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Affordable housing takes shape in Fort McMurray

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BY CAROL CHRISTIAN - It's one of the largest affordable housing construction projects of its kind currently being built in Alberta.
The first panel of the Fort McMurray Family Crisis Society project was installed in September. The emergency shelter portion of the project is estimated for completion by 2015.
The first panel of the Fort McMurray Family Crisis Society project was installed in September. The emergency shelter portion of the project is estimated for completion by 2015. - Photo: Carol Christian

The Fort McMurray Family Crisis Society project is using a construction manager, rather than a general contractor on the development.

Casman Construction Ltd. is dealing with about 40 sub-contractors for the $32.5 million project.

“It’s a bit unique in that they’re hired to be our representative only and not a general contractor,” explained James Munro, the society’s director of development.

“It was a method that was chosen for a number of reasons a few years ago.

“It started when the market was slow and different so Casman bid on the job on that basis and then they tendered out the rest of the project for us. We have a budget of $18.5 million for construction; that’s all labour, materials, everything.”

The architect is Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning Ltd.

Instead of an obviously institutional-looking building, the design blends into the neighbouring residential community.

The entire site covers seven acres, three of which will house a three-storey affordable housing apartment.

The $25 million first stage of the project, a 78-unit apartment building coming in at 65,000 square feet, is on schedule to be completed in October.

Shovels went in the ground on April 1, 2013.

The building includes 13 units referred to as second stage housing for clients moving out of the project’s future emergency shelter into their own units.

“It is affordable housing and a portion of it is market affordable housing so it’s not just about folks with the lowest income in the community. It’s the folks that are working and can use a little bit of a boost,” noted Munro.

“It’s really suitable for a lot of people who make $40,000 to $60,000 a year as a household income.”

The average two-person income in Fort McMurray is estimated to be about $189,000.

One tactic that has aided in expediting the project is having all the wall panels pre-fabricated on site before being erected. The first panel was installed on Sept. 16, 2013.

“The carpenters weren’t putting it all together in little bits and pieces,” said Munro.

“They built 300 of these panels and you just have to take those panels and put them together.

“That’s proven to be an advantage because we were able to have the roof on before Christmas and when you think about it, in three months you get a very large 78-unit apartment building fully enclosed with the roof on, it’s quick. People don’t do it so quickly for a house.”

That was after the concrete was poured and formed for the 80-unit underground parking garage.

Ground is expected to be broken later this year for the emergency shelter, which is currently in the design phase.

It’s expected to be completed in 2015.

For the most part, the project has moved along well though the weather has proven the biggest challenge, admitted Munro.

There have been days where the mercury has dipped to –40 Celsius plus wind chill, but the crews have continued to work.

“They’ve worked every day. They haven’t stopped any day. They were on the roof when it was –32, -42 with the wind and they did the roofing.”

He noted in other places they would have shut construction down long before hitting those lows.

However, he added, contractors in northern Alberta are used to cold weather construction and know how to work in those conditions.

One cold weather construction method is ensuring frames are up so come winter workers are protected by hoarding.

“Weather has been our biggest influencer here. We’ve had a very cold winter and we had a very wet summer. We had flooding in Alberta. That affected us. That’s likely the reason why we had additional water.,” he said.

“We’ve been trying to mitigate around those delays because we had a few weekends in a row where we had super amounts of rain and it filled the basement up with water. We had to deal with that, remediate it and go on, and not lose time or money.”

Aside from the weather, Munro acknowledges that there can be some additional challenges.

“They’re all long projects with a lot of different players so there are going to be changes in the teams, so having really good solid records of decisions are important.”

He points out only one person still sits on the board from the time the project was approved in 2010.

Another unique feature of the project is its multi-layer partnership, which involves Casman and Wood Buffalo Housing & Development Corp., as well as different provincial government funders and First National Bank in Toronto.

“The regional municipality (Wood Buffalo) has been a good partner also in working with us and they’re helping to fund the next phase,” Munro said.

by Carol Christian last update:Sep 3, 2014

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