii after receiving his professional license and has prepared this paper for a graduate directed studies course at the School of Architecture.



McMurdo Station is located on Ross Island, the most historic site of exploration on the continent of Antarctica. At 78° south latitude, 2200 nautical miles south of New Zealand, it is the closest landing point by ship to the geographic South Pole (fig.1). Mount Erebus, an active volcano, towering 12,450 feet above the island, produces plumes of white smoke mistakable for blowing snow or wisps of clouds in the clear blue sky. The Ross Ice Shelf, two miles east of the station, permanently ties the island to the frozen continent 45 miles across McMurdo Sound. The pack ice in the sound and Winter Harbors Bay clears each year from January to March in the austral summer to allow ship access to the station. Mean summer temperatures at the station are a relatively mild 27° F under 24 hour daylight, with the sun rotating on the Antarctic horizon at 33° altitude. Winter darkness lasts from mid May to late July with temperatures dropping to a mean of -18 degrees F. Recorded lows and highs, however, are -60° F and 42° F. Winds average 10 mph from the east; however, recorded gusts have peaked at 116 mph. Precipitation is limited to snow with an average yearly accumulation considered light. Drifting of existing snow is considered significant, averaging 5 feet during each winter. Relative humidity is about 4% to 8% year round.

Figure 1: The Continent of Antarctica

This is a very remote and beautiful place that can be as hostile an environment as any on the planet. The need for a built environment there is very real, as the provision of a proper protective shelter can mean the difference between life and certain death for those who choose to work there.


Historic Background

Ross Island was discovered in 1841 by James Clark Ross, a British Royal Navy explorer, during a four year expedition voyage to reach the south magnetic pole. Sailing west and skirting the pack ice, he found a pass of clear water and headed south to find an open sea, the end of which was blocked by a permanent ice shelf and a very mountainous island. Coincidentally on this occasion, he was to witness the largest record eruption of its active volcano, which he named after his ship The Erebus.

Figure 2: Scott's Hut with ship Discovery at McMurdo Station 1902Sixty-one years later, on January 21, 1902, Royal Navy Commander Robert Falcon Scott on his National Antarctic Expedition made the first land fall on Ross Island and built the first known structure on the continent at Hut Point (fig. 2). The site was at the southernmost location on the island adjacent to the Ice Barrier. It offered a good harbor free of ice since the flows drifted east toward the continent, away from the island. The island provided excellent observation points and views to the mountains forty miles to the east, which he named The Royal Society Range, as well as a chance to investigate Erebus’s volcanic activity and collect geological samples. Scott’s expedition explored and named many of the geographic features of the McMurdo Station area, such as Observation Hill, Castle Rock, Arrival Heights and Winter Quarters Bay.

In 1907 Ernest Shackleton, who had accompanied Scott on his first expedition, left England aboard the Nimrod in an attempt to reach the South pole. Shackleton had asked Scott if his British Antarctic Expedition could make use of the Discovery hut at McMurdo. Scott refused, saying that he hoped to use it himself in the near future. Unsuccessful in reaching the pole, Shackleton’s expedition barely made it back to McMurdo before the winter of 1909. Unable to reach their own hut at Cape Royds, 22 miles to the north, they took shelter in the Discovery hut. They first used the hut in August of 1908 on their way to the Pole and found it in the same condition in which it was left seven years before. Save for some snow accumulation, everything from biscuits to tinned meat remained intact within the snug wooden shelter.

When Scott returned for his last, and ill fated exploration to the pole in 1910, he found Shackleton had not only broken into the shelter but had even left the window open when he left, causing Scott’s party to be deprived of the comforts of its shelter until many days of hard labor were spent removing the hardened snow from its interior. The event depressed Scott to think that his fellow explorers should have such little regard for the comfort of others. Months later, he was to die on his return trek from the Pole, 11 miles from his last provisions depot and 150 miles from the hut.

Shackleton’s next expedition in 1914 made use of the hut as a base of operations for laying depots for the attempted crossing of the continent from the Weddell Sea. Due to impassable ice Shackleton never began the traverse, though his depots were laid with great difficulty in horrible weather and at the loss of three of his men.


The International Geophysical Year

In 1947 members of the U.S. Navy’s Operation High Jump cruised into McMurdo Bay from Little America to conduct surveys for an alternate air field. They landed at Hut Point to find Scott’s hut just as Shackleton’s party had left it thirty years before.

