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Expanding horizon

Upgrading Iqaluit’s airport illustrates the promise and the difficulties associated with Northern development

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In Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, the city’s airport is undergoing an expansion that, when complete in September, will leave behind a facility that is eight times larger than the existing one.

The ambitious plan suggests growing confidence in the Arctic economy, tourism and travel, but the operation, which got under way in 2014, has not been without its problems. For example, Bouygues Bâtiment International, the France-based firm that is responsible for the project, cannot access the site for up to two months of the year due to the cold and snow. It must also grapple with factors such as sourcing labour in a sparsely populated place and the logistics of construction that are dictated by the two-month window available for delivering a whole year’s worth of building materials by boat.

In the interview below, provided to us by the Polar Research and Policy Initiative, a UK-based think-tank, Olivier Walon, the Bouygues project director, talks about the expansion.

How Iqaluit says welcome

Q: What in your opinion have been the most challenging aspects involved in delivering this particular scheme?
A: There are so many that we could talk for hours, although the one foremost in my mind was that we have had to satisfy a lot of different parties. There were many parties involved in this project, including the Government of Nunavut, who are also the Airport Authority and the client on this project, then there are the financers and final users; who are not only the service provider, but also future tenants, airlines, and of course all the governmental agencies such as CATSA (airport security), CBSA (customs), Nav Canada and Transport Canada. In addition to that there are also the usual building inspectors and the Iqaluit City Council. Balancing all their demands was a careful business.

After that, the Iqaluit Airport has also never stopped operating, receiving flights and travellers throughout the entire construction phase. While this is quite common for airport renovations, it is still worth highlighting it as a challenge, as organising and arranging construction around an operational airport in as cold a place as Iqaluit happened to be very formidable undertaking, especially for the building of the shell.

Q: What features will the new airport have?
A: When complete, Iqaluit airport will feature 450,000sq m of upgraded and heavier runway, more aprons for aeroplanes to park on, a new 10,000sq m terminal building that is eight times the size of the current one, and a new combined-services building that will house the fire-fighting and support equipment. With all of the improvements, the airport will be able to handle over 150,000 visitors a year, and with scope built-into the design to accommodate significantly more growth in future.

Q: Given the location and extremes of weather in Iqaluit, where temperatures often reach -45°C, the partnership was clearly prepared to accept that the project had a high level of risk. How did you deal with this during work?
A: As we do for all our projects at Bouygues, and particularly with this kind of work, we plan our works carefully, from the very beginning until the end. We build flexibility into our plan and we closely monitor our works allowing us to rectify any deviation. By works I mean not only construction, but of course also design, procurement, logistics, labour, subcontracts, testing and commissioning, handover and warranties.

Iqaluit Airport is a fast-track project with an accelerated programme, but we are used to it. That said, we were careful not to underestimate the challenges and extreme conditions we faced, face, and will continue to face throughout the project until its completion. We organised and phased our works by working seasons. This time duration varies a lot depending on the kind of construction activities and the weather conditions, though. For example, foundation works carried out outside in entirely exposed conditions can only take place during a few months of the year in somewhere like Iqaluit. After that, superstructure works can run for slightly longer and only after the building’s envelope is secured, and made water and air-tight, can the working season then continue for almost all of the year inside. However we do have to close the site for the coldest period of the year, for a few weeks over Christmas and January.

Fast-track, slow road

The other big challenge on this project has been logistics and the procurement of materials for construction. There are only three boats trips available during the annual sealift (pictured above). Depending on weather conditions, the first one can arrive as late as early August and the last one may leave Iqaluit as soon as early October. That gives a window of less than two months to schedule the receipt of almost all the materials the project needs for the year. If you ‘miss the boat’ then you miss the construction season, with dramatic consequences for either progress against the programme or for costs, as airfreight transportation is very expensive and limited to only some types of construction materials.

Q: With $300 million being invested into the expansion of the airport, it stands to be the largest capital project in the Nunavut’s history. Do you feel that it evidences an increasing interest by Ottawa, sub-national governments or public-private partnership (PPP) in the Arctic region?
Obviously, I cannot answer on anyone else’s behalf, but I do sense that there is a tangible and growing interest in developing the Arctic region, particularly for Nunavut, with Iqaluit increasingly seen as a hub. If this were not true, then why build a new international airport with far bigger capacity and with scope for significant future expansion?

Whether PPP will be part of future developments is difficult to say, but for any such solution to be viable, it has to demonstrate the need for long-term services that provide value for money. That said, the Iqaluit Airport project shows that both federal and territorial governments may well consider using the PPP mechanism again for Arctic projects in the future.

Q: This is also an ambitious project, and one that projects confidence about growing Arctic tourism and travel. Do you think we are likely to see similarly ambitious Arctic projects emerging in the future?
A: I think that the airport scheme is highly unlikely to be a standalone scheme in the region. The Arctic is a huge area where moving people and goods is, and will continue to be, both a priority and a challenge. Certainly in Nunavut, the region aims to develop itself, so the airport project can be seen as a crucial means to help achieve that. This will hopefully also be followed by the construction of a new deep-water port in Iqaluit, which will improve supplies and logistics for Iqaluit and other Nunavut communities. The airport project and potential future projects will be a real step forward for the region in terms of increased tourism and business travel to the region, both of which, in my opinion, have a great future ahead of them.

