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Transportation and Logistics of Construction
in the North

Technical Series 94-212

Key Messages

  • Special approaches to construction are required in the North to adapt to climate, the shortage of skilled trades, limited local materials, lengthy delivery times and lack of building equipment.
  • Careful planning is essential for everything, including shipping and storage of materials on-site, and availability of building materials, power, labour and accommodation.
  • Advance preparation is important to:
    • allow for compaction and settlement of the site before construction;
    • arrange for winterized equipment.
  • Designs should be:
    • adapted for northern climate and conditions;
    • emphasize local materials and components that can be repaired using local skills.
  • Careful site supervision is essential.

Introduction

In the North, weather plays a dominant role in building design, material transportation and construction. In winter, severely cold temperatures, snow or ice crystals, high winds, and reduced daylight hours make outside work very difficult. Thus, construction work is generally confined to the summer, and careful planning is essential to take full advantage of the short season. Other difficulties include the transportation of construction material and equipment to the site, and locating or importing skilled labour. This factsheet is intended to help designers and contractors to understand the logistics of northern construction in terms of design, material transportation, labour and on-site construction.

Design Considerations

Arctic construction requires careful consideration and planning from the earliest stages of design. Materials and equipment have to be procured early so that they can be transported to the site on time. Whenever possible, the design should make use of local material. Preference should be given to components that can be repaired or replaced using local skills and material. The labour force in remote areas is less accustomed to metric than imperial measurements, so using both imperial and metric on the drawings will prevent confusion.

When designing for the North, the designer must be aware of the climatic conditions and building requirements, and also must be fully aware of the availability of power and equipment. Drawings must be explicit and clearly understood by all parties concerned; designers, contractors, clients and tenants. For prefabricated houses, erection instructions are essential. Production details, and component and appliance specifications, should be explicitly spelled out in the contract. It should be thorough and include notes on allowances for substitutions. Unsuitable substitutions, especially for items such as furnaces, have resulted in serious problems causing extra costs to adapt the unit provided, or for replacement with a suitable unit.

Minimizing costs is important but not at the expense of good design, proper materials and sound construction. A life-cycle costing approach will help make better decisions.

Material Transportation

Most areas in the Arctic lack local suppliers of building materials such as wood, steel and cement; therefore such materials must be imported. Even granular fill or gravel for foundations is limited in some communities. As local supplies are consumed, these materials will have to be transported from further away. In many instances, equipment required to erect the building must be transported great distances. Items such as cranes, forklifts, scaffolding or even ladders may not be readily available. Marshalling and shipping charges can account for approximately 20% of the total construction cost in the High Arctic.

Transportation Routes

Roads, waterways and air are the three main routes for transport of people and materials to the Arctic. The availability of these different modes of transportation is dependent upon the location of the community and the time of year. For materials, the most cost effective method of transportation will be determined by the community location, distance, and weight and size of the shipment.

Roads

Roads servicing the Arctic are primarily located in the Yukon and the Mackenzie District of the NWT. Most roads are gravel-surfaced but some major highways have stretches of paved or bituminous-treated surfaces. Although the majority of roads are all-weather, delays may be encountered in poor weather conditions. Winter roads provide access to some communities whose only other option would be air service. In some locations, ferry crossings are an integral part of the road system. These ferry crossings are forced to close each year for two- to six-week periods during the spring break-up (March to May) and fall freeze-up (October to December). Ice bridges are used in the winter to traverse these crossings. Rates for transportation of materials depend on the size of the shipment and the class of goods.

Marine Transportation

The western portion of the NWT is serviced by the Mackenzie River. It is usually open for barge sailing between break-up and freeze-up (June to mid-November) with the length of the shipping season varying from north to south. In addition to the short shipping season, navigation problems on the waterway include low water levels (particularly in the fall), rapids, ice conditions and decreasing daylight in the fall. On average, the sailing time between Hay River and Tuktoyaktuk is approximately 16 days.

Communities in the Beaufort Sea area, including coastal points and islands as far east as Spence Bay, are served by ocean vessels. The freight is moved up the Mackenzie where it is transferred to ship at Tuktoyaktuk.

For those communities along the west coast of Hudson Bay in the Keewatin district, freight is shipped by rail north to Churchill and then transferred by barges to the various communities.

For eastern Arctic communities, transportation of materials is provided via a sealift, with the main marshalling area located in Montreal. The first shipment leaves Montreal mid-July with the last ship returning at the end of October.

Air

There is scheduled service to most communities and charter service to just about anywhere. In general, air service is used to transport people, perishable items and emergency supplies.

Rail

The Great Slave Lake Railway was built in 1965 to service the lead-zinc mine at Pine Point. It connects Pine Point to Hay River, then travels south to Grimshaw, Alberta. Northbound commercial freight is shipped to Hay River and then transferred to barges on the Mackenzie River.

Material Handling

Crates are normally used to protect materials and facilitate handling. Materials may be exposed to rain or snow and may be handled numerous times and with different equipment before reaching the final destination. The more finished or fragile the material or component, the more substantial the crating must be to protect it from the rigors of Arctic shipping.

