Architectural, life lessons to be learned from working and traveling in Alaska

Over the last several years, CTA has had several opportunities to work in Alaska. In recent history, we have completed projects, studies, and assessments in nearly 20 communities and are currently engaged in five active design and construction projects located in the Alaskan bush.

Our work requires us to visit the site and meet with clients and contractors in multiple phases of design and construction. Upon return from Alaska, I’ve seen several CTA team members who have not had the chance to share in these amazing adventures. We’re there to create buildings, but I’ve always been curious about the stories, the differences in culture, and the challenges of our work in a harsh, remote environment.

Alaska’s populated areas come in four sizes: Anchorage, with a population of almost 300,000 (the only city in the state with a population in six figures); Fairbanks and Juneau (the only two cities in the five figures) have about 30,000 people each; communities with 2,000-8,000 people (considered hubs); and villages with 100-800 people. The west side of the state is mostly void of roads between populations. As a result, most communities are located on the water for access to transportation, food, and supplies of resources that aren’t provided by the land, and nearly every community has an airstrip. This way of life makes living and building in Alaska very expensive.

AlaskaMap1

With a whopping area of 663,268 square miles, Alaska is
the largest U.S. state, though with an estimated 736,732
residents (2014), it ranks 48th in terms of population.

The majestic Alaskan bush presents many challenges to CTA: cost, availability, size, and shipping weight of materials; weather; and remoteness. As a firm, CTA has always embraced new challenges in our quest to pioneer environments, and Alaska has provided us with obstacles to overcome that resulted in expansion of our knowledge of client needs. For example, specifying a light bulb without a standard base has a better chance of being shipped to the moon than the Alaskan bush. And when snow melts and the river thaws in late May, it only leaves about four months to build in suitable construction weather.

Most of the residents in the village are very handy and extremely mechanically inclined, even compared to most Montanans I know. In Alaska, you’d better know how to change a set of brake pads, patch a hydraulic line, and swap a starter. Expensive or custom materials and limitations in travel make for resourceful people.

I have never been dressed in so many layers as when I was in Alaska, preparing for a construction site visit by snow machine over 40 miles of the frozen Yukon River. I didn’t fear the temperature exposure of my skin as much as I did the wind. Riding through the untamed Alaskan bush, I was amazed at the scenery Alaska offers. The beauty of the landscape inspired me to be brave enough to pull my gloves off and click a few pictures. Most of my images hardly convey the landscape because the river is so wide and depth perception is lost in the snow on a river that ranges from one-half to nearly two miles wide.

CTA has completed the following projects in Alaska since the mid-2000s:

  • Tanacross Multiuse Facility; Tanacross, AK
  • Alaska Gateway School District Combined Heat Power Plant; Tok, AK
  • Yukon-Koyukuk Elder Assisted Living Facility; Galena, AK
  • Mentasta Clinic; Mentasta, AK
  • Mentasta Biomass District Heat Plant; Mentasta, AK
  • Multipurpose Community Centers; Mentasta, Holy Cross, Shageluk, Grayling, and Northway, AK
  • Copper River DNR Fire Facility; Glennallen, AK
  • Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center; Soldotna, AK
  • Craig Biomass District Heat Plant; Craig, AK
  • Kake Senior Center remodel; Kake, AK
  • Tetlin School District Biomass; Tetlin, AK
  • UAF-Yukon Flats Biomass Heating Project; Fort Yukon, AK
  • Costco; Anchorage and Juneau, AK

I was warned to keep an eye on my fuel, which didn’t prevent me from running out in a vast area devoid of corner gas stations. After bartering for fuel, I set my sights north again on the origin of my trip, Grayling. I walked into the tribal office and the first person I saw said, “Hey, we heard you ran out of gas.” “Yeah…” I said with a question mark on my face. Trying to figure out how they knew so quickly, I walked to my temporary home and stepped in the front door to a greeting of, “You okay? We heard you ran out of gas.” It’s amazing how fast word travels in a world where transportation and communication infrastructure is so limited. I assume that someone put a radio call out for some gas for the Montana kid while I was in the meeting, and everyone in Grayling heard the call on the radios in each of their homes. Just like that, I was part of the local rumor mill.

Gasoline isn’t the only challenging fuel source in Alaska…

  • Electricity is over $0.60 per kWh in many bush communities.
  • Natural gas is not an option.
  • Propane only comes in small bottles and won’t light if the temperature is below -44 degrees.
  • Most buildings are heated with fuel oil or wood.

You don’t see this much in communities without a network of roads.

And lastly, gasoline and fuel oil must be shipped in, and costs $6/gallon. As such, CTA has worked on biomass projects throughout the state that provide cost-efficient and sustainable heating sources for Alaskan schools, homes, and businesses.

Main image (and final two images above) by Rex Goolsby of Lars Construction: A forklift operator uses a tree as a boom to set trusses at the Multipurpose Community Center project site in Grayling, AK.


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