Why Commercial Construction is Getting More Expensive in Rural Canada (4 Reasons)

December 29, 2022

If you're planning, managing, or working on, a building project in rural Canada, you know it's getting increasingly expensive. Our punishing climate, demanding soil conditions, and lack of infrastructure, combined with historic inflation, are pushing the costs of construction higher than ever before.

Whether you're trying to build a telecommunications tower in a rural northern community or a utility line through rocky Canadian shield, this country will fight you every step of the way.

If you're not prepared for the demands of remote construction in Canada, the result is usually:

  • Slow progress due to unexpected conditions
  • Budget overruns from change orders
  • Missing timelines because of weather delays
  • Increased costs for every aspect of the project

At VersaPile we've engineered and installed thousands of foundations for a huge range of projects in remote and rural areas of Central Canada. Through mud, mosquitos, and misery, we've learned (more than) a few things about the... "unique" challenges of rural construction.

More importantly, we've learned how to overcome those obstacles.

In today's post, I'm going to share 4 primary factors that are making construction in rural Canada expensive... and what you can do to beat these challenging factors to save money, increase efficiency, and build better.

4 Factors That Make Construction in Rural Canada Expensive

Ever heard of "Murphy's law"?

It goes like this:

"If anything can go wrong, it will."

I don't think the phrase was coined by a Canadian contractor, but it could have been. Construction projects are constant victims of Murphy's law. You can make the most detailed, precise, and perfect plans... only to have them undone by a single rainstorm or early snow.

This extremely muddy site presented some challenges for our team to push through, but because we anticipated adverse conditions we weren't caught off-guard

While we can't control all the possible obstacles or surprises, we can work to better understand the obstacles and plan how to effectively respond to them.

After years of dealing with the unexpected on jobsites, here's 4 major factors you have to deal with if you want your project to stay on-time and on-budget.

Weather

Ah yes, a Canadian's favourite topic to talk about... (or more accurately, complain about).

The weather.

I think the reason we like talking about the weather so much is because, well, there's always something to talk about. This is a beautiful country, but we have our fair share of wild climate. From sweltering 40C heat to a bone-shattering -45C deep-freeze, we have to be ready for practically any condition here.

To put it another way: few inhabited places on planet earth experience the kind of 100C+ temperature variations between seasons that we have in some parts of Canada.

From frigid blizzards to baking heat, no matter what climate you prefer the odds are you'll find it in Canada

But, temperature is only part of the equation when it comes to our climate here.

Canada's climate also includes...

  • Frost line over 10ft deep in areas
  • Permafrost
  • Violent storms
  • Ice buildup
  • Severe winds
  • Floods
  • Droughts
  • Humidity
  • Tornadoes
  • Hurricanes
  • Earthquakes

...you get the idea.

This dynamic and extreme climate doesn't only make for good conversation at the grocery store. It has an enormous effect on the performance, longevity, safety, and cost, of your building projects.

Think about the immense forces your structure and its foundation will have to endure. It's no wonder foundation failure is common here.

The climate constantly batters everything we build.

No matter what you're building or where you're building it, our climate will have an outsized effect on every aspect of your project.

Geography

Canada has difficult soil. There's no way to sugar-coat it, avoid it, or ignore it. It's not a surprise that foundation failure is so common here when you consider the tough soil conditions a deep foundation actually faces.

Throughout much of Central Canada we have soils with high clay content that tend to be poorly draining. This causes a soil condition known as expansive soils.

When soil with heavy clay gets wet, the moisture causes the clay to expand (swell). As the clay dries, the lack of moisture makes it shrink. This swell/shrink characteristic is why it's called expansive soil.

If your soil presents this type of surface cracking during dry conditions, it could be indicative of expansive soil hiding underneath

This active soil creates serious structural challenges for your foundation.

If you've seen a structure that's lifted, sunk, or broken apart, you've likely seen the results of expansive soil. The reason it's so dangerous for your foundation is because of the enormous stress expansive soil can exert (over 5,000 PSF).

As the soil swells/shrinks, it can force your foundation upwards or cause it to sink. It doesn't take much movement to cause dramatic foundation issues or even a complete failure.

Potholes are a common example of the destructive power of frost as it causes expansion and contraction

Certain types of deep foundations are more prone to the effects of expansive soil than others, such as concrete piles. But, regardless of the specific foundation type, anything that goes into the ground has to be ready to deal with extreme soil conditions.

Not all of Canada is mud and clay, of course. Other areas have rocky soils, shallow refusal, loose sand, or other challenging conditions. When it comes to laying the foundation for your project, you'll likely find yourself fighting the geography of our country in some way.

That's not to sound discouraging, of course. There's ways to overcome our unique and difficult geography. But, we'll get to the solutions soon.

