How does your building smell?

Smell is probably the aspect of buildings we think about least, so it was fascinating when architect Hugh Broughton gave a talk at the Royal Geographic Society about his Halley VI research station this week to discover how important smell was in the design.

Think of the Antarctic and you think first about the incredible cold and the lack of light in winter. But smell is also an issue. Let’s get the yucky bit over first. When Broughton described some of the earlier stations, which were designed to be buried, he said that while they worked technically they were horrible to live in. Not only were they permanently dark and were you subjected to the sound of the ice slowly crushing the structure – you also had to live in a miasma of sewage.

With elevated stations, this is not an issue. But there is a kind of sensory deprivation, not only of light but also of smell. There are no domestic elements and no plants – and the pongy penguins are a long way away. When Broughton designed the station therefore, he chose cedar of Lebanon for the timber veneer around the spiral stair in the central module because, he said, it is the only timber that gives out a scent.

He also described how a hydroponics greenhouse, which could grow vegetables and herbs, had to be value-engineered out (he admitted he had put it in the wrong place). Broughton hopes one might be built in the future. The one at the American base at the South Pole is apparently so popular that the base has had to institute a booking system for spending time in it amongst the colour and the smells of growing things.

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