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Cover Story: Alpine Buildings (Port Blakely)

Alpine Buildings’ three different buildings constructed at Port Blakely serve three different purposes on one extreme site high in the hills of North Otago

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Three impressive Alpine Buildings sheds – boiler shed (12 x 20m long gable), distillation shed (8 x 35m long lean-to), and maintenance shed (14 x 27m long gable) – are at the heart of the Port Blakely operation

Last year, Alpine Buildings constructed three different buildings serving three different purposes on one extreme site high in the hills of North Otago. Welcome to Port Blakely NZ Essential Oils, where there’s forestry underway but not as you know it.

Up in hill country inland from the North Otago coast, there’s some real innovation at work. And no, I’m not talking about advances in steep slope forestry.

Rather, here, near the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet of Morrisons on the road to Ranfurly, it’s top-quality essential oil rather than export-grade timber that’s being trucked down the gnarly forestry road, destined for the global market.

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Port Blakely’s Mitch Cooke, Gareth Mackey, and Duncan Wood

Up in these hills – in the middle of 4000 hectares of prime forest – sits a world-class essential oil distillery. It’s sited in one of several certified sustainable forest blocks that Port Blakely owns around New Zealand, and the essential oil distilled here comes from Douglas-fir trees grown specifically for the purpose.

Closing the loop

Port Blakely business manager, Mitch Cooke, says that the forest was planted in 1996 and, now that it’s being sustainably harvested for oil production, the company controls its supply chain end-to-end, ensuring a transparent, production process: an important aspect for Port Blakely’s customers in an industry where price adulteration is commonplace.

“Taking the product from seedling to oil, we maintain total control of our supply chain to ensure quality. We harvest the foliage for the essential oil through a process known as green hedging. We’re currently establishing hedge rows and will eventually only trim new growth on a rotation. And it’s this new growth from which we extract the Douglas-fir essential oil,” he says.

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The Alpine clearspan design features structural steel rafters, which are bird-proof. Because of the lack of areas for birds to nest, this protects the assets stored in the sheds and helps maintain a hygienic working area.

Mitch says steam is used for the oil distillation process – steam that comes from a boiler fuelled by the biomass left over after the oil is extracted. This closed-loop process allows the same forest producing the essential oil to also fuel its steam production. In other words, the by-product of the raw material being grown here will power the distillery in perpetuity. Ultimately, the forest – which is also a registered carbon forest – will effectively become a permanent carbon sink, continually capturing CO2, and locking it away.

It’s clever stuff. And in order to help Port Blakely’s production processes work as seamlessly as possible in all weathers, the company has utilised the clever design and build talent of Alpine Buildings to create the production infrastructure they need.

Fit for purpose

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The six-bay Alpine workshop is designed to maximise useability. The clearspan design ensures ample space for storing and working around machinery.

With the prime Douglas-fir oil yield stretching from April to July, the buildings have to be winter-proof. While the forest is technically inside the North Otago boundary rather than right in among the Central Lakes, it’s fairly alpine in nature here. Port Blakely construction manager, Gareth Mackay, confirms that the dusting of snow already visible on the higher peaks surrounding Port Blakely’s operation is only going to creep lower as autumn turns to winter.

“We get it all up here – rain, hail, sleet, snow. We get big snowfalls on occasion and plenty of wind too,” he says. “It’s a challenging place to work, so the buildings have to be up to the task. And they really are – there are no creaks, no rattles in the big winds. They’re built tough.”

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Quality and durable Alpine buildings have been engineered to meet the snow loadings, due to the demands of the location

Alpine Buildings’ engineering accuracy is well regarded, with posts and portals all interlocking to create solid structures. Alpine utilises both strong materials and sound methods of construction when designing their buildings.

This includes bracing along the walls, and rafters constructed from hot dip galvanised structural steel for maximum longevity. The comprehensive molten zinc coating is 2.5 times thicker than cold-formed steel.

Building better

With the unique nature of the site in mind (and the fact the South Canterbury headquartered company is effectively Port Blakely’s ‘local’ builder), Alpine Buildings looked after the construction process themselves. It’s an aspect of the project that Gareth has nothing but praise for.