Eight years later in 1955, Operation Deep Freeze-1 established a base at Hut Point consisting of ten-man and thirty-two-man tents. By 1956 thirty temporary buildings had been erected and ninety three men wintered over. The base was officially names Willis Air Operating Field at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

Deep Freeze-1 prepared the area for the use of scientists taking part in The First International Geophysical Year (IGY), an integrated scientific investigation of the planet Earth by 60 nations from 1957 to 1958. The U.S. scientific effort was administered by the National Academy of Sciences, while logistics support was provided entirely by the Department of Defense.

At the close of the IGY, The National Science Foundation (NSF) was given the task of administering all Antarctic scientific activity. The base was renamed McMurdo Station in 1961. In 1970 The NSF took over the Navy’s role of logistics support and became the sole administrative agency in charge of all U.S. efforts on the continent.


The United States Antarctic Research Program

Since the IGY, the United States has had a major sustained presence on the Antarctic continent (fig.1) supporting principal scientific activities in biology, earth sciences, upper and lower atmospheric sciences, meteorology, glaciology, oceanography and astrophysics. The primary bases the NSF has developed, maintained, and administered are McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, built in 1971, and Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula, built in 1964. Siple Station, at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula was built in 1973, rebuilt again in 1979 and finally decommissioned in 1985. Several camps were erected temporarily at remote locations for specific scientific research efforts in particular areas. Ocean research has been and is conducted in the ocean surrounding Antarctica on research vessels operated by the NSF.

McMurdo Station has remained the hub of all U.S. activity on the continent, with the exception of Palmer Station which is serviced by ship from Chile due to its location on the Antarctic peninsula (fig. 1). Annually, over 1,500 people travel to the “ice” through McMurdo Station to conduct scientific activities or to provide support services. Traditionally the ratio has been one scientist per nine support staff. Although it is charged with overall control of U.S. operations, the NSF directs other organizations to provide the logistic and facilities support required by polar science. The U.S. Navy’s Naval Support Force Antarctica (NSFA) and a civilian contractor have shared responsibility for facilities operations and maintenance and new construction at McMurdo. Antarctic Development Squadron, VXE6, maintains operation of all NSF owned aircraft, including ski equipped LC-130 Hercules cargo planes and UH-1N Huey Helicopters. The U.S. Air Force provides airlifts of cargo and passengers in C-141 and C-5A aircraft at the beginning of each season along with the New Zealand Air Force using C-130 aircraft. The U.S. Coast Guard provides UH-52 Sikorsky Helicopter and ice cutter service at the end of each season in McMurdo Sound.


The Engineering Manual for McMurdo Station

Shortly after the decision to make the U.S. presence a permanent one in Antarctica, a decision was also made to replace the station’s temporary shelters and other facilities with permanent buildings. The standard building forms throughout the original science camp were Quonset huts, Jamesway huts, and panelized T-5 structures (figs. 3, 4 & 5). The Quonset is a modular metal arched structure with infilled ends of plywood or metal panels. Due to their simple design, they can be expanded in only two directions and their arched sides are generally restricted of penetrations for windows and doors. Jamesway structures are collapsible wood- arch units covered with impregnated double-wall canvas blankets filled with fiberglass insulation. An interlocking prefabricated wood floor supports the base of the arches. T-5 panels are sandwich units with integral insulation, fasteners, and plywood skin. These panels are connected to form a structural system of walls and roof. The Navy’s Civil Engineering Laboratory (NCEL) was instructed to provide an engineering study of McMurdo Station and to produce a manual of recommendations for permanent building development and the upgrading of the minimal heating, ventilating, and utility systems to improve personnel comfort and safety. The table of contents of the manual shows the extent of NCEL’s work.

Figure 3: Quonset and Elephant Quonset Figure 4: Jamesway at McMurdo Station
Figure 5: Panelized T-5 Structures Figure 6: Robertson Buildings

The primary result of the study was the recommendation of one basic building system that would be used for all major structures, including warehouses, shops, and living quarters. The system chosen was steel framed and panelized building produced by the H.H. Robertson Co., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The exterior skin was a steel clad three-inch insulated panel without any metal fasteners extending through it. A coated steel vapor barrier at its interior side prevented moisture penetration. Manufacturer’s claims indicated that moisture would not form on the panel interior with an outside temperature of -50° F and an inside relative humidity and temperature of 80% and 70° F.

