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Preference for prefab.

Preference For Prefab

Modules, panels and precut kits can make building a snap.

Imagine you're a foreman at a remote construction site in rural Alaska. You and your crew are trying to erect a building, but you're battling a wind that's gusting at 40 or 50 miles per hour. Compound that problem with the frustrations of a harsh climate and geographic distance, and you'll begin to understand why prefabricated buildings are advocated in Alaska's building industry.

Once viewed with disdain as ticky-tacky structures, prefab homes and buildings are now sought as practical alternatives to traditional construction. In many cases, Alaskan contractors can eliminate on-site construction by opting for ready-to-go modules, can reduce sky-high heating bills by specifying highly insulated prefab panels, or can fast-forward a tight construction schedule by ordering and assembling a bundled set of building panels.

We all know Rome wasn't built in a day, but according to Harry Purcell, owner and president of Arctic Camps and Equipment of Anchorage, a supplier of prefabricated structures, some panel homes can be built almost that quickly. Building contractors can choose from a variety of prefab options that meet standard building codes.

A familiar type of prefab is the packaged, do-it-yourself, precut building. Many log and cedar homes are made from such kits, which contain factory-cut materials packaged for specific designs.

Panel buildings offer a prefab alternative to conventional stud-frame construction. The large panels, commonly with built-in insulation, are used as exterior walls, roofs, and flooring. Panels may be purchased unfinished or with a range of interior and exterior finishes.

Contractors often use the prefabricated panels for selected building components, such as the roof or the walls, while using conventional construction methods on the rest of the building. Prefinished and insulated sandwich panels may be attached to the building's structural framework, usually a steel frame in commercial or industrial building projects.

Panel-component and other kinds of partially prefab buildings also are known as pre-engineered structures. According to Bob McCormack, operations manager of Western Alaska Contractors of Anchorage, the largest pre-engineered building in Alaska was erected at the remote Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue. The structure, which is 1,500 feet by 275 feet, serves as the mine's ore concentrate shed.

Yet another prefab type is the module. Modular units are completely finished and assembled before being transported to their sites. Sometimes individual modules travel to the site, where they are fastened together to form a larger structure -- a building-block construction method that seems to borrow ingenuity from sandbox engineers.

Part of Anchorage's Clarion Hotel was assembled in just this fashion. The guest rooms arrived separately and were fastened together on site, joining the hotel's lobbies and other building elements that were constructed the old-fashioned way, from start to finish on site.

From these broad categories -- precut, panel, module -- spring a multitude of systems, often known by trade or company-specific brand names. Says McCormack, "If the bid specs for a project say a certain building system, then you can't compete well if you don't handle that system regularly."

It's not surprising to learn that prefabs destined for Alaskan sites must meet higher standards than those used at Outside sites. McCormack explains that in the Lower 48, buildings are normally expected to bear a snow load of 10 to 40 pounds per square foot.

In Alaska, comparable structures are designed for loads of 150 pounds per square foot. Strength tests are even tougher in the Aleutian Chain, where buildings also must withstand winds buffeting the islands at more than 100 miles per hour.

Spiked Demand. The oil boom gave premanufactured buildings a big boost in Alaska during the 1970s, when multiplying work crews needed living quarters and recreation facilities. Modules made by Atco Structures Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian corporation, met the sudden need. Manufactured outside Alaska, they were transported to Prudhoe Bay and pipeline sites.

Since then a number of Alaskan prefab building manufacturers have sprouted up. Says Arctic Camp's Purcell, "We (Alaskans) are correcting the lack of prefabricated building in Alaska. Alaskan companies, such as Veco, are bidding more on contracts for smaller buildings."

In 1987, Veco launched a "made in Alaska" prefab venture. During the next three years, Veco fabricated modules, mostly for oil companies, at a leased site near the port of Anchorage. Today and 30 modules later, the company has moved the operation to a large, enclosed module fabrication shop in South Anchorage.

Says Rick Smith, general manager of marketing and sales for Veco International, "Veco is the only contractor with a facility dedicated to this purpose in the state. Veco went out on a limb for this." Although there are other firms manufacturing similar structures in the state, they run multipurpose facilities, he explains.

Arco Alaska, one of Veco's clients, departed from tradition when it began awarding module-construction contracts to local fabricators. According to Kathleen Schoen, Arco fabrication manager for Kuparuk, Arco realized proximity would yield several benefits, notably reduced costs and transportation time, and the availability of Alaskan labor and contractors.

Modules built in Portland, Oreg., for instance, must travel at least three weeks by barge to Alaska before completing the last leg of their journey in the state. By opting for modules originating in Alaska, contractors can tighten up their building schedules by three weeks and reduce both freight costs and the risk of damage to the units en route.

Truckable modules such as those Veco manufactures for Arco and other companies offer obvious advantages. Schoen notes greater scheduling flexibility, particularly the control over transportation, is a big plus in purchasing Alaska-made modules. The trip from Anchorage to the North Slope via the Dalton Highway can take from one to three weeks, depending on weather and road conditions. Every load needs a state permit and must be coordinated with police and utility agencies.

