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Dream Team Reconstructs Science Buildings in Antarctica to Safeguard the World

When you think of Antarctica, you might be picturing a very remote region with frolicking penguins, enormous ice floes and glaciers, and snowy mountains. These extreme conditions don’t allow for humans to live there permanently, but there are scientists and staff that spend part of the year at stations conducting research—learning about the impact of climate change on Antarctica can help better understand and protect the environment. British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the UK’s national polar research institute, needed to replace six existing buildings that had reached their end of life. But there are numerous challenges with construction in such an extreme climate. “Cambridge is a long way away from Antarctica, about 15,000 kilometers,” says David Brand, senior project manager at BAS. “If we miss something, it’s not as though we could pop down to the local hardware store.”

In such tricky, unforgiving, and remote conditions, what does it take to sustainably replace these important research buildings in Antarctica? Watch the video to find out how BAS, along with technical advisor Ramboll, construction partner BAM, and engineering consultant Sweco is sustainably building for the future of research—and humankind.

[Video Transcript]

David Brand, Senior Project Manager, BAS: My first trip to Antarctica, I was stunned by the immense vastness of the place. You can see for miles. Icebergs, mountains, and also just the numerous amounts of wildlife that live in their natural habitat. It was truly remarkable. Antarctica holds the majority of the freshwater on this planet, locked up in ice sheets and glaciers. We don’t want to see that melt into the oceans because one of the major impacts of climate change will be rising sea levels.

The British Antarctic Survey, BAS, has undertaken a 10-year program of construction. The Discovery building will replace six existing buildings that have reached the end of their life. These buildings provide the operational capability to ensure that more time is spent in delivery of science. Understanding the impacts that climate change will have in the Antarctic will enable us to better protect that environment, to safeguard the world.

Cambridge is a long way away from Antarctica, about 15,000 kilometers. If we miss something, it’s not as though we could pop down to the local hardware store. That presents a number of challenges, namely it’s distance and logistics of getting materials, equipment down there. There’s also a limited amount of resource that we can actually deploy. Each season we have a cap of about 50 construction workers. We really need to think carefully about how we could become more efficient at how we deliver our construction activity. It’s really important to BAS that we have a strong and long program of partnership because of the challenges that building in the Antarctic presents. Our three main partners are Ramboll, our technical advisor; BAM our construction partner; and Sweco, who works on really understanding the importance of how we can reduce our carbon emissions through smart engineering.

Bruce Wulff, Framework Manager, Ramboll: With so many different partners working on it and so many different engineers, it’s imperative that we have a single model that everybody can relate to.

Stewart Craigie, Technical Director, Sweco: We use [Autodesk] BIM 360 because it gives us that collaborative way of working. It gives us a joint access to the model and it gives us the clear sequence of delivery.

Neil Irving, Digital Construction Manager, BAM: One of the main aspects of working in Antarctica is making things predictable and repeatable. The approach that we take is that we build it before we build it. We use digital tools as much as we can really to rehearse before we arrive on scene. Another way of rehearsing was to utilize the models in different ways. We were able to create a game whereby our excavator operatives were able to practice, excavating around the tie rods which made up the wharf.

Wulff: We’re really breaking ground with a lot of this design. There’s no real design standards for Antarctica. You can’t really design a wharf to withstand a 40 megaton iceberg the size of a large building so you just have to weigh the risk with impact and come up with the most pragmatic solution.

Natalia Ford, Sustainability Manager, BAS: We’d like the Discovery building to be designed so that we use approximately 25% less marine gas oil across the site, whilst we slowly transition using other projects to more renewable energy sources. BAS has a huge wealth of knowledge. There’s a message there for contractors, designers, project managers to start early with their sustainability thinking.

Irving: Understanding the behavior of the icebergs and floating sea ice, we’re actually able to reduce the steel used in the wharf construction by 50%.

Ford: The partnership team that’s helping to create those buildings had to come at things differently in order to reach the kind of goals that we’ve set out to achieve.

Irving: Everybody is pulling in the same direction regardless of the company that we work for. We’ve had suppliers come into here in Cambridge in meetings with all four partners present and remarked that they actually can’t tell who works for who.

Wulff: A lot of clients talk about working collaboratively and in a spirit of mutual trust and cooperation. But it truly feels like we’re walking the walk here. There is no us and them. Hopefully it’s the way the industry is going to move to the next 10 years.

Brand: The drive towards achieving the best is felt amongst all the team and it fills me with huge excitements, as well achievements, actually delivering a new building which I can’t wait to see BAS operations and scientists use in their daily lives and hopefully make the world a better place.

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