All Robertson buildings were to be erected on prepared level sites four feet above the frozen ground to prevent the heat that is lost through the building floor from thawing the permafrost beneath the foundations. Thawed permafrost could cause possible settlement of the foundations. In some cases, where access to utility pipes was needed, the area below the building was skirted with panels to prevent snow accumulation (fig. 6).

Figure 7: Infrastructure, Utility and Power PolesEnactment of the NCEL Engineering Manual standards changed the station from a temporary encampment to a permanent station technically designed to meet the needs for survival in this remote area. Although technically successful in its purpose to establish a building standard for the station, the manual was not intended to address a comprehensive plan for the station’s development. The functional needs of the building inhabitants, infrastructure, and esthetics were given a low priority, as can be seen in the expanding chaotic collection of metal building forms connected by elevated utility lines and pipes that finally resulted from the implementation of the manual in the absence of a station master plan (fig.7). The station’s complexion became an affront to the serene beauty of the Antarctic and an embarrassment to the United States when the news media began to report on the status of the continent’s environment*.

*“The World’s Frozen Clean Room”, Business Week, January 22, 1990


The Holmes & Narver Ten Year Master Plan

In 1977, Holmes & Narver, the civilian support contractor for USARP, was contracted by the NSF to prepare a long-range plan for the orderly maintenance and replacement of U.S. Antarctic facilities. The final document, completed in 1979, was authorized for use by support organizations in planning annual increments of facilities repair, maintenance, and construction at McMurdo Station over the subsequent twelve-year period, The scope of work scheduled for upgrading McMurdo Station included:

  • A land use plan
  • Master facilities development plans
  • Master utility system plans
  • Master grading plans
  • Preliminary concepts for specific buildings
  • Review of construction and engineering support equipment
  • Cost estimates

The station’s needs were prioritized so that a phasing plan could be implemented. The existing power and water processing plants were the heart of the support operations but were inadequate to serve the demands of the expanding station. New plants were planned that would offer reliable power with backup capacity and use waste heat recovery systems to desalinate sea water to potable standards. Personnel housing was the most critical building need identified. Most of the facilities in use lacked the bare necessities of privacy and utility connections. A cluster of new dormitory buildings was planned to serve the facilities required to produce scientific work were either lacking or in hazardous condition. To address this need and to attract desired researchers, a new science facility with a marine aquarium annex was master planned.


The Replacement Science Facility

The Pacific Division, Naval Facilities Engineering Command (PACNAVFACENGCOM), or PACDIV, is the U.S. Navy’s engineering and design division for work in the Pacific region. PACDIV was hired by the NSF to provide technical support for the Antarctic program in such areas as the design of power plants and new dormitories for McMurdo Station. In 1984 PACDIV was requested to provide a detailed programming study for a new replacement science facility as envisioned in the Holmes and Narver master plan. PACDIV decided to retain the services of an outside architectural firm from the private sector to provide this service. The CJS Group Architects, Ltd. (CJS) of Honolulu, Hawaii was selected and contracted to travel to NSF offices in Washington, D.C. and McMurdo Station to review the original Holmes and Narver building design concept, conduct interviews, investigate and document existing science facilities, examine an existing building that might be adapted for science use, and investigate possible building sites for a new facility.

Lee Davis, AlA, and Joe Ferraro, AlA, headed the programming effort for CJS. Davis traveled to D.C. in November of 1984 to meet the staff of the NSF, receive direction and background information and arrange for a trip to McMurdo. In December Davis and Ferraro deployed to McMurdo, traveling through Christchurch, New Zealand to be outfitted with cold weather gear. In Christchurch and on the ice, interviews were conducted with over fifty scientists and support staff who were involved in programs that year. Some individuals had years of experience and had been involved in long term research at McMurdo, while others were new to the program and the ice. The general consensus attained from the interviews was that there was a need for larger and more updated facilities. Each division of scientific study, such as biology and earth science, demanded a separate facility, since there was a concern that their work was not compatible with and would be contaminated by the other sciences’ experiments. Most people interviewed had seen the ANS design criteria study for a new science building prepared in 1982, and were generally in disagreement with its conclusions. Typical of efficient cold region and Naval Engineering Manual design, the proposed building was a simple, two-story rectangular shape with a couple loaded loop corridor surrounding common core facilities. Although not a fully developed design, the concept appeared too small and did not adequately address the segregation of the science programs or provide for the growth of the entire science program or the individual scientific disciplines. The interviews with the NSF staff and program managers indicated that there would be growth in scientific work in Antarctica, but where that growth would be and when it would occur were functions of new proposals by individual scientists and the funding of the USARP by Congress. Therefore, it was not the type of growth that could easily be planned for in a static building design.

