On-Site Magazine

Preparation holds key to success


Infrastructure Skills Development

Despite harsh northern climate, joint venture constructs award-winning $237M hospital and residential care facility in northern B.C.

Located in northeastern British Columbia and northwestern Alberta, the Peace Country region of Canada is commonly known for its handful of oil and gas towns situated along the southernmost stretch of the Alaska Highway. The region is also synonymous for an unforgiving winter season, which can last up to six months with temperatures dropping as low as -30 degrees C. 

It’s in this rural western part of the country that a British Columbian city of 18,600 was recently thrust into the national spotlight for a much different industry: health care. Situated about 65-km west of the British Columbia-Alberta border, Fort St. John, B.C. is the proud home of the $237-million Fort St. John Hospital and Peace Villa residential care facility that was built through a joint venture by Acciona/Stuart Olson Dominion from the summer of 2009 to May 2012. 

The 330,000-sq.-ft. facility won the Vancouver Regional Construction Association’s (VRCA) top honour in the general contractor more than $40 million category at the 25th Annual VCRA Awards of Excellence gala, held on Oct. 17 at the Vancouver Convention Centre West. 

One of the largest social infrastructure developments in northern Canada, the P3 project consisted of building a three-floor, 55-bed hospital with three operating rooms, an intensive care unit, birthing centre, emergency room, endoscopy suite, training facility for the University of British Columbia, pharmacy, labs and a 123-bed residential care facility connected to the hospital. 


The integrated health centre achieved LEED gold certification with the implementation of sustainable features including: stormwater retention, surface water management, use of natural light, high energy-efficiency, reduction of volatile organic compounds and noise reduction acoustics. 

Pulling off a project of this magnitude in a remote town such as Fort St. John involved plenty of planning and preparation, says Mike Bebbington, Acciona’s senior project manager. 

“When you’re working as far up north as Fort St. John, it’s very important that you schedule the work to be done before that winter sets in when you’re dealing in bulk excavation and foundation work.” 


Bebbington says the contract was originally supposed to be signed in July 2009, but they were able to secure an early works agreement. “There was no way that we could do bulk excavation, put the foundations in, build the steel frame on top and wrap the building in its cladding in that one summer season,” he says. “We really had to think, how do we protect the foundation while the steel is being made over the winter ready for the next spring?” The answer: a “heated blanket.” 

The team continued to dig and pour the foundation, and in October a hydronic heating system—“miles and miles of pipework”—was brought in. The system was similar to the radiant floor heating slabs in a residential home, except significantly larger. 

“Imagine that on a massive scale of maybe 60,000 sq. ft.,” he says. “We were just heating it to one degree C. It’s just a matter of keeping the frost away.” Frost in that part of the country can reach six feet deep. 

Because the ground was kept from freezing, work, albeit a scaled back amount, continued during the winter months. On good days, a lot of the underground pipework could be done as well. 

Much of the bulk excavation was retained and used as berms to protect against the wind—which also meant a lot of excavated materials weren’t being transported off the site. 

“We did a complete wind study on the building so we knew where snowdrifts would be, which direction exhaust from the building would go and what the air flow was going to be like,” explains Bebbington. 


With the first winter behind them and the foundation now in place, full-scale work resumed in the spring of 2010 as steel started arriving on-site. Construction moved from west to east with the steel structure, and since it was a P3 project, the actual designing and building were done very close together. 

“We divided the hospital and residential care centre into many phases or areas. We had to marry how we were going to do the design and how we were going to build it,” says Bebbington. “You have to basically manage the design schedule to meet the end date of the construction schedule.” 

The first part of the steel structure to be completed was the mechanical and electrical rooms in the basement, before moving onto the maternity unit on the floor above. 

“If you look at the entire building, the maternity unit was actually complete with the doors shut in June 2011,” he says. 

Throughout the second summer season, the goal was to try and get the entire building enclosed—exterior walls, windows and roofing. 

“That target was pretty tough to do. I’d say we managed to enclose about 80 per cent of the building.” That allowed them to work inside a controlled environment heading into the second winter season. 

Following the maternity unit, the remainder of the facility was built in phases over the next two years: the operating rooms, surgical services, intensive care unit, emergency room, diagnostic imaging and ambulatory care. The entire project was completed in May 2012. 


If the climate weren’t challenging enough, there was also the task of finding a few hundred skilled trades people to work on the three-year project in northern Canada. 

“The biggest challenge was actually location. The trade shortage was quite great,” says Bebbington. “The majority of the trades and companies in the Fort St. John area are very industrial. They’re not really used to building a 330,000-sq.-ft. hospital institutional building.” 

Most of the workers were brought in from the lower mainland British Columbia, Edmonton and Calgary. Acciona/Stuart Olson also instituted an apprenticeship program, hiring trades students from the local Northern Lights College, and there were a handful of workers from the U.K., and even one Australian. During peak construction, there were as many as 350 workers on-site. 

But it wasn’t only workers that had to be brought in from out of town. Most of the construction materials had to be sourced from two main hubs: Vancouver and Edmonton, to keep in line with LEED gold standards, which specifies using regional materials for construction. Fortunately, they were able to use wood from a local lumber mill to build the entire 93,000-sq.-ft. structure of the residential care facility. 

“We noticed when we were doing research in Fort St. John that there was a huge lumber mill up there so we thought it would be nice to give back to the community,” he says. 


For their hard work, planning and adherence to environmental stand
ards, the Vancouver construction community decided to give back to the Acciona/Stuart Olson construction team by awarding them first place in the general contractor more than $40 million category at this year’s VRCA awards. 

The joint venture was an excellent example of how partnering can achieve a world-class result, says Fiona Famulak, president of the VRCA. The facility was 25 per cent more energy efficient than the standard set by the model national energy code for buildings. It had a waste management plan that resulted in 75 per cent reduction and made good use of l ocal materials—particularly pine beetle wood. 

“And the fact that’s it’s built that far north, there are obviously major weather challenges and they were able to work with them and around them,” she says. 

Each year, beginning in January with a call for nominations, the VRCA begins a lengthy evaluation process for reviewing award candidates, which includes visiting the actual jobsites and testing the overall project against eight criteria: five “macro” and three “micro.” 

Macro criteria include the financial performance, schedule, value engineering, challenges and sustainable construction. For micro, the VRCA evaluates safety practices, site communication and material management. 

“The project either met or exceeded the criteria,” says Famulak. “It was a unanimous winner.” 

When asked for his reaction about the construction team of Acciona/Stuart Olson winning a gold medal award at the VCRA awards, Bebbington was quick to credit the workers, who he says really bought into the project and went above and beyond what was expected. 

“It’s really recognition of all the people that worked on that project, every single trade worker,” he says. “There were a lot of people that took time away from their families to do this project. It was quite remarkable how important this project became to the workers and it was very close to their hearts.” 

To watch a video about the Fort St. John Hospital and Peace Villa residential care project click here.


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