An overnight success 10 years in the making

Kevin Neufeldt heads operations and engineering for Extreme Modular Buildings

Alberta firm perseveres to tap need for temporary, portable fire halls

For more than a decade, Kevin Neufeldt has thought success was just around the corner for Extreme Modular Buildings. “We’ve been building these units for over 10 years,” said Neufeldt, who heads operations and engineering for the Lethbridge-based business. EMB is a division of Haul-All Equipment Systems.

“For that whole 10 years, we’ve always felt like we were two months away from really breaking through.” Now, in a year when many businesses are trimming costs amid recession fears, his division is in expansion mode and looking to hire. The source of the new business: portable fire halls. “We were always selling enough that we knew that we had a good product, and we knew there was a demand, but not enough to really make money or get really good at it (production),” he said.

Neufeldt is a partner in Haul-All, North America’s leading producer of bear-proof garbage bins. Those bins are used in national parks in western North America. By keeping food litter out of bear paws, Haul-All’s bin “has done more to save the lives of bears and people than any single thing I can think of,” bear expert and University of Calgary professor Stephen Herrero once said. Haul-All manufactures many other waste containment, collection, and transfer systems and on-site heaters for the construction industry.

Haul-All began working in the modular building market through a partnership with a New Brunswick entrepreneur who needed funding to expand his business. When the partner’s business failed, with debts owing to Haul-All, it took over the patent for modular buildings. The units were originally designed for the oil and mining industries. They were also set up as welding and carpentry training stations, so people in small communities could do their apprenticeships.

A utility bay was leased to Sturgis, South Dakota. An annual motorcycle rally swells the population of that community from a few thousand people to 500,000 for two weeks each summer. The leased unit was used as an ambulance bay and command station for several years. Eventually, United Rentals bought it and moved it to Peterborough, Ontario, where it is a support bay for some of their projects. But slowdowns in the oil industry meant the units never sold in quantity. “We kind of missed the market (cycle),” Neufeldt said.

Walden Fire Station

Looking for related opportunities, they came upon the idea of fabricating fire halls about five years ago. “There’s a big need for new fire halls. A lot of the fire halls were built in the 1950s,” he said. As cities expand, fire protection in strategic locations is needed, sometimes sooner than communities can build new fire halls, he said.

What goes into a fire hall has changed over the years as well. There’s a lot bigger need for chemical decontamination bays. Fire halls that originally housed only male firefighters are ill-suited to serve crews that include both male and female staff. Various factors make leasing a transportable fire hall, at a cost of a few million dollars, a viable alternative to spending $7-8 million on a permanent station that can take several years to complete.

The modular bays weigh close to 80,000 pounds. Two pilot vehicles accompany moves, one in front and one behind. The company’s first sale was to the city of Calgary. Another unit was purchased by resources company Cenovus for an oil sands project near Fort McMurray. This past fall, long-awaited U.S. orders began to materialize.

Extreme Modular Buildings now has deals to deliver three-to-seven bay units for communities in Massachusetts, Florida, Oregon, and Idaho. “They’re starting to come in from all over.” Some bays are for office, kitchen, and training center use. The company has a patent on its building design. Extreme is now booking into 2024 for new orders. Neufeldt plans to add a dozen new staff to Haul-All’s 100-person workforce to help increase capacity. He is looking for welders and carpenters.

Robots are not an option for fabricating 60-foot-long fire stations. He said Haul-All has one robotic welder and may buy more, but they would be for the garbage truck and container product lines. Scaling the modular buildings group will provide some efficiencies that Neufeldt has long been looking forward to.

“Almost every job has so many unique aspects to it that requires a lot of engineering costs.” Duplicating some of the same designs will eliminate those costs. Having a crew that works on a particular section of a building will enable them to get good at building that area, he said.

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