Construction management students at Boise State University gained some real-world experience in completing a design-build project for the National Park Service at a former World War II Japanese-American internment camp that now is a national historic site in Jerome County, Idaho.

The pleased owner now may rehire the team for other possible facility projects at the former Minidoka "relocation center," whose quickly built structures once held up to 12,000 mostly U.S. citizens from 1942 to 1945.

The 33,000-acre camp, one of the largest of 10 built in remote U.S. locations, consisted of 36 housing blocks with schools, stores and fire stations. It became Idaho's eighth largest city. More than 500 residential, administrative and utility structures were built at the site.

Boise-based Morrison-Knudsen Corp., now a unit of URS Corp., was the original contractor on the $5.8-million project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. More than 3,000 workers logged some 2 million man-hours on the project, says a Park Service history.

"The transition from the high unemployment caused by prewar depression to wartime labor shortages occurred almost overnight," says the history, which adds that work "was seriously hampered by wartime shortages of materials and wartime transportation problems."

According to the Park Service history, "Mess halls planned to accommodate about 300 people had to handle twice and three times that number for short periods as evacuees poured in from assembly centers on schedule."

Workers coped with the extreme climate in the high desert location, conditions worsened by the bulldozing of sagebrush and native grasses. Says the Park Service history, "the dust was swirling in all directions, coming in all the cracks and crevices of the buildings and literally covering one with a gray film of volcanic ash."

The center, built in six months, was dismantled after the war and turned into farms. In 2006, Congress guaranteed $38 million for Minidoka's restoration along with the other former internment camps.

Today, Minidoka is a national historic site with structures and an interpretive trail that attracts 80,000 visitors annually.

As a class project, 25 BSU students designed, built and erected an era-authentic guard tower last spring, funded by a $280,378 federal grant through Friends of Minidoka, a nonprofit group of survivors and relatives.

The camp was originally bound by five miles of barbed wire fencing with eight towers manned by U.S. military police. According to the Park Service history, an unidentified site subcontractor electrified the fence in 1942 without the Corps of Engineers' knowledge or consent, to prevent damage by internees.

"In the end, the administration apologized for the electrification, asserted that destruction of government property was a serious offence, and resumed completion of the fence," says the history.

The project was part of a course led by associate professors Rebecca Mirsky and Casey Cline that researched construction techniques, historical context, design and federal building methods.

Without original construction drawings, students developed the design from a single photograph using building information modeling and a one-third scale mock-up. Cole Architects and Axiom Engineering Co., both in Boise, provided pro-bono construction drawings.

BSU's Associated General Contractors student chapter built the 26.5-ft-tall tower on campus, partially disassembling it for transport to the park and rebuilding on new concrete footings. A Gradall rough terrain telescoping forklift erected the wood structure—an X-brace base topped by a 50-sq-ft guard station.

The Park Service demanded historically accurate details, including a pitched cedar shingled roof, three specially manufactured single-pane windows and authentic door hardware previously purchased by the park service. The project finished at 65% under budget due to donated materials, services and labor.

"The process exposed students to dealing with several stakeholders on a historical site, and everything that entails," says Cline.

"The project tested our communication, leadership and time management skills," says CM student Ed Akron. Student and project manager Robbin Zahurak says, "more than just another construction project, it was a chance to learn about the effect of our government's decisions." She also "learned a great deal about the importance of good communication, meeting deadlines, managing a construction workforce and dealing with adverse issues."

The Park Service now is considering more interaction with Boise State's program in upcoming Minidoka projects that could include reconstruction of barracks buldings, says Carol Ash, agency chief of interpretation and education at the site.

"The park was not familiar with any program like the construction management program that Boise State has," adds Judy Geniac, Minidoka site superintendent. "The grant was highly restrictive with regard to [Park Service] engagement. That made [Boise State U's] collaboration more impressive."