The size and weight of the crates must be limited to what available handling equipment can accommodate. Port facilities and wharfs in the Arctic are almost non-existent. In most cases, the cargo is unloaded from the ship onto landing barges and these barges are then run up onto the beach. The ship's crane must be able to unload the cargo onto the barge and the equipment on shore must be able to off load from the barge. Materials and equipment must then be moved to the site using available transportation systems. Finally, all supplies must be able to be removed from the transport equipment as well as moved about the site.

The crates should be clearly marked and colour coded. Whenever possible, materials belonging to the same trade should be packaged together. The material lists should be rechecked in the marshalling yards and extra copies of the lists provided. A loading schedule should be prepared so that items that are needed at the beginning of construction are unloaded first on site.

A material layout plan, usually based on a grid system, should be prepared prior to unloading and set out in such a manner that double handling of materials on site is unnecessary. The stockpiles of materials should be made so that wind can pass between them to prevent snow accumulation, and set on granular material so that packages, equipment and pallets do not freeze to the ground. These stockpiles should be marked with flags and numbers to facilitate identification if covered by drifting snow. Items that would be damaged by freezing should be stored in a warm, dry area.

All items should be checked for major damage immediately after arrival. Due to the short construction season, damaged materials are often repaired and used rather than delaying construction and incurring expensive air freight for replacement material.

Construction

Labour Supply

Construction in the Arctic requires high quality supervision. In the past, the local contracting firms were usually oriented toward road building, haulage or site preparation for industries rather than building construction. Therefore, skilled local building tradespeople are difficult to locate. Recently in some areas, an effort has been made to upgrade skills through energy efficient housing training programs.

Savings in transportation and accommodation costs can be realized with the use of local labour. However, to avoid difficulties and to optimize the utilization of labour, a contractor should understand cultural differences between workers. Other problems may include racial prejudice and communication difficulties. If imported southern labour is used, it is advantageous to use workers who are experienced with building in the Arctic. When planning to use southern labour, the cost of air travel and accommodation at site must be taken into consideration.

Instead of stick building at site, it may be more efficient to use prefabricated components or even sectional or modular units so that the final assembly and connections can be made on site with fewer skilled trades. Normally the best designs are those that are quick and easy to erect.

Site Construction

The site should be prepared before the materials arrive. Normally the gravel pad is installed at least a year prior to construction to allow for proper compaction and settlement. All concrete work should be done as quickly as possible. It is also important to get the structure closed in as quickly as possible.

All tools and equipment must be maintained in good and safe working order. Construction equipment must be adapted for Arctic use. Ordinary winterization will allow gasoline fuelled equipment to start and operate down to -29C (-20 F) while diesel equipment will operate to around -18C (0 F). In colder conditions, specialized Arctic winterization aids are required. It is necessary to carry an inventory of essential parts for equipment. Preference should be given to equipment that uses identical component parts or to multi-purpose equipment.

It is best to keep working groups small; too many people lead to unproductive time. The foreman should schedule all the work so that each trade follows along in the proper sequence; overlapping trades on site can lead to chaos and sub trade extras. Looped operations, where subcontractors must halt work before finishing and then return at a later time to complete it, should be eliminated. Daily meetings should be held to discuss problems. A daily log of weather conditions or problems which occur during erection has proven to be helpful. Insist on, and inspect for, quality workmanship; less than this will only add to deficiencies and overruns in repair costs. Safe construction methods must always be employed.

Any work performed should be explicitly and clearly described in the contract documents. The client should receive a work schedule and be kept advised of progress. If any problems occur, discuss them with the client promptly to get clarification and direction in writing before proceeding with the work. If the client is requesting significant changes to the building, the costs should be negotiated immediately so that there are no misunderstandings. The client should also be notified and the costs assessed for any delays beyond your control. If the job site must be closed down before construction is finished, inform the client in writing that the site is being vacated and have the client provide written acknowledgement.

Sufficient lead time must be given for inspections by municipal or other authorities. Keep all copies of forms on file and make sure that they are signed. At the end of each day, survey the site to ensure that all materials are secured to prevent any losses.

Conclusion

Due to climatic conditions, lack of building materials and remoteness of sites, construction in the Arctic requires careful planning. Research regarding the site should include: local climatic conditions (temperatures, wind, daylight availability); availability of building materials, equipment, power, labour and accommodations; and schedules and costs for transport of people and material. This essential pre-planning, along with a dwelling designed for Arctic conditions and careful site supervision during construction will help to ensure a better building for the North.

Resources

Building in the North - Responding to the Environment. Canadian Arctic Gas Study Limited, 1976.

Design Guidelines and Technology for Northern Housing Construction. Indian and Northern Affairs. Ottawa, 1983.

Examples of Housing Construction in the North. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Ottawa, 1987.

Lynch, D.A., Building in the Arctic: Private Approach. The Northern Engineer, 14,1 (1982).

Man in the North Technical Paper - Conference on Building in Northern Communities: 1973. The Arctic Institute of North America. Montreal, 1973.

Man in the North Technical Paper - Building in Northern Communities: 1974. The Arctic Institute of North America. Montreal, 1974.

Nadeau, Jack. Personal interview. 1991.

Remote and Northern Energy-Efficient House Design Catalogue. Energy, Mines and Resources. Ottawa, 1989.


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