Q: What stakeholder and community engagement was undertaken during the development of the airport scheme?
A: This is very important topic for us at Bouygues. There was a clear commitment during both the construction and operational phases of the project to involve the community and more specifically Nunavut Land Claims Agreement beneficiaries. This engagement covered the terms of business and construction, as well as labour training and apprenticeships. This was not only a contractual obligation, which, if reneged, would penalise the partners financially, but it is included in Bouygues’ own corporate policies to develop local skills and businesses. This will bring added value to the region with more experienced, trained and accredited labour, will help grow the local economy and attract further investors.

Elements of a challenging design

Q: What is the wider economic benefit of this scheme and the airport expansion?
A: Firstly on the micro scale, the public-private partnership was most probably the most suitable route for this undertaking. The total cost of the 30 year project agreement through the PPP procurement route will be significantly lower than it would have been using a design-bid-build approach, and that has obvious benefits for the Government of Nunavut and for Canadian taxpayers.

Then, secondly, on the macro scale, in order to better understand the economic benefit of the airport expansion, we must remember that Iqaluit, as capital city of Nunavut, is not accessible by road, and access by boat is very limited during different seasons. The territory itself is also composed of many islands and communities, which themselves are not accessible by road, and where the local airport is often the only point of access. That makes airport infrastructure absolutely vital for the Nunavut territories and its people.

In the past decade, traffic at Iqaluit International Airport has increased by 5% every year and it is projected to continue to do so, or to grow further. Nunavut’s expanding population, increasing tourism activity and all the anticipated industrial developments have rendered the current airport under-provisioned and unable to accommodate the increase in air traffic. This makes the improvement of Iqaluit International Airport crucial for the economy of the city and the territory; expanding capacity will attract investors and tourists to the region. An airport is generally the gateway to a city, and this is especially true of Iqaluit.

Also in line with this, the new scheme has been specifically designed to allow for the future expansion of the airport with a minimum of disruption and costs. Space has been allocated for enlargement of the security zones, gates, and the baggage-reclaim area, all while maintaining the configuration and functionality of the terminal.

In addition to economic benefits, safety and security issues are becoming more and more challenging with the increase of traffic. So, with the new airport, travellers will be offered drastically improved conveniences when travelling to and from the city. Finally, let’s not forget that Iqaluit is at the intersection of both North Atlantic and polar routes, so it is and will continue to be a strategic airport for technical support stops, as well as emergency, technical or medical landings.

Q: EFLA Engineers recently unveiled its latest designs for foundations that can combat the construction risks of permafrost. Were there similar considerations reflected in the design and specification of the airport improvements?
A: For both the terminal and combined-services buildings in the airport, which stand on large areas of tundra, we have opted for the dynamic ‘thermosiphon’ technique that allows us to ‘freeze the ground’ under the building all year round, allowing a simple concrete slab to sit at grade (flush with ground level, ed) without necessitating a more complicated procedure that would involve driving concrete piles deep through the soil down to the ‘harder’ permafrost layers. This saved a lot of time, money and materials.

Keeping the cold side cold

We were able to achieve this by excavating the upper layers of the soil, which in Iqaluit is not frozen for the entire year. So, we were able to use these non-frozen layers of earth as ‘backfill’ under the building, then instal proper insulation (pictured above) and waterproofing membranes between the building and this backfill. With this complete, we could then ‘permanently freeze’ that earth underneath the building by using the thermosiphon system to passively cool and harden the ground, thereby maintaining its structural integrity for bearing the building’s weight all year round.

A network composed of vertical and horizontal loops of temperature sensors also allows us to monitor this underground area throughout the building’s life to ensure that any rises in global temperature in the future do not affect the functioning of this passive heat exchanger system and, in case it does, to compliment it with a more active heat exchange system, and this is exactly what makes our system unique compared with most of the thermosiphon technology commonly used in the Arctic.

Q: Were there any other innovative construction techniques that you tested or used during this project?
Another creative technique that was used was the installation of combined heat and power (CHP) units to produce the largest share of the electricity for all the airport buildings. This CHP system uses the heat created by burning locally available fuel to heat and power the building.

Since we had committed to a very challenging energy target, we had no other choice than to look for low-energy techniques. In responding to this, these CHP units happened to fit very well with this kind of project where buildings need to be heated for the largest part of the year and could do so more sustainably than by relying on conventional power sources. These CHP units are also controlled by a complex building-management system in order to optimise and control the energy consumption to satisfy both electricity and heating demand in both buildings, preventing waste and improving our sustainability.

In addition to this, in order to closely control the energy consumption of the building and directly link into the building-management system, we have added a very sophisticated measurement and verification system as well, one with hundreds of measuring points and performance indicators monitoring Kilowatt-hours, fuel, air and water flow, which will allow us to keep track of not only the energy consumed in the building but also how it is consumed. If this system follows the design parameters, it will also allow us to correct instantaneously any case of deviation of waste, whether due to a technical issue or human error.

Q: The airport will serve both the Canadian military and civil aviation. Balancing these conflicting demands in one facility must have been difficult, especially given the differing requirements, as well as the shared runway. Can you elaborate on how you tackled this?
A: Indeed, this airport will – and already does – serve both military and civil aviation. However, the military facilities are outside the remit of the airport construction, and we have had no involvement with it except for the runway itself, which is shared. As I mentioned before, though, both the airport and runway never ceased operating throughout all phases of construction, so there were many complex co-ordination issues to work through in the phasing. The Canadian air-force was just another user of the airport facilities, and so they were engaged early on and we have co-operated with them throughout the construction phasing and the build.

Thomas Bishop leads the Built Environment Unit at the Polar Research and Policy Initiative and works at WilkinsonEyre Architects.

The original version of this interview can be found on the website of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative.

All images: Bouygues