An Extreme Building Solution

Builders Choice
Written by Claire Suttles

Builders Choice can handle a challenge. The modular design and manufacturing company works in rugged and remote Alaskan locations to deliver a dependable solution able to withstand even the most extreme conditions.
The business got its start as a wood truss manufacturing plant in 1996, and the diverse company continues to supply roof trusses and building materials in addition to modular units.

Builders Choice works across a wide range of industries including mining, hospitality, multifamily residential, commercial, government, and retail. In short, the team can build virtually anything, from a store, apartment complex, or school to a hotel, courthouse, or office. The oil and gas sector is one of the company’s biggest customers. “There is a lot of aging infrastructure in Alaska,” explains Builders Choice owner Mark Larson. As a result, much of the sector’s employee housing is in need of a major overhaul. “We have been able to rebuild and help bring [it] back up to today’s quality standards and today’s living standards for workforce housing.”

Even though Alaska covers a huge area geographically, the population is relatively small, making diversification essential. Working across so many sectors “is a survival technique,” Mr. Larson explains. “You have to be able to do a lot of different things and customize what you are doing to meet everybody’s needs.” Flexibility, therefore, has been crucial to success. “We’ve modified. We’ve changed. We’ve added things. We’ve done everything we’ve needed to do to create longevity.”

Delivering solutions to a relatively small market spread over a vast geographic area creates substantial challenges of its own. “The most difficult part of what we do is logistics. You’ve got thousands and thousands of miles to cover.” The team manufactures the modular units in Anchorage, which is a local hub but still “several thousand miles away from distribution, from vendors.”

Those logistics are complicated enough, since even Anchorage is remote when compared to the lower 48. But, the real challenge comes after the manufacturing process is complete and the team has to ship the modular units into the vast Alaskan wilderness. The company gets the product to its destination any way possible, utilizing trucks, railroads, or barges. Roads are often in poor repair or simply nonexistent. “We don’t have a very diverse road system,” Mr. Larson points out. “It is really pretty minimal.”

Every modular unit must be specially built to withstand the rigors of rough roads and choppy seas. “[We] make sure the units go from point A to point B and that when they get there they are in good condition and ready to put on the site. They don’t have to be repaired or reworked; they get there in one piece.” Extra precautions include waterproofing every unit before it leaves the factory. A permanent rubber membrane protects the product, “so even if the temporary wrapping comes off, or we are in wind-driven rain, the unit stays dry and clean.” The team learned these tricks of the trade “the hard way,” earning the patronage of customers looking for a company that is able to navigate the unique challenges that Alaska delivers.

The team has developed some creative solutions to the state’s logistical difficulties. For instance, when Builders Choice supplied housing for Exxon Mobil’s Point Thomson gas cycling and condensation production project, the location was so remote that the team could not reach it via paved road or barge. The only solution was to wait for winter and access the site on ice roads. “We had to build an actual ice road that went from the Deadhorse area 45 miles to the north to the site,” Mr. Larson recalls. As a result, the project had to be carefully timed and completed quickly, before the ice began to thaw. In fact, the majority of the company’s projects are on such a tight time frame that the manufacturing process and site work are carried out simultaneously.

On a project for Kalash Energy, the team had to deliver units to a tiny island located four miles offshore. “All the work had to be done in the wintertime because the island was so small that there wasn’t any room to do the work unless we used the ice. We put 66 beds in the addition and we had to tear out a lot of infrastructure and rebuild a lot of infrastructure to get the units out there.” The team maintained a highly efficient schedule, completing the majority of the work before the ice melted. “[We] had a very short window,” Mr. Larson recalls.

A recent four-story project for an oil and gas service company required a sustainable approach. The customer’s goal was to be as energy efficient as possible, and Builders Choice delivered, including features such as “super insulated” walls, high efficiency boilers, and LED lights throughout. The team even created a grey water recovery system that collects wastewater from showers and other sources, filters and cleans it, then recycles that water for non-potable uses. “The whole thing is highly energy efficient,” Mr. Larson reports. “They are probably running that building on less than half the utility costs of a similar building without all those features in it.”

The team’s willingness to learn from and collaborate with customers on tough projects has been key. When the team begins a job, they listen to the people who have lived and worked in that project’s specific location, adding their knowledge to their customers’ feedback to create a solution that really works. “People that have been up there for years know what works and what doesn’t work,” Mr. Larson points out. “The reason that we have been successful at it is because we became really good students.”

Respecting the customer’s experience and knowledge fits in well with the company’s underlying philosophy. “We live by the golden rule that you treat other people like you want to be treated.” This commitment extends to employees as well. “We feel like we are family. We value our people and our people do know that they are valued as individuals.”

Indeed, the company recognizes employee efforts and encourages them to do their best. “Our growth is promoted through the talent and we do reward that. We really do look to our people to help make our solutions work.” Employees are so valued, in fact, that when the company encountered rocky times during the recession, management unanimously agreed to take a pay cut rather than lay anyone off. Builders Choice weathered the storm, and salaries quickly returned to normal. “We paid them back by the end of the year.”

The team’s skill set and emphasis on quality, flexibility, and overcoming logistical challenges has earned Builders Choice steady growth. In fact, the team recently opened a branch location in South Dakota to meet customer demand. “One of the reasons we moved down there is because customers that we did work for in Alaska wanted us to build in South Dakota,” Mr. Larson explains. These customers wanted to buy more from Builders Choice “because of the reputation that we had for building product that met the demands of the environments that we are in.”

Even more expansion is on the table. After years of working in remote locations and extreme environments, the team has a lot of advice to offer. Therefore, the next step may be to launch a consulting division. “We have developed a lot of great experience, so we have become natural consultants for a lot of people, especially as they go into feasibility studies.” The team is also considering adding a leasing division in order to supply product to more customers.

Adding these two services brings Builders Choice two steps closer to providing a turnkey solution. “We’ve been working a lot in the last year and a half on being full service providers. So we’ve been providing not only the fabrication and the engineering but we have actually done the delivery, installation, warranties, and all the field follow-through as well, instead of using subcontractors. [We want to] provide a complete, turnkey solution and then provide financing, leasing – whatever is needed by the customer.” Already able to conquer Alaska’s toughest extremes, the company’s expanding reach is sure to bring even more success.



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