INSIGHT ON CONSTRUCTION SERVICES – Weather-proof projects – late snow, improved economic climate give builders a head start in 2012

Posted on Feb 1, 2012 :: Industries
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Until the snowstorm in mid-January, the Fox Cities had looked less like a winter wonderland and more like spring-in-training.

Not so great for winter sports – but not so bad for construction.

In fact, Sam Statz of Hoffman LLC in Appleton says he just received a picture of masonry work from Hoffman field superintendent Dave Dickinson at the Affinity project site in Neenah. “He said, ‘Isn’t this pretty?’ and I said, ‘It’s even prettier in January.’”

The (mostly) mild winter has helped move along projects that might normally have taken a bit longer in colder and snowier weather, and that’s saving headaches, time and money, say construction officials in the region.

Hoffman is working on Affinity’s new two-story, 31,500-square-foot clinic, which is being built on the site of the former Glatfelter paper mill. Crews have been able to pour concrete and get some walls up because Mother Nature is being nice.

“Everything’s moving ahead because of the weather,” says Statz, who is Hoffman’s director

of construction services. “It’s going

to be a nice showcase for our

Affinity clients.”

Jim Lee, president of northern operations for Boldt Co., says three company projects are all doing particularly well because of the weather: the historic windmill project in Little Chute, the Appleton Alliance Church expansion and a large biomass power plant in Rothschild near Wausau.

“Typically, come the middle of November things slow down a bit – we have to be careful about construction and how we proceed,” Lee says. “We can continue, but winter affects productivity.”

This winter, however, has been great, he says. Boldt has been able to save costs on the windmill project, and similarly the Alliance Church project is “plowing right through” with pouring concrete and erecting steel. Boldt also is building a new heating plant for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Another advantage of this less severe winter is that more construction people are employed and getting paychecks than we would normally see this time of year – a normal or bad winter affects employment, so this is one of those side benefits,” Lee says.

Packers fans will be happy to know that Miron Construction in Neenah has been able to move much farther along on the 6,600-seat expansion of Lambeau Field because of the cooperative weather. Progress includes foundation and structural steel work on a vertical transportation tower on the north end of the stadium as well as on the expansion at the south end of the stadium, says Corey Brumbaugh, vice president of business development at Miron. The company also has been able to move much faster on two automotive dealerships in Oshkosh that had a very tight time frame, he says.

Milder weather allows for much more production and less time dealing with winter conditions. Site work such as landscaping, lights and parking lots can move forward now instead of waiting until spring, Brumbaugh says.

In other cases, projects are simply underway as planned.

“Other than the weather making it more tolerable for the workers, it hasn’t done much,” says Kris Schuller, Highway 41 project communication manager. “The plan was always for some work to continue during the winter.”

Currently crews are working on the Lake Butte des Morts Causeway, including work on the structure and bridges on the expanded part of the causeway, which involves driving steel, placing girders and moving equipment, Schuller says.

“That can all be done in cold weather,” he says. “I wish I could tell you, ‘Yes, we’re saving the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.’”

One potential drawback of the milder winter, says Statz of Hoffman, is that a lack of snow cover might contribute to frost in the ground, which could potentially delay a spring start date and incur a client extra costs for frost stripping (pulling up soil to get to workable ground).


Improving economic climate

As for the other kind of “inclement weather” – more accurately, the economic climate – it’s still partly to mostly cloudy with occasional breaks of sun.

“There are some projects we’re currently into that were put on a bit of a delay in ’09 and ’10 for various reasons,” says Lee of Boldt. “Financing was a lot tighter – it still is tight in commercial buildings, offices. It’s very slow yet. Those types of facilities are few and far between.”

The good news, though, is that Boldt is seeing improvement in pulp and paper – Thilmany, Proctor and Gamble and Georgia Pacific are starting to spend capital dollars on upgrades and efficiency projects. Power-related projects like the biomass facility that Boldt is working on in Rothschild also will continue to grow to meet new sustainable or “green” requirements set by the state, Lee says. The goal is for 10 percent of utilities’ energy production to be from renewable sources by 2015, he adds.

Statz says some of Hoffman’s commercial clients are in fact moving forward, but most clients (if not all) are at least looking at whether it might make more sense to renovate. In some cases clients are outgrowing their facilities, though, and they either need to build or renovate a larger space that’s on the market.

“People are really trying to take a good look at what they need,” Statz says. “There’s definitely a lot more thought into ‘should we build,’ ‘should we renovate.’ There’s really been an awareness among the commercial clients who are trying to analyze what’s going to be the best fit for them.”

Many are taking advantage of today’s lower costs. Contractors are leaner now, for one thing, and they also know that others are pricing competitively, “and that they in turn better ‘sharpen’ their pencils or they will miss the opportunity,” Statz says.

While there’s still some trepidation out there, signs are starting to point toward “go.” Brumbaugh says as some financing options open up, company leaders are making the decision to proceed with projects that had previously been on the shelf. So Miron has been seeing more preconstruction work moving forward, meaning facilities are not necessarily “shovel ready,” but they likely will be this spring. And highly visible projects like the Lambeau expansion can help.

“It’s awesome to see the Green Bay Packers organization moving forward with this type of expansion,” Brumbaugh says. “I like to refer to it as an economic development engine for Northeast Wisconsin because I feel this project is building confidence in local leaders and business owners, fueling their desire to move forward with their own projects.”