Figure 8: Eklund Biological Center

The Penguin Power and Light Building, the former power station, had recently been replaced by a new power plant, leaving the original building available for a new use. At the time of the inspection it was being temporarily used as a maintenance garage by the NSFA. The building was surveyed by the architects and determined to be too small and not expandable to meet the existing requirements of the science programs. The building was also in major disrepair and lacked the proper image that the architects felt was needed for a science facility at the station. Figure 9: Historic Growth PatternIn collecting data on the existing scientific facilities, eight separate buildings were measured, drawn, photographed and inventoried for scientific equipment and fixtures (fig. 8). All of these buildings were erected prior to the Naval Engineering Manual standards and were either Jamesways, quonset huts or some adaptation of either. Most were not elevated, with the oldest structures suffering from the results of major differential settlement due to heat transfer to the frozen ground below. Snow drifts covered these buildings in winter, making them almost unusable until snow clearing occurred in the spring. Space needs for new equipment or expansion of programs were provided by a new addition to the original building or, more often, an addition to a former addition. These additions were generally adhoc, ill planned fabrications, precluding common circulation in defined areas, eliminating segregation of laboratories and hampering fire exiting in the process. This adaptive historic growth was termed Wart Architecture by Davis and Ferraro (fig. 9).

During the course of the interviews some scientists recommended that the architects visit the new buildings at New Zealand’s Scott Base, two miles from McMurdo. Although a very small base in relation to McMurdo, certain elements of its design made perfect sense if they could be applied to a scientific center for the U.S. The base consisted of separate buildings interconnected by the use of an enclosed corridor which allowed one interior access to the entire station’s facilities, including power plant, laboratories and berthing. Since funding for the New Zealand program was small by U.S. standards, the base was planned, built and renovated in phases of one building increment per season. New Zealand’s Ministry of Works designed new elements of the station above ground to preclude snow drifting around the buildings and snow accumulation below the buildings. Old elements that had been built on the surface and connected by corrugated steel tube shapes had been encased in hard packed snow over the years. These structures stood adjacent to the newly designed structures as examples of what not to design and what to design for the Antarctic.

Figure 10: Core FacilitiesWith the Scott Base building concept in mind, the architects developed bubble diagrams for the needs of biology, earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, and an aquarium. A separate core element was also diagrammed for common elements of administrative offices, library, lounge, conference rooms, copy room, central supply, electronics workshop and computer room (fig. 10). Isolated space for special equipment, such as electron microscope, scintillation counter and high speed centrifuge equipment was programmed for this pod. This equipment would be shared by different disciplines due to infrequent use, high initial cost and high maintenance.

Using the principle of the spine seen at Scott Base, the bubbles for each discipline were linked together by a central circulation corridor to form a single building with segregated pods (fig. 11). In addition to the divisions of use, the spine and pod design offered separate building zones which could be operated year round or closed off during winter seasons, depending on the needs and funding of various projects. Expansion of each scientific discipline’s overall program needs could be accommodated through future extensions of the respective pods away from the central spine. Expansion of the USARP’s scientific disciplines could be accommodated by the planned extension of the spine in either direction and the addition of a new pod for the new discipline’s needs (fig. 11).

Figure 11: Proposed Growth PatternFlexibility for changes in program needs was planned for the interior of the building. A standard laboratory module was designed that could provide the space requirements of the typical research team of principal scientist and assistants who frequently used a laboratory for only a portion of each season. This basic building block was determined by an approved layout to be 500 square feet. Larger laboratory needs, up to 1500 square feet, would be provided for by removing wall panels between each laboratory. Laboratory furniture including work tops and storage components, would be modular in design, with the ability to be reconfigured as needed by each research team (fig. 12 & 13).

To keep the building area to a minimum, reconfiguration of laboratories on a very frequent basis was desired rather than planning for additional statically configured laboratories on a very frequent basis was desired rather than planning for additional statically configured laboratories. The reconfiguration process would need to be done in an organized fashion and be accommodated by the design of the facility. All incoming equipment for each research team would enter the core pod’s central receiving room, be staged and loaded into movable wall hanging lockers that would also be outfitted with requested supplies. The lockers would be prepared, staged and moved into each laboratory by the facility’s staff just prior to the arrival of the respective research team. At the team’s departure, the lockers would be returned to the staging area for shipping back to the U.S. or placed in storage for the following season. A modular laboratory and materials handling system by the Herman Miller Company was envisioned for this use.

