In Williston, epicenter of North Dakota’s oil boom, the local Walmart recently became the only one in the nation selling 8-foot-by-10-foot modular dwellings that can be lifted with a forklift and dropped wherever you can find a spot to set one. They come with a couple of bunks, a desk, closet space, but no running water, all for $24,900.
If that sounds like madness, it’s only part of a much larger craziness. The oil boom has set off an explosion of money and change in a land that has known little of either during most of its history. About 210 wells are being drilled right now in rolling prairie previously notable mostly for its haunting, windswept sense of emptiness. Thousands of workers have swarmed to the area, setting off a second boom—a building boom that’s transforming the landscape.
Hotels are being tossed up on the edges of Dickinson and Williston, the two small cities in the oil patch, as if they were Vegas in the 1950s. Fields that only months earlier swept unhindered toward the horizon are filling up with row upon row of cookie-cutter houses and blocks of apartment buildings most notable for their utilitarian uniformity (you could call the style middle-American Soviet).
There are so many prefabricated metal buildings going up to house the associated industry that comes with drilling that, if you can’t own a well, the corrugated metal business would be your next best bet for getting rich. More substantial corporate offices are also being built, edifices of precast concrete and reflective glass that feel like they were teleported from suburban Houston. Most surreal are the “man camps,” grim places where thousands of oil-field workers are housed in facilities that, with their long barracks and chain-link fences, most resemble minimum security prisons.
“What are they building here? Everything,” said Janet Prchal, AIA, president-elect of AIA North Dakota and a Dickinson native who owns Hulsing & Associates Architects, a local firm, as she showed me around earlier this year. Yet even as the western prairie rings with the sound of a thousand hammers, it’s not enough. People are living in trailers, pop-up campers, even tents. For a while, a village of campers and RVs had sprung up in the Walmart parking lot before the store finally hired security guards to clear everyone out at night.
I’m a native North Dakotan, and I remembered this country well. I’d read the stories about what was happening before I came up to take a look, but I was still unprepared for the degree of change, for the mildly unhinged energy filling the streets. There’s no doubt the boom is a huge economic boost for the state. But as Prchal and Burton Youngs, another architect in her firm, drove me around, I couldn’t help but wonder what is being done to channel the gusher of money into rational development, to seize the opportunity to build things of lasting worth, both structures and communities, that residents can be proud of when the boom has boomed.
Does anybody, in other words, have a plan?