Project profile | Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme

Seasonal construction windows and challenging logistics are just a few of the testing conditions that have to be managed to upgrade the British Antarctic Survey’s  Infrastructure


Sourcing materials and getting the right people on site at the right time can be difficult for most construction projects, but when the site is in the Antarctic, the need to get it right first time is critical. 

The Bam Nuttall team is contending with that challenge on the upgrade of the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS’s) research station at Rothera. It puts success so far down to the collaborative approach established at the outset. 

Meticulous planning

The project team has to be meticulous in planning methodology and logistics for the thousands of tonnes of equipment and materials to be procured and delivered to Antarctica. Adopting modern methods of construction, design for manufacture and assembly and “building it before you build it” where feasible in the UK before shipping to site is crucial, because of the isolation in Antarctica.

Additionally, biosecurity forms an integral part of the planning as all equipment and materials have to be cleaned and inspected to ensure that Antarctica remains a pristine environment.

On site, the weather in the Antarctic limits the main construction season to just six months – between November and April. March and April are particularly challenging as conditions deteriorate significantly with heavy snow, gale force winds and further decreasing temperatures. 

Bam Nuttall has been working in these conditions on the £150M design and build contract for phase one of BAS’s Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme. The team includes design consultants Sweco and Hugh Broughton Architects, together with Ramboll acting as BAS’s technical advisors, with architects Norr, providing concept design and Turner & Townsend providing cost management.

Completing the new Rothera Wharf was critical

The BAS project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, which invests public money in world-leading science.

“When we were awarded the contract in 2017, Bam set up an office with BAS in its head office in Cambridge to work together on the design, methodology and logistics,” explains Bam Nuttall site agent Robert Kerr. “BAS’s technical advisors had developed the concept design, however, so it was essential we developed a collaborative approach to developing the detailed design in order to build the relationship needed to deliver the complex programme of works and fully understand the logistics.”

The work will see several of the existing buildings replaced with modern, sustainable and carbon efficient facilities to achieve BAS’s goal of Rothera being net zero by 2030. 

The main work is at the Rothera Research Station where a wharf was rebuilt to accommodate BAS’s new RRS Sir David Attenborough research ship (see box) and the new Discovery Building are being constructed. 

Also included in the work were a new jetty and logistics facilities at Bird Island and a new wharf at King Edward Point in the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.

It was essential we developed a collaborative approach 

Main construction work started in 2018 on the Bird Island facilities with work at Rothera Wharf commencing the following year. Construction of the Discovery Building started in 2020  together with work at King Edward Point. 

This may sound simple, but all the research facilities were operational throughout and construction progress had to be balanced with operational needs and ensuring science and business as usual could continue on the stations.

The new Discovery Building is a cutting-edge, steel framed, two storey structure with a 5,000m2 area. As well as being energy efficient, it incorporates a snow and wind deflector – the largest of its kind in Antarctica – to minimise snow accumulation around the building. There is also an operations tower to provide 360° panoramic views of the runway, wharf and station area.

The wharf at King Edward Point was also upgraded

“Stilts are normally used to ensure the snow build up doesn’t affect the operation of the buildings, but BAS wanted to be able to access the building from ground level,” explains Kerr. 

According to Bam Nuttall project director Graham Hopper, embracing Project 13’s Five Pillars and the ICE’s Systems Approach to Infrastructure Delivery has ensured success through collaboration, front end thinking, information management and digitisation, to ensure the projects are shovel worthy. This has led to the successful sustainable delivery of the projects on cost and programme, 

The work – which involves deconstructing the old buildings at Rothera – will continue until the 2025/2026 build season. But the project team already knows that it will be working in the Antarctic for more years to come. 

Readying Rothera for upgrade

Construction of a new wharf at the Rothera Research Station was essential to the future of the research station in terms of its operation and its rebuild.

“The existing 1970s-built, 60m long Biscoe Wharf did not have a deep enough draft or long enough wharf frontage to accommodate BAS’s new research ship the RRS Sir David Attenborough,” says Bam Nuttall project manager Martha McGowan.

The new 74m long, 9m draft wharf was also critical to the research station’s modernisation as it had to be completed in time to dock the materials being brought in for the build in 2020.

“Rebuilding the wharf was a major project but we also had to accommodate the operation of the research station throughout the work,” explains McGowan.

“Optioneering at the start of work in 2017 considered building the new wharf elsewhere but the existing site was the best position, so BAS faced two seasons without major wharf facilities.”

According to McGowan, collaboration was key to finding a solution that worked for everyone. To minimise the impact, a temporary jetty was built to allow BAS to continue operating its research boats and to allow tenders to bring materials in from larger ships.

With just two seasons to complete the construction programme, the choice of modular and offsite methods was critical to reduce the time and programme risks once on site, adds McGowan. This resulted in 20 steel modules
being fabricated and assembled as a practice run back in the UK before the units were shipped to the Antarctic.

Construction on site started in November 2018 with demolition of the Biscoe Wharf and the wharf was fully constructed on time in 2020.

  • Published in association with Bam Nuttall

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