Cruising Around Williston

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Everyone we meet with is over-booked and stretched thin. We’ve learned that there’s pretty much a shortage of everything, except oil, in the Bakken; time, workers, food, housing, building materials, etc. Yet, each time we reach out to a new connection they are eager to meet. People want to share their experiences in this crazy place, and they also want to hear our ideas. The developer we met with on Friday morning offered to take us on an excursion around Williston that afternoon. So after meeting with a local architect, we met up with the developer, and hopped in his company truck for a tour.

First of all, this man was an incredible multi-tasker. I’m pretty sure he put out a few fires, and closed some multi-million dollar deals, all while entertaining us with his vision of the future and his criticisms of the current situation. We started in the north of Williston at his Bakken outpost where he stays with three other migrant workers. Much of the growth in Williston is happening in this area along one of the main routes into town. The highway is festooned with new metal buildings and conspicuously empty lots. There is little rhythm to the outcroppings of industrial, commercial and residential buildings. As the new development started to slow down and give way to open land, we approached his outpost.

Without any neighbors, the house was on its own amongst the drill pads and semi trucks. However, he quickly filled our minds, and our picture of the surrounding area, with one of the largest new-urbanist subdivisions I have ever seen. Inside his home he showed us site plans of a development that includes the property we were standing on. More than two million square feet of commercial and residential along curvy streets and neat landscaping. This was at least $800 M worth of development. According to him it will be done in 3-5 years.

He emphasized that good development in the area is about delivering the best product at the best price, which is all guided by the city’s master plan. His examples of good subdivisions were buildings that are priced competitively and connected to the city’s infrastructure with a strategy to separate apartments, multi-family, and single-family housing. He pointed out several ad-hoc man camps (he insisted that they’re called workforce housing, but man camp rolls off the tongue much better), examples of the type of development that happens without planning and foresight. These conditions were the impetus for the first ever draft of the Williston master plan in 2012.

Our tour was cut short by a lawsuit, but not before he showed us the industrial expansion in this area of town. The landscape in this area was marked by massive quarries and staging areas. Excavators were busy preparing new pads for the expansion of industry to the NE of town. Type 3 man camps popped up anywhere in between. The amount of money embedded in these operations was a reminder that this is all very real, but the ad-hoc distribution and pace of activity was like some kind of Bakken Sim City.

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The Boom from and Architect’s Perspective

The other story we heard Friday morning was from an architect at the company. Here is his path from the previous post:

The architect studied at NDSU and spent the first 25 years of his career in Minneapolis designing several built projects ranging from healthcare to housing. After the 2008 economic crash he left his job and heard of work booming in Williston prompting him to visit for the first time in 2010. He told stories of sleeping in a sleeping bag in a flooded basement with up to eight other guys, because at that time there was nowhere to live. He would travel back to his family every six weeks. He worked for a small architecture and engineering company and was eventually hired by his current company. Meanwhile he finally was able to buy a house to move his family to Williston permanently. Through some incredible hardship he asserts that he never regrets coming here.

A very different background than the developer, and a different specialization. We began by asking him questions related to our project. We began with materials and the supply chain. Most building materials come in by rail and truck, but rail is usually delayed because there is lack of rail spurs and projects to build them are delayed. Most materials need to be delivered in bulk –sometimes resulting in excess waste. He told us that architects there cannot rely on the market supply chain; instead they use networks of friends and business partners to make their own supply streams happen. He went on to describe why modular construction makes so much sense here. Quality construction work is hard to come by when you are competing with oil salaries, so building offsite with skilled labor elsewhere is more effective. Additionally the weather here is harsh. A short construction season and brutally cold and windy winter make factory construction favorable and result in better quality. It just so happens that most economic modular solution comes in the form of single-wide poorly insulated identical units that are found all over the Bakken. Modular construction is also used in commercial architecture such as the hotel we stayed in. It too was cramped, cold, and everything was cheap, except for the rates… at $200/night.IMG_5637 - Copy

We asked the architect about future development and the potential for any post boom industry. He told us of the need to redevelop and beautify the town center, converting the light industrial districts to commercial and retail, and the need for parking downtown. He thought high density apartment with rooftop restaurants and bars could be a good direction for the downtown area. He did believe that any future industry would be oil related.