Figure 12: Biology Pod Space PlanFigure 13: Modular Laboratories

Fire protection was presented to the architects as a major requirement of the facility’s design by the NSF and PACDIV engineering staffs. Fire in any building can have grave consequences, however, a building fire in the Antarctic can be a catastrophe to the entire station and its inhabitants due to the remoteness of the facility from other means of shelter, lack of critical care facilities and the minimum supply of water available at any given time to fight the fire. Sub-zero temperatures also preclude normal fire fighting techniques. Past fires have leveled buildings within minutes in the cold dry air and high winds at the station. The pod and spine concept provided an additional measure of fire separation for the building. The spine also provided a major fire corridor for escape from a potential fire.

Winter snow drifting required a major plowing and removal effort in man hours and equipment usage at the opening of the station each August. It also posed a threat to the operation of the facility in the winter, when plowing becomes difficult and dangerous in the dark. Excessive drifting precluded access to and escape from a building during an emergency. With the model of Scott Base as a guide, the architects planned to elevate the building pods and spine to prevent and avoid drifting problems. The spine would be arranged on a selected site perpendicular to the shoreline and parallel to the sloping hillsides. The pods would be at 90 degree angles to the spine, allowing views towards the bay and the continent from each pod, over the roof of lower pods. This arrangement appeared to be in proper alignment with the prevailing wind direction; however, further testing and data gathering would need to be completed to assure proper placement of the building for good snow scouring, that is, removal of snow by the wind.

Three potential building sites were selected and partially analyzed during the site visit. The first site, Site A, was relatively flat with a gentle slope to the bay. It had a 200 degree view plane of McMurdo Sound and Royal Society Mountains, overlooked the wharf and coastline activities, and had a prominent location on the station’s perimeter. It was also adjacent to dormitories, the administration building and building 155, the winter over facility. A major drawback to the site was its location to the rear of the power and desalination plants which would emit diesel exhaust in the direction of the building during storm winds. Use of the site would require relocation of power lines and the demolition of one building. The site was also considered too remote from the helipad, and the field equipment center for scientists’ daily field trips. Future expansion to a proposed science building on the site would be difficult and vehicle staging would create congestion in the area.

The second site, Site B, was at a prominent location near the center of the station with 90 degree views of the sound and mountains and a moderate slope to the bay. It was adjacent to ice runway access, helipads, field equipment center and the Chalet administration building. The area was not occupied by permanent structures and was scheduled for station expansion. Disadvantages to the site were its partially blocked view behind Building 165, the flight operations center; required relocation of the large number of utility lines crossing the site; diversion of streams that ran from the snow covered hills above the station that carried melted runoff through the site from December to February; and the relocation of the main road from the ice runway, used for the delivery of cargo to the holding areas and warehouses at the rear of the station.

Figure 14: Proposed Site PlanThe third site, Site C, was also in a prominent and central location with 120 degree views of the mountains and sound. It was relatively flat and had the same favorable adjacencies as the second site. Limiting factors to its development were the required relocation of the ceremonial International Square, the Chalet, the Mammoth Mountain Inn, a dormitory and the Eklund Biological Center. The site limited future building expansion due to its adjacency to the helipad.

The recommended site, after further analysis, was a combination of partial areas of sites B and C. Together the sites offered a prominent central location removed from the logistics support and berthing sections of the station in which each portion of a large segmented building could have 180 degree views of the sound and continent and be easily viewed by incoming visitors, (fig. 14). It also featured good adjacencies to scientific support facilities and provided good growth options in several directions. the required demolition of small outdated structures was consistent with formerly developed utility and building master plans. Stream diversion and road relocation would require additional work but could be accomplished during the site work phase of the construction. The renovations to the site would begin a new master renewal plan badly needed by the station. The scientific operations of the station would be set apart in a paramount location on this site, giving science a new image at the station. (fig. 15).

