Piece by Piece
This modular bungalow was carried more than 50 miles across the tundra to its final resting place in Utqiaġvik.
Thinking outside the box with modular building
In a state infamous for long, brutal winters and a short building season, it’s the fortunate construction teams who are able to keep busy year-round. From residential projects in Anchorage to remote camps on the North Slope, companies that create modular buildings are some of the fortunate few with the ability to keep at it rain or shine.
“It’s very common for us to be busy building in February; when others lay off all their staff, we’re just kind of plodding along,” Summit Logistics President Michael Repasky says.
Summit Logistics, based out of Fairbanks, has been involved with modular construction since the company was founded in 1982. The business mostly focuses on commercial and industrial spaces rather than retail or residential buildings.
“Have we built modular clinics? Yes. Do we build them every year? No. Have we built modular homes? Yes. Do we build them every year? No. We build office trailers year in and year out. We build modular bathrooms/Envirovacs year in and year out. And then we get a bunch of weird stuff,” Repasky says. “If you can come up with it, we’ve got engineers on site that will design it and build it.”
Summit Logistics fabricated this urinal tree for Chicken Stock, a music festival.
Summit Logistics’ bread and butter is its fleet of office trailers. The primary clients for these modular office spaces are construction and resource extraction industries, such as mining and oil and gas.
“They’re out working remotely, and they need office space for eight or ten people. And that’s why we have a fleet of about sixty modular office trailers that we rent out and sell,” Repasky says. “It’s about an average year, so we’ll have about five or six of them left in the yard at the end of the season.”
The demand for these specific modular buildings isn’t only coming from the resource extraction and construction industries in the state.
The Fairbanks Fire Department, because of COVID-19, needed additional office space to provide ample social distancing. The solution was to place office trailers outside the fire station to give them the extra space they needed, Repasky explains.
“The Smoke Jumpers track and put out fires. They need a mobile operational station each year,” Repasky says. “So they typically rent one or two—if not more—trailers from us each year. They only rent it for three months during fire season, but it’s a needed service that we provide and modular construction works great for it.”
Though the trailers are usually single unit modular facilities, the method behind modular construction is creating prefabricated “boxes” or modules that can be joined/connected onsite to create larger buildings or function as stand-alone facilities.
Because the construction process takes place inside a shop, away from the elements, teams can continue to work year-round.
“In Alaska, with the environment and temperatures being what they are, I’m actually quite surprised that home builders have not converted over to a more modular approach,” Repasky says, before noting that Builders Choice Modular is the largest exception to that idea.
He points out that in the Lower 48, as well as Canada, there are slews of modular building manufacturers focused on residential construction.
“Modular is often more cost-effective to build because tradespeople don’t have to carry their tools to the worksite. You’re building in a controlled environment inside of a building. Materials don’t get wet. Safety and productivity are increased while practically eliminating travel time to and from the site. You don’t have to worry about people coming to your construction site and deciding they like your materials better than you do,” Repasky says.
Repasky explains that the benefits are widely recognized in many parts of the United States. This is especially true in the Northeast where companies can quickly build well-engineered “boxes” that can then be adapted to a client’s needs by adding internal walls wherever necessary because the walls aren’t loadbearing.
“You can actually order a modular home from Canada and have it delivered to Fairbanks,” Repasky says.
Summit Logistics manufactured this blast-proof bathroom made of stainless steel for use in the oil field.
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Barriers to Entry
One of the biggest hurdles to entering the modular construction business in Alaska are the start-up costs associated with getting a manufacturing facility up and running, Repasky says.
Summit Logistics runs a relatively small shop of about 10,000 square feet and got its footing buying workman camps after construction on the Trans Alaska Pipeline System was completed.
Unlike those first years, where the company mostly sold camps off in bits and pieces, Summit Logistics now has a dialed-in process for manufacturing modular buildings, Repasky explains.
The process usually starts with a prospective customer reaching out and explaining what their need is.
“That’s the first step of the process,” Repasky says. “And, usually, there’s a little back and forth because the customer says, ‘I want these fancy dry-erase boards. I want eight inches of spray foam in the walls, and I want four inches of rigid foam on the outside wall,’” he continues. “And we come back and tell them, ‘Okay, yeah, we can totally do all that and this is what the price is. They fall off their chair, they climb back in, and then they’re like okay well how can I get this number down.”
Once a deal is struck, the building specifications are sent to Alaska-stamped professional engineers for approval, though Repasky says that modular construction isn’t breaking new ground.
“These are all well-known, well-established structural requirements, so it’s not rocket science,” Repasky says. “It’s plug and chug for any recent graduate engineer. But we do all the necessary calculations and get all the drawings in order.”