IMG_5202 - CopyAfter we met with him he gave us a tour of the construction site of a 60,000 square foot multi-use clinic he designed. His clear knowledge and role and the design, detail, and construction administration of the project made it clear how multi-faceted his role as an architect needed to be here.

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“The King of the County”

On Friday afternoon, we met with another Williston architect. He offered us a different perspective from the developer/architect team we met with in the morning, though much of the information was the same. There are a couple things he brought up which really got our attention. I’ll highlight those points in this post.

One of the first things which the architect from the afternoon brought up was that getting oil from the ground is not related to humans, and that oil wells are not somewhere to hang around. I think this was something that we had kind of been aware of, but a lot of our ideas up until this point have been about developing on or near drill pads. This was not necessarily a bad direction, but I think there are some things we need to consider. First, there are some real issues with hazardous materials and toxic gasses. Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a deadly gas which occurs naturally in crude oil and natural gas, and it is sometimes present around oil wells. The cuttings from the drilling process are from many geologic formations well below the surface of the earth, and can be toxic, radioactive, or both. Overall, I think there was a more profound idea embedded in this discussion – that all the capital improvements being done in this place (the scale of which is astounding) have very little to do with the place, or with the humans who live in this place.

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Another issue he brought to our attention was some of the issues the City of Williston has with zoning. Because Williston has been annexing large chunks of land, industrial areas which had previously been on the periphery of the city are now embedded within it. The city is trying to turn those areas into commercial zones now by requiring that many of those properties be rezoned commercial once they are sold. He also said that there are no mixed use zoned areas within the city, so the zoning code is very black and white. The city could really benefit from live/work areas or residential/commercial hybrids, but right now the policy does not allow that kind of development.

Somewhat related to the previous issue is that it is a total nightmare trying to find office space in Williston. It is really rare, and because the city is so resistant to doing any re-zoning, it’s pretty hard to do anything about that. We actually met with the architect in a house he owned, and all the office equipment was stored there, because he was trying to find a new space. He thought the house would have made a good office, but he just couldn’t get the city to re-zone it.

A point he brought up about the culture of the area was pretty interesting to us. He noted that the traditional economy of the area is based on agriculture, and that farmers are somewhat resistant to planning things too far into the future. He said that this is a result of the uncertainties of farming – you never know what you are going to do until you see what the weather is like. “If you can’t see it, it’s not real.”

He mentioned a problem with the minimum lot size in Williams County, which is 10 acres. This is a barrier to affordable development outside of the city. He also thinks that the pace of development has already slowed, and that the peak probably occurred in 2011 or 2012. He told us we should meet with an area real estate broker and ask him when he thought the peak was. We had a meeting scheduled on Saturday with a broker, but unfortunately he got stuck in Minneapolis due to the snowstorm and had to miss our meeting.

Finally, he spoke about how the planning commission in the city controls the pace of development by a strategy of holding very long public planning meetings. Every project which is up for approval must get past one of these meetings, and the commission opens everything up for public discussion. As a result of this, the commission only gets through a small fraction of their agenda items for each meeting and the meetings last over 4 hours. After sitting through a couple months’ worth of meetings, some developers get discouraged and give up. He also mentioned the “King of the County,” Dan Kalil, the Williams County Commission Chairman, who is a force to be reckoned with. Since we have been here, we have been peeling back layers of politics, power plays, and deal making. Trying to put all the bits of information together and figure out what different parties’ motivations are has been fascinating, and Dan is someone who we would really like to talk to.

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After we left, the architect called us back with some ideas for our project.

He suggested we talk to Kent Jarcik, the City of Williston Planning and Zoning department head, and his Williams county counterpart, Ray Pacheco. He though we might get good speculative project ideas from them.

He said that the Williston Airport will be moving, since it has been enveloped by the city, and that figuring out what to do with that might be a pretty interesting project, especially since we will be confronted by issues like hazardous material mitigation / rehabilitation.

