It isn’t easy getting from Denver to McMurdo Station, on the southern tip of Ross Island, Antarctica. Rick Petersen, AIA, and Don Schieferecke, AIA—principals of the Denver firm OZ Architecture—made the journey last October. The first leg, Denver to Los Angeles, was just a prelude to the 15-hour flight to Sydney, followed by a comparatively quick three-hour hop to Christchurch, New Zealand. The next day, they boarded a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport plane that took them 2,415 miles south to McMurdo, the logistics hub of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) U.S. Antarctic Program.
The C-17 landed on a runway made of sea ice. The architects donned gloves and red down-filled parkas, hopped on a waiting bus, and 15 minutes later arrived at what is essentially a small town, with a summer (that is, October to February) population of more than 1,000. But McMurdo is no resort.
“Your first impression,” says Petersen, back in the firm’s Denver office, “is that this place does not reflect well on the U.S. government. McMurdo is a $250-million-a-year operation, and it looks like a Wyoming truck stop.”
Sure, there’s a 754-foot-tall mountain, known as Observation Hill, overlooking the station. And there’s a 12,000-foot-tall active volcano, Mount Erebus, about 20 miles away. But McMurdo itself—which opened in 1955 as a U.S. Naval Air Facility, and since 1959 has been a hub for astronomers, glaciologists, and oceanographers studying the region’s polar ecosystem (much of the research in recent years has focused on climate change)—is a jumble of aging buildings, muddy roads, imposing fuel tanks, outdoor storage piles, and unsightly overhead power lines. “Truck stop” is one of the kinder analogies used to describe the place. Filmmaker Werner Herzog, in his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, compared McMurdo to an “ugly mining town.” Others just call it “a shithole.”
Like an old shopping mall or a neglected urban neighborhood, McMurdo needs a serious makeover, and not just because of the aesthetics of the place. Last year, a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by the NSF and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy concluded that most of McMurdo’s 105 buildings are “in imminent need of repair and replacement.” Moreover, the station’s “somewhat haphazard arrangement,” as the report gingerly puts it, “leads to wasted resources and also raises serious safety questions.” The panel warned that McMurdo’s “atrophying logistics infrastructure” needs to be upgraded or replaced. “Failure to do so will simply increase logistics costs until they altogether squeeze out funding for science.” All of which explains the report’s rather wonkish title: “More and Better Science in Antarctica Through Increased Logistical Effectiveness.”
Based on the report’s findings, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which manages the day-to-day operations at McMurdo for the NSF, hired OZ in August 2012 to create a master plan for the station. The Denver firm—with 130 employees, it’s one of Colorado’s largest—has a diverse portfolio, including single-family homes, condos, schools, museums, retail, resorts, and even some master plans, including one for the city of Kigali in Rwanda. But none of the firm’s projects have been located in a place as remote and challenging as McMurdo.
Petersen and Schieferecke spent two weeks at the station, getting the lay of the land and meeting with department heads, scientists, and grunts. They were escorted by a Lockheed Martin senior project manager named Brandon Neahusan, a bearded, 37-year-old McMurdo veteran who lives in Denver and goes by the nickname Shaggy.“We weren’t shy about connecting with other people,” Petersen says. “That’s our nature. It was fun and fascinating.”
The architects slept in a windowless room in one of McMurdo’s dingy-looking dorms, sharing cramped quarters with a meteorologist who was headed to the NSF’s South Pole Station, three hours away by plane. They ate spaghetti and meatballs in the “galley,” McMurdo’s crowded dining hall, and drank bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at Gallagher’s Pub and Southern Exposure, the station’s two bars. They sipped lattes in the wood-paneled coffee house (it doubles as a wine bar), staffed by volunteer baristas. Petersen even got to spend some time in the field with a group of scientists studying the effects of changing ocean acidity on sea urchins.
Much of what the Denver architects saw at McMurdo confirmed the findings in the blue ribbon report. The station has grown in fits and starts over the years, with new construction based largely on whatever funds happened to be available at the time. So, for example, instead of one large supply warehouse, there are 22 scattered all over the place. Many of the buildings are barely insulated, a surprise given McMurdo’s cold temperatures—which get to be as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months, when the population drops to about 150 people.
Wayfinding is difficult, with minimal signage and confusing terminology. “And there are 10 names for every building,” Neahusan says. “Say, the Carpenter Shop. It could be Building 191, it could be the Carp Shop, or it could be the Foldaway.” McMurdo’s many outdoor storage yards and untidy overhead power lines contribute to what Petersen calls “visual clutter.”