Once approved by the client, the project moves to the shop floor and construction begins.
Because most of Summit Logistics’ projects are in the commercial sector, the team begins with a steel skid and frame to keep the building from being damaged when it’s transported.
“Once the skids are in place and level, we will frame the walls, frame up the floor. We typically use fiberglass insulation just because it’s more cost-effective, but when customers require, we do have high-density polyurethane spray foam capability in-house—it’s whatever people want,” Repasky says.
Unlike larger operations, which can easily turn out a box a day, it takes Summit Logistics’ team a week or two to build a unit depending upon what else is going on in the shop.
Though capable of beating Alaska’s harsh elements and delivering economical solutions for a variety of industries, there are challenges to modular construction in the 49th State.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the biggest financial barriers is transportation. If it’s on the road system in Alaska, modular buildings are extremely competitive with traditional building methods in terms of pricing. However, they get expensive when it’s necessary to transport them to remote destinations.
Shipping a modular building is going to be in the neighborhood of $200 to $300 an hour. If you’ve got a 14-foot-wide building that needs a pilot car, it’s going to be more in the $300 to $350 [range],” Repasky says.
“A lot of the challenge with modular is you’ve got to make sure you have the ability to drop the building where you want it. If you have a real tight lot, well, now you’re going to need a crane and that could be as much as $10,000 a day.”
When comparing modular to more traditional construction methods, it comes down to the site, to the availability of materials, and the availability of labor, Repasky explains.
He says in rural villages—which at times don’t have the skilled labor necessary to build onsite—even once a modular building makes the trip via barge, there won’t necessarily be the equipment needed to move it from the barge to the final destination.
Of course, it’s always possible to load a building up in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft.
“We’ve got buildings that were designed to fit inside a Hercules. They roll them into the airplane, fly where they need to go, and then they unload them,” Repasky says.
However, even without access to a Hercules aircraft, it’s possible to get modular homes to remote locations.
“We built a modular home for a gentleman in Barrow, and that one need to be dragged across the tundra for about 50 miles, so that one had pretty good skid under it,” Repasky says.
The modular nature of such structures means they can be disassembled and moved to other locations, which is important for industries working in remote areas that will need to shift their base of operation every few years, Repasky notes.
Much of Summit Logistics’ output is providing modular office spaces; these are located in Antarctica.
Though modular office spaces make up the vast amount of work at Summit Logistics, the company keeps its team engaged with some off-beat projects, from modules destined for the Antarctic to a blast-proof bathroom.
Those who’ve used a urinal at Chicken Stock, the state’s premier music festival, have taken advantage of Summit Logistics’ recent sponsorship of the event.
“We built them a little urinal tree that has six urinals on it and all the urinals were cut out of kegs,” Repasky says. “So, it’s like a beer recycling center.”
The company sponsored Chicken Stock because Repasky recognized that the event wouldn’t be able to afford even the most basic modular bathroom, which costs tens of thousands of dollars.
Urinal setup in Chicken Stock was far less technical than other modular bathrooms built by Summit Logistics. For one oil and gas client, they were asked to create a blast-proof bathroom.
“They didn’t give us a lot of details. They just said that it’s going in an explosion area so we needed all steel, and we want nothing in there to burn,” Repasky says.
“In terms of other projects, we built a bird cleaning station for Alyeska a handful of years ago. That was all stainless steel on the inside with a self-contained water system, as well as all stainless cabinets top and bottom. That was a pretty cool unit.”
And the modular unit destined for Antarctica was office space for researchers, Repasky says.
Exceptions and Considerations
The various applications of modular buildings make them an ideal solution to many of the challenges faced by companies and homeowners, but they’re not the right solution for all situations.
And Repasky says modular construction is seen in a negative light, especially within the residential sector, primarily due to the less-sound nature of mobile homes of the ‘80s.
“Structurally they’re stronger than a traditional home, but there is definitely a bias. However, modular buildings are actually typically stronger than the traditionally framed ones, largely because there’s a lot more engineering, technical considerations, and hardware. The building has to be able to support itself going 60 miles an hour down the freeway,” Repasky says.
He notes that companies in the Lower 48 are overcoming this bias by creating modular homes that don’t look like modular construction.
“Do a quick internet search: you will find modular homes having five or six sections that can be assembled in a day,” Repasky says. If the commercial sector slows down, Summit Logistics will consider expanding further into the residential sector, he notes.
“If it keeps my guys busy, I’m all over it,” Repasky says. “As a business owner, those are the decisions we get to make.”