Unlike other regions in the country, winter weather is not conducive to construction in Minnesota. In late 2020, we experienced record snow falls and cold weather in October that caught many off guard.
Let’s look at what happens to construction in winter, as well as key issues to keep in mind for cold-weather operations. This will help you determine best practices to meet the demands of upcoming projects and keep you out of the cold.
There are many variables to consider so that a construction project will be completed on time when working in winter weather conditions. A few cold-weather questions we think about when approaching a new project:
- Will an early snow delay the project?
- Can construction continue in the winter?
- Should construction be done in the winter?
Snowstorms, blizzards, and other unpredictable seasonal hazards play havoc with our best-laid plans. Patience is key. Budgeting time and money for these contingencies must be a primary concern before embarking on a winter construction project. This will ensure the project is viable despite the possibility of time loss and setbacks.
One benefit to consider, however, is that the construction industry in northern climates tends to slow down in the winter months. This can sometimes work in your favor, as many trade contractors are not as bogged down with projects and have more flexibility in their schedules. This means we can offset some of the potential weather delays, as well as not competing with other construction projects for the same labor resources.
Ground freeze can easily run as much as 12 inches deep in the coldest of winters. Cutting through frozen soil is a major challenge for construction projects, even when using heavy digging equipment like excavators. Underground site utilities, such as sanitary, storm, and water lines, must be installed before ground freeze. Once the ground is deeply frozen, this work must wait until spring. This has the potential of putting the entire project on hold. A well-managed construction timeline from beginning to end is paramount to success. This will also help minimize additional costs due to weather complications.
One way we prevent ground freeze is the use of blanketing and ground thaw machines. Ground Thaw Machines heat a mix of glycol and water and pass the solution through rubber hoses. These hoses are laid on the frozen ground and covered with blanketing for a few days. This thaws the ground enough to make it pliable for excavation. Once the hard crust of ground freeze is removed, excavation further down can carry on more easily. It is always a good idea to have blanketing ready to install when the air temperature dips below freezing to prevent ground freeze in the first place.
Nearly every construction project has a need for concrete. From foundation and footing work, to sidewalks, to monument signs, and even slabs on grade, it is one of the essentials to a ground-up build. We typically try to complete concrete work before the heart of winter hits, but occasionally that does not happen.
Placing concrete in winter comes with many challenges and, if done incorrectly, issues will be noticeable when the ground begins to thaw in spring. That is why it is essential to have a cold weather concrete plan to ensure proper concrete placement during cold temperatures. Concrete emits a huge amount of heat when it is first laid down and throughout the curing process. To properly cure, concrete has specific temperature requirements. In colder temperatures, we take specific measures to ensure proper curing. These include the use of insulated concrete blankets to cover and heat the ground; helping to harness all that heat will ensure proper curing and prevent most issues. Under some circumstances, adding hot water and various additives to the concrete mix are necessary to assist with temperature control management.
Environmental factors for workers and material installation come at a cost on winter construction job sites. Fuel consumption increases significantly with equipment like mixers, on-site heaters, scaffolding and cover. Trade contractors, including concrete, masonry, and exterior finishes, all use some sort of fuel to heat and shelter their work. To successfully accomplish this, installation of temporary gas meters, gas lines, propane tanks, and even shelters must all be considered in advance.
The goal is to erect the building and make it watertight as quickly as possible. This means the walls are up, the roof is on, and exterior insulation is installed, along with windows and doors in place. Having the structure complete to the point where it can be heated and work can begin inside is critical in helping to control winter costs.
Heated enclosure for masonry work
Extreme winter weather can always pose potential risks to workers. It is essential that safety is considered when working on a job site. The building must be free of snow and ice, especially if working on the exterior. Proper clothing is critical. Gloves, coats, bibs, hats, insulated boots, and thermal base layers are all essential to ward off hypothermia and frost bite. It is important to keep in mind that progress on a site will be slower than summer, due to the extra precautions and safeguards workers need to put in place.
Invisible Time Costs
Imagine this. You pull into the jobsite just like any other day. Unfortunately, mother nature has dropped a significant amount of accumulating snow overnight. This snow will need to be removed (plowed) before work can safely start on your project.
Another often overlooked scenario is a worker trying to pull something out from his/her pocket during the cold winter months. Gloves and heavy, outer layers of winter protective gear must be removed before the pocket can be reached; only to reverse the process again once they are finished. An action that could have taken a few seconds in summer can take as much as a minute or two to accomplish. These are just two examples of invisible ways that working time can be extended during winter; there are many others.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to construction, proactive planning trumps all. Work must be completed with both worker safety and project integrity as the highest priorities. An experienced builder using best practices and skilled trades who have dealt with all types of winter weather is the key to success.
In short, while we may not be able to ensure that this winter will be mild, preparation is a critical component when it comes to construction before, during, and after the snow flies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Werner has been with Shingobee since December 2020 as Vice President in charge of the St. Cloud office. With over 20 years of progressive construction industry background focused on promoting and maintaining client relationships, Kevin is recognized for his adaptive leadership and team building aptitude. His variety of project experience stretches across multiple construction categories and sizes. Many of his projects incorporated high-profile stakeholder involvement and compliance, such as the U.S. Department of Justice, Indigenous groups, and Army Corps of Engineers.