Cover story: Alpine Buildings

By: Cameron Officer, Photography by: Michiel Rensen

Alpine Buildings’ signature clear-span gable design does wonders for maximising available floor space and the unique demands of this custom build were all taken in stride

Grant Harnish’s new hangar at Bay of Islands-Kerikeri Airport

We’re used to seeing all sorts of machinery tucked away inside Alpine Buildings’ constructed sheds up and down the country, but the showpiece flying machine inside Grant Harnish’s new building is unique, not only on the pages of Farm Trader but also in New Zealand aviation circles.

The meticulously recommissioned Grumman Super Widgeon seaplane has been in Grant’s family for more than three decades. Grant himself used to run ZK-CFA from the Paihia waterfront as a scenic flight plane when he first fetched up in the Bay of Islands in 1992, establishing his company, Salt Air, in the process. Today, it’s the only aircraft of its type in the Southern Hemisphere.

The shed was built primarily to house Salt Air’s fixed-wing aircraft

After languishing in the back of another shed for many years, the Super Widgeon (a widgeon is a type of freshwater duck; the ‘super’ is an indicator that the plane’s engines have been significantly upgraded from what it left the manufacturing line with in the 1940s) has been recommissioned by Grant and a team of great engineers, just in time for Salt Air’s 30th birthday celebrations this month.

The need for somewhere weather tight and spacious to store the freshened-up classic, along with other aircraft owned by the successful fixed- and rotary-wing aviation operator, led Grant to require a new hangar.

Attitude for action

It might be a simple structure to look at now, but Grant says when it came time to contemplate the new hangar’s construction, he knew it would require an expert design and build team.

"It’s a big space: 20 metres wide with an 18-metre opening, 18 metres deep by 4.5 metres high," he says. "I went to a couple of companies, and they were very quick to say, ‘Nah, can’t be done.’ But honestly, as soon as I approached Alpine, they were back with an immediate answer – ‘Yep, we can make that work.’

It’s an aircraft hangar, so uninterrupted floor space is crucial

"That was the attitude from the get-go with Alpine: total ‘can do’ people. They always got back to me with any query I had, and nothing was ever a drama. Someone was in touch with me through every step of the process before all the materials arrived, which is really important in my mind when you’ve got a big project like this on the go."

Grant says that once the materials for the hangar arrived on-site at Bay of Islands-Kerikeri Airport, the benefits of going for a kitset build, irrespective of the size of the building, were obvious.

"It’s pretty impressive the way it arrived. Absolutely everything was there and accounted for, and it went up so fast. The builder we employed to assemble it said he reckons Alpine Buildings are definitely the most straightforward structures he works on."

This rare, meticulously recommissioned Grumman Super Widgeon seaplane has been in Grant’s family for more than 30 years

The only challenge for the build was the "rubbish" condition of the ground soil under the building.

"The dirt here is pretty poor quality and there’s essentially a metre of crap to get to before you get to the good soil. But being a pole shed, we simply extended the poles by a metre and pushed them further into the ground, then poured the floor afterwards," says Grant.

Brace position

As a result, Grant says he’s impressed with the solidity of the hangar. By nature of its function, the location of Bay of Islands-Kerikeri Airport can get very windy, but there are no creaks or rattles here, even when the weather is blowing through at pace.

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

All connections are bolted together for maximum strength and reduced installation times

Examples of this are everywhere you look inside the hangar, including the bracing along the walls and the building’s rafters, which are constructed from structural steel, which can be hot dip galvanised for maximum longevity. This gives much better overall coverage inside and out, resulting in a coating that is 2.5 times thicker than cold-formed steel, which is only electroplated before forming and more prone to structural rust damage as a result.

Hard to swallow

If you were asked to name the greatest annoyance any charter flight operator might face, you could be expecting a wild Northland stormfront to be a likely answer, but Grant has another: birds.

"The swallows are persistent little buggers. They’ll look to try and nest anywhere they can. As the building rose out of the ground and we got the roof on, they started coming in looking for places to nest, but that’s the beauty of this design – there really isn’t anywhere that they can do so."

Alpine Buildings’ Zero-Bird-Perch rafter design is a key ingredient in why people love the Timaru-based company’s shed solutions. The Zero-Bird-Perch rafter design eliminates nooks where birds might nest, thanks to a special ‘slot and bolt’ design, ensuring a cleaner and safer working environment inside Grant’s hangar.

The hangar entrance way is 18m wide

"It protects the aircraft too. After all the hard work the team and I have done on getting the Super Widgeon back to how you see it now, the last thing I want is bird crap all over it," Grant laughs.

And while our gaze is diverted skyward, it’s interesting to note just how light and bright the hangar is, even without the large solar-fed LED lights on. Grant puts that down to the white ceiling wrap under the roof cladding, which he says finishes off the interior nicely.

‘To-do’ list

There are still a few finishing touches to add to the new building. As they have done at their engineering base at Haruru Falls near Paihia, Salt Air will plant out around the Bay of Islands-Kerikeri Airport hangar with plenty of native vegetation.

"I don’t understand why commercial entities don’t use planting and landscaping to really lift their premises," says Grant. "Where’s the rule that says a place of business can’t have some nice greenery around it or some tidy curbing? After the summer season is in the rear-view mirror, we’ll get stuck in and get some Nikau Palms and other natives in the ground here. That should finish it off nicely."

In addition to further post-and-rail fencing still to be put in around the perimeter, Grant says the big job inside the building will be creating internal storage.

The new building represents a satellite location for Salt Air, which also operates an engineering base closer to Paihia

"It’s not my ideal to have stuff sitting on show everywhere, so we’ll get some internal cabinetry built and claw back some floor space. The footprint is decent – we’ve had four aircraft in here in the past, although generally as a fixed-wing storage and maintenance base we have three, but it’s scary how quickly ‘stuff’ can encroach on that space. Getting everything up off the floor and tucked away is something I want to get sorted soon."

And you know he will. Much like the Alpine Buildings team, Grant and his Salt Air crew have a straight-ahead ‘can do’ attitude. After a few challenging years through the pandemic, things look to be coming back on stream for tourism operators in the Bay of Islands.

"It’s going to be a good summer I think," he says. "As long as we’ve got some great days ahead for flying, you can’t go wrong."

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