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A new habitat at the bottom of the world

How OZ Architecture is transforming Antarctica’s McMurdo Station from its antiquated 1950s sprawl into an energy-efficient, state-of-the-art research facility.

A new habitat at the bottom of the world
[Illustration: Peter Arkle]

Outside, winds can howl at 115 miles per hour and winter temperatures dip t0 -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet inside Antarctica’s McMurdo Station is a bustling hub for research. McMurdo would be a big city by Antarctic standards, if the continent had any actual cities or towns: Hundreds of scientists from around the world live here to study everything from climate change to astrophysics. “It’s a community that’s devoted to one thing,” says Rick Petersen, principal at the Colorado-based firm OZ Architecture.

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The National Science Foundation, which funds the research hub, and contractor Lockheed Martin commissioned Petersen and his team six years ago to rethink the station’s inefficient design—a hodgepodge of buildings, some dating back to the 1950s, that need to be heated primarily by fuel delivered by tanker once a year. “For every dollar we’re using to heat a building down there, that’s a dollar that could otherwise go to science,” Petersen says. After two trips to McMurdo and months of coordinating between dozens of stakeholder groups, the architects proposed consolidating McMurdo’s 105 buildings into just 17, including 12 brand-new structures, each optimized to conserve McMurdo’s precious energy and constructed out of structurally insulated panels specially designed to fit into shipping containers, allowing for quick assembly upon arrival in the unforgiving environment.

Efficiency wasn’t the only goal, though—the architects also wanted to increase the well-being of McMurdo’s residents, a population that fluctuates from 250 in the winter to 850 in the summer. “We’re addressing that in a bunch of different ways, from increasing collaboration opportunities and the exchange of ideas between people to more privacy and ways people can get away and reflect on their work or make a difficult phone call,” Petersen explains. The new plan, which will be implemented in phases beginning in February 2019, calls for a light-drenched lecture hall, shared social spaces, and individual bedrooms. The goal is for architecture to facilitate science—and make life better for the people who relocate to the ends of the earth to do it.


OZ Architecture is a finalist in the 2018 Innovation By Design Awards. Check out all the honorees here.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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