Is Concrete a Good Choice in Northern Canadian Communities?

October 15, 2021

Concrete is one of the most common building materials besides wood. It's been around for thousands of years, and it's enabled humanity to construct some of our greatest achievements. Not only was it used to raise mighty structures, it served as an important building foundation. Truly, we owe much to the incredible power of concrete.

There's just one problem...

Concrete is not the best foundation material for Northern communities.

The problems start with simply trying to transport the material into the community. You likely know that nearly everything that ends up in a Northern community has to be trucked in, usually on ice roads. That means the heavier the shipment, the more money it costs to get it to the community. Considering the immense weight of concrete, it makes sense that concrete is one of the most expensive building materials to ship.

Combine that with the fact that concrete will quickly harden and spoil if left outside or in the wrong conditions, and you can see why it's an expensive and difficult material for Northern communities.

So, what's the alternative to concrete foundations in Northern, remote, and Indigenous communities?

A Concrete Pain

Concrete is commonly used in Northern communities, especially for structural foundations. However, just because something is commonly used doesn't mean it's the best option. The biggest reason concrete is so common is simply because contractors and construction companies are most familiar with it.

Problem is, using concrete for foundations in Northern communities makes very little sense. The climate and soil conditions in these communities are dramatically more challenging than any other place in Canada. You can't approach construction projects with the same inefficient tactics - you need to evolve.

(Image: An example of a home destroyed by the effects of frost heave [stock image]. While this is an extreme example, it's evidence of the enormous power frost exerts on building foundations.)

Some of the challenges of using concrete in Northern communities are:

  • It's heavy
  • It's expensive to ship
  • If not stored in exactly the right conditions, it can harden and spoil
  • It's difficult to split-up and batch on-site for different jobs
  • When used as a foundation material, it can struggle to resist the brutal climate and soil conditions
  • It's difficult and expensive to remove concrete and remediate the site
  • Concrete is not environmentally-friendly, and in fact accounts for up to 4% - 8% of the world's CO2

Those downsides are more than inconveniences. They can be major problems for a community, especially because construction budgets are always limited. Every extra expense or waste means less money for other community projects.

So, if concrete isn't the ideal material for foundations, what is?

Helical Piles - A Solution?

Helical pile foundations (also known as screw pile foundations) are an alternative to concrete foundations that's fast becoming popular in Northern communities. They're used across the globe in nearly every environment you can think of. However, they've quickly become a go-to alternative to concrete foundations due to their extreme performance in the toughest conditions possible.

At VersaPile, we've installed helical pile foundations for projects in Fisher River Cree Nation, Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Mishkeegogamang, and Long Plain - to name a few. They've gone under everything from hotels and multi-family homes to single family homes and education centers.

VersaPile Helical Pile Foundation for Early Childhood Education Center in Tataskweyak Cree Nation

(Image: A collage of images from one of VersaPile's projects; installing a helical pile foundation for an Early Childhood Education center in the Tataskweyak Cree Nation)

Outside of Northern communities, helical piles are seeing wide-spread adoption under everything from boat docks to apartment buildings. They're not a niche technology or passing fad. Helical piles are an established, tested, proven foundation technology.

But why do helical piles make sense for Northern communities?

First, helical piles are much lighter to ship than concrete. Here's a quick example. If you wanted to support a duplex on helical piles, you'd need about 48 piles. The weight of 48 helical piles for a project like that? Roughly 4800lbs - thousands of pounds less than a comparable concrete foundation. The end result? It's dramatically more cost-effective to ship helical piles for building foundations.

Helical piles are also easier to split up and batch for different jobs. Planning to build a few different projects? Order all your piles at once and divide them up as needed. Because helical piles don't spoil like concrete can, you can store the piles outside with no concerns.

You can also install helical piles faster and easier than concrete foundations, and with a smaller crew. It only takes a few trained workers to install helical piles, and they can work exponentially faster than pouring concrete. Plus, the only equipment required is a humble skidsteer, mini excavator, or other piece of hydraulic equipment. For many communities, this means they can use equipment they already own.

(Image: An Indigenous contractor installing a helical pile using a skidsteer)

Finally, helical pile foundations withstand harsh winter conditions and poor soil better than other solutions. This is a big topic all on its own, so we won't get into it here. If you want to know more about the longevity of helical piles, click here to read our blog post on the topic. The short of it is, a helical pile foundation can last upwards of 200 years in the ground. No, that's not a typo.

In short, helical piles represent a better foundation solution for Northern communities. Resistance to spoilage, better effeciency, and higher performance are a few reasons more communities than ever are interested in them. Whether it's helical piles for homes, community buildings, or recreational structures, they often make more sense.

Conclusion

When it comes to the unique and challenging conditions Northern communities face, helical piles are ready to rise to the ocassion. Not only do helical piles provide a sturdy foundation for generations, they're more affordable and less hassle than concrete.

Curious how helical piles could be the right choice for your community? Click here to book a 30-minute meeting with one of our friendly foundation experts. We're not interested in selling you our products or services. We just want to make sure Northern communities are getting the support they deserve.

 


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