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The distillation shed is open-sided so tractors can bring in and tow away the purpose-built traliered distillation units

“Honestly, the three buildings went up so smoothly. The Alpine guys have really got their processes nailed down. Everything arrived on-site labelled and ready to go. The three guys they had on the job – Zak, Zac, and Jack – worked really efficiently and didn’t need to run back to base for a single item. Absolutely everything was accounted for from the start. It was pretty amazing to see the buildings come together as they did.”

Gareth says he and Mitch had “a great feeling” about Alpine Buildings right from the start of the project.

“As we are a company working with wood – and always looking to be more sustainable – building with timber was high on our priority list regardless. But straightaway, Alpine proved themselves great partners for this build. They were quick to reply, quick to quote, and
always really communicative once things got underway. Nothing was an issue and, due to the way we use the buildings and what they’re for, they worked with us while we figured out how everything would work for our distillation process and equipment.”

Distilling the details

The three buildings, which total around 900 square metres combined, complement each other but are utilised in very different ways.Tractors tow purpose-built trailered distillation units into place in the open-sided distilling shed. The enormous Hurst biomass boiler next door – imported specially from Georgia in the US – steam distils the essential oil from the Douglas-fir offcuts harvested out in the forest. The distillation cycle takes about two hours. Once the oil is extracted from the offcuts, a tractor then tows the distillation unit out and dumps the offcut waste, ready for utilisation in the boiler.

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The Port Blakely NZ Essential Oils team with one of their distillation units

Gareth says that the gabled nature of this building means it’s future-proofed for expansion, with the ability to build out on one side to accommodate more distilling bays.

“Alpine were great in this regard. How long? How high? Nothing was a drama – they just wanted us to get the best design for our investment. And if we have the option to change as we grow, then that’s great,” he says.

The boil up

The boiler room trades length for height, with an eight-metre-high stud allowing for the service gantries that surround Port Blakely’s large-scale Hurst biomass boiler. Rated to an impressive 17-Bar, the Douglas-fir oil extraction process only requires it to work at 2-Bar at the moment. Mitch says the idea will be to utilise the overflow energy to power the entire site one day.

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Gareth opens the tap to extrude the gold – pure Douglas-fir essential oil

“Our eventual goal is to install a steam turbine to provide power. The whole site will run on industrial wood chip eventually, and the boiler has more than enough capacity to help us produce the product and keep the lights on at the same time,” he says.

The Alpine Buildings team worked around the installation of the boiler, splitting the construction of the boiler room into three segments to allow for the boiler to be put in place and then covered up as quickly as possible.

“We left half the roof and one wall off the building and then completed the boiler install before sealing it up,” explains Gareth. “Once again, this was no drama for Alpine and they were happy to accommodate this change to their build process while we waited for the boiler to arrive from the States.”

Making it work

The six-bay workshop was actually the first building constructed on-site at Port Blakely, doubling as a handy (and decently proportioned) storage space for the materials for the other buildings being built. The Port Blakely crew maintain their own machinery (which includes three tractors, a wheel loader, an excavator, and harvesting hardware), so a well-resourced workshop is critical.

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All three buildings were constructed by Alpine Buildings in quick succession

Lined with building paper and wood panelling, the airy space is bright, even when the overhead LED lights aren’t switched on.

“The clear-light panels make a big difference in the workshop,” says Gareth. “We have those installed in the boiler room roof too and they really help create a brighter workspace.”

Until the steam turbine idea comes to fruition, Port Blakely is running a diesel generator, which is plumbed in at the back of one bay of the workshop. While the team is looking forward to the day when they’re not reliant on fossil fuel in the forest, Gareth confesses the workshop is always nice and warm with the generator running. “Again, Alpine came to the party with some innovative details such as the louvres for the gennie’s air intake – real outside-the-box thinking that just puts them ahead of the competition.

“When you start out on a build like this, you know it’s going to be a process. You know you’re going to have questions and potential challenges like the site or the weather. You know that whoever you engage to complete the construction, you’re going to be working closely with them for a while,” Gareth concludes.

“So, if that’s the case, then you better make sure you’re working with a great team who are the experts at what they do. I’m really pleased to say that, for us, Alpine Buildings were those people, one hundred percent of the way.”

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Photography: Cameron Officer and Iain Frengley

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