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Crews fight the elements to build northern cancer centre

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Prince George's new B.C. Cancer Agency Centre for the North, the sixth regional centre in the province, rose out of the ground in a team effort battling one of the worst northern winters, a compromised time line, and tricky relocation of major power feeds to the nearby University Hospital of Northern BC.
Crews fight the elements to build northern cancer centre

Prince George's new B.C. Cancer Agency Centre for the North, the sixth regional centre in the province, rose out of the ground in a team effort battling one of the worst northern winters, a compromised time line, and tricky relocation of major power feeds to the nearby University Hospital of Northern BC.

The effort in co-ordinating crews, equipment and working through a bitter winter on the public-private partnership (P3) project has earned PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc. a Vancouver Regional Construction Association Silver Award of Excellence in the category of a General Contractor over $40 Million.

“I don’t think I will ever work with a project team like that one – it was almost too good to be true,” said PCL Constructor’s project manager Chris Rasmussen.

He was speaking about the local trades and workforce.

Rasmussen had nothing but praise for Equity Plumbing + Heating Ltd. and Houle Electric, both with Prince George offices.

“(They) were our partners from the onset and partners throughout,” he said.

PCL Constructors also had a designated mechanical and electrical co-ordinator, who meshed the trades seamlessly.

A major challenge was accommodating two linear accelerators used for radiation therapy.

The bunker-style unit housing the accelerators required five to 11 feet thick walls and roof, depending on the area.

“We would have had to do a continuous pour of concrete so that there would be no seams for (radiation) leakage,” said Rasmussen.

The local concrete supplier, though, couldn’t produce the volume fast enough to meet that need.

“We had to break the work up into three distinct sections and then design a saw-tooth pattern so that the radiation couldn’t travel through,” he said.

PCL started work in February 2010 on a new parkade, as the old area was being co-opted by the centre.

By July, the 3.5 storey, 302-vehicle parkade was complete.

By August 2010, the PCL team had excavators biting ground for the foundation of the 54,300 square foot regional cancer centre.

Then, the first problem appeared.

“We hit soft soils,” said Rasmussen, adding that old concrete was also found and removed.

“We had to sub-excavate to solid ground,” he said. Digging forced the team to lose three and half weeks.

The question then became how to get back on track.

Winter was closing in with an average low of minus 16 degrees Celsius, without wind chill.

Local crews were used to working in those temperatures, but cold weather impacted productivity.

Prince George winters could also turn brutal, tossing record snowfalls even in November, blasting Arctic winds and bone-biting temperatures.

Double shifting proved the solution.

Rasmussen said it created such good momentum that they continued to get a jump on winter. The concrete was poured in December and steel work started.

Then winter turned ugly.

“It was a horrible winter with temperatures and snow,” Rasmussen said.

January and February 2011 weather included winds gusting to 67 kilometres an hour and temperatures at -32 C without the wind chill factor.

Work halted when minus 30 was reached, but it couldn’t blunt the team spirit.

“Many of the local guys wanted to keep going,” said Rasmussen.

Equity owner Brad Popoff agrees it was a good team.

“Chris (Rasmussen) created an environment that was non-adversarial,” he said.

Rasmussen and Patti Salary, the electrical and mechanical co-ordinator, were slow to take offense when issues arose,” he added.

Problems were examined, and then everyone was asked for a remedy.

“Some generals are quick to cut you off and just say – you deal with it,” he said.

Great working relationships made the project work, agreed Houle’s Prince George branch manager Keith Parsonage.

The centre’s complex mechanical and electrical needs were an example.

“The ceilings are jammed packed,” he said.

All electrical, including security systems, fire alarms, and call systems, had to fit with the mechanical system’s needs.

“That’s where you had your real co-ordination,” said Parsonage.

It was so trades could transition rather than impede one another.

Houle also had to excavate and relocate four major feed lines, near the centre’s south wall, that supplied emergency and intensive care unit power at the hospital without disrupting service.

It was tricky work, as mistakes could compromise critical patient care.

That teamwork paid off at the end.

The $78.8 project came in under budget by $1.5 million and two months before the September 2012 completion date.

“It was a good project to be part of,” said Parsonage.

“We all learned a lot.”

But, he also pointed out that members of the crew were also working to bring a much-needed facility to the northern city.

“We all know of someone who has or has had cancer,” he said.

by Jean Sorensen

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