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Digital construction solving construction challenges in remote reaches of Alaska

One of the northernmost communities in the world is in the middle, and darkest point, of 65 days without sun. This annual event, along with typical Arctic weather, would make many think the community of Utquiagvik, Alaska (also known as Barrow) would have a hard time attracting the physicians and clinicians to their brand-new hospital. They do. The deeper reason for their inability to bring in care providers is a crippling housing shortage. The local hospital executives decided to fix the problem of constructing temporary housing with a new approach: digital construction for the interiors.


Case study
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Utquiagvik, Alaska Utquiagvik, Alaska
330 miles (515 km) above the Arctic Circle 330 miles (515 km) above the Arctic Circle

The Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital is 330 miles (515 km) above the Arctic Circle. The 5000-person city is considered an underserved location with a critical-access hospital for the region. As such, clinicians and physicians are drawn to serve the community by a sense of adventure, higher wages and the fact their student loans can be forgiven if they take a contract there. But they can’t come if there is nowhere for them to live.

Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital

“If we don't have the housing available we can't recruit for the position,” explains Luke Wells, the VP Finance for the hospital. With no roads connecting the community to anywhere else and just one freighter arriving per year, the cost to build on the Arctic tundra is steep. The average is $370 per square foot. In the rest of the U.S. an average home costs $150 per square foot to build. A standard sheet of drywall can cost upwards of $90 if it is flown into the Arctic city. This, along with the extreme weather conditions for much of the year, makes it difficult to build conventional housing.

 “The hotels and bed and breakfasts are used in a pinch,” said Wells. “We also have a, what we call our Bunk Up Policy where employees share their living arrangements and get additional pay premium to stay in just a bedroom and to share accommodations with other employees.”

The hospital’s 16 new duplexes have three bedrooms and are 1200 square feet. They partnered with Paragon Interior Construction, who used DIRTT's digital construction approach for the build. What distinguished DIRTT for the hospital team was the speed of construction and the ability to customize to suit their design, even though the system is prefab. 

They were able to take our exact designs and produce them in three weeks, so we could get it all on the one barge leaving Seattle in June.

Luke Wells, the VP Finance for the hospital
New housing adjacent to the hospital New housing adjacent to the hospital

The downstream benefits of the DIRTT interiors for the hospital housing team is the ability to renovate via dismantling and reassembling the duplex interiors to suit any resident. “They're focused primarily on families, but if we have two singles, maybe two nurses living in one of the units we can dismantle the walls to make two large bedrooms,” explained Wells. “And we discovered, literally, when construction's going on in the unit next door, you can't hear it in the other unit.”

Residence mocked up in Calgary Residence mocked up in Calgary

Digital construction is a relatively new method for building. DIRTT is the first to deliver it with mass-customization, as compared to standard prefab building products. DIRTT uses a software platform developed using the videogame experience where the design becomes an interactive 3D environment. Users virtually explore and change the design while getting immediate feedback on constructability and to-the-penny costs.

Once owners are happy with the design and cost, the software feeds directly to the DIRTT production facilities where the virtual is turned into the physical. In 21-days or less, the entire project ships to site where the preassembled components; walls, doors, power outlets and cabinets, create a ‘quick-connect’ construction site without material waste and with fewer trades.

Shipped on the one barge per year Shipped on the one barge per year

The hospital sent their own team to the DIRTT headquarters in Calgary to be trained on the installation and renovations of the system. The CEO of the Arctic Slopes Native Association and owner of the hospital is Marie Carroll. She knows the treatment many rented homes face and is pleased with the prospect of being able to keep the houses looking fresh for new tenants.

Hospital team learning to install DIRTT Hospital team learning to install DIRTT
The hospital’s trained team installs DIRTT The hospital’s trained team installs DIRTT

I really like the fact we can create places that feel more like home for our staff. It’s a long winter for some of them, so having a place where they can entertain and be part of the community helps them want to stay.

Marie Carroll, CEO, Arctic Slopes Native Association
Resident enjoys her home in Utquiagvik Resident enjoys her home in Utquiagvik

DIRTT is a building process powered by technology. We use our proprietary 3D software to help design, manufacture and install fully-customized interior environments. This same software provides clients with certainty around cost, schedule and the final outcome. With modular components and a streamlined construction process, complete interior spaces are constructed faster, cleaner and more sustainably. The Company works with over 70 partners throughout North America. DIRTT trades on Nasdaq under the symbol “DRTT” and on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol “DRT”. 

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