Winter construction in Fairbanks: working with the weather presents challenges.

AuthorStricker, Julie

It's high noon on a gloomy mid-winter's day. The sun has just man2 aged to clear the snowy peaks of the mountains 100 miles to the south and cars navigate the icy streets through a sea of ice fog. It's 40 below zero and the air is thick and bitter.

Welcome to a typical winter workday in Fairbanks, Alaska. While many Fairbanksans joke that there are only two seasons, winter and construction, the fact is that while winter disappears for a few months, it is always construction season.

Most exterior residential construction stops in the colder months and residents focus on staying warm. Some use woodstoves, and some prefer oil stoves, while others rely on a full-fledged furnace or boiler. Installing and keeping them going keeps dozens of businesses going around the clock, especially during cold snaps.

The Woodway specializes in woodstoves and high-efficiency oil-burning heaters, and has been a Fairbanks mainstay since 1978. General Manager Roy Ponder says their busiest times are just before the first real cold snap of the season. They also see people whose heat source has broken or are looking for a backup source.

The Woodway sells only EPA-certified wood stoves, a must given the Fairbanks and North Pole areas' serious air quality issues. The stoves burn the particulates that normally would escape up the flue. Ponder says the store has been installing an average of one stove per day.

"People recognize they're going to need the heat in the winter," he says. "Most people come in in the fall. A respectable number wait until a cold snap hits and they know they're going to need something to keep warm."

Working Outside

Sometimes, however, a construction project does require being outdoors, even in the most extreme weather.

Scott Bothwell, owner of Alcan Builders in Fairbanks, says they are often busier in the winter than the summer, depending on the project. And while the season's extremes present some challenges, businesses have learned how to cope.

"I've worked in numerous states and each state has its own particular issues," says Bothwell, who has been in Alaska since 1978.

Fairbanks' particular issues are extreme cold and short days, both of which can drive construction costs up. Bothwell recalls a project he did a few years ago that involved building a hotel, beginning in mid-winter, that needed to be completed by the time tourists began arriving that spring. At the time, gas cost $1.80 per gallon in Fairbanks, but was closer to $3 at the Denali...

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