Remoteness

Canada is one of the least-densely populated countries in the world, averaging just 4.27 people per square km.

That's great if you like having space to spread out, but it makes construction in rural regions expensive and complicated.

It's no secret that infrastructure in rural areas is far from perfect. Our weather makes maintaining roads and highways a costly task. The more remote your jobsite, the tougher it'll be to get materials, equipment, and personnel there.

Imagine installing a power transmission line in a rugged wilderness area. The site is hours from a major population center. Access can only be made down primitive "roads" that are barely visible among the mud and rocks. Your geotechnical report indicates the soil is poorly supportive and highly expansive. Come winter, the arctic deep freeze will relentlessly attack the entire structure and foundation.

In remote and northern communities the ability to install high-capacity foundations with comparably lightweight equipment makes them an ideal solution

This isn't some worst-case example I cooked up to sound good in a blog post. Those are the real conditions thousands of kilometers of hydro transmission lines across Canada endure.

My point is, the sheer remoteness that defines much of our province also defines the cost of your construction project. The further you have to travel and the more weight you have to carry, the more complex and costly your project becomes.

Lack of Experience Among Contractors

Canada has plenty of fantastic contractors that work hard to deliver the best possible work for their customers. I'm not here to talk about contractors who understand the complexities of construction in rural or remote areas of Canada.

I'm here to talk about the contractors who aren't cut out to handle the demands of rural construction in Canada.

Construction projects are like complex machines. Countless moving parts all have to work together to deliver success. If that project is in a rural area outside Winnipeg, another layer of complexity is added.

Think about some of the factors we've looked at. Weather, geography, remoteness. Each of those factors are complex and difficult to overcome. When you combine them, plus factors we didn't talk about, you start to get an idea of how demanding rural construction can be.

Not all contractors are cut-out to overcome these factors.

Some contractors may talk a good game, but when they run into tough environments or bad surprises they fall to pieces. You could have the best materials, products, and plan... one unprepared contractor can throw it all into chaos.

When you're assessing contractors, don't just look at their skill as a contractor. They might do excellent work but do they have the knowledge, ability, and equipment, to work in remote areas? Are they experienced in rural construction? Just because a contractor is good at building doesn't mean they're good at building in rural conditions.

As much as one unprepared contractor can cause disaster, one good contractor can drive your project to success.

Make Your Rural Construction Project Faster & More Affordable

Alright, alright, I promise the tough news is over.

Now comes the good news:

You can make your rural construction project faster and more affordable. Yes, you. No magic, no rocket science, no snake oil. I'm not selling a 10-step plan or consulting services.

All you need is the right knowledge.

Knowledge is what will help you overcome the tough conditions, challenging climate, and demanding terrain, of rural Canada.

Here's 4 simple ways you can build your projects faster, stronger, and more affordably, no matter where you're jobsite is located.

Know Your Soil

If you remember just one piece of advice from this article, it would be to know your soil. I can't say enough how vital this concept is to your project.

You see, your soil conditions will dictate your foundation.

Your foundation will dictate how the rest of your project goes.

How can you know your soil? With a quality geotechnical report. These reports give you a more clear picture of the soil conditions under your jobsite. Everything from soil composition to bearing capacity can be illuminated by a geotechnical investigation.

The soil conditions under your feet are complex and ever-changing, so a quality geotechnical report is critical to your project's success

While these reports aren't infallible, they're absolutely key to designing a strong and safe foundation that will last for years. Otherwise, you're diving in completely blind and without any idea of what you'll find.

Would you board a plane flown by a pilot who doesn't even know what airport to fly to?

Unfortunately, there's some foundation contractors out there who are happily flying blind. They downplay, or ignore, geotech reports and instead prefer to rely on "their skill". High on confidence but short on real skill, if the soil conditions are bad the contractor will pretend it's a huge unexpected surprise.

Technically, the bad soil conditions are an unexpected surprise, because the contractor wasn't responsible enough to listen to a good geotech report.

This behavior makes me angry, because it's completely avoidable and only ends up costing the customer (that's you) in the end. Having good relationships with quality geotechnical engineers is better for the contractor and the customer.

As foundation contractors it helps us design and install safe, accurate, economical foundations.

As a customer it ensures you don't pay for costly change orders because your contractor didn't understand the soil conditions.

Know your soil!

It's going to affect the safety, performance, and longevity, of your structure. The better your contractor understands the soil conditions, the better your project will be in every aspect.

Be (Actually) Prepared for the Worst

It's easy to underestimate Canada. You might even be thinking right now that I'm being dramatic. Blowing things out of proportion in order to make my point.

I'm not.

Canada can, will, and does, throw curve-balls. Harsh weather, demanding soil conditions, isolated jobsites, even swarms of insects or dangerous wildlife, make rural construction unlike anything else. It's why cost overruns, delays, and plenty of headaches, are common with this kind of construction.

