Designing for Extreme Environments

An AT webinar, supported by VMZINC, explored the design and specification of buildings that are subject to extreme environments and climatic conditions

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Buildings that can withstand extreme environments and climatic conditions, such as those found in the polar regions, are undoubtedly at the bleeding edge of architectural design and technology. Common to many of these projects are new materials and construction techniques, the ability to reduce energy consumption while protecting the local habitat, and the provision of living and working spaces that are comfortable, highly serviced and flexible to changing needs. So how do architects and manufacturers approach the design of such buildings, and what lessons if any can be applied to more conventional sites? These questions were explored in an Architecture Today webinar supported by VMZINC. Chaired by architectural writer and editor Ruth Slavid, the panel comprised Hugh Broughton, founding director of Hugh Broughton Architects, and Jonathan Lowy, Operational Marketing Manager at VMZINC.

Speakers: Hugh Broughton and Jonathan Lowy

Hugh Broughton presented a series of Antarctic-based science projects that have been developed by his practice over the last 15 years. The first and perhaps best known of these is the Halley VI British Antarctic Research Station located on the Brunt Ice Shelf. Faced with continual snow drifts caused by Katabatic winds and the threat of the site literally fracturing away from the main polar continent, the architect sought to both raise the building and make it moveable. “The concept comprises elevated modules on hydraulic legs, supported by giant skis, which are both the foundation and means for relocation,” explained Broughton.


Halley VI British Antarctic Research Station, Brunt Ice Shelf, by Hugh Broughton Architects (ph: James Morris)

In common with all of the practice’s Antarctic projects, Halley VI combines pragmatism with an intuitive design-led approach. Cutting edge building systems, including highly insulating and light transmitting nanogel glazing modules, are employed alongside more familiar materials, such as internal cedar panelling. The latter provides a pleasing scent for building occupants living on a continent that is notorious for sensory deprivation. Elsewhere, constructional and servicing rigour have resulted in a highly efficient structure with an airtightness of 0.1 m³/m² at 50pa and daily water consumption reduced to just 20 litres per person (down from 120 litres on the previous Halley V base).

Currently under construction on Adelaide Island, the two-storey, 4500-square-metre Discovery Building for the British Antarctic Survey includes offices, communication facilities, a medical area and garage. Among the more unusual technologies employed is a large, curved wind deflector located at one end of the mono-pitch roof. “Orientated at the prevailing wind, the aerodynamic device will channel air down the leeward facade at high speed, minimising snow build up and allowing the building to remain accessible for people and vehicles,” explained Broughton.


The Discovery Building at Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica, by NORR and Hugh Broughton Architects (CGI: HBA)

The practice’s specialist expertise and knowledge of building in Antarctica has inevitably led it to design similar projects for other national research agencies, including Spain (Juan Carlos I base on Livingstone Island), Australia (Davis Station at Vestfold Hills) and New Zealand (Scott Base on Ross Island in association with architect Jasmax). The latter draws on many of the ideas developed on earlier schemes. Orientated perpendicular to the prevailing wind, the project comprises three elevated, aerodynamic buildings arranged in parallel and connected via enclosed link bridges. The modular build is due to start on site in 2022 with completion set for 2027.


Scott Base on Ross Island, Antarctica, by Hugh Broughton Architects in in association with Jasmax (CGI: HBA)

Titled ‘From Paris to the end of the World’, Jonathan Lowy’s engaging presentation showcased the adaptability and suitability of zinc when it comes to cladding and roofing buildings in extreme environments. He began by speaking about how zinc is made and the historical importance of the material in terms of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris (1853-70). This was followed by a quick-fire tour of exemplar zinc-clad buildings that are not only able to withstand extremes of heat, cold, altitude or wind, but actively thrive in such conditions.


VMZINC-clad mountain refuge in Escaldes-Engordany, Andorra (ph: Pol Viladoms)

Among the most extreme case studies was a circus building constructed on the permafrost in Yakutsk – the world’s coldest city. Clad in pre-patinated, standing-seam QUARTZ-ZINC, the hexagonal roof is double-vented to avoid build-ups of ice and condensation that could damage the substructure. The roof, which has been in place for 17 years, evidences the quality of the material and detailing choices made. “Zinc, like all metal is brittle when it’s very cold,” commented Lowy. “So, if you did try to install at minus 50-degrees it would crack! However, once in place it is highly resistant to extreme temperatures.”


A QUARTZ-ZINC® roof from VMZINC was installed as part of the rebuilding of the Lighthouse at the end of the World, near Cape Horn in Argentina (ph: VMZINC)

Lowy concluded his presentation with the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ – an iconic structure that inspired French author Jules Verne and is located near Cape Horn. Extensively rebuilt in the late 1990s, the building had to be able to withstand incredibly high winds that blow almost non-stop. Central to the project is an octagonal QUARTZ-ZINC-clad roof and spherical ornamental ridge cap. “The building demonstrates just how well zinc is able to cope with extreme marine environments,” said Lowy.

Overall, the presentations provided not only a fascinating insight into the complexities and challenges of designing buildings for extreme environments, but also provided valuable inspiration for what can be achieved – with skill and careful consideration – when using more traditional materials, such as zinc cladding and roofing.

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