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Construction booming with low snow winter in Colorado mountains

EAGLE — Under budget and ahead of schedule.

That’s the refrain from up high these days in Colorado, where a warm and dry winter in the mountains has buoyed construction projects. Crews were digging foundations in February and are patching pools in March. Spending hours building instead of shoveling. Not worrying about mud and mothballing special machinery to warm outdoor job sites.

While the dearth of snow has pinched resorts and tourist-dependent communities, the high country economy’s stalwart construction industry is thriving in this winter that wasn’t much of one.

“Absolutely we are benefiting from the mild winter. Any little leniency the weather gives us we are excited about,” said Matt Mueller, the director of development at the 240-home, 416-acre Summit Sky Ranch community in Silverthorne.

Instead of shoveling snow and clearing job sites, Muller’s crews are cementing stone to retaining walls and grading a lake bed this month. They are plastering the pool at the clubhouse and testing boilers. These are not wintertime tasks.

“I can’t remember a winter this mild,” said Mueller, a 17-year mountain architect, builder and developer. “It’s kind of bittersweet. We all love to get out and ski. So while we are certainly taking advantage of this warm weather, we hope that it’s not something that happens consistently every year.”

Eagle County Schools is spending $100 million on school improvements and new construction with an inflexible finish date. Three buildings must be ready for the first day of school in August. With a fixed date for completion of construction projects in the mountains, the district has a contingency fund to address weather-related challenges. Following a winter like this, unused contingency funds are getting funneled back into projects.

So the school district’s construction teams did not need to build a temporary roof and went straight to the permanent roof at Eagle Valley Elementary School, saving about $80,000. Similar savings were found in building the new Eagle Valley Middle School and Eagle Valley High School.

The district set aside close to $750,000 for protecting freshly poured concrete in foundations, floors and walls at the three school projects. Mild weather has helped Eagle County Schools save more than $180,000 of that.

No weather delays, no overtime and no spending on snow removal and winter protection has allowed the district to save enough to build a snow-melt system in the outdoor student courtyard at the high school. The three major projects are pacing a few weeks ahead of where they were expected to be for this time.

“We live in the mountains, and snow is a big part of our community. While it is disappointing for us as skiers to not see the snow coming down, it’s exciting to see our new schools coming up,” said Eagle County Schools spokeswoman Tammy Schiff. “In school construction, you can never be behind schedule, because buses roll on that first day for students. We wouldn’t want to push our luck by saying that we are ahead of schedule. We are on schedule for the projects that are due to complete this summer.”

Big Valley Construction played it safe in Winter Park this season. Last winter, the firm’s crews labored through daily snow in December and January. So this year, they erected a 300-foot-by-120-foot tent over the downtown site where they are building two mixed-use retail and residential projects. The longtime Grand County builder was well aware of the challenges of building in the Fraser Valley’s notoriously frigid winters and hedged with a snow-shedding tent to help crews seed the Hideaway Station project.

Big Valley Construction erected a 300-foot tent over the site of a commercial project in downtown Winter Park in anticipation of winter snows that never really materialized.

Chris Welch, Special to The Denver Post

Big Valley Construction erected a 300-foot tent over the site of a commercial project in downtown Winter Park in anticipation of winter snows that never really materialized.

“We tried something new this year. It’s kind of ironic it’s been so mild,” said project supervisor Chris Welch. “This is the least amount of snow we’ve had to deal with, and we’ve built this giant tent.”

Mountain construction firms typically slow down a bit in the winter. After a hard push into the Christmas season — when every owner of a vacation home simply must have all their projects finished — it’s good to take a break, said David Little with Gallegos Corp., the Vail Valley’s 48-year-old masonry firm whose signature stone work has become a defining characteristic of high-end mountain architecture in resorts across the West.

With the warmer weather, Little said his workers are “burning through backlog at a time when projects are not typically bought out.”

So without a healthy tally of jobs on the to-do list, he’s worried a bit about lining up work for the summer.

Construction crews work on an excavation ...

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Construction crews work on an excavation for a home in the Summit Sky Ranch development March 13, 2018.

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