Modular Buildings: Roofs over Remote Sites
Construction season in Alaska is short, and many sites—such as oilfields and logging camps—are extremely remote. Shipping in the materials needed to build traditional offices, workforce accommodations, repair facilities, and even military installations can be expensive and time consuming, causing delays in the construction process.
For this reason, many industries turn to modular facilities. These types of buildings are prefabricated using the same materials and designed to the same codes as conventionally built facilities. They can be shipped anywhere they are needed and assembled on-site.
“The durability, ease of setup, and the ability to quickly relocate our modular buildings has made them the perfect solution for many industries operating in cold and hot climates around the world,” explains Carolyn Bishop, director of commercial programs at Alaska Structures, whose engineered fabric buildings were the first of their kind to be used by oil and gas companies operating on the North Slope. “Modular buildings can be used for any purpose for which you would use a typical building.”
Saving Time and Money
Modular building construction can describe any number of prefabricated building systems, which can include metal buildings, container buildings, fabric buildings, concrete buildings, panelized wood buildings, and jobsite trailers.
According to the Modular Building Institute, because construction can occur simultaneously with site and foundation work, projects can be completed 30 to 50 percent sooner than with traditional construction. This type of construction also mitigates the risk of weather delays, as 60 to 90 percent of construction is completed inside a factory. Because buildings can be occupied sooner, they also create a faster return on investment.
“Traditional construction in Alaska does offer a number of unique challenges—especially finding the right kind of labor, at the right place, at the right time. Because the building season is super short, you can have a crew on-site, but, once the snow starts falling, it’s not cost-effective,” says Michael Repasky, president of Summit Logistics in Fairbanks. “I can build year-round, finish a project in winter, and ship it out when the snow is gone. From a cost standpoint in rural areas, modular buildings are often more cost-effective.”
The interior of workforce housing built with the Denali Building System by Alaska Structures.
Modular construction also removes approximately 80 percent of the building construction activity from the site location, reducing disruption and construction traffic and improving overall safety and security. This can be especially important in the education and healthcare industries, where on-site activity needs to be minimized.
Depending on the complexity of a project, buildings can be completed in months—or even faster.
“We work with our clients on designing what they need and, in some cases, can create a building design in a few days. Other times, we’re working with a 100-page print deck which requires a lot more engineering to meet that specific application,” says Repasky. “Timewise, we have gone from the initial contract to shipping a building out in eight days, though a typical project takes two to four weeks.”
While Summit Logistics works within clients’ budgets, Repasky notes that most projects are less focused on cost but on whether they can be done at all.
“In a lot of the communities where our buildings go, there’s no lodging available for people to stay in, so it’s not practical to house a crew,” he says. “It’s often more cost effective to fabricate the building here and have it helicoptered into place or barged in and dragged into place with a large loader or forklift.”
Repasky adds, laughing, “We had four buildings built on skis that were dragged 150 miles across the tundra. The shipping bill on that was ugly. Many times, our clients are less concerned with cost and more focused on whether we can make it happen.”
At Alaska Structures in Anchorage, more than 375,000 square feet of manufacturing space lets that firm design modular buildings that meet clients’ timelines and budgets.
“The prices of our modular fabric buildings vary depending on the engineering and customization options required to meet our customers’ building needs,” says Bishop. “Typically, an engineered fabric building from Alaska Structures is competitive with other high-performance building solutions, though in locations with extreme conditions (high winds, heavy snow loads, seismic areas, et cetera), an engineered fabric building can be more expensive than a typical construction method.”
Because these structures have minimal foundation requirements, their installation requires less pre-construction site work.
“Our modular buildings do not require a concrete foundation—we offer many anchoring solutions to secure our modular buildings to virtually any level surface safely,” says Bishop, adding that upon delivery, the modular buildings are set up in a fraction of the time compared to other “instant structures.”
Easy-to-follow instructions allow non-skilled labor to assemble the modular building systems, eliminating the need for expensive technicians or supervisors. The buildings can also be quickly taken down and relocated, unlike other prefabricated structures such as metal buildings, wood structures, and precast or tilt-up concrete buildings.
“Our modular buildings are virtually maintenance-free, unlike the constant upkeep required of steel buildings or wood-built structures,” Bishop adds, noting that they can also be easily expanded or reconfigured, should the needs of a business change.
Customization for Clients
In Alaska, modular construction is used in industries ranging from construction to mining, mineral exploration, energy, manufacturing, transportation, environmental remediation, military, government, medical, education, and research.
“Our rapidly deployable modular buildings and remote camp systems are used to create ‘mini-cities’ in remote locations by the US military, NATO, and Allied Forces, and mining, mineral exploration, oil and gas, and construction companies,” says Bishop, adding that Alaska Structures has custom-designed, manufactured, and delivered more than 65,000 modular building systems to more than eighty-five countries since its inception.
In addition to designing, engineering, and producing high-performance buildings ranging from dining and athletic facilities to hotel-like workforce accommodations and jobsite offices, the company produces many support systems that enhance usability and comfort. These include rugged and portable military-spec HVAC systems, plug-and-play lighting and electrical systems, power generation and distribution systems, proprietary insulation systems capable of meeting any R-value, modular flooring systems, and soft- and hard-wall partition systems.
