Grand sub-Antarctic designs

This map shows a preliminary master plan concept and indicative location for the new station buildings (red) relative to the existing station (blue), which will be decommissioned.
This map shows a preliminary master plan concept and indicative location for the new station buildings (red) relative to the existing station (blue), which will be decommissioned. The current station is located on a narrow isthmus that is subject to storm surges and often occupied by elephant seals. (Photo: Alison McKenzie)
Station buildings on part of the isthmus of Macquarie Island.

How do you design a group of buildings that can withstand the wild Southern Ocean weather and three-tonne elephant seals on the doorstep, while accommodating the needs of a diverse, self-sufficient community, living and working far from home and conducting globally significant science?

This is the challenge facing the Australian Antarctic Division’s Macquarie Island Modernisation Project team, as they embark on the design of a new Macquarie Island research station.

The project is part of the government’s Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan, and includes the renewal of the island’s network of field huts and decommissioning of the existing 70 year-old station.

While the four-person project team is well qualified for the job – with experience in engineering, architecture and trades – they’re not doing it alone.

As well as Australian Antarctic Division staff, key personnel at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, and the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, have also fed their requirements into a ‘functional design brief’.

Station Infrastructure project officers, Travis Thom and Alison McKenzie, said the brief considers all the design requirements and constraints, such as legislation, building codes, maintenance, the function of each building, current and future scientific and operational needs, and the station’s environmental impact.

“The functional design brief is a guide to what we want to achieve from an end-user perspective, and sets out the requirements and constraints that could have design implications,” Ms McKenzie said.

“The primary function of the station is to provide living and working facilities for a self-sufficient community for the next 50 years, and support scientific and long-term monitoring programs.”

The brief is also the principle document for the Managing Contractor, VEC Civil Engineering Pty Ltd, appointed in July, to complete the design and construction, with assistance from the project team.

Among the design principles enshrined in the brief are maintaining year-round operations, minimising operational and maintenance costs, balancing station function and environmental impacts, and creating a sense of community. Common to all of these principles is a smaller station.

“One of our main goals is to reduce the number of buildings from 48 to between 15 and 20,” Mr Thom said.

“A smaller station will be more efficient and have less impact on the island.”

The station will be self-sufficient in its water, power and waste management needs, with adaptable and flexible buildings to accommodate scientific activities and population fluctuations. It will also be resilient to future environmental and climate impacts through the siting of the main station buildings more than 50 metres from the coast and at an elevation of at least 6.5 metres above sea level.

To minimise operational and maintenance costs, the team will use thermally efficient building materials, energy saving technologies and modern construction techniques.

“We will also use systems and materials that require limited specialist training to operate, maintain and to repair if damaged,” Mr Thom added. 

To help balance the functional needs of the station with its environmental impact, buildings with complimentary functions will be clustered together to keep the footprint small, allow efficient movement around the site, and provide spaces for resupply operations, recreation, revegetation and wildlife.

Fenced-off building clusters, with wildlife corridors between, will also help protect the station, people and wildlife (especially elephant seals), from each other.

Macquarie Island Executive Officer Mr Noel Carmichael, of the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, said that during the breeding season, the beaches on either side of the isthmus, where much of the current station sits, are occupied by the largest concentrations of elephant seals in the reserve.

“The size and natural behaviour of elephant seals means they can damage buildings and services they may come in contact with,” he said.

“Elephant seals can also be noisy and smelly, so you don’t want them lying outside living quarters.”

In March 2018 the project team took sketches of potential master planning options to the island, to gather feedback from expeditioners and better understand the environment and station operations.

The sketches were developed based on the functional design brief and two seasons of investigations along the length of the island, into wind effects, ground conditions, coastal processes, and the potential risk of rising seas and increasing storm surge frequency.

Antarctic Division staff at Kingston and at the station reviewed the sketches, teasing out design and operational issues, including how the station operations will transition from the old station to the new one.

Based on this work, in June a Selection Committee approved a site for the new station, just south of the existing station and using part of its current footprint (see map).

The site avoids intensive wildlife congregations, nesting areas and heritage artefacts related to the island’s sealing days, as well as the swampy ground that exists further south. It’s also outside the storm surge area on the isthmus and has good access for construction.

VEC Civil Engineering will now use the functional design brief, master plan, and a 360 degree virtual tour within and around the current station buildings (see related story) to progress the next phase of design.

The new station is expected to be complete in 2022.

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division

Watch a video about the station's design