Expedited Construction: ‘It Just Has to Get Done’
Alaska’s builders approach critical projects with speed and attention to detail
Any Alaskan can tell you we have four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction. It’s a well-worn joke, but it encapsulates the outsized role weather plays when scheduling construction projects across the state, and why, whenever feasible, there’s a push to get as much work done as possible during the short summer season.
And while weather-related concerns may be the most common reason construction projects are expedited, they’re far from the only factor.
“There are a lot of things that can be a driver for us to get on an expedited build,” says Tim Finnigan, president of Ahtna Global, Ahtna Infrastructure & Technologies, and Ahtna Environmental—all subsidiaries of Ahtna, Inc.
Economic and financial considerations, government funding cycles, market timing, even politics can cause construction projects to be fast-tracked. An expedited timeline is usually built into the project from the start, letting contractors factor an accelerated pace into their bid and plan accordingly.
“When you have a tight deadline, you don’t have the freedom or the luxury to take it easy when conditions are less than ideal and really ramp up when you have ideal conditions. You ultimately just go as hard as you have to until it’s done. Come weather, come illness, what have you, it just has to get done.”
Occasionally, though, something unexpected pops up during construction, temporarily derailing the project and, ultimately, shortening the construction window while crews deal with the snafu.
Regardless of whether the expedited timeline is planned from the beginning or comes as a surprise, from a contractor’s perspective the end result is the same.
“You can think of it as all the same amount of work needs to get done, but it needs to be done in a shorter period of time,” says Jed Shandy, vice president of Davis Constructors & Engineers in Anchorage.
Planned, Expedited Projects
“I can’t really think of a certain customer that is always, always in an emergency to get things done,” says Tim Gould, president of Ahtna Engineering Services and Ahtna Solutions, also subsidiaries of Ahtna. “Some have a range of needs; sometimes they’re in a big hurry, sometimes they’re not.”
Instead, whether a project is accelerated hinges more on the client’s needs as it relates to the individual project, as opposed to the client itself, explains Justin McVaney, cost estimator with Cornerstone General Contractors.
“Every project is different because every client is different,” he says. “Their goals and objectives are different.”
Economic and financial considerations can determine whether a construction project will be fast-tracked. Completing a project quickly often makes financial sense, though, depending on whether the client is a public or private entity, the financial incentives vary. New construction for hotels, for example, is usually fast-tracked to safeguard that the project’s completion date coincides with the start of the summer tourist season.
“Up here in Alaska, we have an ideal time to open a hotel, and we have a lot of other times that aren’t exactly ideal,” McVaney says. “So it would be really good to open your hotel right before all the tourists start showing up; not so great, say, in October. So market timing is definitely a factor.”
For private clients who are financing a project with construction loans, completing work as quickly as possible–even if doing so increases overall costs–makes sense in the long-term.
“Private clients tend to be the ones who are bigger rushes because they’re dealing with the economics of financing, and the faster they can convert to long-term financing, the better,” Shandy explains. “When you’re in construction financing, [lenders] charge higher interest rates because there’s more risk—risk it could collapse before it’s finished, a risk the contractor could go broke. Once it’s a completed project, it’s much less risky to the lender, and the rates go down dramatically.”
An Ahtna construction crew pours concrete.
The economics of COVID-19 have also influenced construction timelines, as companies push to keep Alaskans working and the economy from stagnating.
“One of the biggest reasons that we’re fast-tracking projects, especially right now, is the economic basis,” Shandy says. “We’re looking to make sure the construction keeps going through the COVID [pandemic]. And that’s not just exclusive to COVID, but when there’s a natural disaster we like to fast-track projects that were already slated.”
Minimizing the impact on a building’s occupants can also dictate compressed construction timelines. Renovations to school buildings are a good example, McVaney says. An end-of-summer completion date was a built-in objective of Cornerstone’s contract with the Anchorage School District to repair earthquake damage at Gruening Middle School in Eagle River.
“The school district would like to be open for the school year, and that’s a hard date—you either hit it or you don’t,” he says. “Naturally, we are trying our best to approach that project in such a way that we can meet that timeline.”
Other times, construction is expedited because the project is integral to the client’s overall objectives. Earlier this year, Ahtna expedited emergency repairs to a client’s pier to ensure continued fuel deliveries.
“If the fuel barge couldn’t get in, the client would need to bring in fuel from another method, which would be air,” Finnigan says. “That would have been very, very expensive.”
Even the best-laid plans can’t account for unforeseen problems; and, if they’re significant enough, they can halt work on the primary project, requiring a resolution before work can proceed. But original deadlines can’t always be extended to accommodate any additional work associated with complications, leaving contractors with less time overall to complete the project.
“Obviously, there’s always the issue we get into a project and then some unforeseen condition creates a delay,” McVaney says. “But the end date of the project is still firm and fast and doesn’t really move much.”
