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Aloha in Antarctica

When the National Science Foundation began a search for a firm to build a new research station in Antarctica, it passed over a handful of Alaska-based companies, turning instead to an architect in a more unorthodox locale. The NSF found its partner in the Aloha state, at Honolulu-based Ferraro Choi and Associates.

Nearly 20 years in the making, the $174 million Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was dedicated January 12, an unintentional homage to the famed first climber of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, who passed away just hours before (50 years earlier the New Zealand-born explorer had stood at the pole).

Originally, the NSF asked Ferraro Choi to save its existing station–a geodesic dome built in 1975 that was routinely under siege from snowdrift. But after repeatedly failing to find a tenable solution, the designers devised a fresh approach. To create a long-term habitat for researchers amidst the subzero temperatures, relentless winds and the destructive power of accumulating snow, the team came up with an architectural design that blended martial arts theory with aerodynamic engineering, essentially turning the pole's ruinous forces back onto themselves.

Perched atop 36 hydraulic columns 13 feet above the surface, the new station uses Antarctica's omnipresent winds to counter snowdrift by employing aeronautical design engineering. The profile of the station borrows its shape from an airplane wing, guiding and accelerating the near constant 10-15 mile per hour winds beneath the station, blowing away the snow accumulating underneath. When snow inevitably builds up (and it does; snow at the pole never melts), the structure can be winched higher in 10-inch increments, adding 30 years to the building’s life.

Ferraro Choi also found a way to design around the unstable movements of the very ground itself. The station's 65,000 square feet of space is arranged in two horseshoe-shaped units connected by flexible walkways that prevent the building from shearing apart as its glacial foundation creeps toward the ocean at roughly an inch per day. "You're on a mound of snow and ice two miles high," says company principal Joseph Ferraro. "It's not on any rock or terra firma. Literally, it's like designing a ship because ice behaves a lot like liquid."

Perhaps most impressive is the complex logistical supply train that made construction possible. Ferraro Choi's team had to leave the islands to carry out computer modeling in Guelph, Ontario, where specialty engineering consultants RWDI simulated Antarctica's persistent winds. As computer modeling advanced through the 1990s, so did the models, allowing the design team to virtually check every inch of the proposed structure for flaws. Materials were then tested at an Army Corps of Engineers facility in New Hampshire, the only feasible place with a chamber that dipped to negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit. From there each piece had to be assembled, marked, disassembled, then freighted to New Zealand. Over a string of 925 flights aboard LC-130 cargo planes—equipped with skis for landing gear——the pieces were delivered to the pole.

The result of the pan-hemispheric effort is a flexible, efficient, elevated city-within-itself, kept warm with five times the insulation of the average U.S. home.

Of course, Ferraro Choi didn't neglect the 750 people who will pass through the station annually. Researchers studying everything from astronomy to physics to biology have access to a gymnasium, a medical infirmary, television lounges, Internet, a hydroponic greenhouse and numerous sophisticated labs. In addition, the station boasts private rooms and a cache of beer and liquor. But despite the comfortable environment they created, Ferraro Choi has no plans to open an Antarctica bureau any time soon.