• Mawson’s huts were built 97 years ago.
• The four buildings formed the base of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson.
• The builders were restored with the same materials – Finnish whitewood – and building methods as originally used.
• Timber flooring cassettes and decks from Framework CDM are being used in the British Antarctic Survey’s new base.

If you want proof of the durability of timber building, take a 12,000-mile trip to Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. There, at the windiest place on earth on Cape Dennison, often up to its roof ridges in snow, is a collection of wooden huts, survivors from the dawn of Antarctic exploration. Mawson’s huts haven’t been immune to the ravages of gales and blizzards and one has just undergone a major repair programme – but they were built 97 years ago.

The four buildings formed the base of the 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson. The aim of the venture was to map the area and take meteorological and geological measurements – and during their first winter, the 18-strong team of scientists and explorers recorded average wind speeds of 95kph and a maximum of over 300kph.

Today the expedition is best remembered for the exploratory trip Mawson took with two colleagues, Belgrade Ninnis and Xavier Mertz. This turned to tragedy when Ninnis fell to his death in a crevasse and Mertz died of exhaustion. In the final dramatic twist in the story, when he made it back to the huts, Mawson saw the expedition ship Aurora disappearing over the horizon. It left to avoid being caught in the ice and he and the six men who had waited for him had to spend a second winter in the huts before they were rescued.

The base was abandoned in 1914 and today stands as it was left, complete with personal effects, food and other stores, somewhat past their sell-buy date, but still intact.

The buildings could probably have survived a few more years but, with some of the timber wearing wafer-thin through ice abrasion, the Mawson Huts Foundation (MHF) decided to give the heritage-listed buildings a bit of help, starting with replacing the roof of the main hut.

Original materials

The work had to be done as sensitively as possible, with the same materials and building methods as originally used (and the MHF supplied original documentation of the timber order to ensure authenticity). Consequently, the Foundation turned to Wright Forest Products (WFP), Australia’s leading Nordic timber importer and a specialist in restoration work and complex deliveries, to supply the Finnish whitewood. It was a major logistical exercise.

“The whitewood came from central Finland, virtually from the North Pole to the South Pole, which makes it probably one of the longest journeys ever taken by a shipment of timber,” said the company’s Ashley Wright. He added that the material, from Wright’s Finnish supply partner Versowood Oy, was not only the authentic material (known by Dawson simply as “Baltic”), it also met modern environmental criteria, carrying the stamp of the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Whitewood would have been specified by the expedition for the hut roofs and walls because of its “outstanding durability and thermal qualities”, said Mr Wright. The only difference between the original and modern material was that the restorers used a 22x160mm machined tongued and grooved flooring grade. “This is easier to fit and provides the extra strength and stability you want to count on in a place like Antarctica,” he said.

In association with Michael Swan of timber importers Swan Le Messurier of Sydney and Timber Wholesale Pty Ltd of Hobart, the whitewood was prepared and delivered to the Australian Antarctic Division in Tasmania. There it was kept in quarantine to ensure it was pest free then loaded aboard French Antarctic resupply ship L’Astrolabe bound for Commonwealth Bay.

Helicopter packs

Next, the timber had to be prepared in special ‘helicopter packs’ for lifting to the ice cap. The project wasn’t straightforward, but WFP’s previous experience helped. “In the 1980s, we supplied timber to Australian Antarctic expeditions for use in other projects,” said Wright. “The MHF expedition was right up our alley; its conservation programme also fitted with our focus on heritage restorations and our link to the Nordic timber trade.”

The first headache for the conservation team, comprising three ‘heritage carpenters’ and a conservation scientist, was apparent before they landed. As they flew in all that could been seen of the hut above the drifts was the apex of the roof, so the first job was digging out 80m³ of ice and snow by hand. Once this was shifted, high winds, blizzards, and temperatures as low as -40ºC further slowed progress. “The team was often stuck inside for days at a time,” said Wright.

But with all hands on deck the job was completed with time to spare and the neighbouring ‘transit hut’ was also patched up with original material. More repairs are needed on the buildings, but at least Mawson’s main hut now has the protection of a solid new roof and, if necessary, could provide a safe, warm haven for future intrepid explorers of Cape Dennison for decades to come.