Architecture in extreme environments


Hi everyone,

I want to point my architecture career into an unusual direction - habitats for extreme environments. Arctic to be exact. But I'm not sure where to begin. I have about 10 years on and off experience of working in the field. Mostly doing design for Architecture firms and a lot of visualization - an unfortunate side effect of being really good at 3ds Max. I have a B.Arch from Cal Poly Pomona and an M.Arch II from UCLA's SUPRASTUDIO with Greg Lynn. During my time at UCLA we ventured pretty liberally into design with composites, fiberglass fabrication, and robotic arms for making stuff. Which sparked my interest in building where typical materials and conventional means of construction aren't enough. 

The thing is, at the moment I'm working at a fairly conservative architecture firm [ doing renderings as prescribed above^^ :/ ], which designs conventional glass-clad high-rise housing using conventional construction methods, conventional project deliveries, and pays conventional salaries.. haha ...And I'm just not sure where to turn to, because my graduate program left a strong impression in me that there is a certain future in automatic fabrication, and long-lasting composite materials and I just want to explore this topic further. And it doesn't seem like there is any room for it in the type of work environment where I am now. 

Should I try to splinter off the architecture path and join a smaller office that fabricates interior furnishings, and familiarize myself with unorthodox materials and methods?

Should I perhaps consider temporarily going to a naval design office to get an exposure to monocoque hull construction?

Not sure. What do you guys think?

Huge thanks!


Oct 17, 16 4:12 pm

go to antarctica, plenty of buildings to learn from.

Oct 17, 16 4:53 pm
Olaf Design Ninja_

off shore oil rig construction, large AEC type firms...or a fabrication shop, such as metal workers or wood wood workers

Oct 17, 16 6:59 pm

You were lied to. Sorry about that. I've done a little arctic construction and my masters thesis was based on it. The thing with arctic construction is that it needs to be incredibly low tech. Not only because fancy materials aren't readily available, but also because there's not the infrastructure for maintenance. Who's going to fix the fancy composite material when it breaks? I think you're seriously underestimating the skills and material availability of the north.

Oct 17, 16 11:11 pm

Side note - why does this forum only accept html formatting in posts from my phone?

Oct 17, 16 11:13 pm
Contractors are still learning how to use flashlights and cell phones.

I guess there is actually a need for automation.
Oct 18, 16 1:09 am

I worked a full co-op in the arctic, living above 60° and working on projects approaching up to 70°; I also studied in Scandinavia for a time. In the nicest way possible - I think you have may have an overly-romanticized idea of the work that's to be had up there. A lot of people see the Hayley VI project by HBA in London ( ) and think that's a typical project, involving boundary-pushing fabrication, etc.

The truth of the matter is that it's not. B_B has it pretty spot-on: almost all the work is government-subsidized or -commissioned and leaves little or no room for experimentation. The conditions are so extreme, the technical requirements so stringent, and the procurement process so sparse that a massive amount of the work is heavily prescribed based on tried-and-true methods. Quite literally, the stakes are so high for every single deadline that no one is interested in trying to get outside of them. Case in point: we worked massive overtime to make sure specific pre-fab parts made it to the shipping ports from the east coast in July to ensure delivery before ice floes covered the sea. If you miss that date - congratulations, you are officially waiting a year to hit the next one.

If you are bored with your overly-corporate work at the moment because of the lack of creativity or design in it, the arctic may not be the line of work you're looking for in a change.

However - my co-op was insanely informative during my studies and I loved my time there. The can-do / outback attitudes of all people in the far North is really invigorating. And the work is supremely interesting, as long as you have a realistic expectation of what you'll be doing and what consequences of the work.

Oct 18, 16 9:14 am

∆ That's what I was trying to get at. The shipping constraints alone mean that no individual part can even be over 8 feet wide in most cases. And if you forget one of the parts on a shipment, even a box of carpet tiles, well you're waiting a year or paying $10k for it to get flown in, if that's even possible.

Oct 18, 16 9:47 pm

Become an Academic. Get Funding! - Preferably from research grants. However, note that there will be little available for such projects. Basically, you have to invent the market you are trying to design for....I can offer no recommendations having never undertaken such an endeavor. 

The business case for a private firm/company is hard to see and I have no recommendations -- that being said, you could try to work at a firm where you could carve out this type of expertise and in theory bid for these type of projects when they are available. You might then spend say 75% of your time working on a typical building design and 25% working on "extreme habitats".  Make it your mission and maybe something will work out. Otherwise, evolve

Oct 19, 16 3:39 pm

One more thing - are you more interested in fancy materials, or are you more interested in extreme environments? Because if you don't tie them together, your options open up substantially.

Oct 19, 16 5:20 pm

Sometimes sheer genius comes through:

Oct 20, 16 3:10 pm

Yeah that's a nice looking building, but the city I work in, has a lower average annual temperature, as well as a lower extreme temperature and higher extreme temperature.

Comparatively speaking, Hamar's climate is similar to that of most Canadian cities - not what we would consider extreme at all. 

Oct 20, 16 5:54 pm

The Artic region itself is not always extreme. Here is Tromso, Norway, in the summer. Tromso has an intriguing mix of modern and traditional architecture.

Oct 20, 16 8:32 pm

A funny thing happened today. I got a call about being the architect of record for a building in the sub arctic, average night time winter temperature of -29°c. (R84 walls). Should be interesting.

Oct 21, 16 3:38 am

Your building must be slated for the interior of Canada pretty far north? You could do worse than bring a little of Quebec City or old Montreal to the project. Good luck.

Oct 21, 16 8:07 am

Yes, interior of Canada, in the tundra (Churchill, MB). Less old Montreal and more wild west. I can't add a photo on mobile but here's the townscape:

Oct 21, 16 9:35 am

Looks like you have your work cut out for you. Maybe reference the stone fort nearby that was built by the Hudson Bay Company somehow? Just discovered that the present Hudson Bay Company is the same one that was founded In 1670!  Incredible, I always thought it was a department store chain that just picked up the old name.

Oct 21, 16 1:18 pm

As much as I'd love to have more of a say, my only real role will be code analysis and checking over drawings/details. Again, I think everyone underestimates the lack of resources in the north. A stone stack wall? Easy. Any processing of local stone hasn't been done for 150 years.

Oct 21, 16 11:59 pm

Huge thanks for the responses you guys! I totally let this slip for a few days - ironically work got in the way. We have a monstrous deadline in 2 hours...

@bowling_ball, I really appriciate your insight - you got me thinking about a lot of things. I guess you're right it's really not the arctic [I just grew up in a very cold place and miss it], it's the new materials, means, and methods that I feel I want to be part of. Which does broaden my options I suppose. 

@Jayness also offers a super interesting point that somehow never crossed my mind. 

So after some thinking I guess something much smaller-scale than the projects we're working on right now might be the answer to all this for me... We'll see I guess.


Oct 25, 16 5:12 pm
Wood Guy

" it's the new materials, means, and methods that I feel I want to be part of"

If you haven't already, you might be interested in learning about Passivhaus. They are at the leading edge of building performance. I know that I've learned a ton in the process of becoming a certified Passive House consultant.

Oct 25, 16 7:30 pm

i don't think it would be that hard to get funding to move to the arctic as an architect.  the oil companies have been funding internal climate change research for years, and when the ice starts melting, they're going to want to be poised to drill.  sell your strengths, and know your audience.

Oct 25, 16 7:49 pm

∆ How do you see that working, Curt? Call up an oil company and tell them that they should pay you to be their architect?

FWIW, the project I got called about will be designed and built to PH standards, but it sounds like they won't be seeking certification. Too bad, I'm interested in going through the process. Wood Guy, how are you going about the process? I don't think there's even one such consultant in my city of 800k people.

Oct 26, 16 12:29 am

Oh, to work in the Arctic is difficult, but I think it's a good experience. I would not go to work there :)

Oct 26, 16 10:41 am
Wood Guy

BB, I'm in Maine, where you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a PH Consultant. Seriously though, in a state of 1.3M, half rural, I bet there are 40 or more PH Consultants. 

That's great to hear that your arctic project will be built to PH standards. It only makes sense, especially in that location.

I'm not sure what you mean by "how am I going about the process." I always try to push people to the highest levels of efficiency, up to and including PH, but it's not for everyone. I have only been self employed for a year and a half, with a few potential PH's in the works but none will get certified unless I pay for it myself, which I might do just to go through the process. My training was through the international group but I am open to working with the confusingly different yet similarly named American group.

We may have discussed this before; if so I apologize, but for your arctic project you may be interested in contacting my previous employer, the first builder in North America dedicated solely to Passive House construction, and the first internationally certified building manufacturer outside of Europe: They are still relatively new but they have the kinks worked out; I just went on a site tour last night and the work is flawless. They are set up to ship panels everywhere. While I was still there we panelized a project near Moncton, NB, and they have some in the works farther from Maine.  

Oct 27, 16 2:22 pm

For anyone interested in Halley VI, this is well worth a look at:

Oct 27, 16 3:49 pm

Well it seems many of you hit most of the high points on the detailing in arctic design and construction. I have been in the Canadian Arctic for 26 years and tried and true is typically the answer. Although I can seriously say that each and every wall system gets tweaked in the next design as you learn and adapt the ways and means of the systems. I also submitted on the Halley expression of interest for Halley VI and out of 84 submissions, our firm made the technical jury cut of 12 but unfortunately didn't make the final shortlist (I think a RIBA partner might have helped us in that regard, but we decided to go as a niche Canadian Arctic based A/E firm).

Anyway, to the initial question, there is always research and technology advancements at play in the arctic with the design community, but if you really wanted to get involved in the manufacturing side, you might to look at an Architectural Metals group or someone who is in the manufacturing of products being used in the work.

And, there are lots of firms looking for people that want to come north. You just have to make the calls and you'll no doubt find some interest. My predecessor firm is now Stantec with architects in Anchorage, and the 3 northern territories in Canada, so that might be the first call.

Nov 2, 16 12:27 pm

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