Then there are McMurdo’s quality of life issues. On the one hand, Petersen says, “There’s a richness and vitality to the place. When people are down there, it gets in their blood. It’s a real tight-knit community. Even if it looks like hell, it has soul.” And Neahusan agrees. “The sense of community is astounding,” he says. “It’s entirely possible to sit down and have a beer with a physicist, a carpenter, and a cook. You make lifelong friends at McMurdo.” (And life partners, too; Neahusan met his wife at the station. “It is an incubator of love down there, my friend,” he says with a knowing smile.)
But privacy is hard to come by, and options for recreation are limited. McMurdites, as they’re called, live in dorms—three or more people per room—with communal bathrooms on each floor. There’s a gymnasium with a basketball court in an old Navy Quonset hut, and a weight room in another. But McMurdo’s library is “insufficient,” Petersen says, and the yoga room is “crappy and cold.” For some reason, the station has a lively music scene, culminating in the annual New Year’s Eve Icestock outdoor music festival. But practice rooms are booked solid, sometimes throughout the night.
“We’re not operating a hotel,” says Brian Stone, director of Antarctica infrastructure and logistics for the NSF’s polar programs. “We’re operating a research facility.” But morale is definitely an issue at McMurdo, and the need for privacy in such close quarters remains a major concern. “It makes a huge difference to people when they’re in a remote situation to have some private space that they can go to,” Stone says.
OZ’s master plan greatly reduces McMurdo’s footprint. Instead of 105 buildings, there will be just 17. Many of the older buildings’ functions will be consolidated in a new central services and administration center, which, at final buildout, will contain NSF offices, a kitchen, a dining hall, a bar, a gym, a library, a store, dormitories, lounge areas, and a central supply warehouse. The “Chalet,” which resembles a 1970s ski lodge and currently houses the NSF’s offices, will become McMurdo’s new coffee house, replacing the leaky Quonset hut that holds the existing one.
One goal of the plan is to reduce the amount of time that McMurdo’s residents spend outside, walking or driving from one building to another. “Now,” Schieferecke says, “you have to put your boots and coat on just to go eat breakfast.” And Petersen adds: “There are some benefits to getting out, but you pay for it in efficiency and safety. If you’re out walking in a blizzard, you’re going to get lost or trip on something. Ideally, residents should be able to do most of what they need to do in slippers.”
Dorm rooms will be single occupancy—about 6 feet by 10 feet—with some that can be converted to doubles for couples. “That sounds very small, and you’d think it would be claustrophobic,” says Neahusan, who’s slept in similar rooms at the NSF’s South Pole Station, which several years ago underwent a significant modernization by Honolulu’s Ferraro Choi and Associates. “But that is your cocoon, that is your space. And it is absolutely the bee’s knees. Sometimes all you need is a slice of silence.”
The plan also includes a new fire station, medical center, and cogeneration plant, which will enable much of McMurdo’s detritus—wooden pallets, cardboard boxes, and the like—to be recycled into fuel. Power lines will be buried, signage will be improved, and walkways will be separated from roads. OZ puts the price tag for the entire project at $150 million, with demolition and construction done in phases over a 12- to 15-year period. “But it could be a lot more,” Stone says.
The plan’s phasing is important, Petersen says. For one thing, you can’t just bulldoze the place and start from scratch. The NSF has stipulated that McMurdo’s operations must remain in effect during any demolition and construction, which can only be done from October to February. Further, nearly everything at McMurdo is brought in by cargo ship once a year, and that applies to construction materials. (Everything has to fit inside standard shipping containers.) There’s also a limit to how many construction workers can be accommodated in McMurdo’s already crowded dormitories.
Then there’s the tricky matter of paying for a McMurdo makeover. The NSF is funded annually by Congress, so any money for new construction will have to be part of the always-contentious federal budget process. The NSF’s $7.62 billion budget request for the 2014 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, is part of President Obama’s overall spending plan, which he submitted to Congress in April. It includes a modest $2 million to pay for a new cargo center for processing equipment, food, and shelter for scientists headed to the field. Given the current standoff over the budget, it’s unclear when—or if—the NSF’s budget will be approved.
“We’re hopeful that our budget request will come through,” Stone says, “and we’ll start to see some funding so that we can move forward.” OZ’s phased plan will serve as a roadmap for future annual budget requests. But some of the plan’s recommendations could be carried out “creatively,” Stone adds—that is, without new money.
Whatever happens next, Petersen, Schieferecke, and their OZ colleagues are itching to be part of McMurdo’s overhaul. The firm is hoping to win the contract to design at least some of the station’s new buildings, starting with the new cargo center. Construction could begin as early as 2015.
“I see this project as a career highlight,” Petersen says. “It’s an opportunity to really transform a community, and the setting just blows your mind.”