Figure 15: Massing Model/Proposed Site PlanAt the completion of the six-week site visit, Joe Ferraro and Lee Davis returned to Honolulu and prepared a final analysis and report of their work*. Their programming study indicated that the area requirements of the scientific community for the replacement science facility totaled 40,000 square feet. A presentation was prepared and made to key NSF staff and scientists at a workshop at the NSF offices in Washington, D.C. on March 6 and 7, 1985. Comments at the workshop resulted in minor reconfiguration and additions of laboratories, both of which were incorporated into the final program report. Presentation drawings were prepared and presented to the Polar Sciences International Community Conference in San Diego on June 17, 1986 and again to NSF, ANS and PACDIV in Washington, D.C. on June 20, 1986.

* “Architecture on Ice,” Hawaii Architect, August 1985



Final Design of the Replacement Science Facility

The NSF, having approved the architectural programming study by the CJS Group, contracted PACDIV to advertise for architectural and engineering services to design the replacement science facility. The CJS Group assembled a design team to apply for the project. The consultant firms were:

  • Calvin Kim & Associates, civil engineers
  • Shigemura Yamamoto & Lau, structural engineers
  • Rowan Davies Williams Irwin (RWDI), snow drifting engineers
  • Russell Moy, architectural specifications
  • Charles Salter & Associates, vibration and acoustical engineers
  • Cost Engineering, construction estimators

Syska & Hennessy was chosen based upon the firm’s experience in the design of arctic facilities and aquariums. RWDI were experts in arctic snow drifting research. Both firms had recently completed engineering work for oil company drilling facilities at Alaska’s North Slope. Charles Salter & Associates had experience in vibration control techniques for laboratories, a problem that was anticipated by the architects given the design parameters of a raised building, strong wind loads and sensitive scientific equipment. Consultation was also received from Chase Young, AlA, of Anshen & Allen Architects, San Francisco, who had designed North Slope facilities with Syska & Hennessy.

After a first round of selections by NSF and PACDIV the CJS Group was short listed with four other firms for an interview and presentation of their team’s credentials and qualifications. The CJS Group was selected. Although their previous experience designing Antarctic projects was nonexistent, the experience of their team as well as their thorough knowledge of the project’s programming requirements made the team’s selection possible. The architects began further in-depth research into the design of remote cold region building designs by the Department of Defense in Greenland, the U.S.S.R. in Siberia, the French Polar Program in Antarctica nd New Zealand’s Ministry of Works design for Scott Base. A second trip to McMurdo Station was made by Ferraro and Davis in the austral summer of 1985- 86 for the purpose of collecting weather and snow accumulation data at the site and to collect more detailed data on the physical conditions of the site. While on route and on the ice, meetings were held with New Zealand’s Ministry of Works to discuss building systems design and construction techniques that they were skilled in and comfortable performing in Antarctica. The window of time for delivery of materials and construction was also reviewed and programmed into the design of the building system.

The above discussions were very fruitful in the final design implementation proving that construction in the Antarctic is quite different from the arctic. Due to the remote location, over twice the distance from the U.S. mainland as Alaska’s North Slope, large prefabricated structures had never been preassembled and ocean tugged to the site. The site was also steep and rocky, making offshore unloading and placement of large preassembled components difficult. For these reasons the initial concepts of the design team were modified to a more simplified “stick built” approach. The theory of the contractor was that unique components systems could be damaged in shipping, a factor which could stall construction for a year until the next ship arrived. If the building were designed with standard replicated parts, they could be ordered in extra quantities to replace identical parts that may be damaged. This directed the design to a simple pre-engineered metal building panel system, specifically designed for the temperatures of the site but applied in a non-conventional design approach that accommodated the demands for a raised cocoon-like structure.

The building modules were designed to be enveloped at the roof, walls and bottom soffit with steel clad urethane panels, providing a vapor and thermal insulation barrier for the enclosed interior environment. This skin would be attached to a steel framed building skeleton without continuous steel penetrations which would destroy the thermal break. In turn, the skeleton would be supported by concrete or steel columns with a thermal break at their connection to the building.

Figure 16: Water Flume TestingWeather data collected from the station’s weather facility, gave a history of wind speeds, wind direction, temperatures and snowfall for the station. For proper design of the building and to preclude snow drift accumulation, RWDI requested that wind speeds and direction be measured at the exact proposed site of the building and then compared with the conditions of the entire station at the same period of time to create a model of historic wind and snow activity at the site. This data, along with a massing model of the proposed building, was taken to RWDI’s laboratory in Guelph, Ontario by Lee Davis. A clay model of the station was constructed along with a model of the building. The model was then placed on a rotating disc in a water flume. Silica sand was then introduced into the flume with the water running at a calibrated speed to simulate wind velocity. The disc was then turned to simulate storm winds that bring snow and prevailing winds that scour snow. Dye was introduced around the building to verify wind changes caused by the building shape. After discovering snow build-up in certain locations on and around the building, the day model was retooled and retested to define a more efficient shape (fig. 16).

