Building technology in Antarctica

Davis and Casey stations are a focal point for Australia’s scientific research in Antarctica, whose populations will increasingly grow over summer as the operational capacity of the new Airlink reaches its full potential. To accommodate this population and attend to more general maintenance issues, the past few Antarctic seasons have seen some old buildings and associated fittings upgraded, or removed and replaced with modern ones. Energy efficiency and flexibility are key requirements of any upgrade or replacement.

The construction of new living quarters at Davis station, for example, will utilise some of the latest in insulation technology. The steel frame of the building was erected in the 2008–09 summer and will be clad in 150mm fire retardant, fibre composite insulation panels this season. The pièce de résistance of the building, however, will be the large picture windows, 2100mm high and 1800mm wide, fronting the communal heart of the building.

Using standard glass windows would drain the building of heat, but the new ‘Superglass Quad’ windows will provide a view without the energy cost. The super-insulated windows consist of two standard glass panels, separated by two tough plastic sheets known as ‘heat mirrors'. These four layers create three spaces that are filled with krypton gas. This moisture-free gas prevents the formation of condensation on the glass and heat loss to the outside. Altogether, the windows have a thermal insulation rating equivalent to a wall insulated with Pink Batts (an R-value of about 2.6).

The living quarters will also include a heat exchanger that will transfer the heat from stale air exiting the building, to fresh air being pumped in. The heat exchanger and a heating coil will warm incoming air, which could be as cold as −40ºC, to about 15ºC. This air will then be pumped directly to warm areas of the building, such as the kitchen, or heated slightly, to about 19ºC, for cooler areas, such as the cinema.

Casey station is also being revamped with an extension to its living quarters, known as the Red Shed, to accommodate more short-term visitors from the Airlink over summer. The extension, consisting of 14 x 40 foot-long shipping containers, on two levels, will replace existing shipping containers that are situated external to the Red Shed. The existing containers provide dormitory-style accommodation and require residents to ‘brave the elements’ when they need to use the Red Shed facilities.

The extension will provide 36 individual rooms, while new ablution facilities will be installed in the existing Red Shed. As no water pipes will be installed in the extension, the building can be shut down over winter, while the Red Shed continues to operate normally. The extension is expected to be operational in 2010–11.

More comfortable infrastructure is also being assembled from insulated shipping containers, to replace the camp-style accommodation at the Wilkins runway. The new infrastructure will accommodate eight people over summer, with emergency accommodation for another 30 people. The buildings will be shut down over winter. All buildings are mounted on sleds so that they can be moved on to ‘berms’ (raised platforms of snow) for the winter, to avoid a summer of digging them out of the snow. The sleds are painted white to reflect sunlight and prevent the snow beneath them from melting, refreezing and fixing the buildings to the spot.