Man Camps Serve N.D. Workforce

April 30, 2012

As oil production increases in western North Dakota’s Bakken Formation, people are moving to the state from all areas of the country to seek jobs. Population growth in cities and towns, such as Watford City, Williston and Tioga, is rising at a higher rate than housing and other services can accommodate their needs.

Workers can’t find enough permanent or temporary housing, retail services, restaurants and the needed utilities to serve them as they stay in the oil production areas to work. Tom Rolfstad, executive director, Williston Economic Development, said the city noticed a housing shortage beginning in 2008. “In the last three or four years, we’ve spilled out of Williston’s city limits. We do control zoning for one mile around the city and, this past summer, we extended city water and sewer connections five miles north and three miles west of Williston.”

“Properties in that area are annexed and wanted to come into Williston. We now have zoning and other regulations in place for those areas,” he said.

Growth around Williston was higher than expected. “Five years ago, we built five homes a year; in 2011, we built 2,100 housing units, including apartments and homes, and construction is getting bigger every year. That’s in addition to the 700 motel rooms we built last year. For 2012, we’ll probably double that number,” said Rolfstad.

A housing shortage

Oil field workers had to stay somewhere, so they flooded parking lots and empty fields, and parked their trucks and vans wherever they could find space. Williston began to look at temporary workforce housing, called man camps, to accommodate the workers.

“For Williston and surrounding Williams County, we have permitted almost 10,000 man camp units for two years at a time because they’re temporary. This means the companies have to come back to get a renewal. If for some reason we find the camps overbuilt, we won’t renew those permits,” Rolfstad explained.

Many construction companies have flocked to  the region to build man camps. Burke Construction Group, Las Vegas, set up an office in Williston to build housing, first for its own workers. As oil production increased in the last ten years, Burke Construction Group went to Williston to obtain projects and saw a housing shortage.

“We noticed the labor shortage and then identified the housing shortage. We told developers in Williston that we couldn’t meet their schedules and deadlines if we didn’t have housing and labor,” said Roger Thomas, division manager, Burke Construction Group.

“We wanted to bring solutions to Williston so we went back to Las Vegas, put our heads together, and decided to build a crew camp in Williston. It took about a year to create a plan, purchase the trailers, lease land around Williston and obtain permits to tie the camp into city sewer and water. Construction took only two months.”

Understanding Williston

Burke Construction executives continued to make trips to Williston and talked to city and county leaders to understand the area’s geographic layout and city policies. It leased land in Bakken Industrial Park, became the general contractor for building the first camp, and found subcontractors to work on excavation for underground utilities.

Surveyors in Williston had marked the water and sewer locations with stakes at Bakken Industrial Park, and that allowed Burke Construction to excavate trenches at various underground levels. “Our workers installed and connected pipes, with sewer pipes at the deepest level, potable water pipes in another trench, and electrical wiring in trenches closer to the surface.

“After installing all utilities, our workers backfilled the trenches, compacted the native soil and put down a layer of geotechnical fabric. On top of the fabric, we poured on eight inches of Class 5 rock,” Thomas explained. The 4.5 acre area was now ready for trailer installation that formed Burke’s Lodge, Burke Construction’s man camp for its employees.

Semi-trucks delivered different parts of trailers that formed the man camp with sleeper, bathroom and office units. “We offloaded the trailers and lined them together. Then we set the office and bathroom buildings in their locations. Once all trailers are set, our crew comes in and connects the buildings. They do that by tying down corners with hurricane straps, which are long metal straps that tie to the ground and are bolted together. Then workers enclose the corridors.”

Assembling trailers

“When each trailer is tied down, we assemble the floor for each corridor, install the floor between each trailer with bolts, and put the roof over the connected trailers and the six-foot wide corridor,” Thomas explained. The roof covering all the building is a membrane sheet roofing.

“The office trailers are assembled in the same way but placed side by side,” said Thomas. These units don’t require corridors and or any new installations. “The office unit contains two offices, free laundry facilities, a business center and assembly hall. When they’re delivered, they’re placed in a specific order because these units take up a lot of space and when they’re unloaded, workers make sure they’re level and lined up in the correct order for assembly.”

Burke’s Lodge is composed of four buildings, each with 56 bedrooms and four large bathrooms. The office, business center and assembly hall are set in the center between two sets of trailers. Extra long twin beds with upgraded mattresses and pillows are supplied with each unit, as are cable television and extra storage spaces. All trailers, manufactured in Casper, Wyo., are insulated, heated in winter and cooled in summer. Thomas said each unit is built to withstand arctic winters. Vehicle parking is on the north side of Burke’s Lodge man camp.

Utility hook-ups

“Our plumbers connected sewer and water to the bathrooms and our electricians set the panels and transformers to hook them up to each trailer. We checked each trailer to make sure everything works. We brought a cleaning crew to wash each unit from top to bottom,” Thomas said. “On the outside, there’s minimal maintenance and we have a contractor who will make repairs and adjustments.”

When a unit is not at capacity, Burke’s Lodge will rent to workers from other companies and charge a short-term or long-term rate.

Other construction companies have also built man camps in the Bakken Formation. Rolfstad and Thomas expect construction to continue for a few years as oil production continues to increase. Man camps have become big businesses, especially during disasters, for military purposes, and, now, for the oil fields.

Williston wasn’t prepared for the population increase and the need for temporary housing. “We are exposed to new things we never thought about before; it’s causing us to think about our ordinances and other enforcement issues,” said Rolfstad. n