The results or the snow testing indicated that the last pod of the building should be moved to the opposite side of the spine; the spine’s roof should be extended to prevent snow accumulation at its end exit stairway; there would be snow build-up in the lee of the second story core pod and the roof of the spine and that the building performed well with a minimum elevation of one meter and a 45 degree canted wall and soffit section.

Figure 17: Typical Framing Section

Applying a structural design to this elevated and encapsulated set of buildings on a stepped site, perched on columns with insulated attachments and able to withstand 130 miles per hour winds was a challenging task. Shipping logistics to the remote location also placed 40 foot limitations on the lengths of structural members. The severe climate precluded an economical application of poured in place concrete construction and the use of other reconventional constructions systems. Vibration isolation was a major concern given the proposed use of sensitive scientific equipment in the building, (figs. 17 & 18).

Figure 18: Section Through Phases I, II, and III


As an economical design solution, Shigemura, Yamamoto & Lau designed a hybrid framing system that incorporated structural steel, cold formed steel, wood and precast concrete, materials that were frequently used at the site. Precast columns with wood bearing plates were used to provide a thermal break between the inside and outside of the building. Open web steel girders provided a deep floor for mechanical, electrical and communication services. Floors, roofs and end walls were diagonally braced to resist lateral loads. Additional diagonal bracing was added to resist lateral loads. Additional diagonal bracing was added to the concrete columns within the guidelines of the snow study. The connecting spine’s roof and floors were framed as a horizontal truss to transfer the wind loads of the pods. The vibration isolation required by the architectural design was found to be not achievable however, given the high wind design loads and economy of design. As an alternative solution, high strength steel, ASTM A-242 was used with a higher stiffness than normal A36 steel, and equipment isolation was to be provided at each equipment mount.

Mechanical engineering design for the building needed to consider the ambient outside air temperatures and humidity in which the building would operate when designed for the stringent air change requirements of the various laboratories in the facility. Air taken into the facility at -65° F, needed to be first preheated to 40° F by steam coil elements before it could be heated by the oil fired boilers. All exhaust ducts and vents needed to be heat traced with electric heaters to prevent ice buildup when the warm moist air of the building interior, at 70° F, 30 percent humidity, reached the cold, dry ambient air of the exterior.

An oiled fired boiler system was designed based upon the operations and maintenance capabilities of the support staff at the station and the availability of arctic grade oil at government prices delivered to the station each year by tanker. As a safety measure, two separated redundant systems were designed and housed in different pods of the building. The systems were designed with the capacity to heat the entire building separately or in parallel operations. As an additional back-up system, electrical baseboard heaters were designed to independently maintain a temperature of 40° F while powered by a separate diesel emergency generator. Based upon anticipated winter research expanded demands, the building could be operated with some of its pods in full operation and some at a winterized 50° F temperature.

To allow for the reconfiguration of laboratories and special equipment rooms, a heated and lighted interstitial space was designed between the floor of the building and its bottom exterior soffit. The space was designed with access hatches in several appropriate areas of the facility that opened to a catwalk below the floor where technicians could access cable trays, ductwork or mechanical equipment. The space provided an added insulation benefit to the building’s interior while providing increased flexibility for future program needs.

To guard against heat loss at windows, triple glazed steel sash were specified. The two exterior glass panels were a normal thermopane configuration, while the third interior pane was designed to open into the interior. Sandwiched between the operable and fixed glass were mini blinds that operated to shade the horizontal solar component of the Antarctic summer sun.

An automatic dry pipe sprinkler system was designed as the major fire suppression system for the building. The building was zoned in 3,000 square foot areas that could be deluged by the water in a 3,000 gallon hydro pneumatic storage tank on the second floor of the core pod. Since water demand exceeded the supply that could be delivered by the station’s water main, the tank would provide a 15 minute supply of water for one zone when a sprinkler head was tripped. Sprinklers were placed in all habitable and interstitial spaces, below floors and above ceilings, since the building was constructed of a non-protected steel frame with foam insulated steel exterior panels and double layered wood floors.

