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NEWS Last modified on April 25, 2017

Arctic ambitions

All images courtesy of Bouygues. All images courtesy of Bouygues.

Bouygues Bâtiment International project director, Olivier Walon, talks to Thomas Bishop from think tank Polar Research and Policy Initiative about the challenges of constructing an international airport in Iqaluit, close to the Arctic Circle.

Located in Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian Province of Nunavut, and situated less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, an international airport is being built on the site of an older domestic one.

The new facility has been designed to deal with thousands of visitors in a day, serving Baffin Island as well as much of Canada’s Arctic, and it is being delivered by developer Bouygues.

The airport will be eight times the size of the previous one, so it is an ambitious scheme and one that projects growing confidence about the Arctic economy, tourism and travel.

That said, building the facility has not been without its challenges, which have ranged from the site being inaccessible for up to two months of the year due to the cold and snow to difficulties sourcing labour in a sparsely populated place.
What in your opinion have been the most challenging aspects involved in delivering this particular scheme?
One foremost in my mind was that we have had to satisfy a lot of different parties ranging from the government of Nunavut, financers, 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 City of Iqaluit Council. Balancing all their demands was a careful business.

The other challenge was the fact that Iqaluit Airport 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 a live airport in as cold a place as Iqaluit happened to be very formidable undertaking, especially for the building of the shell.

What features will the new airport have?
When complete, Iqaluit Airport will feature 450,000sqm of upgraded and heavier runway, more aprons for aeroplanes to park on and a new 10,000sqm terminal building that is eight times the size of the previous one.

It will also have 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.

How do you factor in risks such as and extremes of weather in Iqaluit that can reach as low as –45C?
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, logistic, labour, subcontracts, testing and commissioning, handover and warranties.

The 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 have been, are, and will continue to face throughout the project until its completion.
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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, water and airtight 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.

The other big challenge on this project has been logistics and the procurement of materials for construction. There are only three boats trips available for sealift in a year.

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.
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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.

Do you think we are likely to see similarly ambitious Arctic projects emerging in the future?
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 deepwater 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 economic/business travelling to the region, both of which in my opinion have a great future ahead of them.
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What stakeholder and community engagement was undertaken during the development of the airport scheme?
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.

It will bring added value to the region with more experienced, trained and accredited labour, will help grow the local economy and attract further investors.
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How has the build offset its carbon footprint and demonstrated compliance with environmental building standards?
Well, compliance with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification was a requirement for the project. However, we didn’t just limit ourselves to the terms of the certification, but we instead targeted the LEED Silver award. 

Although aiming for this higher level will certainly be a challenge for us to obtain, largely due to the award scheme’s scoring mechanisms that promote local suppliers and penalise the carbon-costs of long-distance supply chains.

The airport sits in a very remote location; there are significant transportation distances for certain materials, and there are a limited quantity and variety of local suppliers in the area, so we have had to work hard to overcome these challenges and find economies elsewhere.

In addition to the certification, Bouygues have also committed to very tight energy consumption on this project, and our target during the operational period is considered critical to the project’s success.
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This represents a risk for us as a business, but this kind of commitment is becoming increasingly commonplace in the world of development, and so we are aiming to showcase our commitment to lower-energy consumption, as well as environmentally respectful and sustainable techniques and methods of construction, not only in Canada but across all the five continents in which we work.

Iqaluit’s new airport is expected to open before winter 2017.

•  For more information about Polar Research and Policy Initiative visit http://polarconnection.org/

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