Working at more than 9,000 feet above sea level, contractors face many challenges, such as winter storms, labor shortages and maintaining guest experience at high-end ski resorts. With a long history of working in mountain towns such as Colorado’s Steamboat Springs, Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge, PCL brings proven solutions to these complex circumstances.
Snow and freezing temperatures are among the biggest challenges of mountain construction. Take one of PCL’s current projects, Kindred Resort, which sits at the base of a very popular ski mountain in Keystone, Colorado and averages more than 200 inches of snowfall per year.
“Collaboration and flexibility are key, especially when it comes to navigating the challenges of winter weather,” explains Ryan Odell, operations manager with PCL, who has spent most of his 16-year career working in Colorado’s mountains. “PCL partners with each owner to understand their needs and tailors our approach to ensure we’re providing the most benefit to that client.”
Construction manager Matt Meunier describes how the Kindred Resort project team modified its original excavation plan to accommodate for winter weather after collaborating with the project’s subcontractors.
“The original plan was to excavate a large area of the building down to the bottom of the footings and then backfill around the footings after concrete placement,” he says. “This would require extensive effort to manage and maintain ground-thaw units to keep the soils workable, resulting in significantly more labor, heating equipment and heating fuel costs. The team devised a solution to ‘neat cut’ much smaller excavations, which reduced the heat and weather protection effort and cost to the project while allowing the project team to maintain the schedule through the most inclement months of the year.”
With year-round tourist density in mountain towns, PCL is driven to maintain the guest experience not only for its clients but also for surrounding businesses, homeowner associations and ski operators. Mountain towns thrive on tourism. The last thing town officials and businesses want is a construction project creating noise and congestion or impeding pedestrian and vehicle traffic. A general contractor that is familiar with the nuances of a successful mountain construction project knows how to plan for and avoid these inconveniences and ensure the guests’ experience isn’t impacted by the work going on around them.
Maintaining guest experience while constructing the Grand Colorado condominium project, a 225,000 square-foot residential, commercial and guest-services facility in the center of Breckenridge’s Peak 8 base village, was challenging due to its proximity to the BreckConnect Gondola. Construction occurred under and around the gondola, which connects the town of Breckenridge with the Peak 8 base area, while it was in operation. Understanding how critical the gondola is to the operation of the mountain required PCL to create several different work plans to ensure service was not interrupted. Plans for safely routing buses, cars and pedestrians through an active job site were also required. Odell stresses that “overcommunicating” the plan with all project stakeholders was important for accomplishing this.
Adequate fencing and proper signage were also important to help prevent exploring tourists from unintentionally entering the job site. Communicating to tradespeople the best ways to help guests who wander on-site helped ensure a positive guest experience.
PCL also works with clients to maintain the guest experience for potential buyers of condominiums or townhomes under construction. Rather than concealing a job site, clients want the project to be in full view of guests. Polyurethane windows are added to fencing to help garner excitement. Owners often need to bring potential clients on-site to sell units -- having a plan that safely supports the ongoing sales strategy is critical.
While the mountains are busy from November to April with ski traffic, there is a shoulder season from May to June when certain scopes of work such as utilities and roads can be completed. Performing these scopes that extend past the boundaries of the job site during this slow period exposes fewer guests to construction activities.
Proper planning and flexibility are key to overcoming challenging mountain logistics. Odell notes, “I've done large concrete pours through blizzards, and it takes additional planning and working through logistics to be successful. We can develop plan A, but we need to have plans B, C and D figured out as contingency plans and be able to pivot quickly. We need to have several acceptable concrete pour stop points worked out with the engineer ahead of time in case concrete trucks are no longer able to reach the site.”
With unpredictable weather, it’s important to plan ahead and pay attention to weather patterns to coordinate deliveries. Inclement weather leads to pass closures, and with mountain communities such as Aspen only having one way in and out, contractors cannot rely on just-in-time deliveries. One week’s worth of materials is typically kept in a staging yard. For critical path activities, such as precast or structural steel erection, trailers are staged in a laydown area to avoid schedule delays if trucks can’t get to the site.
Labor shortages in mountain communities are a widespread concern for many industries. Odell says the key to overcoming labor shortages is building strong relationships with the subtrade community. “I’ve been fortunate to work in the mountains for a long time and have been able to build those relationships. The subcontractors know what they’re getting with PCL and know we will be efficient even in inclement weather,” he says.
Getting subtrades on board early is critical with such few trades available in each scope in small mountain towns. “Being proactive, communicating and booking subcontractors early is key,” he adds.
Labor shortages vary greatly by location. The proximity of Breckenridge and Keystone to Denver enables subcontractors and PCL labor to commute from the city. In towns like Vail and Aspen, which are 100 plus miles from Denver, hiring local or paying labor per diem becomes necessary. “Getting the labor there is critical,” says Odell. “It starts on the front end of the project with understanding the subcontractor’s plan and helping them work through it because they may not have as much experience working in the mountains.” Incentivizing good workers is essential.
In remote areas like a hospitality project PCL is currently working on in Big Sky, Montana, the company values the insight of strategic, local hires with in-depth knowledge and experience within the area. Partnering with local subcontractors early has allowed the project team to understand their challenges in the past and how they mitigated them.
With more than 40 years of experience in mountain construction within the U.S., PCL knows first-hand the benefits to up-front planning, flexibility and collaboration. “Going into projects, it’s critical to understand that there isn’t a perfect tried and true or cookie-cutter method for mountain construction. It takes in-depth planning and an added effort to ensure that we have a sound initial strategy and all contingency plans lined out,” says Odell.