He noted that Williston has no retail shopping centers, and that there was a real need for something like this. He suggested that we look at precedents from Sonae Sierra.

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He also suggested that a light rail system, bus system, or transportation hub could be a really valuable addition to this community. This is a pretty interesting idea to us, and I think we will be investigating this further.

The Boom from a Developer’s Perspective

On Friday morning we drove to Trenton,  just west of Williston to meet with a civil engineering, land surveying, and planning company taking advantage of the Bakken boom. In a two hour meeting we were given an overwhelming amount of information. I’m going to try to frame the summary and how it affects our project:

First, I think it’s worthwhile to consider these guys’ background to understand their position here. We spoke with a business developer and an architect (their names will remain confidential).

The business developer’s education is in electrical engineering. He originally intended on pursuing a career in power distribution. This path led him to be an engineer in the Air Force, but he later took on work as a contractor doing mainly carpentry work. He was able land high profile clients in penthouse apartments in Manhattan while he attended NYU for construction management school.  He would later relocate to Colorado to work for his current as a construction manager. In 2009 he first heard of Williston and came here on a private jet  to build 40 spec  homes –which sold like crazy. He has focused his business here since, leading to the office location we had the meeting at.

The architect studied at NDSU and spent the first 25 years of his career in Minneapolis designing several built projects ranging from healthcare to housing. After the 2008 economic crash he left his job and heard of work booming in Williston prompting him to visit for the first time in 2010. He told stories of sleeping in a sleeping bag in a flooded basement with up to eight other guys, because at that time there was nowhere to live. He would travel back to his family every six weeks. He worked for a small architecture and engineering company and was eventually hired by his current company. Meanwhile he finally was able to buy a house to move his family to Williston permanently. Through some incredible hardship he asserts that he never regrets coming here.

Two guys with very different backgrounds and very different paths to the Bakken. So I am going to address their perspectives separately.

The business developer is pro-oil. Immediately after we introduced ourselves he handed us a vial of Bakken sweet crude. “Smell it,” he says, “I smell money.” He went on to sensationalize the stories of the boom we had heard before, and gave his view on ‘fracking.’ He prefers to call it ‘stimulation.’ Fracking gets a bad rap. The earth naturally stimulates itself all the time. Pumping high pressure water sand and chemicals is only replicating a natural process.

He had some interesting perspectives on the present and the future concerning population.  He asserts that if the industry were to stop all drilling today, there would still be demand for 10,000 homes to be built. He claimed that the sewage infrastructure in Williston is currently capable of serving 35,000 people. The census population is only 20,000, but the water daily usage reflects an actual population at any given time upwards of 50,000. He believes that Williston can easily expect a population upwards of 100,000 in the next 10 years. At that time there would be a minimum of 10,000 producing wells in the area, requiring 4 full-time workers each. That’s 40,0000 jobs, and with the average American family size at 2.8/household, the total population could easily surpass 100,000. Good news for a business developer.

So how is the city responding? First, they are expanding their city limits. This pattern of growth was referred to as ‘spot annexation.’ The large areas of land slated for development are not contiguous with the current built areas of the city, so ‘ribbons’ of land are annexed in addition to connect it primarily for the purposes of infrastructure. This is a strategic move for the developers. On one hand they need to react to the patterns of expanding infrastructure so the city is ready to connect their new development, but on the other hand they also have the leverage to persuade where the infrastructure gets expanded to based on where they can guarantee development will be.  A complex issue no doubt, and all the while the county is constantly battling against expansion, because the county commissioners all  live outside the city, and intend to keep it that way, unless annexation eventually swallows their land. They do not want to see city growth in their rural life. They do however all have mineral rights on their land, and are raking it in as the industry booms. No circumstance is straightforward in Williston.

