Igloo Satellite Cabins: 25 years in Antarctica

Igloo Satellite Cabins were first manufactured for the Australian Antarctic Division in 1982 by local fibreglasser, the late Malcolm Wallhead. Nick-named ‘apples’, the brightly coloured domes have been a warm and welcome feature of Antarctic field life for 25 years. Now manufactured under licence by Penguin Composites Pty Ltd in Penguin, Tasmania, igloos are finding new homes in unusual locations.

While living in England in the 1970s, Malcolm Wallhead designed an igloo-shaped, fibreglass hut ideal for setting up in remote places, far from the pressures of city life. Without sufficient finance for a prototype at that time, the design was stored away until October 1982, when the Australian Antarctic Division’s Field Equipment Officer, Rod Ledingham, rang Malcolm for a quote for modifications to a fibreglass caravan-shaped unit. Rod required this unit to be flown suspended under a helicopter, to summer research sites in Antarctica. Malcolm persuaded Rod that a dome shape was more aerodynamic and offered to make one of his igloos instead. He had only a few weeks to make it before the Nella Dan departed for Antarctica.

Malcolm immediately began working on the original or ‘plug’ for an eighth of a dome (a single wall panel). Made of plywood coated with fibreglass, the plug was sanded until smooth and then waxed. When completed, fibreglass was laid up on this plug to make a mould, so that eight casts could be produced: three plain panels, four window panels and one door panel. Plugs, moulds and casts were also made for a door, a top escape hatch and two floor panels; completing the prototype. Igloo Satellite Cabin number 001 was first used for penguin research on Magnetic Island near Davis station, and is still in use today as an uninsulated storage hut.

Some modifications were made to the design of the second Igloo. Rod’s advice was vital to this development and later units had double-glazed polycarbonate windows instead of single panes, while the floor consisted of four adjoining panels for easier carriage and the door fitted flush with the door panel. Malcolm designed bronze door furniture and aluminium tie-down lugs and later, extension panels — plain and with escape hatches — and a range of furniture, depending on requests from purchasers.

Interiors can be adapted to suit specific requirements and Igloos have been used as mess huts, bedrooms, laboratories, non-magnetic instrument rooms, communication centres and bathrooms, as well as being interconnected with tunnels. Sprayfoam insulation has now been replaced by polyurethane sheet insulation between layers of fibreglass, which makes the Igloos slightly heavier, but still able to be flown by helicopter at 70 knots. While red is the most popular colour for visibility in snow, green, blue, orange, white, beige, yellow and black have also been used.

The Australian Antarctic Division ordered 49 Igloos over the years and in 1986 the first exported Igloo was sent to Svalbard, north of Norway, for the Scott Polar Research Institute. The website www.icewall.com.au also brings enquiries from all over the world, including Alaska, Chile, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Switzerland, USA, New Zealand and Antarctica.

Igloos have been used in the Papua New Guinea highlands for the Electricity Commission, New Island in the Falklands for bird observations, Greenpeace in Antarctica for their World Park promotion, Falls Creek Ski-lifts for children’s education, Google Zurich for meeting rooms in their new offices, and two white extended Igloos, originally purchased by the Australian Navy’s Hydrographic Survey, were recently set up in Far North Queensland as accommodation units and called Mawson’s Hut and Shackleton’s Hut.

2007 marked the 25th year since the first fibreglass Igloo Satellite Cabin was designed and manufactured in Tasmania. As at January 2008, 159 Igloos had been purchased by 45 institutes and individuals in 18 countries, with the majority for use in Antarctica.

Anthea Wallhead
General Manager, Icewall One