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GBK 2018: Construction in the Land of Fire and Ice


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Photo courtesy of JT Verk ehf

Known for its breathtaking landscapes of volcanic rock, dramatic geysers, and some of the largest snow-covered glaciers in all of Europe, Iceland is aptly named “The Land of Fire and Ice.” It is the second largest island in Europe and is located near the arctic circle, making it home to some of the most extreme elements. Short winter days yield very little sunlight, and its subarctic climate can produce freezing, blustery weather year-round. 

Battling wind, rain, and snow, the Icelandic construction industry has not only learned to survive, but thrive in such conditions. Waterproofing jobs has become a finely tuned art form, and as a result of quickly-changing weather patterns, almost all buildings in Iceland (including homes) are now made out of concrete.

Jobsite recently caught up with Jonas Pall Viðarsson at Procore’s annual Groundbreak conference held in Austin, Texas. Jonas is a valued partner of Procore and Co-Founder of JTVerk ehf, a general contractor with headquarters in Kópavogur, Iceland (near Reykjavík). He provided insight into what it’s like to build in one of the most volatile environments on the planet and how technology helps ensure quality builds despite Mother Nature’s unpredictability.

Braving the Elements

The Icelandic winters are no joke. In fact, Jonas explains that natural phenomena in Iceland nearly defies physics itself.

“We have a saying in Iceland. It doesn't just rain downwards or from the side. It rains upwards because the wind comes in so strong."

“We have a saying in Iceland. It doesn't just rain downwards or from the side. It rains upwards, because the wind comes in so strong. Even though you might have a gap that you think is closed off, the wind and the rain will get there,” he laughs.

That got us thinking: what is it like to build in Icelandic winters? With just a few hours of sunlight each day (and if it’s clouded, no sunlight at all), what special measures do general contractors have to take to ensure both productivity and high-quality projects? 

“We set up the lighting both inside and outside our sites, and we use a lot of electricity. But electricity in Iceland is cheap, because we have a lot of green electricity made from geothermal power plants and hydropower plants,” Jonas explains.

Yet extensive lighting systems aren’t the only additional measures general contractors must employ to combat Icelandic winters. He explains that nearly all buildings in Iceland are cast-in-place concrete buildings, even small family homes.

“Usually you don't see that kind of work in the U.S., except in larger projects because most of the homes there are made from wood. But wood in Iceland is not a local material. It's all imported. But concrete is local,” he smiles. The thing is, even concrete has its downsides. “The problem with concrete in the wintertime is that if it gets to a certain temperature, it’s difficult because you might get frost damage which can slow down the project.”

Safeguarding with Technology

While the Icelandic construction industry has been braving (and excelling) in such conditions for decades, the emergence of innovative technology has transformed the construction process, making it simpler, faster, and safer across the globe. It helps companies better prepare and prevent delays or errors that otherwise could be easily overlooked.

“Technology is helping general contractors better design the buildings according to our building codes. Contractors are looking for better processes. They're looking to find new solutions to help them streamline the project. They want to have a better quality system so they can deliver a better product.”

Jonas notes that producing better quality projects isn’t the only benefit of technology. For a place like Iceland with growing tourism, it helps companies like JTVerk ehf keep pace with demand.  

“The tourist industry started picking up in 2011 and 2012, and it's been growing exponentially since then. New construction of hotels went off like crazy in Reykjavík, and all around the country and we started building hotels. Now we’ve kind of caught up, demand and supply is around the same, and not many hotel projects are going on. Now, we need more housing because we have more workers and people are moving to the country. So we're building more apartments and homes,” he says.

However, along with more work, comes the need for greater efficiency. With technology, teams are not only more productive, but with real-time data that is comprehensive, accurate, and mobile, Jonas says that their potential is limitless.  

“We can do more with less. A project manager can take on more projects. He has the details, data, and everything right at his fingertips, and we're cutting out some of the waste that's in the system. Also, having a higher quality system helps you win more projects.”

Going Global  

At Groundbreak, Jonas spoke on an international panel, along with fellow Procore clients from Switzerland, New Zealand, and Canada, and discussed topics on BIM/VDC, change management, and safety. For Jonas, technology is allowing construction to become an increasingly interconnected community. He says that events like Groundbreak are allowing professionals to come together to create solutions for the industry on a global scale.

“When we were first looking at a project management solution, we had a list of 10 Icelandic solutions and other international solutions. But we figured out that we don't really have to buy local. Business, and construction management, are similar all around the world,” he pauses, giving weight to his next thought. “The world isn't as different between country and country like we think. Even though people talk different languages and have different regulations, construction is similar all around. We go through the same steps and processes to deliver a successful project. Being at Groundbreak, we see that everyone is trying to solve the same problems.”

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