Furthermore, we heard some interesting perspectives on the changing demographics and subsequent changes in development. Two years ago there were only four kindergarten classes in all of Williston, and today there are seventeen. There are far more women than five years ago, and the young families are clearly growing, but there are still over 10,000 occupied man-camp beds. The plan is to close all of them and transition to permanent housing. The development of permanent housing follows a typical pattern of hotels, then apartments, then multifamily duplexes, then single family, because it follows the rate of demand. Currently 80% of development is required to meet affordable housing standards for the area, or less than $200,000. Affordable… because the mean salary here is $75,000.

In an effort to address design by not ‘solving’ a problem, but to rather highlight something positive happening, we asked, “what is working?” From the developer’s perspective the city is working. They have a master plan in mind that promotes positive sustainable growth –or at least growth that aligns with developer incentive. They want to make projects happen. They are striving to expand infrastructure and promote permanent settlement. It means sustained money for the city.  He didn’t state it as explicitly, but the other clear component that is working is the oil industry. It is an extremely profitable machine. Soon, pipelines will connect all of the wells to each other to transport water, oil, and gas making the Bakken in Williams county the largest industrial park in the world. $13.5 billion was spent by oil companies this past year alone. At least in the near future, the boom is not going anywhere. Or as an oil man would say, “it’s not a boom… it’s an industry.”

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“It’s Not a Boom, It’s an Industry”

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The signs of growth are everywhere outside towns like Williston. Growth mainly in the oil industry–drilling and pumping–but also population growth in temporary settlements that last popped up in the area in the early 80’s. We’re here in order to sort out the reality of this growth; where is it happening, how, for whom, why? Some of the answers seem relatively straightforward, like the oil companies bringing transient workers into the area to fuel their growth on the petroleum market. But others are much less straightforward, like the growing needs of a population of migrant workers that seem to be determined to ride it out here.

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To be here means a spatial experience, a way to see all of the un-photographable, between the lines conditions that pop up in such a crazy situation. There are areas of dense industrial, commercial and residential activity in the “big 5,” Williston, Ray, Tioga, Watford City and Stanley, but these towns are also a small piece of an industry that is so widely distributed that much is invisible in town. Today, we traveled to Watford City, which lies 41 miles to the SE of Williston across the Missouri River in Mackenzie County. Some things are becoming a normal sight. There are lines of rigs everywhere along the section grid (look at the organization of wells). Seeing the spatial implications of this planned deployment of drilling operations reminds us that this industry is incredibly attentive to its technological and industrial needs. Yet, the oil industry can ignore the residuals, like how its workers are living, and how their settlements are organized.

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After all, the boom is fueled by an industry. This industry would do the same things to drill and extract oil anywhere in the world; its not a developer, urban planner, sociologist, or preservationist. So the dichotomy that we are seeing here is the awkward interface between a mechanism that is built to overcome the challenges of place, and the sense of place in the region where this industry is thriving.

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Highway 85 between Williston and Watford City reveals the in-betweens of growth in the Bakken. It looks like they’ve already prepped for doubling the width of the highway to accommodate for more passing lanes. The passing lanes create a rhythm of traffic waiting for the chance to pass slow moving semis. Two speeds of transportation awkwardly, and dangerously, share the same network. Although we’re on the route between the two cities, most of the industrial traffic has abstract destinations like SC-TOM- 2560-153-98-1514-2223H-1, aka one of the thousands of wells in the area. Another popular destination is one of the facilities in the rapidly expanding network of salt-water disposals. We visited the Alati Saltwater Disposal just outside of Watford City to see one of the most popular types of destinations for all of the trucks on the road.

These facilities process flowback and maintenance water into a form that is acceptable for disposal 10,000 feet underground. The woman who runs the place was incredibly friendly (like everyone we have met here) and took time to show us around the pump house, well house, and the rest of the sprawling compound of tanks and pipes. Truckers pull up, hook up and wait inside the trailer lounge with two bathrooms that feels like a nice refuge from the machinery outside. Inside, we ran into Chris and Will, two truckers from Oregon and Texas respectively. However, Will has been living in Afghanistan for the past 9 years and has an international travel resume that would rival any seasoned diplomat. These guys were curious about our project and forthcoming about their experience. They complained about housing and crime. One has a family he supports in the area, and the other wouldn’t risk bringing them up here. To them, trucking is a game that’s as speculative as the oil play, and they’re ready to get out whenever the goin’ gets tough.