Summit Logistics’ in-house engineering staff specializes in remote site and extreme weather applications.
For example, Repasky says, “Right now in the shop, we have a washeteria that’s going up to the Toolik Field Station. We also have four or five 20-foot shipping containers that have been converted into an observatory that’s shipping to Finland.” Repasky adds that Summit Logistics custom designs buildings according to client specifications. “Several years ago, we built research stations for Antarctica, and we’ve also designed guard shacks, laboratories, sleepers, office trailers, kitchens, docking modules, and emergency (typically oil spill) response units,” he says.
Repasky says that Summit Logistics makes a concentrated effort to help guide its clients to solutions that will meet the goals that they’re trying to achieve.
“Our customers call and speak with an engineer, not a salesperson,” he says, adding that multiple engineers on staff have more than twenty years of experience. “Once we’ve had these conversations, we’ll design what they’ve asked for and then have a couple more rounds of design modifications to make sure that all of their needs are met.”
Bishop says that Alaska Structures, like a conventional engineering firm, works hand-in-hand with its clients.
“Unlike other building suppliers that can quickly provide a cost-per-square-foot without knowing where or how the building will be used or what loads it needs to meet for safety, we take a very different approach to creating a modular building,” she says. “We start by gaining an in-depth understanding of the project to learn how and where our modular buildings will be used. We also discuss the area-specific wind and snow loads that the structure must withstand. We take this information and the client’s requirements and customization options to custom design and engineer a one-of-a-kind modular building solution.”
With the solution drafted, Bishop says, “Designs and pricing information are then sent to the client for review and approval. Once approved, the building is manufactured, prepared, and shipped to the client.”
But Will It Hold Up?
A common perception about modular buildings is that they cannot withstand prolonged exposure to extreme conditions.
“Jobsite trailers and non-engineered structures are a dime a dozen, and they deteriorate quickly when subjected to constant high winds, extreme hot and cold climates, high solar loads, or corrosive sea spray without continuous upkeep,” says Bishop. “Unfortunately, these types of modular building solutions have tarnished the industry.”
However, there are alternatives. Bishop says, “The saying, ‘You get what you pay for,’ comes into play when you are considering purchasing a modular building and need a solution capable of withstanding harsh or life-threatening conditions.”
Alaska Structures’ modular buildings are custom-designed and engineered to meet area-specific wind and snow loads required by local or international building codes for safety and long-lasting durability against extreme weather conditions.
“We continually improve upon the design and materials of our modular building systems,” says Bishop. “Our tensioned fabric membranes are capable of withstanding temperatures from -80°F to 130°F, offer a greater abrasion resistance than other PE- or PVC-based fabrics, will not rot, and are mold- and mildew-resistant.”
The building’s materials are also chemically inert for the safe use and storage of corrosive chemicals, have less than a two-inch flame spread, and feature a proprietary method for stabilizing the fabric membrane against high solar loads and prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light. Depending on the engineering required and a customer’s need for portability, Alaska Structures offers high-strength frame systems in aluminum and galvanized steel and offers powder-coated frame systems for improved resistance against corrosion, especially in coastal areas with sea spray.
Bishop adds that the company now also produces containerized building solutions that use the same power systems, quick-connect hoses, and plug-and-play electrical connections to quickly and easily provide hard-wall modular buildings to remote sites already using systems from Alaska Structures.
“As long as the buildings are designed properly, they can stand up to the elements as well or better than traditional structures,” says Repasky of modular buildings. “In terms of the construction itself, they are often built stronger, as they may get dragged across the ground or picked up and put on the back of a truck. These are 60-foot, 35,000-pound buildings that are designed to travel down the road at 50 mph.”
Summit Logistics’ modular units can be efficiently constructed year-round in its factory and shipped to the jobsite, allowing for concurrent preparation of the pad and other on-site services.
Repasky notes that the “devil is in the details,” as modular buildings are designed so that they can bend and flex. “There will be a certain amount of movement with these buildings, so if you use drywall, for example, it pops all the joints. We use H-channel to allow it to flex. There are also some roofing and siding materials that can’t be used on these buildings; for example, vinyl siding will blow off when it’s being driven down the road.”
Repasky says Summit Logistics builds with transportability in mind. “If you’re building a residential home that is only taking one trip 10 miles down the road, that’s very different than building an office trailer or complex that gets loaded on a truck two or three times a year for fifteen years,” he says. “You’ll find parts of badly designed buildings strewn across the freeway if it’s not made using the right materials.”
While there’s always been a strong demand for modular buildings to use in the industrial/commercial sector, a growing market is in residential construction. The design of buildings has also changed as specs have become more technically advanced, including more acoustic insulation, for example.
“Five years ago, we didn’t do STC [sound transmission class] ratings for doors and walls; today’s projects tend to sway toward complexity,” says Repasky.
Right now, his company has more modular building work than they can handle. “Like any tool in a toolbox,” Repasky says, “modular buildings have their place.”
Architecture & Engineering Special Section + Small Business
In the February 2024 issue of Alaska Business, we engineered a special section that inspects the many ways architecture and engineering enrich our lives, from creating beautiful and functional spaces to crafting functional and safe transportation corridors. In addition to the built world in which we live, this issue celebrates small businesses and the many functions they provide, whether they're developing tools in the healthcare industry or opening new dining locations.