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Building for the future

Triplette Construction is constructing buildings in sections off-site so projects are completed more efficiently and faster

Posted: Tuesday, December 12, 2000

In a nondescript yellow building that most Juneau residents pass on their way to work each day is the future of construction, at least according to Triplette Construction.

Triplette solves some of the building problems faced by Juneau contractors, including a short building season and the sometimes nasty weather, by "panelizing," or building repetitive wall and roof sections in its Channel Drive warehouse. The sections are then assembled on-site with a crane.

The company has used the process on numerous buildings, including its current project, St. Ann's Care Center being built behind Bartlett Regional Hospital, according to owner Jim Triplette.

Panelizing is usually done by homebuilders, where the same type of house is built over and over, said Clai Porter, owner of NCP Design/Build in Anchorage. The process is also done in light commercial projects, such as strip malls and apartment buildings, he said.

Urban areas like Anchorage don't have much panelization because of the availability of workers and supplies, but rural areas don't have the same resources, so it makes sense to construct parts of buildings, then have them shipped in and assembled, Porter said.

Inside the 10,000-square-foot Triplette building, workers build outer and interior wall panels and roof sections up to 50 feet long and 14 feet high. The assembled panels are moved around by a 15-ton overhead crane that slides along railings about 25 feet above the floor.

Pre-fabricating parts of a building inside the company's warehouse allows employees to work in a controlled environment out of the weather, which leads to a higher quality product, said Wayne Jensen of Jensen Yorba Lott architects.

The whole process takes a lot of planning, from how the walls are built to ordering insulation and nails.

"You want to be thinking well ahead of (the carpenters)," Triplette employee Robert Donovan said.

Planning is a lot of what Donovan and Triplette do. They break the architect's plans down into smaller assemblies, Donovan said. When a wall or roof section is finished, it's loaded onto a dolly so it can come off in order as needed.

Getting the plans right is crucial. If the plans are wrong, then a mistake could be repeated many times over in the assembled building.

Breaking down an architect's plans is made easier by working with the architects. In the St. Ann's case, the architects are Juneau-based Jensen Yorba Lott. The two firms have paired up in several design-build projects over the last five or six years, Wayne Jensen said.

The design-build process is more of a team effort, Jensen said. The traditional designbidbuild approach can set up an adversarial relationship between the designer and the lowest bidding contractor, Jensen said. Instead, the contractor lends his expertise to a design-build project, becoming part of the design team that usually includes the owner, architect and engineer, he said.

For Jensen Yorba Lott, that means designing a building to accommodate Triplette's panelization process, Jensen said.

This leads to the biggest advantage of the design/build approach it takes less time. St. Ann's would probably still be in the design phase instead of being an enclosed building 11 months after the project was started, he said. The building should be finished in late spring.

Triplette said he first started panelizing when working on a University of Alaska Juneau building in 1972.

"We did it on a smaller scale for years," he said.

The company has built many of the major buildings around town, including Floyd Dryden Middle School, Gastineau Elementary School and the Alaska State Museum, using traditional construction methods.

Triplette decided to take some time off from the public projects. He concentrated his efforts on apartment buildings and other development.

It wasn't until five years ago that Triplette applied the panelization process in earnest. After 12 years away from major public projects, Triplette again started actively bidding on them. His business plan called for a large shop in which he could build components of the building up to 40 feet long and roof components up to 50 feet long, he said.

Today, Triplette and Donovan are working 60 to 70 hours a week trying to finish the St. Ann's project, Donovan said.

The company, which dates back to 1946 when Triplette's father and a partner started it, has big plans for its own building which have been put off until after the St. Ann's project is finished. Plans call for a second story to be added with an outside elevator servicing the upper-floor office space. Parking and landscaping also would be added around the building.

"We want to show people what we're capable of," Donovan said.

Eventually, Triplette plans to build a dock that can accept barges on the channel side of Triplette's building. That would enable the company to expand its business throughout Southeast. Buildings could be prefabricated in the shop, loaded onto a barge, shipped anywhere in Southeast and assembled quickly on site.

"It would be like storming the beaches at Normandy," Donovan said.

Mike Hinman can be reached at mhinman@juneauempire.com.



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