By Joe Mark, M.SAME
The home of America’s Arctic Warriors was established in 1941 as a cold weather testing site. Today, Fort Wainwright, Alaska, serves as the tenant installation for the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team and occupies more than 1.6-million-acres of training land in Alaska’s interior. While the location is known for beautiful winter wildlife and picturesque panoramas of snow-capped mountain ranges, it also experiences frequent subzero temperatures, 20 hours of daylight in the summer, and 20 hours of darkness in the winter.
In 2019, the U.S. Army launched a pilot program to improve quality of life at three of its more rigorous posts, including Fort Wainwright. In response to feedback from town hall meetings and surveys, the initiative has led to the addition of blackout window shades in barracks, the re-opening of a centrally located dining center, and the construction of a temperature-controlled vehicle maintenance facility.
Another recent quality of life investment focused on the construction of a new Birch Hill Ski Lodge, which is located in one of the specialized outdoor recreation areas managed by the installation. Demolishing the existing structure there and building a new one, however, required navigating both the austere interior Alaska environment and disruptive protocols brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area offers skiing, snowboarding, and tubing. Built in 1966 and partially renovated a few times over the years, the lodge had experienced septic system problems, water well issues, and subsidence failures. It was long overdue for replacement, and in April 2019, the project finally broke ground.
The interior Alaskan region is prone to discontinuous permafrost, a condition where permafrost is broken by pockets of unfrozen ground. This, along with seasonal freezing and thawing, can significantly impact ground surfaces and cause stability challenges for engineering and construction to overcome.
Design-build firm Stellar was selected to renovate the lodge, and quickly realized it had its work cut out. Crews first had to demolish the existing lodge structure, which had experienced frost heaving in the soil surrounding its piles. And that was not the only problem with the ground. The discovery of contaminants meant clean fill had to be brought in to replace the soil present. A 20-mil vapor barrier above the subfloor was installed and air quality testing had to be conducted before the lodge could become operational.
The project timeline included one Alaskan winter. The design team planned accordingly by organizing on-site snow plowing, monitoring forecasts to schedule the roof installation, and coordinating propane heating for the job site. Temperatures dipped as low as -30°-F during construction. Keeping both workers and materials warm was critical.
Due to the soil contaminant discovery, some phases of the project were delayed a few weeks. In the Alaskan interior, that can make a significant difference when it comes to weather. Since the siding and flooring required room temperature installation, crews configured sealed tarps and temporary heating to prevent damage to the materials.
The project’s greatest unforeseen challenge, however, was a global pandemic. In addition to implementing rigorous COVID safety protocols, Stellar coordinated carefully among project team members and subcontractors. Pandemic-induced manufacturing delays caused supply chain disruptions, which made shipping anything to a remove part of Alaska more difficult than usual. A single oversight or wrong delivery could cost months.
Safety regulations and travel restrictions meant only one quality control representative could be on the jobsite from summer 2020 through the remainder of the project. The team utilized open communication, strategic planning, and technology to deliver a successful project. A camera was set up that streamed a live view of the jobsite and provided local temperatures in real time. The project team and owner representatives were able to securely access the camera on demand to monitor site progress.
A MODERN RETREAT
Construction of the multimillion-dollar project was officially completed in September 2021. When the Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area reopens for the 2021/2022 winter season, it will welcome soldiers and other guests to the new lodge for the first time.
The reimagined facility is now a 12,000-ft² haven for skiers and snowboarders. A modern farmhouse aesthetic carries throughout the building, with sliding barn doors, exposed trusses, and high-end finishes. Upon entering the vestibule on the building’s south side, visitors are greeted by a new custom trophy case housing special memorabilia from Fort Wainwright’s history.
This area leads into the cozy great room, which features a chandelier-lit dining space and floor-to-ceiling picture windows overlooking the ski hill. Another focal point of the room is the custom, cast-in-place concrete mantel floating above a 42-in panoramic fireplace. A full-service commercial kitchen provides food service for guests and includes a grab-and-go counter for convenience.
The lodge’s spacious equipment rental area features large countertops where guests can rent skis and snow boots, three alcoves of custom lockers with built-in USB chargers, and dryer systems that can accommodate 300 pairs of snow boots.
Alongside these visual upgrades are a number of infrastructure and safety improvements as well. Crews built a special pump house uphill from the lodge to house its new fire suppression system. A newly installed 60,000-gal water tank pipes directly into the building and connects to the lodge underground in order to keep it out of sight for lodge visitors. And subcontractors also installed thick R-60 insulation within the lodge’s walls, significantly updating the outdated insulation of the previous building for better efficiency.
MORE THAN A LODGE
Despite the unforeseen obstacles of soil contamination, extreme weather, and a pandemic that forced an innovative shift in managing the project, the new Birch Hill Ski Lodge now stands as the latest quality of life improvement for the soldiers and families at Fort Wainwright—with more to come. As part of a priority to focus on quality of life, the Army has invested more than $170 million into its Alaska installations, with millions in additional investments expected to follow.
For the designers and construction managers of the new Birch Hill Ski Lodge, their mission was to deliver a safe and exceptional space for the local military community. This beautiful replacement lodge serves as a haven for servicemembers and their families, reminding them that even though they may be stationed on the other side of the continent, they are not forgotten.
Joe Mark, M.SAME, is Vice President of Operations, Federal, Stellar; firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article first published in the November-December 2021 issue of The Military Engineer.]