Environmental contaminants are one of the most common reasons crews suddenly find themselves stalled on a project that was progressing normally. Strict regulatory guidelines govern the process of remediating the specific hazard as well as proper disposal methods, Shandy says.
“Environmental issues require expediting for obvious reasons,” he explains. “The longer the [hazard] remains unrepaired, the greater the harm it does to the environment.”
Davis Constructors & Engineers found itself in just such a situation during a 2018 utilidor project at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks. Construction stopped while crews worked to remove contaminated material from the job site and dispose of it in the appropriate landfill, all within the 90 day deadline.
The unexpected clean-up not only forced Davis Constructors & Engineers to postpone the start date for pouring concrete but required crews to work through the winter, creating more work—and increasing costs—to make sure the project was completed by the spring deadline.
“When you have a time-sensitive project, you do need to gear up and figure out how you’re going to deliver that so you can pull it off. Typically, those projects we absolutely must deliver… take a lot of planning, especially on remote work.”
“Instead of pouring a mile of concrete utiliduct [during the summer], we ended up pouring from October to February,” Shandy says. “We paid to build a bubble around the concrete plant and poured concrete all winter long.”
But postponing the project until spring, when the ground thawed, wasn’t an option.
“There were thirteen projects that were tying into that utility structure, and they were all scheduled to receive services when we were done,” he explains. “It’s a lot worse to be late on your contracts than it is to be done early.”
Projects to repair damage caused by natural disasters are often also completed on an expedited timeframe.
“Those don’t come with any schedule attached,” Gould says. “We don’t get too many hurricanes, but we get earthquakes, and we get other natural disaster-type stuff, and all of a sudden you just jump into action and get to work immediately. Those kinds of things, really the schedule’s out the window. You just get it done as rapidly as you can.”
Issues beyond the construction site itself can also sometimes wreak havoc on a project. Davis Constructors & Engineers was working on a fast-track project slated to be completed by April until supply chain issues created by COVID-19 stopped work; the temporary halt in construction will ultimately shorten the timeframe to complete the project.
“The [client] has a large pipeline of furniture supplied from China, specifically the Wuhan area,” Shandy says. “So, they had to stall construction because they wouldn’t get the furnishings in time.”
Working Faster, Working Smarter
The obvious solution to completing a project quickly is to infuse it with additional cash.
“Add money and you can go faster, right?” Gould says. “We add more equipment, we add more crew. To the degree that you can get all that done in concert, you can reduce the schedule. The faster you want to go, the more money you may spend.”
Outfitting the worksite with equipment tailored to the type of work being performed and the terrain it’s being performed on can help get things done quickly.
“We do certain types of projects where we do have specialized equipment focused on the geography,” Gould says. He goes on to explain that when working in the Aleutian Islands, for example, the company needs a special type of dump truck equipped with tracks instead of wheels so it doesn’t sink into the tundra.
“We have actually designed and fabricated certain equipment that makes us move dirt faster,” he says.
“Private clients tend to be the ones who are bigger rushes because they’re dealing with the economics of financing, and the faster they can convert to long-term financing, the better. When you’re in construction financing, [lenders] charge higher interest rates because there’s more risk–risk it could collapse before it’s finished, a risk the contractor could go broke. Once it’s a completed project it’s much less risky to the lender, and the rates go down dramatically.”
Though it may not be the most economical solution, keeping specialized equipment onsite can also help crews complete a project faster.
“You may not use anything more specialized, but you may have three area lifts instead of two, and they may be used 60 percent of the time rather than 80 percent of the time,” Shandy explains. “They’re less efficient, but nobody ever has to wait for one.”
But any equipment is only as good as the person operating it, so a skilled workforce is vital when working on time-sensitive projects.
“Obviously when you have more hammers you can drive more nails,” McVaney says. “But behind every hammer, there’s a person, and so it really just always comes back to the people.”
Finnigan agrees that employing the right people is essential to expediting projects.
“For us, it’s the personnel that is multi-skilled and multi-talented,” he says. “Our guys are the type that can go out to a job site and do abatement, tear down the buildings. They can jump in a piece of equipment and do the civil work, then they put their tool belts on and do the vertical work. I think that’s a key that allows us to get things done faster and better.”
A multi-talented, multi-skilled workforce is key to expediting construction projects.
Keep the Ball Rolling
Detailed planning is necessary to keep any construction project running smoothly and on time. It becomes even more important when that project is expedited.
“When you have a time-sensitive project, you do need to gear up and figure out how you’re going to deliver that so you can pull it off,” Gould says. “Typically, those projects we absolutely must deliver… take a lot of planning, especially on remote work.”
Ideally, whether the project is time-sensitive or completed on a normal timeline, contractors prefer to be involved in the design and planning process from the beginning, McVaney says. Early involvement gives them time to build relationships with project leads and allows for scope revisions if design elements or proposed materials would make it difficult to complete the project on time. But that isn’t always the case.
“Ultimately, as a contractor, we’re subject to the procurement method that the owner is using,” he explains.