Road restrictions determine the maximum size of a truckable module. Veco's latest modules, destined for Arco Alaska's Kuparuk 3E drill site, weigh about 80 tons each. But if a restriction keeps a module off the road, it's not likely to be weight related. Says Mac McKee, vice president of construction for Veco Environmental and Professional Services, "It's the Nenana Bridge." Cross-members on the bridge restrict the height of truckable modules to less than 14 and a half feet.

Particularly for a very large building or when site access is limited, panels or pre-engineered structures are more practical alternatives than modules. The building's component parts can be shipped in bundles by barge or air.

Building with prefab panels is popular in Bush communities, and several Alaskan firms are serving this market. Aiming for a bigger share of residential and construction-camp building, Arctic Camps and Equipment is expanding its operations. The company recently bought out a Wisconsin panel manufacturer to augment its small Palmer plant.

Purcell says, "I figure we can produce as cheaply here as they can in Wisconsin. Freight for Oregon lumber costs no more to Alaska than to Wisconsin." The company is looking for a larger building to accommodate the newly acquired equipment.

Heat Restraint. During harsh winters in the Bush, insulation can rein in high heating fuel costs. Builders in Alaska and Outside have found they can beat back the cold with prefabricated panels of high energy efficiency.

Phil Reynolds, co-owner of panel-fabricator Alchem Inc., says, "Prefab panelized construction with a high R-value is at a turning point nationwide. We've seen a big shift within the last year. We're now beginning to see architects and engineers take notice of the energy concept and design it into mainstream buildings. There's a greater public awareness of energy efficiency."

Western Insulfoam Inc., in Anchorage, sells a panel with an expanded-polystyrene foam core laminated to exterior sheets of particle board. Western Insulfoam currently manufactures the product at its Kent, Wash., plant. But the company plans to produce the panels in Anchorage once the economy "heats up," according to Scott Sherritt, Western Insulfoam's Anchorage branch manager.

An Anchorage plant expansion also is in the works, he adds. New lamination facilities will complement the company's current foam-molding equipment.

"Alaska is a natural place for this kind of system," says Sherritt. Since Western Insulfoam began marketing its insulated panels in Alaska three years ago, the product has found its way into many residential and industrial/commercial building projects, including the roofs of eight 8,000-square-foot warehouses at Eielsen Air Force Base near Fairbanks.

Another market the company is targeting is Native housing in the Bush. Sherritt says, "Other companies' systems are now used in the Bush, but we're starting to make some inroads."

One successful competitor is Alchem, a family-owned Anchorage business that has manufactured foamcore panels for the past 20 years. Primarily found in outlying communities, Alchem's panel buildings run the gamut of residential, commercial, and industrial structures. They include homes in Bush communities; the Tanana Valley Community College building; the Kotzebue Armory; the Whittier gymnasium and multipurpose building; and airline terminal buildings at Deadhorse, Barrow, and St. Mary's.

Unlike Western Insulfoam's product, Alchem panels for floors, roofs and walls are composed of a urethane foam core sandwiched between plywood facings. The foam core thickness varies according to customer specifications, depending on the R-value needed. FHA approval was granted in 1970 for use of a urethane core panel system in homes.

Alchem also holds U.S. and Canadian patents on its "no thru wood" panel. This product reduces heat loss by eliminating the heat-conducting wood studs that normally are found within structural panels. The patented panels are used on roofs to maximize heat retention, says Reynolds.

Alchem can produce building component panels or custom-designed kits for complete buildings. Once a project work order enters the Alchem shop, the job is handled entirely in house, from the design and building specifications, to the actual construction and banding of the finished product for shipping. Doors and windows are installed in the panel at the shop, before shipment. The panel's outer skin can vary from plywood to metal to a Fiberglas laminate, all of which are applied at the shop.

A large chunk of Alchem's recent business has been "knock-down" telecommunications and electronic equipment shelters. These typically are 100 percent complete, right down to the doors and paint on the interior walls and floor. After manufacturing each shelter's various panels, the Alchem staff assembles the kit at the shop, then disassembles and packages it, along with enclosed assembly instructions, for shipment to the customer.

Prefab Predictions. Reynolds, who co-owns Alchem with his twin brother Kent, says 1990 was Alchem's highest revenue-grossing year ever and that 1991 business has been brisk. Combined with other strong industry signs, such as plant expansions and growing markets, Alchem's experience augers well for the industry as a whole.

Now the international export market beckons. Arctic Camps and Equipment recently bid on contracts to supply prefab structures to the Soviet Union. Purcell envisions overseas market potential for Alaskan manufacturers, citing geographic proximity as a key advantage. "We are closest," he concludes. "We're closer than prefabricators in the Lower 48."

PHOTO : Alchem, owned by twin brothers Kent (foreground, right) and Phil Reynolds, prefabricated this heavily insulated box to house equipment for Chugach Electric Association.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Arctic Camps and Equipment's prefabricated buildings are preferred by contractors for the harsh Alaskan climate
Author:Collins, Gloria; Kilcup, Jodi
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Previous Article:Old mine, new ways.
Next Article:Space gazing; sizing up Alaska's satellite launch potential.

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