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Cold Weather Brings Creative Construction Methods to Alaska

Wed January 21, 2009 - West Edition
Christopher Eshleman -Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) The consummate outdoorsman is familiar with tents.

In Alaska, so are many of your average construction crews. For this is the land where winters grow too cold for comfort and can require…well, a really, really big tent.

So when a big store needs to build an outlet in Fairbanks — pronto — builders here adapt. That often means using those big, plastic, square tents that drivers may have seen pop up on some commercial projects here in recent years.

“Most people try to avoid them because of the cost,” said Paul Gitschel of G2 Construction. His crews spent the past two months working inside the huge plastic box on the north side of the Johansen Expressway.

They’re building a new hotel. The hotel firm hired Gitschel’s company in August and said it wanted to open the hotel in June, leaving him the winter to build and little option but to build in an enclosed, heated space.

Gitschel said the tent is costing him $60,000 to put up and approximately $150,000 a month to heat.

Too costly? Maybe not.

If working in a heated tent makes things more comfortable for workers, it can be a solid investment for a builder, as can a somewhat-related construction “bubble,” which doesn’t require scaffolding framework and can be helped up by air pressure.

Dick Cattanach, a longtime executive with Associated General Contractors of Alaska, said studies show workers’ productivity falls by about 1 percent for each degree below 35 Fahrenheit. So they’re basically working at half-speed once the temperature drops to minus 15.

“If you can put it in (a tent), it costs you something, but your labor productivity goes up significantly,” Cattanach said.

And unless the exterior shell is already built, crews will have trouble pouring concrete or finishing exterior siding work. If the alternative is to miss a tourist season — and the revenue from hotel visits that would come with it — the justification for using a winter construction tent starts to become clear.

When the demand for commercial construction projects grows strong, the available work force might not be there to follow the other alternative — that is, to work even harder in the summer. Often, work crews are already capitalizing on summer seasons with 70-hour workweeks, eliminating the prospect of just “working even harder,” Cattanach said.

“You could double the shift, but you don’t have the labor for it,” he said.

Gitschel has been building in Alaska for more than two decades, starting with the Army and then entering the private sector. He said the enclosed winter construction processes have stayed largely unchanged over time, although the materials used are a little different now.

Tent- or bubble-enclosed construction has become an integral part of building in Alaska, Canada and other U.S. states, said Josh Benally, a specialist with the Fairbanks-based ThyssenKrupp Safway.

Crews doing exterior work in the winter might traditionally use a large blanket of Visqueen, the common plastic sheathing. But that carries its problems — it is inefficient in retaining heat and often develops holes that need to be patched. So for the hotel project, G2 used a special type of plastic, twice as thick and three times as efficient in holding heat.

Traditionally, a commercial construction crew might build the exterior shell of a building during the summer and leave the inside work for the colder season. With the bubble, it can all go up at once.

It wasn’t warm and balmy inside the bubble on a recent trip, more like 40-ish degrees on the inside on the first floor and slightly warmer as one moved up each floor, the result of 14 heaters set up inside near work space.

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