Figure 19: Replacement Science Facility - Floor PlanThe building design was completed in 1988 and construction materials were shipped to McMurdo Station in the austral summer of that year, (fig. 19). Due to the size of the building and associated construction and equipment costs, the construction documents were prepared in three phases of construction. The core and biology pods were scheduled as phase 1, the atmospheric and earth sciences pods as phase 2, and the aquarium as phase 3. Work began on the building site in the austral summer of 1988 with the steel erection in summer 1989. NSF fortunately received funding for the entire project so that phasing over several years and under several appropriations was not needed. By the 1990-91 season, the building was enclosed and work began on the interiors through out the winter of that year. In October of 1991, Joe Ferraro visited the site and inspected phase 1 of the building in preparation for its dedication on November 7th. Phases two and three were still under construction at the time of this writing, with their completion projected for November of 1994.

A preliminary evaluation of the snow drift modeling design conducted during the October 1991 inspection revealed that the area below the completed phase one building pods was free of snow. In comparison, adjacent older buildings were drifted to their roofs, indicating that snow scouring was functioning as designed. Areas below phases two and three and the connecting spine were relatively free of snow; however, bottom soffits of the pods were incomplete, thus disrupting smooth air flow between the ground and the buildings and limiting effective snow scouring there.

A new environmental clean-up at McMurdo’s land fill was initiated in the 1991-92 season as a result of legal actions and resulting international legislation. Two of the biology laboratories were pressed into immediate use prior to the official opening of the building to identify samples of contaminated waste. Based on interviews with the users, the modular labs operated effectively after being easily configured to the user’s needs.

Views from the interior to exterior views of the south and the Royal Society Mountains were very good. Views were exceptional from the second floor conference and library areas, as anticipated by the architects. This benefit of the site was so successful that additional windows were added to the design of the second floor as a change order, at the request of the NSF. The area was also reconfigure from the standard library originally planned to a computer based information center connected to all U.S. Antarctic stations and the U.S. mainland. This informational nerve center at the top of the building’s spine was termed the “brain” of the science center by the Director of NSFs’ polar programs, Dr. Peter Wilkniss.

If completed on schedule, the project’s development from the first programming study to the operation of the salt water aquarium in phase 3, will require nine years. In that time the USARP has changed the direction of science investigations in Antarctica, primarily due to the discovery of ozone depletion above the South Pole. Astrophysics and upper atmospheric science have been given more support priority than in the past. Introduction of the GrandRudman-Hollings Act has mandated a “streamlining” in the program budget whereby a ten percent reduction must be made in support staff. This occurs at a time when badly needed repairs and renovations must be made to McMurdo’s other building facilities as well as the facilities at South Pole and Palmer Stations. New environmental laws require a massive cleanup and protection of the Antarctic environment by all Antarctic Treaty nations.

These challenges, though not specifically known at the time of the initial design of the building, can be met by the building’s inherent design flexibility to support science. New areas such as the computer information center are easily added to an existing pod. Now that the building has been renamed The Science and Engineering Center and new needs exist for its use, a new pod can also be added to serve Antarctic engineering applications or environmental technologies. In its initial debut, the building has been successful in addressing the users’ needs and the demands of the environment in which it was designed to operate.

As construction nears final completion, further field investigations will continue to test the building design’s effectiveness and success as a new building standard and architecture for McMurdo Station.



The CJS Group Architects, Ltd. The National Science Foundation Data Analysis for Replacement Science Facility, McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Rev. March 7, 1985

The CJS Group Architects, Ltd. Basis of Design, National Science Foundation, Replacement Science Facility, McMurdo Station, Antarctic. Final Submittal July 15, 1987

Civil Engineering Laboratory, Naval Construction Battalion Center. Engineering Manual for McMurdo Station. Port Heuneme, CA., Rev. 1979

Division of Polar Programs National Science Foundation. Antarctic Personnel Manual. Washington, D.C. 20550, Rev. 1988

Division of Polar Programs National Science Foundation. Historic Guide To Ross Island, Antarctica. Washington, D.C. 20550, Rev. 1989

Haehnle, Robert J. “Design of a Replacement Science Laboratory for McMurdo Station, Antarctica.” Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Cold Regions Engineering/TCCRE ASCE/University of Minn., February 1989

Holmes & Narver, Inc. Long Range Development Plan, Volume 1, Summary, Volume 2, McMurdo Station. April 20, 1979