Australia's Antarctic buildings: Changing demands

Field store at Davis 1987
Field store (originally biology building) at Davis 1987 (Photo: J Gibson)
Old Casey trade workshopCasey tunnel buildings

Experimenting with new designs

In the early 1970s, the needs of Australia’s Antarctic scientific program were changing. In order to produce a more cost-effective, appropriate construction system, the Antarctic Division partnered with the Australian Construction Services. Together, they experimented with a number of designs.

The first design was a fibreglass panelled, igloo-shaped building which produced the Davis Biology Building. However, the curved shape was difficult to fabricate. In terms of the internal use of space, the design was an inefficient. Importantly, it did not improve on previous designs to combat snow-drift accumulation.

In 1976, a second experiment involved a return to the use timber panels that were sheeted with Hardifiex and coated with a plastic resin. This design produced the Davis Power House, Casey Trades Workshop, Mawson Science Building (Wombat), and the Mawson Transmitter Building. Unfortunately, the panels were heavy to transport. Again, designers failed to appreciate thermal insulation needs and water vapour issues characteristic of the Antarctic environment. Features such as aluminium window frames produced a thick coating of frost in the cold.

A list of practical needs had to be met – structures that could be repaired by replacing exterior panels; guy wires to be eliminated; more economical, efficient structures; and high standards of services and fire safety.

In redesigning a construction system, there were few precedents to follow for buildings that could withstand Antarctic conditions. Another way of overcoming the drift problem had to be found. Engineers studying photographs of buildings at Davis, noticed that building sides parallel to the strongest, constant winds appeared to be swept clear of snow. As a result, they determined that buildings should be oriented parallel to prevailing wind, rather than across it, to clear the snowdrift. A group of buildings could be arranged parallel to wind direction and to each other so that access between buildings would be clear.

Another innovation developed from studying the geology surrounding stations. It was found that the solid granite at Mawson, and the mixture of gravel moraine and rock outcrop at Davis and Casey, were unlikely to contain any substantial ice. Engineers then adopted building foundations could be placed directly on the ground, using concrete pedestal foundations with insulated enclosed sub-floor spaces. Conventional steel framing sized to suit wind speed was an obvious choice, but an external panel material was needed which was lighter than timber and cheaper than fibreglass. History was repeated – laminated 1200 mm wide standard Australian cool room panels were chosen, with face sheets of galvanised, pre-finished steel and a polystyrene foam core. The foam was chemically treated with fire retardant, but designers had to accept the drawback that heat on the panel faces would still melt the core. An internal lining of gypsum-cored plaster board was used to protect panels against internal fires.

Antarctic lifestyle

There was also a focus on providing a reasonable Antarctic lifestyle for overwintering expeditioners. Buildings that could offer a standard of accommodation and facilities closer to those provided for scientists and personnel in Australia were needed. Rather than a basic hut, aesthetic living spaces were important for staff morale and would help offset life in the harsh, remote conditions. 

New designs based on these ideas were put into practice first at Davis and Mawson, and then at Casey. Accommodation features suitable for an Antarctic station were outlined, and a more people-orientated design was featured. For example, sleeping quarters needed handy bathrooms and laundries, and were felt to be best combined with medical facilities to permit convenient treatment of patients in their own rooms when the sick-bay space was full. Shared living quarters (kitchen, mess, and recreation facilities) were readily accessible from personal sleeping quarters.

Similarly, operations buildings, workshops, powerhouses, stores, laboratories and services buildings were reconfigured. Designers looked at how they should ideally relate to each other, and then needed to adjust the realities of onsite configuration of existing buildings. By 1980, they had developed a relatively stable site plan which stations have evolved from since.