Inspected by penguins

Seen from the air, it will have the shape of a three-pronged star. It is to be constructed from prefabricated modules that have travelled 40,000 km and over the ocean from the factory to the building site. Poland’s new Antarctic station should be ready by 2024

The Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station, operated by the PAN Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics, can be found on King George Island, 120 km north of Antarctica. In 1977, the main building was several metres from the shoreline, but now, due to climate change and rising sea levels, the waves of the stormy seas are threatening to wash the building away. Over the years, the structure has grown old and fallen into disrepair, and so the Polish researchers who use it need somewhere new. In 2015, the Kuryłowicz & Associates architectural studio drew up the concept for a new station and the detailed design was then provided by a consortium of Demiurg and Home of House. Dekpol Budownictwo is the general contractor, which will be using steel and concrete elements produced by its subsidiary Betpref. The station is to be built with a PLN 88 mln grant awarded in 2018 by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

Well embedded

Both the design and the construction work itself have had to be adjusted to the conditions of the Antarctic. With its low temperatures, strong winds and high moisture levels, the building site has a rather extreme character and so the buildings on it have to be subjected to crash tests. The architects proposed a surprising construction with an extravagant shape perfectly suited to its purpose and the demands of the location. Firmly anchored in the ground with concrete feet and standing three metres tall on steel supports, the station is to be constructed from glued wood with a gold-coloured external cladding made from an alloy of aluminium and copper. The structure will be divided into three wings, shaped so that the raging winds will press the building even more down into the ground.

Saunas and greenhouses

The building has to be able to cope with the elements, but it’s also important that it fulfils the needs of the polar researchers, especially during the long Antarctic winters when there will only be around ten people working at the station. “During the design stage, one of the architects, Bartek Świniarski, spent a few weeks there. He observed how the scientists worked and took part in the non-scientific life of the station,” explains Piotr Kuczyński, the vice-president of the board and an associate at Kuryłowicz & Associates. Large windows and skylights were planned for the new station to maximise the penetration of daylight (in the winter, the day only lasts four hours) as well as a library and a sauna. The architects also proposed a new area for a new purpose – a 100 sqm greenhouse for growing vegetables along with other heat-loving plants. In the central section of the station, there will be a two-level area for meetings and lectures. The main section of the new building has been designed so that it can be disassembled if the need arises.

Antarctic expedition

When preparations for the construction were underway, the design was slightly modified for safety reasons, among others. “The concept for how the interior was to be used was changed. The casing around the main central staircase was removed, the purpose and location of some rooms changed and evacuation doors were added. The cargo lift was also modified to that it could also serve the ground level,” reveals Piotr Kuczyński. The construction of the research station was dubbed by Dekpol as the Antarctic Expedition. “This is a unique and demanding challenge, both in terms of the logistics and in terms of its initial construction plan,” claims Michał Skowron, the CEO of Dekpol Budownictwo. The production and delivery of the prefabricated concrete and steel parts has been split into two stages. However, the team working on the site has no way of replacing any missing elements. “All supplies are extremely restricted due to the limitations of transportation, so we cannot allow ourselves to make mistakes in this regard. Everything that is required for the work must be loaded onto the ship and reach the assembly point safely,” he explains.

Scenarios and trial runs

From the beginning, it was clear that there was no room for error. “We broke down the stages that preceded the building work itself into the basic elements and analysed what could happen during the loading of the ship and on the building site. Even before setting off we had discussed dozens of possible scenarios,” recounts Sławomir Młyński, the research and development director of Dekpol Budownictwo as well as the CEO of Betpref.

Interestingly, the first attempt to build the station from the pre-prepared elements took place in Poland. “We had to conduct a trial construction once the production of the steel elements was complete and before they were loaded onto the ship to find and eliminate any design and production mistakes. We also drew the plans on the walls of the garage building and floating equipment to display all the solutions for the connections and the flashings,” explains Sławomir Młyński.

The first ship with the materials and the machinery required for the construction set sail from Gdańsk in 2020. Since then it has transported around 2,000 tonnes of cargo to King George Island. Unfortunately, the construction work on the station has been delayed. Even a project this far from Europe has been affected by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and inflation. But now the station should be ready in 2024.

Penguin perusal

This is a unique project due to the conditions where it is being built. “This aspect doesn’t depend on us and we have to simply face the weather with the strength of our spirit. We are certainly going to gain a lot from this development, and above all respect for the power and fragility of the nature that we have come to coexist with on this project,” states Michał Skowron.

The Polish station on King George Island carries out research into oceanography as well as glaciology, meteorology, biology and ecology. The IBB PAN investment funds are managed by station manager Dariusz Puczko, who is responsible for ensuring the construction does the least damage to the environment. The first inhabitants of King George Island are the most important, including the penguins, seals, sea lions birds and the entire complex Antarctic ecosystem, which Polish scientists have been researching for the last 50 years. “The surroundings should be left undisturbed despite the extensive building work,” emphasises Michał Skowron. “For those issues that required consultation, we were able to teleconference the team. We also have email contact, which gives us regular updates on how the work is progressing and other aspects of our stay in the Antarctic. It is really pleasing to see the photographs of our construction work being inspected by extremely curious penguins,” laughs Sławomir Młyński. “Such unique projects will always remind engineers that construction can be a beautiful and creative career,” adds Michał Skowron.