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Keeping It On Ice: OZ Creates Master Plan For Antarctic Research Hub

Just over six years after making his first trip to Antarctica, OZ Architecture principal Rick Petersen is on the brink of seeing the master plan his team created for the National Science Foundation’s research station on Earth’s southernmost continent become a reality.

The National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station has more than 100 buildings that a new master plan from OZ Architecture will consolidate into 18.

The NSF anticipates awarding a contract — provided funds are available in its budget — to start work on the McMurdo Station project during the first quarter of next year, NSF Polar Outreach Program Manager Peter West said.

“Some initial work on the early stages involving IT will start this season,” West said. “We’re looking at a long-term project of about 10 years.”

Established in 1955, McMurdo Station is the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program. It is a small community that has everything from dormitories and administrative buildings to a firehouse and power and water distillation plants. There are stores, clubs and a coffee shop. There is also the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center, commonly known as the Crary Lab, which contains state-of-the-art instrumentation to facilitate research and advance science and technology. The research at McMurdo encompasses the fields of aeronomy and astrophysics, biology and medicine, geology and geophysics, glaciology and glacial geology, and ocean and climate systems. Participants in the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program also work at sites near McMurdo Station.


The 300K SF campus will emphasize a higher quality of life for residents, promote environmental stewardship, add technology and improve logistics and energy efficiency.

Never intended to be a permanent settlement, McMurdo Station has grown into an outpost of more than 100 inefficient structures over 164 acres with no central planning. OZ’s task was to create a more efficient community that improves the safety, health and well-being of the people who live and work there — about 1,000 in the summer and 250 in the winter.

OZ’s plan will consolidate more than 100 buildings into 18. The 300K SF campus will emphasize a higher quality of life for residents, promote environmental stewardship, add progressive technology and dramatically improve logistics and energy efficiency. OZ recently was recognized by Fast Company as a finalist in its annual Innovation by Design Awards for 2018 in the Spaces, Places and Cities category for its work on McMurdo Station.

About 1,000 people work at McMurdo Station in the summer.

In creating the master plan for McMurdo Station, OZ had to consider not only the harsh environment, but also the cost of labor and the means of getting materials to the site.

“That comes before understanding what it should look like,” Petersen said. “Everything has to be sent down there on a boat. You can fly things down there, but it’s more economical on a boat.”

The pieces of the buildings, including the exterior panels, must be designed to fit into shipping containers that can be carried on the one cargo boat that makes its way to the station each year.

And because labor at the station is costly, it is critical to minimize the work it takes to put the project together. For the “jacket,” or exterior walls, OZ determined that a structurally insulated wall assembly would do the trick.

The plan also reconfigured how certain functions are positioned in relation to where they are used. For example, the existing food storage buildings are separate from where food is cooked and eaten.

“You have to have someone drive a forklift or a truck to move the food to the kitchen,” Petersen said. “When we consolidate, we’ll put food next to where it’s made. You can apply that to almost anything there. The carpentry shop provides support for the scientists in the way of platforms and shelters, but the storage of plywood is not next to where it’s cut.”

McMurdo Station is the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Then there is the aesthetic aspect of the community. OZ knew it was important to improve the image McMurdo portrays to visitors and workers alike and incorporated elements to make the buildings more attractive while ensuring they function well in the extreme environment. OZ took inspiration from the landforms and ice sheets near the station. The result is exterior panels with sawtooth edges that encourage wind moving around the building and moving snow.

“We drew upon the local conditions,” Petersen said. “We thought it was important that the building reflect the environment it’s in and what’s going on inside the building. We tried to synthesize those two things and bring them together. When the wind moves fast, the snow doesn’t deposit. We want the wind to move around the building and encourage the snow to be blown away.

“The new design reflects the seriousness of the work being done and by doing that, the people working there are going to take more pride in being there and they’ll take good care of it.”