Looking east, Red Shed Living Quarters dominating, with Jocelyn Island in b/g. © AAD by Brett Free
The Red Shed – Sleeping Quarters and Medical Surgery – completed 1984. © Bob McEwan
In 198I, as Chief Structural Engineer, I formed a team of excellent engineers and set about the urgent task of completing a program of research, testing and development, including developing an Antarctic Design Wind Code, completing essential site investigation and ground anchor testing, cold region concrete technology, cladding panel testing, development of a Design Manual, specifications, a Construction Manual and a specialist training program for each year’s intake of tradesmen. Unfortunately, we weren’t given the luxury of undertaking this essential work prior to commencing the design and construction of the new Australian Antarctic Building System (AANBUS) buildings, resulting in structural modification works being required to the very early AANBUS buildings. In fact, until 1981, the AANBUS buildings were funded on a very ad-hoc basis, with no funding for any essential R&D!
THE DESIGN TEAM & SUCCESS
Despite all the challenges and the obstacles placed in our path, my role in the Antarctic Rebuilding Program is a highlight of my long career as a Structural Engineer and Project Manager. I was fortunate to enough to present several papers on this unique project, including one to an International Conference on Cold Regions Engineering in Vancouver in September 1984, where the Australian Antarctic Building System (AANBUS) was recognised as an internationally accepted benchmark in Antarctic and cold region design. Special credit must be given to the AANBUS Architect, the late Phil Incoll, for his pioneering work.
Whilst many of the AANBUS buildings are over 30 years old, they have performed extremely well. In fact, they should have an indefinite lifespan, with only the cladding panels needing to be replaced at some time in the future (which is quite an easy task).
TRANSPORT TO MAWSON & FIELD CONSTRUCTION
In 1984 a new ship, the Icebird, was leased by the AAD, allowing for the handling of larger cargo and clearing the way for a new modular building concept, based on shipping container technology. This AANBUS Modular Design is ideally suited for electrical and mechanical installations and smaller buildings.
Icebird MV moored in Horseshoe Harbour, 1989 – a German built and designed ice-strengthened ship, for carrying passengers and cargo, made her maiden voyage to Antarctica from Cape Town in November 1984 to cope with the building materials for the re-build program.
© AAD by Alan Arthur Wilkinson
I was intimately involved in the Antarctic Rebuilding Program from 1979 to 1987, as the Structural Engineering Team Leader, responsible for R&D, design, tendering, procurement, trial erection, tradesmen training (including trial erection of a mini AANBUS building), construction, commissioning and handover of buildings and services at Australia’s three Antarctic Stations. I completed a round trip to Macquarie Island, Casey, Davis and Mawson in 1983/84 on the Nanok S and was Construction OIC at Mawson in 1985/86, visiting Heard Island on the way down on the Icebird and returning on one of the last voyages of the Nella Dan!
Whilst I designed the Mawson Store, Mawson Power House and Mawson Living Quarters, I managed the design of all the AANBUS Buildings during the period 1979-1987.
The role of Construction OIC at Mawson was particularly challenging and satisfying. Some of the key experiences and learnings include:
• The next day at our Team Meeting I was again tested – I was greeted by some Winterers who, after 12 months, had had enough and wanted “out” – they were certainly not interested in listening to some motivational speech from a Structural Design Engineer on how important it was to put in another 4 months of hard work.
• In the first weeks I was tested many times! On one memorable occasion, after a few beers one night I returned to my donga to find a frightened skua had been placed inside. After many attempts I managed to capture the skua, but only after it had sprayed my donga with massive output from all orifices! Although I wanted to hang the culprits, I maintained my calm, passed the “test” and there were no further incidents all summer.
• The weather was particularly bad that summer, forcing me to tear up the construction program and replan the summer, with almost no communication with the Australian Office – satellite communication was almost non-existent in those days.
• People management and communication are critical skills when you have little or no support – I quickly realised that the only way was to lead by example.
• Teamwork and team morale are critical in this difficult environment.
• When the wind dropped, it was heartening to see the men willingly volunteer to work late into the night on the Mawson Store. As I had no means of rewarding them for their dedication, I found that giving them additional days off to undertake trips was highly appreciated and the recognition did wonders for their morale and productivity. We all knew that we may never come this way again and our trips to Rumdoodle, Mt Henderson and Auster Rookery were highlights of our stay.
• No-one understood the importance of safety in those days – we all stood on top of the Mawson Store in moderate winds installing roof panels, without safety harnesses! We survived that summer without any serious accidents – a miracle.
• I asked the one foreman whom I particularly respected – what is the single most important task to be completed this summer? He immediately replied that ACS (Australian Construction Service) needed to commission and hand-over some of the long-completed buildings to the AAD (Australian Antarctic Division). ACS hadn’t developed and agreed commissioning and hand-over procedures with the AAD and the AAD were in no hurry to take them over as they would then have to assume responsibility for their operation and maintenance! In the meantime, ACS tradesmen over the winter had to spend most of their time on maintenance issues.
• I naively thought that the building materials that were delivered 1 -2 years earlier would be easily located – wrong! They were either buried under drift snow or went missing! I soon realised that the storage areas resembled an “open-air Bunnings” – expeditioners over the winter had been busy using our building materials to make furniture and equipment, which they loaded onto the ship in custom-made RTA (Return to Australia) boxes.
Some of the things that I believe should be done differently next time are:
• Ensure that the AAD and ACS work closely together in a collaborative manner.
• Ensure that no design is commenced until the necessary R&D is completed (to do avoid unnecessary re-work).
• Ensure that a safety culture is a top priority.
• Respect the pristine environment.
• Ensure that leaders receive adequate training and support.
Whilst I am so proud to have been a key part of the Antarctic Rebuilding Program, I just hope that with the demise of ACS that all the valuable IP (Intellectual Property) we developed has not been lost, or buried at the bottom of some storage container at the AAD’s headquarters in Kingston?
© Text Bob McEwan, Chief Structural Engineer, Australian Construction Services. 20th February 2019.