Arrival

Today marks our arrival to the Bakken. We saw our first oil action just outside of Newtown, and from there it escalated quickly. Pump jacks and derricks dotted the landscape, and numerous flares were visible from the road. The industry’s presence is very apparent, and it began in Fargo. BNSF trains with oil tanks stretched seemingly for miles, and we spotted them throughout the state. Upon arriving to the oil fields, the truck traffic significantly picked up. The action we were expecting was clearly there.

It was recommended to us by an oil worker to see Newtown at night. “It’s like the Fourth of July,” he explained. Newtown sits along Lake Sakakawea , and the landscape surrounding it was quite stunning. It was far mar rugged than expected, and as the sun set over the frozen lake, the scenery slowly transformed into the oil workers premonition –as the sky grew darker oil fields were visible for miles, lighting up the landscape into a field of scattered flickers.  The impact on the land was profound. The flares themselves are ominous, and even sinister up close, but from afar, the flickers of light almost seemed beautiful.

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Immediately upon entering Newtown and eventually Williston, the unique and varied housing conditions were evident.  Some settlements seemed ad hoc as trailers ganged together in open lots, and in Williston in particular, new homes exemplified the materialism of suburban America –large single family homes with three car garages and massive backyards.

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Our evening concluded with dinner and beers at the Williston Brewing Company. A building in the center of town that seemed quite frankly like a dive from the outside. Inside was a surprise in my opinion.  The décor mimicked that of a typical new suburban franchised tavern. A huge mahogany bar, moose heads hanging from fireplace mantels, and sports playing on TVs that reached floor to ceiling. The food was good. This is exactly what people here would want, we though. A place to make it feel that Williston is no different than any other developed city in the US. This notion sparked a discussion about our project. How can we ever meet the desires of people here? Do we know them well enough? How will we ever know what they want? We continued to ask how we as architectural academics could aid the condition. How could we advocate the value of architecture and design? Would we ever be able to design a different ‘version’ of something that is done in an extremely profitable manner right now? Like housing for instance: how could we ever propose a design that is constructed faster or more efficiently than the current solution? We could propose higher quality by designing assembly processes I suppose, but Is that what people here would want?

Our conversation ended with the consideration that we would never be successful making a ‘better version’ of anything existing, or solving a problem we see, or trying to help people we don’t fully understand. We could however find success in expressing what makes this area so spectacular. The flares over the lake in Newtown for instance, provided us with a perspective of the condition that rendered it more poetically than ever imagined from reading articles about it. These moments of excitement seemed to paint a clearer picture for our project’s future success.

The drive to Williston

Today, we left Minneapolis. We narrowly missed getting slammed by a big winter storm and drove North and west. We went through Fargo, then Grand Forks, then New Town, and finally arrived at Williston.

Some observations:

The landscape, scenery, and built environment really didn’t change very much from that of Minneapolis until we got West of Minot.

We started seeing the physical manifestations of the oil industry once we got close to New Town. First we spotted fuel tanks, then pump jacks, then flares, then drilling dereks. At first there were just a few, but once we got into it, the number of flares, dereks, and pump jacks were astounding.

Near New Town, we ran into the Missouri river. The landscape here has a lot more topography than any of us expected, was really pretty beautiful, and flares are everywhere. The flares are probably the most striking thing I saw. They are so big, so bright, and so powerful, it’s really amazing and kind of horrifying. At night, the flares light up the landscape like giant candles. It’s really eerie and kind of sinister feeling, especially when you can’t see the flare itself because it’s behind a hill, but you can see the flickering orange light it’s casting.  We stopped outside of New town and watched the sun go down as we looked down into the Missouri river valley and across to a flares as far as we could see.

The edge of Williston feels like it’s a big city like Minneapolis or Denver or somewhere, where you have a large amount of suburban sprawl. But you can drive across Williston in 10 or 15 Minutes. We ate dinner at Marcus Jundt’s joint, the Williston Brewing Company.

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