Unexpected weather is one of the many curveballs nature can toss your way during construction in Canada

We all know it's a good idea to "plan for the worst", but what does that really mean? Consider things like:

  • Build-in extra budget to account for unexpected costs, especially if your geotechnical investigation indicates difficult conditions
  • Don't plan your timeline so tight that you have no way to account for small delays to deal with surprises
  • Make sure you have your paperwork, permits, and other red-tape, completely dealt with before you move on your project. While building authorities are often easier to work with in rural areas, you don't want to jump the gun
  • Build good relationships with your contractors and have honest discussions with them about potential challenges. They (should) be experienced in rural areas, so they'll have their own tips and tricks for making things run smooth
  • Many issues occur because of poor communication, so keep an open-line between you and your contractor. Having conversations about issues (or potential issues) when they appear is the best way to quickly and painlessly resolve them

Avoid the "Usual Way" Trap

There's usually more than one way of doing something. Unfortunately, we tend to fall into the same patterns of familiarity. This can lead us to choose the wrong product, technology, or solution, simply because it's the way we've "always done it".

We can see this effect in our everyday lives. Some people faithfully get a coffee at Tim Horton's every single morning. They never consider going to Starbucks or McDonald's. Why? Maybe it's because they really love Tim Horton's coffee. More likely, it's because they've been doing it for years and their brain has formed a pattern - a habit.

Problem is these patterns and habits go beyond our choice of morning coffee. They affect every aspect of our lives, including our work. Worse still, they affect our judgement without us ever being consciously aware of it.

In the construction industry, we see these patterns and habits push people to choose technologies or solutions that aren't the best fit. Because it's the "usual way" of doing things, our brain prefers to use the "known solution" instead of trying something new and unknown.

Here's the danger of the usual way trap:

Every single project is unique.

You could build five communications towers with the exact same design and still have five completely different experiences with each. That's why construction is an exciting and dynamic industry to work in - there's always a new question to answer.

This communication tower needed to be installed in close proximity to outbuildings and equipment, but for our operators it was just another 'day at the office'

The problem appears when we try to apply the same solution to all our projects. If no two projects are alike, can we expect to use the same solutions and have them succeed every single time?

Nope.

You have to be open-minded about exploring different technologies or solutions. Our world is constantly changing, evolving, and advancing. The idea that we can ignore those forces of change is a total fantasy.

I'm not talking about going out to find the newest, hottest technology. Living on the bleeding-edge can be just as disastrous as staying stuck in your ways.

What I'm talking about is being unafraid to investigate (and implement) solutions that are new to you. It could be that the answer to one of your big questions is right next to you and you don't even know it.

Of course, actually finding these solutions and assessing if they're beneficial to your project can be a task all on its own.

Which leads us to the final tactic we'll look at today for making your rural construction project better...

Lean On Experts

This is a tough one for a lot of us. Asking for help or advice doesn't come naturally to a lot of people. Unfortunately, this tendency to be independent can also hurt us if we take it too far and never ask someone for help or advice.

One of the many valuable lessons I've learned is that people (mostly) want to help each other. That's how humans are hard-wired, to give a helping hand (or some helpful advice).

I'll give you an example from my company, VersaPile.

Our team often takes calls from engineers, contractors, and more, who are looking for answers to their foundation piling questions. My team is happy to take the time to answer questions and offer advice where we can, regardless if they hire us or not. Why? Because I believe it's the right thing to do, and we're happy to do it.

Fact is many other businesses are also (generally) happy to offer advice or answer questions. If you're polite and respectful of people's time, you'll find a lot of people are willing to talk to you. Those resources can be an absolute gold mine of tips, insights, and valuable networking.

All you have to do is ask. And look, if you do run into a business that tells you to get lost... at least you know their character!

Remember that asking questions or seeking advice doesn't make you stupid, annoying, or a rookie. It means you're confident enough to admit when you have a gap in your knowledge and you want to fill it in.

Conclusion

I would never want to change our Canadian climate, even if I could. The weather and geography that make it so difficult to build here also make this province beautiful and wild.

Thankfully, even though we have rough and tumble conditions, your project isn't completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. Unlike the engineers and planners of old, we have the technology and resources to overcome the challenges of our rough environment.

You just have to know how to take advantage of them.

At this point, I'd be irresponsible if I didn't invite you to get in touch with our team at VersaPile and lean on our experts for your foundation questions. We've installed thousands of rock-solid foundations under essential projects in some of the toughest environments Central Canada can offer.

We've learned what it takes to put rural projects on the right foundation in this province, and we're happy to share our knowledge with you. Click here to contact our team of friendly, certified foundation experts.

 


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