Breaking Frozen Ground
How general contractors tackle the hurdles of building homes in the Interior
Residential construction in Alaska runs on the same seasonal boom-and-bust cycle that dictates work in many sectors of the Last Frontier. Deep, cold winters can leave the dirt too hard and cold to break ground until May, resulting in short seasons for general contractors preparing to build new homes before winter sets in again.
“We have a really challenging building season with limits to the amount of time you’ve got to build a house,” Chad Wilson from Wilson & Wilson says. “We’ve got such a short window. I mean, one minute, there’s snow on the ground, the next it’s 80°F.”
Unless a general contractor is doing what is known as “speculation work” in which the builder constructs the house before it has a buyer—also sometimes referred to as tract homes—the work and challenges presented when building a home in the Fairbanks-area can be daunting, from a moose walking through the construction site to lengthy delays for specific items or fixtures.
“I tell clients that if it is a stock item that we need, we need to act now. If it is on that shelf, it may not be for long. With everyone building at the same time, supplies move fast. With being in the Last Frontier, it is rather difficult to get [certain items] without major delays and added expenses,” Wilson says.
When something isn’t readily available, it can be special ordered. However, Wilson points out that special orders often take more time than expected, which can have a significant impact on a project already being pushed out on a tight timeline.
“When homeowners or clients change their mind after everything is planned out, getting that product on site is a challenge in itself, while trying to keep a schedule and not create other delays in the process,” Wilson explains.
The process of building a new home in Alaska starts with a piece of property—or a general contractor.
“We either go out, find a piece of property with them, or they own a piece of property and say this is what we have, and we help turn a dream into a reality,” Wilson says. “If they don’t have a set of plans, I’ve got an architect that I work closely with. Some bring us what we need and others ask for our help.”
Carrie Martyn, a co-owner of SQC General Contractors, points out that securing a general contractor well ahead of time is essential as there’s nearly always more work to do than the building season will allow.
“If you’re planning on building a home, you need to be thinking about breaking ground a year ahead of time. You need to secure a general contractor at least by wintertime, if not sooner,” Martyn says.
By breakup, it becomes difficult to find general contractors who aren’t already booked. Part of this is due to many general contractors only having so much time in the day and so many days in the summer, Wilson says.
“When a customer is in a hurry, they can make the wrong choice with the wrong general contractor,” says Sam Levchenko, co-owner of SQC Contractors. “You need to be very careful to hire a reputable contractor who is licensed and legit, someone you can work well with—we hear a bunch of horror stories here in town.”
SQC Contractors is a relatively new company in the Interior, established about three years ago, Levchenko explains. He and Martyn are bidding on a couple of new home contracts this season. Though Levchenko has been the general contractor for new home builds in the past, if won, these will be the first with the company, which has been focused on home renovation projects.
Levchenko and Martyn explain that they are making headway in the market by focusing on communication with clients.
“Building a home is a process; we have found that very close communication with the customer is key—listening to the customer and involving them in every step of that process,” Levchenko says, pointing out that people want a general contractor who can quickly deliver bad news just as readily as good news.
When someone doesn’t already have a plot of land chosen, Wilson says sometimes a client will reach out to see if his team already has a plot or a house ready to go.
“And, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I like that area, let’s go visit the lot.’ And if they like the lot, then we’ll show them the set of plans we were going to build on that lot or they bring us a set of plans to see if we can accommodate them with said lot,” Wilson says.
Speculation builders usually have a handful of house plan layouts from which clients can choose and then tweak the design—choosing fixtures, paint colors, and flooring. Though Wilson & Wilson specializes in custom homes, they do occasionally build a speculation home.
In that situation, Wilson hopes to have the home already framed up before letting prospects in to see the property to give them a visual of the house. Many times it seems different when walls are up than when it’s all drawn out on paper, Wilson says.
Framing at a new residential construction project.
From the Ground Up
Once contracts are settled, floor plans nailed down, and subcontractors lined up, the first major step in building a new home is breaking ground—and the timing of this step is subject to change every year.
“It all depends on the weather. We’ve had a crazy, cold winter this year; it just lasted so much longer than normal,” Wilson says. “I’ve had times where April 1 comes and I’ve had nothing on the ground, and I’ve had some years where guys would have already been pouring foundations by April 1.”
