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Offseason Vertical Construction

Construction companies, engineers, project managers, and architects stay busy in winter months


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October in Alaska is one of the busiest months of the year for the vertical construction industry.

The October-November timeframe marks the arrival of winter and the offseason for vertical construction. It also shuts the door on most outdoor building. The final weeks of fall for construction workers, engineers, project managers, and architects are a mad dash to hit project deadlines so spring and summer build tasks stay on schedule.

In Anchorage, the offseason typically hits in early November. In Interior Alaska, it comes a bit earlier, in October.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, offseason temperatures this year are expected to be milder than normal, with the coldest periods occurring in early- to mid-January and early February. 

A mild winter presents the opportunity for a longer exterior-build timeframe, even in the offseason, which is good news for Alaska’s construction industry, one of many industries in Alaska to feel the pinch of continued drops in spending.

While some sector projects, including healthcare and national defense, are on the uptick, the majority of construction spending is headed downward, according to the “2017 Alaska’s Construction Spending Forecast” by Scott Goldsmith and Pamela Cravez of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA, written for the Construction Industry Progress Fund and the Associated General Contractors of Alaska. The total value of construction spending “on the street” in Alaska in 2017 is forecast to reach about $6.5 billion, down 10 percent from 2016, according to the report.

The good news is the decline will be somewhat less than last year because federal spending, in the form of grants, is expected to increase, especially for transportation and sanitary projects, as well as nonprofit housing and healthcare facilities.

 

What’s in Play

Weather predictions are critical for the building industry given the starring role weather plays in Alaska-based construction. 

In fact, Watterson Construction, which began as a small general contracting business in 1981, highlights its knowledge and understanding of Alaska’s unpredictable climate and its ability to combat hazardous sub-Arctic conditions on its website. That said, the company, which has handled 200 commercial construction projects throughout the state—from office buildings to retail stores to military support facilities—hasn’t often faced big offseason winter-related challenges, though this past winter was not the norm.

“Most years we really don’t have an offseason, but last winter was an exception,” says President Bill Watterson, who founded the company with his wife Helga. “Most years we make every effort to get the building enclosed by November 1 and then work inside.”

For some projects that isn’t always possible. For example, Watterson is the general contractor for the Kendall Audi Volkswagen Porsche facility; the goal last fall was to complete a concrete foundation in order to start structural steel construction on February 1 of this year. Watterson used advanced workarounds when faced with cold weather obstacles while placing the foundation. “With innovative construction techniques and the use of ground heaters, working in this time frame is doable and doesn’t break the bank,” explains Watterson. Building the foundation included using insulated concrete forms for stem walls to facilitate heating the concrete. 

Hitting that February deadline for steel construction was vital to this summer season’s project tasks. “This allowed completion of the site work amenities this summer so that Kendall can open in winter in 2017-2018,” says Watterson.

Another Watterson project, based in Fairbanks, wasn’t so adaptive to cold-weather workarounds, notes Watterson. “You have to be a masochist to do foundation concrete, structural steel erection, and siding in Interior Alaska after November 15,” he says, noting concrete plants shut down in the winter and that the winter season can double the cost of the Redi-Mix Concrete.

During the offseason when Watterson is not on a building site, the company works on design tasks, bids for new work, and performs equipment repairs and tune-ups. 

There are some tasks that simply cannot be done in the offseason, such as backfill work, due to freezing temperatures and the fact that aggregate is not available from gravel suppliers. Also on the “can’t do” list are asphalt paving and landscaping. Sometimes roofing work can be done, but Watterson describes it as “dicey” and it depends on using roofing materials that can be installed in cold weather.

It’s not typically a busy time for buying equipment unless the firm has a job starting the next spring, he adds.

When summer arrives, the build strategy is simple. “You go like hell in the summer and get closed in by November 1,” says Watterson.

 

Designing in the Offseason

At the architecture and design firm McCool Carlson Green, which is involved in public bid commercial construction, challenges during the offseason pose a slightly different scenario. “The only offseason is when the money does not justify the effort to meet a need. If a building is critically needed, ways are usually devised to continue construction through the winter in Alaska,” says Senior Architect John McCool, a McCool Carlson Green founding principal who has been practicing design in Alaska for several decades.

“Although concrete roofing adhesive and paint need warm temperatures to cure, contactors have devised methods to make that happen in cold weather,” he explains. As an example, McCool points to earthwork being performed and kept warm by buried circulating heated glycol tubing and insulation blankets. He’s even seen roofing substrate and materials installed inside heated tent enclosures.

But McCool acknowledges cold weather production is less than optimal given site lighting requirements and higher building costs compared to warm weather construction.

“We try to advise building owners to plan for warm weather construction starts and allow at least partial shutdown during cold weather, but they often ask the contractor how much it will cost to continue, and how soon can we use the building,” he says. 

Alaska drivers who cruise by the University of Alaska in Fairbanks this winter may easily get the impression the winter offseason is posing no challenge to a Davis Constructors & Engineers project.

The construction firm, in a joint vertical project with Haskell Corporation, is overseeing a major campus facility upgrade that will decommission the university’s existing Atkinson Heat and Power Plant and replace it with a coal-fired boiler and steam turbine system designed to meet campus heat and power needs for the next two decades.

The worksite will be home to a significant workforce this winter—numbering about 200—striving to finish the project in the next twelve months.

“To accommodate that in such a cold environment, we have installed temporary exterior insulation on portions of the building shell not yet ready for final siding installation,” says Jed Shandy, a Davis Constructors & Engineers project manager and vice president. “We will be using a combination of the building’s permanent heating system, augmented by temporary heaters, to make up for some of the missing insulation,” he adds.

The goal is to keep the interior of the structure at 50 degrees Fahrenheit when it is -30 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

For Davis Constructors & Engineers, the offseason runs from late-October to mid-April, and the primary areas of focus in the field are interior finishes and completing the limited tasks that can be done in frigid weather conditions. The firm has completed nearly 300 projects, totaling almost $2.25 billion in the state.

“In the office, we prepare for summer months by aligning schedules of material delivery and crews to maximize the limited amount of days above freezing,” says Shandy. “Vertically we can perform structural steel erection and exterior siding elements. All interior scopes are available as long as temporary heat can be provided to the structure,” he adds.

During the offseason, time is money, just like during the summer season. “The weather brings productivity losses to the exterior work that historically averaged about 1 percent of productivity loss for every degree below 40,” Shandy explains. In translation: carrying out siding work at 0 degrees is 40 percent slower than in the summer months.

While Davis Constructors & Engineers crews stay busy at the university project this winter, the company’s office staff will be working hard on projects of their own. 

Shandy says many bid packages for new work hit in the fall and winter and projects already awarded need to start design and permitting efforts so contractors can jump on the projects come April.

“It’s also when we are closing out our previous projects and building operations and maintenance manuals for our clients,” Shandy says, adding that staff hiring tends to be slower in the winter while the company builds out its book of work for the following season. “Off seasons are most productive when we have adequately planned and executed the summer season of earthwork and concrete placement.”

This article first appeared in the October 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.  

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