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Brazil Plans High-Tech Antarctic Research Station

Exterior rendering of Brazil's high-tech Antarctic research station
The 32,000 sq ft research station will be designed, engineered, and constructed to minimize its impact on Antarctica’s unique environment. Estudio 41

Less than 18 months after a fire ravaged Brazil’s 30-year-old Antarctic research station, the Brazilian navy is moving forward with plans to construct a high-tech station at the same site that will blend sustainable design with sustainable living.

June 11, 2013—In the vast, white landscape of Antarctica, Brazil is going green. The Brazilian navy’s new Estação Antártica Comandante Ferraz (Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station), scheduled for completion in 2015, will incorporate numerous sustainability features in a design that minimizes the facility’s footprint on the frozen continent and maximizes comfort for the scientists and crew members who will live there year-round.

The state-of-the-art structure will replace the nation’s original station, which was built in 1984 and destroyed by a mammoth blaze in February 2012 that claimed two lives. The architecture firm Estúdio 41, based in Curitiba, Brazil, was awarded the $52.3-million design commission in April as the winner of an international design competition sponsored by the Brazilian navy and the Institute of Brazilian Architects. The navy has operated Brazil’s Antarctic program on the Keller Peninsula, on King George Island, since 1982. Prior to the fire, the station had been continuously occupied since 1986.

All designs submitted in the competition had to verify their ability to withstand Antarctica’s extreme climate, considered the most punishing on earth. The average annual temperature at the site is 27ºF. Temperatures can fall to –19ºF, and they never exceed 58ºF. There is 10 ft of snow on the ground during winter, and wind speeds reach 125 mph. In addition to withstanding these conditions, the designs had to lend themselves to prefabrication and modular construction. They also had to have a minimal environmental footprint and be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to accommodate various possible uses over the station’s 40-year service life. Another requirement was that the design accommodate a four-month construction schedule during Antarctica’s abbreviated building season. 

Another exterior rendering of Brazil's high-tech Antarctic research station

The station’s modular construction will allow it to be reconfigured
for a variety of different uses over its expected four-decade service
life. Estudio 41

Emerson Vidigal, an architect and urban planner with Estúdio 41, who wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering online, said that on the basis of these requirements, his firm envisioned the new Antarctic station as “an envelopment, a structure that protects and comforts humans in the face of adverse weather conditions.” Comfort and efficiency were the priorities in creating the horizontally linear design, he said. Despite the building’s technological complexities and the scientific work that will be done there, he said, “we think of the space as a home, reflecting on the lives of the people who live there.”

To minimize the station’s effect on the environment, Estúdio 41 specifies that the station will be constructed atop a system of metal trusses that will be hinged to form a “table.” This base in turn will be supported by pillars that can be adjusted to adapt to the topography and to variations in the terrain created by temperature fluctuations and thaws. The structure barely touches the ground, allowing the passage of the wind beneath it and does not interfere with the surrounding animal and plant life, Vidigal said. “The central idea is to construct a building that is assembled and [then] disassembled when its life cycle is extinguished,” he added.

Geotechnical studies to determine the optimal foundation system for the new station are under way. “The biggest difficulty is dealing with the freeze-thaw cycle in rocky soil that can cause settlements,” Vidigal said. “The winds are another difficulty that will require very careful anchoring of the foundations.”

Although the winds pose a challenge for construction, they can be harnessed as a renewable source of energy and used in combination with solar power and such other renewable sources as waste processing and biofuels. Energy will feed into a “smart grid,” Vidigal said, which uses a central computer to monitor the available energy and distribute it according to preset priorities. A cogeneration center, which would be powered by diesel generators until the biofuel stream from on-site waste was established, could produce electricity and heat.

The station’s complex infrastructure will provide potable and residual water, data and voice communications, safety systems, mechanical systems, and sophisticated techniques for treating solid and liquid waste and reusing the treated water. Since all waste produced at the station will have to be shipped to Brazil for disposal, waste processing and recycling systems will be of paramount importance.

Cross-section rendering or research station which displays supporting pillars that adjust as needed to accommodate changing conditions

The supporting pillars that adjust as needed to accommodate
changing conditions. Estudio 41

For the structure itself, Estúdio 41 strove to design unique private and public spaces for work and leisure. The two-level, 32,000 sq ft modular building will accommodate 64 people in the summer and 34 in the winter. Designed as a series of separate but connected blocks, it efficiently segregates personal and social space from research and work areas.

The top block includes balconies, service areas, and living and dining areas. The lower block will contain laboratories for research dealing with biology, microbiology, meteorology, marine life, and other scientific specialties. Two additional blocks will house maintenance and operation areas and provide space for an auditorium, an Internet café, a conference room, a video room, a gym, and a library.

“We hope that when people use these spaces they can feel good and that the building conveys the idea of security,” Vidigal said. Social interaction spaces are crucial to preventing “winter-over syndrome,” a combination of stress and depression brought on by confinement during winter’s total darkness, deep cold, and high winds, which reach their peak from March through October.

Studies are in progress to determine the optimal interior and exterior building materials to withstand the unforgiving Antarctic environment. Steel, engineered wood products, gypsum, and fiberglass are all under consideration.

A heliport and a garage for motorcycles, quadricycles, and inflatable boats will be separate from the living block so that indoor air quality can be maintained, Vidigal said.

Since receiving the commission in April, Estúdio 41 has been concentrating on the necessary studies to finalize its plans. The architects expect to complete detailed drawings by the end of the year. Surveying and site work could begin in September 2014, the start of Antarctica’s brief spring and summer, and construction could be completed during the austral summer of 2015.



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