Schools of the Frozen North
Rural Alaska follows its own construction rules.
Two new schools for the native Yupiit people are challenging the Anchorage-based building teams: kpb Architects and Neeser Construction, which are completing the $23.1-million, 41,491-sq-ft Marshall Replacement School, and Bering Pacific Corp., which is building the $20.9-million, 31,900-sq-ft Russian Mission Replacement School.
Both schools are within 60 mi of each other along the Yukon River.
“Like all Bush Alaska, everything you need, from a bolt to food to a Band-Aid, must be ordered six to eight months ahead of time to come in on a barge or you have to fly it in on small planes,” says Cal Myrick, Neeser’s project manager.
The nearest town to both villages is 6,000-population Bethel, about 118 mi away. Anchorage is 384 mi. Marshall and Russian Mission each are home to about 350 people.
“Most villages have a store, but it is much smaller and stocked less than the corner 7-11 in town,” Myrick says. “No place to eat, no housing, no gas station, no repair shops, no concrete plants, no hardware stores. You must bring it all with you.”
Carl John, director of capital improvement projects for the owner, the Lower Yukon School District in Mountain Village, agrees that contractor mobilization and materials availability are two major problems in the area. He says the third is permafrost winter conditions typically registering temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Bottom line: You need to do a lot of protection and provide heat, and you need to anticipate the time losses for working in Alaska weather,” Myrick says.
Timing, for sure, is an art in Alaska construction. River barges can only access certain areas in early summer, for example. And, because the Yupiit, who are providing much of the unskilled labor for the school projects—about 30% at Marshall, 50% at Russian Mission—are subsistence fishermen and hunters, work schedules need to be adjusted for seasonal salmon catches, moose hunts and whale harvests.
While most of the materials for the schools was barged from Seattle up the coast to Hooper Bay and then delivered to site on large landing crafts, if commercial or charter air flights are needed, their availability is determined by the vagaries of Alaskan weather.
As a result of rugged locations and weather, every decision is crucial, particularly ordering: A missing jackhammer or a box of nails may take weeks or more to be supplied. “There is heightened importance on proper planning, coordination and timely resolution of construction issues,” says Ken Burkhart, kpb architects principal.
The K-12 schools are replacing structures built in the early 1980s. Each is two stories, since a single-story would significantly increase costs with its smaller footprint. “A two-story solution has less surface area and is also more thermally efficient with less heat loss and fuel costs,” Burkhart says.
The $23.1-million Marshall School will serve approximately 190 K-12 students on the 12-acre site, which includes space for future teacher housing. The building features a two-story entry that leads through a colonnade of Glulam beams into a hall ending in the multipurpose room/cafeteria.