Beyond boundaries: constructing the Discovery Building in Antarctica

What does it take to build a state-of-the-art science and operations facility during the Antarctic winter? David Brand delves into the challenges of construction in one of the world’s harshest climates

The Discovery Building, a new science and operations facility at Rothera Research Station in Antarctica, is currently under construction. David Brand, Rothera modernisation senior project manager, discusses the challenges that the mechanical and electrical engineers will face as they work through winter for the first time, in 24-hour darkness and harsh polar weather.  

Describe the Discovery Building
It is a cutting-edge scientific support and operations facility at Rothera Research Station, the UK’s largest Antarctic research station. It will replace the operational functions of six existing buildings on the site. 

With a focus on sustainable design, the project includes a suite of site-wide services, such as a distribution network of hot water, seawater and fuel pipework, data and power cables, bridge crossings, pedestrian walkways, and stairs. 

It will enable the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to reduce its building footprint while improving resilience and enhancing sustainable methods of delivering its operation. Works began in 2019 as part of the wider Rothera Modernisation project and is expected to be completed in 2025.

Why is the team working during the winter?
Completing internal work over winter with a smaller team enables us to prioritise other critical activity during the summer season, in less extreme weather conditions. It will be the first time M&E engineers from the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme (AIMP) Major Projects Team will be deployed during winter. Three electrical engineers will complete the final fix and testing of electrical systems, including the building management system and switchboards. BAS regularly deploys its M&E engineers over winter to maintain current infrastructure.

How big is the M&E team?
There are 35 members assisting with the internal fit-out of the 4,500m2 Discovery Building, including the pipework and cabling across the whole station. This rises to a total construction workforce of 70 by the end of the season. 

The station is operated permanently. In summer, the population peaks to more than 100 people and, in winter, a 22-strong team continues the science work and maintains Rothera’s infrastructure. 

Teams on the station include marine and terrestrial biologists, meteorologists, engineers, a dive officer and a boating officer, a chef, a doctor, mechanics, electricians, plumbers and builders.

During downtime, the team often occupy themselves with reading, knitting, watching films, and playing board games. As Rothera is such a unique environment in which to live and work, the team also pass the time by skiing, snowboarding and hiking. 

What are the challenges of working in such extreme conditions?
The Antarctic summer season provides a very short window in which to complete external construction. Extreme weather and limited available light throughout the year is a huge constraint, so modern methods of construction have been considered to reduce build time. 

Designs that feature modular builds and standardisation of components enable us to reduce time on site. The AIMP has taken a ‘build it before you build it’ approach, encompassing trial builds in the UK of complex sections, and uses digital modelling to complete clash detection and avoid lost time on the station.   

How will the team cope with no sunlight?
There are only two months without sunlight, and teams receive winter training before deployment. Construction teams will also receive training on self-sustainment and maintaining wellbeing, to prepare them for the challenges. There is also a well-supported community on the station, with appointed leaders to manage the team’s wellbeing. 

How do you access the island during winter?
Rothera is accessed by ship and aircraft, as it is the main BAS station, from where those working in the Antarctic are mobilised. Sea ice and extreme weather during the winter season, however, limits its accessibility. 

Most project materials are sent to Rothera via polar-class commercial shipping. The AIMP strategically plans the timing of shipments and considers interdependencies between projects to minimise the number of voyages, reducing capital carbon, financial cost and logistical burdens.