Low lying buildings thick with snow

Have you noticed that roofs are steeper in Alpine countries? And that there are fewer high-rise buildings in very hot countries, where buildings generally have smaller and fewer windows?  

These are the kind of features that distinguish buildings designed for extreme environments. Find out more about the construction techniques and challenges of building in very hot and very cold climates.  

Construction in cold environments 

Designing for the cold 

When designing buildings for cold climates, insulation and energy conservation are probably the foremost concerns for architects. It is very important to seal in the heat that can be generated from inside the building and reduce the effect of high humidity (which makes it feel colder than the air temperature). Architects look to do this through the following:  

  • Making walls thick  
  • Constructing from wood for walls and interiors  
  • Keeping buildings to a low ‘form factor’ – so that they can use more of the heat from within the ground  
  • Smaller rooms  
  • Steep roofs to prevent heavy and dangerous massing of snow  
  • Laying roofs with specialist insulating materials  
  • Utilising compacted snow as an insulator.  

Construction in extreme cold 

What is it like to actually try to build in very low temperatures? What methods should be adopted when you are designing buildings for places where it is winter all year round?  

People do not generally live in such places, but there is one city where building techniques have had to adapt to extremely cold temperatures. Yakutsk in Eastern Siberia is a city with a population of 311,000 where the mercury drops to -40°C in winter (the record low temperature is -64°C). Buildings here are either constructed on stilts or piles, because to be built on the layer permafrost would make them too unstable. Piles are drilled deep into the permafrost and filled with concrete to give buildings the stability they need.  

The research stations on the Antarctic continent are good examples of construction methods in the very coldest places on Earth. 

Construction in extreme heat

Hot climates present very different challenges. The rapid economic growth of countries in the Middle East has seen huge building booms in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The record-breaking Burj Khalifa skyscraper is an example of a construction project that overcame significant challenges in a country where the summer temperature can reach 50°C and the soil is sandy and loose.  

Climate change will mean that more and more countries will have to take different approaches to designing buildings to contend with high temperatures.  

How to overcome extreme heat 

Many of the same methods for keeping buildings warm are used for keeping them cool – in hot countries the ideal is to build low to the ground, because the ground retains a stable temperature. Ground source heat pumps will help this process by dispersing warmer air from above to below ground. Windows tend to be smaller, to reduce the radiation from the sun’s heat.  

Materials that exhibit high ‘thermal mass’ are used, such as concrete, bricks, tiles and stones. These materials can absorb and store heat for long periods, keeping rooms cool for longer. Building designers are increasingly experimenting with exposed thermal mass, such as concrete labyrinths in basements. These act almost like cool stores, that gradually permeate and rise through the upper levels of the building.  

How heat affects construction 

Working in extreme heat is dangerous. Construction managers should be aware of their obligations to their staff when temperatures rise beyond normal levels. Heat affects an individual’s ability to think clearly, while clearly bringing the risk of dehydration. Construction managers should consider the following in order to protect their workers:  

  • Reschedule work to early morning or later in the evening  
  • Provide more frequent rest breaks and shaded areas 
  • Greater access to drinking water  
  • Assess the risk of workers removing PPE if it helps to cool them down  

There is no maximum temperature in the UK for workplaces, but the Health and Safety Executive encourages employers to minimise the risks of working outdoors in extreme heat.  

Amundsen Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica
Amundsen Scott South Pole Station

Famous extreme construction projects 

Troll A Platform 

Troll A, an oil platform off the West coast of Norway, is the tallest structure that has ever been moved from one location to another. Its four legs are made of reinforced concrete, which withstands the extreme depths of the sea. The legs were formed from a continuous pour of concrete delivered by tower cranes. In 1995 it was towed for 120 miles from where it was built to its location in the North Sea.  

Amundsen Scott South Pole Station 

Is there anywhere in the world with a more extreme environment than the Antarctic? Temperatures can reach -73°C during the long winter months when there is no sunlight.  

The Amundsen Scott South Pole Station was originally opened in 1956, but its latest incarnation, completed in 2008, has taken cold climate construction to a new level. The two floor modular building features an adjustable elevation to prevent it from being buried in snow. It has rounded corners and edges to reduce snow drifts, and angled walls help to increase wind speeds and stop snow from settling on or around the building. The structure can be elevated to sit above the snow line.  

Halley VI Antarctic Research Station 

What is even more remarkable about the Halley VI Antarctic Research Station, another great achievement of Antarctic architecture, is that it sits on the Brunt Ice Shelf, a floating piece of ice. The latest structure is the sixth version to be built and opened in 2013. The eight building modules can be jacked up above the snow, but the modules also have retractable giant skis, enabling the building to be moved if the ice shelf floats too far.  

Inspired by what you’ve read? Discover careers in construction

Working on projects in extreme climates can be a great experience, and there are job roles throughout the construction industry. Go Construct has information on over 170 job profiles in total. These are just a few: