PCL’s Industrial Special Projects group focuses on unique, fast-paced jobs that typically require flexible approaches and customized solutions. Though it began as a familiar assignment, the Kearl Heavy Duty Maintenance Shop Expansion project would go on to take “special” to a whole new level.
“We have executed a number of work scopes at the Kearl site previously,” says Chris Eveleigh, manager of Industrial Special Projects for PCL Industrial Management. “Imperial hired us to build a four-bay expansion to an existing maintenance shop that already had eight bays. This is a massive facility—an oil change shop for the biggest vehicles in the world.”
Specifically, those vehicles are mighty Caterpillar 797s. With a payload of 363 metric tons, the Cat 797 is the largest mechanical-drive truck in the world. The trucks run close to 24 hours a day hauling bitumen at the Kearl site in Northern Alberta. The constant wear and tear on the trucks made the Heavy Duty Maintenance Shop Expansion, or HDMX, a critical project for Imperial. Increased maintenance bandwidth was required to keep boosting the mine’s output as Imperial planned.
“We had a plan to hit the ground running in mid-March 2020," says Eveleigh.
“But then something happened.”
The COVID-19 pandemic threw every construction project around the world into uncertainty. HDMX was no exception. Eveleigh vividly remembers the landscape changing seemingly overnight. As supply lines shut down, material costs soared and logistics became a huge hurdle. Soon thereafter, many projects were shelved or postponed indefinitely.
The importance of HDMX to the Kearl mine operation made the client reluctant to take that step for this project. The client challenged PCL to pivot quickly and consider alternate plans to persist through the pandemic. It was evident that both parties were up for the challenge and understood that integrated, candid, and frequent communication would be crucial to the project’s success.
“Through some really close collaboration with Imperial, we found a way to maneuver some budgets over several years and maintain what was important to the client,” says Eveleigh.
“They weren’t easy discussions. They were open and candid, direct but respectful. We would always come out with a good resolution.”
The first major resolution was to split the HDMX project into two phases, with the below-ground portions of the expansion set to be built in the fall of 2021, with the remaining construction finishing the following spring.
Using the existing maintenance bays as the basis for the new design and striving for as close a match as possible, the challenge became reconciling this with current building codes, newer building materials, and more state-of-the-art equipment. Project manager Bill Fleckenstein remembers first realizing that the fire exit signs in the new and old bays did not match—a seemingly small detail that could have had bigger legal repercussions had it not been caught and remedied.
Elsewhere, larger discrepancies and logistical difficulties added pressure to the project and its timelines. When a number of the expansion’s wall and roof panels developed deficiencies, the project faced potentially significant delays, as applying their custom “Kearl blue” colour would add several months to any refabrication window.
Fleckenstein scheduled a series of meetings and worked closely with the client to develop a creative solution. After sourcing a near-match shade of blue, the project team rearranged the new and old panels to conceal any discrepancy in the roof’s ridge line and adjusted the installation sequence to minimize delays.
“These were some of the more challenging conversations we had,” says Fleckenstein. “But we had built a lot of trust through proactive and candid communication. We shared not just the good news and the emerging opportunities, but we also conveyed the challenges as they occurred, and we didn’t beat around it."
The existing maintenance bays also remained fully operational during the HDMX build, which created complex logistical challenges. Cat 797s are inconceivably large and working around them without impeding operations was no easy task.
As Fleckenstein tells it, everyone present—from the client and their maintenance teams to the build teams and any subcontractors—committed to close contact and consistent briefings to ensure that the environment was safe while the project remained on schedule and budget.
Communication is vital to any project's success, but none more so than a project unfolding over the obstacles and uncertainty of a global pandemic.
Fleckenstein remembers the stress of dealing with supply shortages and delayed deliveries and the risks of both to the project’s bottom line. But he also remembers the spirit of resilience inherent in the HDMX project, and the ease with which all parties collaborated to accomplish something truly special despite the circumstances.
“We worked closely not only with the client but also with suppliers to get creative on sourcing materials,” he says. “Maybe it meant the paint color didn’t precisely match, but we were all pleased to see the expansion go up on time and budget in front of a very satisfied client. It all came down to the communication between us.”
The expanded maintenance facility is now complete and set for full operation in mid-2023—another project truly worth its “special projects” tag. Despite the many twists and turns it took along the way, Eveleigh would not change much about it if given the chance.
“I can tell you that if I had to rewrite that contract, the only thing I would change would be to include some additional language about pandemics,” he jokes. “Outside of that, I think we were all prepared for any hurdle that would come our way.”
“This project had its fair share of them, but we’re here at the finish line and we’re ready to take on whatever challenges come next.”