How to Manage Winter Construction and Stay on Budget

Winter is coming. Every, single, year. Winter construction adds unique complexities to a project and can be a common source of budget creep, and timeline delays. Let’s explore the best way to stay on track when you’re forced to build in the winter.

Analyze your situation, is winter construction unavoidable?

Yes, we know this is a very obvious solution, but let’s not dismiss it just yet. Sometimes winter construction is unavoidable, but make sure you’ve explored your options before you opt for breaking ground during a Canadian winter. 

Make sure to have a cost-benefit analysis completed before breaking ground in the winter. It may be possible to move the construction up by a month and get the foundation in before the ground freezes. Or maybe it isn’t, but maybe you can delay it by a month and make up the time with an extra framing crew later in the project. 

Having experts on your side, including a construction management team, can help you look at your project from the big picture, and assess all of your options before proceeding with winter construction. They will look at your entire project, from start to finish, and weigh different factors such as required completion date, trades availability and cost, pre-construction requirements, your land mortgage, and any other factors that can drive the project timeline. With many moving parts to a project, we can often find a way to break ground outside of the winter, and avoid the expenses associated with pouring a concrete foundation in frozen ground. 

Whatever your project is, work with your construction management team to assess your options and make an educated decision. If winter construction is unavoidable, that’s okay, just make sure that it is in fact unavoidable, and that you are prepared for the costs associated with it.

Getting in the ground

Luckily, we are located in the Okanagan which affords us a smaller winter construction window when the ground is frozen. If you’re reading this from another region, be mindful of when the ground freezes in your area when considering this information. 

Generally speaking, groundwork and pouring the foundation does not require additional thawing equipment between April to November. However, if you have analyzed the project with your construction management team, and decided that indeed it makes the most sense to pour during the winter, it is important to go in eyes wide open about the different methods required to break ground in the winter months.

3. Equipment and Strategies

Heating and hoarding refer to creating an ambient air space, where you can simulate the warmer days, and continue with construction. A structure, the hoarding, is built air-tight above your construction area which is then heated. Air is circulated throughout the hoarding, and voila, concrete can now be safely poured and cured. While this is a great solution, it does come at a cost to keep that structure artificially heated, so your concrete will set properly. 

Depending on the size of the project, and the depth required to dig, thawing the ground directly is a quick and useful tactic to keep the crew on track. Ground thawing machines are typically set-up overnight and left running so the ground is adequately prepared for the next morning. Depending on the conditions, some machines can be required to run for multiple days. The larger the space required to thaw, the larger the machines, and thus the cost. 

Curing blankets, or insulated blankets, provide a wide range of duties in the wintertime that can help projects stay the course, no matter the weather conditions. Curing blankets range in size, thickness, and R-value – they insulate the ground from the cold air above, which is best when we see snow coming in the forecast, they can also keep tools from freezing, and can provide additional insulation when hoarding. These blankets can ensure that concrete cures properly without large temperature changes, and provide general insulation until the project moves to the inside of the building, or the weather forecast warms up.

The setting and curing of concrete is highly reactive to the temperatures around us, which makes foundation pouring more tricky in the winter. Thankfully, our local concrete mixers are great at adjusting the mix with different additives for the wintertime to accelerate the curing time for colder temperatures. Using the strategies and equipment laid out above makes it all possible to get concrete work done in the wintertime, but it does come with additional costs and considerations when compared to summer pouring.

Human Element, Preparation, and Safety

Frozen ground makes excavating and concrete pouring a more technical affair compared to other seasons. Yes, there is heating and hoarding, ground thawing machines, insulated blankets and other options at our disposal, but these are expensive and are slower relative to the same activities in warmer times of the year. There is also the human element. Truth is, your crew won’t be as fast in sub-zero temperatures. They will be wearing more clothing than ever and will also need to take brakes to warm up. 

When working in the winter months, especially during concrete pouring, additional prep work is required. Initially, of course, the ground needs to be thawed, which requires analysis into the soil conditions (how quickly the soil absorbs moisture will correlate to its freezing and thawing time), all of the equipment for thawing described above, and additional labour of actually executing the job in freezing conditions.

We can lastly not forget about safety! An icy, wet, or cold job site is a hazard to all of those working, and nobody wants an injury at work. Additional time and efforts are required to make sure walkways are clear of ice, equipment is operating at full capacity, and the crew is made fully aware of the additional hazards that exist when breaking ground in wintertime. 

When considering winter construction, the best solution is to always have a well-developed project plan, that includes your construction management team from the start of the project to help analyze the project to completion. If possible, avoid winter construction to save on costs and timing. However, sometimes the cost-benefits analysis tells us that, indeed, the right time to start a project is in winter, and starting early or delaying just won’t do. As long as you have done your due diligence, know what additional costs to expect, and have a construction management team on your side – winter construction can be done safely and efficiently while maintaining a high-quality product… all while keeping a project on track, even if it is a winter wonderland outside!


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