Chattanooga company to rebuild largest Antarctic station [photos]

Sean Compton, right, President and CEO of Southern Spear Ironworks, stands outside his Workman Road business with his wife, Lizzette and speaks of the early updates to his steel plant at the old Fine Feathers Hosiery and Co. mill. Compton and company will be building a huge environmental research center for the government in Antarctica.

A Chattanooga company will travel this week to Antarctica to begin the first phase of what will likely be a seven-year-or-more project to rebuild the largest Antarctic station for the U.S. government to continue scientific research on the world's coldest continent, according to the company's founder and president Sean Compton.

It will be the biggest project Southern Spear Ironworks LLC - a relatively new local steel company - has undertaken.

"It's exciting; it shows what we've been doing is really paying off," company chief operating officer Leo Flynn said. "At first, it's a little scary, but once you start tackling it step by step, it's really no different than what we do here. It just happens to be across the world."

The U.S. government is rebuilding McMurdo Station. The station serves as a logistical hub for scientific research on the world's southernmost continent. McMurdo hosts a wide-range of scientific activities including climate research, astrophysics, geology, ocean study and more. It has allowed scientists to research areas previously unexplored and is the biggest community on the continent. The facility houses about 1,100 people during the busy summer months, Compton said.

The station's footprint grew as scientific progress allowed for more research, and expanded to a 164-acre site that houses more than 100 structures.

Now, the government is investing in a new infrastructure to add efficiency, space and a state-of-the-art facility. The 100-plus structures will be consolidated to six primary structures and will ensure the long-term sustainability of the U.S. Antarctic program, according to information from the National Science Foundation.

"Doing so will greatly decrease energy demands for heating, lighting and water production, significantly reducing overall fuel consumption" according to a video posted by the government's National Science Foundation about the project. "These changes will create safer and more efficient working conditions."

Government officials were unavailable for comment due to the shutdown.

Currently, those at the site regularly travel through the frigid Antarctic weather from structure to structure to get things they need. The large, consolidated station will reduce that.

Southern Spear is the shell contractor on the project, meaning the company will build the main structure of the entire facility. It involves tearing down and rebuildings hundreds of thousands of square feet of lodging, warehouses, storage, labs and more.

However, a project in Antarctica involves shipping absolutely everything.

"There's no Lowe's in Antarctica," company president and founder Sean Compton said.

The continent's climate requires contractors to ship everything they need for the year at once. There's a small time frame this month - in the midst of Antarctica's summer - that allows ships to pass through the ice. The warmest its expected to be during the trip is around freezing, Compton said. The team is shipping everything now, heading to the continent and beginning work while they can. The crew will leave Saturday morning and expect to arrive in Antarctica in the middle of next week.

"It's quite the logistical nightmare," Compton said. They shipped dozens of full tractor trailers to California to be placed on a ship and sent to the station. They'll fly in a couple times a year for several weeks - and up to several months - at a time to do the work. They'll have a team there for about six months over the next year. When they're finished, they'll have built all the air-tight structures. Other contractors will then come in for lighting, HVAC and to finish the facility.

The entire project is being overseen by Parsons - one of the biggest contracting companies in the world. Southern Spear was hired as the shell contractor and will be using other Chattanooga companies to do some subcontracting work, Compton said.

Southern Spear received a notice that the contract was out for bid early last summer. They priced the project in July, won the bid and then learned the scope of the project was much bigger than they believed.

"We didn't know it was this big, giant project," Compton said.

Compton said he couldn't discuss financial details but added that it is the biggest project the company has done.

Compton opened Southern Spear Ironworks about two years ago in his home. He played football at Florida State under Bobby Bowden before working for a corporate construction company. He moved to Chattanooga for work, and got married to Lizzette Compton, who lived in the area and now also works for Southern Spear.

The company started with four or five guys working out of his house. Now, there are just under 50 employees.

They've done the structural work for the Publix shopping center in Fort Oglethorpe, a Subaru dealership in Atlanta and other local projects.

"It's exciting; this shows that what we're doing has been paying off," Flynn said.

Flynn will be making the trip. Compton plans to stay to finish other work for the project.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.