The difficulties of starting a build after a long, cold winter don’t stop with hard ground. Wilson says that in these situations clients should plan to significantly increase their budget to pay for equipment wear and tear from chipping through the ice or for the cost associated with thawing the ground enough for earthmovers to get the job done.
“Road restrictions are a big thing, too. There will be a day where it’s 78°F and I’ve got homeowners asking, ‘Hey, how come we don’t get to do any dirt work?’ and ‘Why can’t we bring any machinery or pitrun onsite out there to start with the foundation?” Wilson says.
Early in the season, road restrictions are applied to trucks and truckloads to prevent them from doing significant damage to the thawing road system in the Interior, Wilson explains.
“If road restrictions are 50 percent, 70 percent, or 100 percent, we are limited to putting weight in a truck. I mean, if you really want to spend money we can do it by making multiple small loads, but in residential construction, there’s no money for that,” Wilson says.
Wilson notes that while there is plenty of demand for new homes in the Interior, the way construction is done is different, making it harder for new people to break into the residential sector.
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“We do our foundations differently; we put foam underneath them. A lot of it is just planning on expansion and contraction with doors, windows, and siding,” Wilson says.
“The way we frame is another example. A lot of guys in the [Lower 48] frame 16 inches on center—we do it at 24 inches on center. Structurally, it’s just as good but you can add more insulation.”
Wilson says that when manufacturers say a product is rated for colder temperatures they usually mean it is designed to handle -20°F to -25°F, rather than the -45°F often experienced during Fairbanks’ intense winters.
Double-wall framing is also more common in the Interior than the Lower 48 as yet another way to protect a home from frigid winters, Wilson adds.
With the foundation and framing taken care of, Wilson says that he then brings in plumbing, electrical, and mechanical subcontractors, scheduling them so they don’t interfere with each others’ work when possible.
Because there are more lucrative contracts in the region, general contractors need to build strong relationships with their specialty subcontractors, to avoid timelines collapsing around them, Wilson says.
“There’s tons of work to be done but only a limited number of subcontractors that a general contractor can tap for specialty jobs or for when they’re overbooked and in a pinch,” Wilson says. “You want to keep your sub on your good side. Great generals have great subs.”
Though much is done to provide additional insulation for a home in the Interior, Wilson warns of over insulating, as well.
“Too much insulation can backfire on people because they can end up with mold issues if they don’t have airflow,” Wilson says. “You can make it so tight that it’s like a petri dish, but you’ve got to have that airflow so that all that inside air is getting pushed out so that you’re constantly getting fresh air. Also, the dew point is very important to its relation to where it is. There is a science to building in cold climates. What works in the states doesn’t always work here.”
Levchenko agrees, citing proper winterization and ventilation as one of the primary challenges residential contractors have to overcome that even those in Anchorage don’t have to deal with very often.
“There’s a whole codebook for just Interior Alaska. When building new homes or reconstructing some part of a home, it’s really critical that that step is not being overlooked,” Levchenko says.
Though there’s a lot to be done during the short building season in the Interior, the long days make it possible, Wilson says, noting that sometimes he puts in 16-plus hour days between several build sites.
“We’ve got so much daylight and there’s not a lot of noise ordinance—because you want to be respectful of your neighbors—if you’re building out in the middle of nowhere, you will be working until midnight without worrying about a lighting plan,” Wilson says. “It doesn’t get dark out in the summer so you can work around the clock; you can start early and work as long as you like.”
Of course, long days in a short season can lead to significant overtime, which impacts project budgets.
By the end of the season, the challenges faced by residential general contractors in the Interior are myriad. With additional costs and timeline setbacks quickly taking their toll on a company’s bottom line.
“There’s a lot of soft costs that we absorb,” Wilson explains, before pointing out that it’s all worth it for him.
“I love talking to my clients. And, one thing I love about what I do so much is I get to turn people’s dreams into realities. It’s a lot of fun,” Wilson admits. “The challenging part is balancing out all the work in the summer timeline. Fairbanks and the surrounding areas are amazing in the summer. We have the best summers in the state. Making time to enjoy it with family and friends as well as keeping the ball moving forward makes for a fun balancing act.”