North America’s urgent infrastructure needs continue to increase, and Flatiron Construction Corp. has become an industry leader in successfully delivering on what Senior Project Manager Ken Tanner calls “mega-infrastructure projects.” “What differentiates Flatiron in the industry is the work that we do and the large design/build and P3 projects that we take on,” he adds. “We manage them through alternative delivery methods.”
For more than six decades, the Richmond, British Columbia-based division of Flatiron has worked for a wide range of clients throughout North America. Its strong management team and proven procedures have enabled Flatiron to safely deliver projects on time and on budget. The company’s in-house engineers work closely with clients to create safe, cost-effective solutions with minimal environmental impacts because it self-performs a majority of the field work. “The best way to control a project’s safety, cost, schedule and quality is to perform as much of the work as possible with your own forces,” the company says.
Flatiron uses a variety of procurement methods to deliver projects, including public-private partnerships (P3), design/build and bid/build projects. With an annual construction volume of more than $1 billion, Flatiron develops innovative solutions to build roads, bridges, highways, rail transit, runways, dams, water treatment, power generation, storage facilities and, most recently, transmission lines. “The biggest differentiator for us is our alternative delivery methods,” Tanner says. “We have a number of different market lines, but our bread and butter is transportation.”
Flatiron has performed power generation work before, but BC Hydro’s Interior to Lower Mainland (ILM) Transmission Lines project in British Columbia was its first transmission project. The ILM transmission project consisted of constructing a new 255-kilometer transmission line that connects British Columbia’s interior to the lower mainland. The line is now up and running between the Nicola Substation near Merrit and the Meridian Substation near Vancouver in Coquitlam.
“It has a lot of the same aspects to it that our other large design/build projects have in terms of managing the design, compressed construction schedules and material procurement, but it was different in a few aspects,” Tanner notes. “With transmission lines there is a huge forestry component, which includes harvesting the trees on the line right-of-way; that’s a little different than our typical transportation projects. A lot of those transportation projects have a clearing component, but not on this scale.”
The foundation work associated with the ILM project was similar to civil work Flatiron has performed in the past, but erecting the lattice steel towers and stringing conductor cable was new work for the company. “We had a dedicated subcontractor that does that kind of work to perform that on our behalf,” Tanner says.
Just completed in mid-October, the ILM Transmission project is an upgrade to the original system built by BC Hydro in the mid-1970s to meet future demands for power, especially during the winter months when electricity use peaks. This is the first 500-kilovolt transmission line built in western Canada in more than 25 years, according to Flatiron, and the project took four years to complete.
Flatiron was selected as the design/build contractor in November 2011 and the project was completed in October 2015 – one year later than anticipated. “The line is now ready for use to transmit hydroelectric power in interior British Columbia to the market and for the export market,” Tanner says. “British Columbia is a power exporter and a lot of power comes through to go to the United States.”
The new 500-kilovolt transmission line lies mostly along an existing right-of-way through flat agricultural lands, mountains and rolling hills. “Starting in Merritt, British Columbia with rolling hill pasture land, the line goes north towards the west and up over 6,000-foot peaks, down into Fraser Canyon, back up the mountains and back down almost to sea level in Meridian, a suburb of Vancouver,” Tanner explains.
Accessing the sites through the various terrains was a challenge and certain tower locations were accessible only via helicopter. “It’s rare that helicopters are used in support of transportation projects, but given the terrain, they were a necessity on this project,” Tanner says. “We used smaller to mid-sized helicopters to transport personnel and light equipment.”
An Erickson Aircrane was used for heavy-lift operations, including erecting the steel towers. The Portland, Ore.-based company says its Aircrane has a rated lift capacity of up to 25,000 pounds and a unique aft-facing pilot station that allows it to develop a cost-effective transmission line construction system. “The steel towers were put up by helicopter and that was something fairly unique to this project for us,” Tanner says. “It is commonplace in transmission line work, but it was pretty interesting getting to see that Erickson Aircrane work in the mountains erecting the towers.”
Visibility was a key factor in using helicopters to perform work on the transmission lines, so the sky had to be clear or the teams had to wait until the clouds parted. Flatiron also had to manage scheduling the construction of the ILM project in different weather conditions.
“It’s wet in the Pacific Northwest, so we put in place various protocols for working in wet weather and made sure we monitored rainfall to ensure it was appropriate to use access roads and get to the work,” Tanner explains. “In the cold weather, there were parts of the project where you get 50 feet of snow in the winter. In that type of situation there were windows we didn’t work.”
Many hundreds of kilometers of the ILM transmission lines weave through forest and back country roads on private land, which required coordination with land owners.
“That access required close coordination with numerous private land owners, as well as the First Nations communities,” Tanner says. “I think there were more than 60 First Nations communities that were consulted as part of the project and we worked with them throughout construction. Anytime you have a nearly 250-kilometer-long line over various terrains there are various stakeholders interested in how that land gets used and it’s a challenge.”
Before construction began, BC Hydro was responsible for tendering the project and obtaining permits. Once it was tendered, Flatiron was responsible for the design/build, finalizing exactly what was going to be built and selecting the final alignment for the transmission line. The company also kept stakeholders informed of its activities throughout construction.
At the peak of construction on the ILM transmission project, 500 Flatiron people were working on the project and overseeing numerous subcontractors. The company self-performed a majority of the work on the project, but called in subcontractors with expertise in areas such as forestry and conductor stringing to help it complete the ILM transmission lines. “Some subcontractors we have worked with in the past and some were new partnerships,” Tanner says. “I’d say that if we do another project of this type that we will have the opportunity to work with them again.”
Maintaining safety on the ILM project was a high priority for Flatiron, but also a challenge because the work was spread out in various types of terrain. “We had Flatiron forces, subcontractor forces and owners working in the back country of British Columbia, so maintaining communication and coordination between them all was vital,” Tanner says. “Being able to communicate was something we invested heavily in.”
Flatiron partnered with New Zealand-based TracPlus for satellite support and emergency response systems because there was no cell phone service in a lot of the areas.
“We had two-way radios that covered a fair portion of the project,” Tanner notes. “We had to make sure we had another viable means to communicate what was going on with the job.”
In addition to coordinating people and safety on the ILM Transmission project, Flatiron had to oversee the procurement of materials from all over the world. “We partnered with a company in India for the fabrication of the lattice steel towers that came over in shipping containers,” Tanner says. “The towers were made from a special grade of steel that met cold weather testing requirements in the southeastern United States. It was milled in Luxembourg, Germany, shipped to India for fabrication and then shipped to Canada for installation. The towers traversed the globe before it got to the project.”
Being the Best
“This was a pretty spectacular job and an enormous project,” Tanner notes. “There were lots of different people and companies involved and I’m proud of the team that was put together to deliver this line.”
Flatiron and BC Hydro are working together again on the Ruskin Dam and Powerhouse upgrade project in Ruskin, British Columbia, which is expected to be completed in 2017. The facility is being upgraded to make it safer, better able to withstand an earthquake and more efficient. Flatiron also submitted a bid to BC Hydro for the Site C Dam project, an $8.3 billion large-scale earth fill hydroelectric dam on the Peace River in northeast British Columbia. “As far as I am aware, Site C is the largest project undertaken by BC Hydro,” Tanner notes.
Moving forward, Flatiron will continue to develop its design/build and public-private partnership portfolio in the United States and Canada. “There is an enormous need for infrastructure development in North America and we are pretty well positioned to deliver those large infrastructure projects for various clients,” Tanner says. “We are working in both eastern and western Canada and the United States, but will go wherever our clients have these large capital projects that need to be delivered. It’s been good work for us.”