Rebuilding mode

Contractors adapt amid COVID-19 setbacks

Posted on Apr 30, 2020 :: Construction
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

With construction companies and their workers deemed essential in Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order, many projects are proceeding amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The future for contractors, however, remains uncertain.

Sam Statz, president of Appleton-based Hoffman, Planning, Design & Construction Inc., says his company was fortunate in that it had an all-company meeting in March right before the guidelines for gatherings decreased from 50 or fewer to 10 or fewer. It gave the company time to strategize and brainstorm, even though Statz says the outcome has been worse than anyone could have predicted.

“We really had an opportunity to get ahead of this as a company. We all sat around in a room and said, ‘What if?’” he says. “Unfortunately, all the hypotheticals kind of came true.”

Statz says Hoffman acted quickly on changes as they arose. For example, the company had been remodeling an assisted living facility. Company leaders chose to halt the project in the interest of protecting residents. Other projects, like renovations at schools, have progressed more easily with students out of the buildings.

Hoffman is following the COVID-19 safety guidelines the industry trade organization Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin has set forth. Statz, who serves on the AGC board, says Hoffman and its subcontractors were well prepared to take the extra steps.

“Safety has always been really the top priority within this industry. Overcoming challenges is a close second, so this isn’t something that’s really new to our industry. It’s ramped up, but we’re doing a pretty good job of reacting,” he says.

Precautions include placing 6 feet between workers, marking high-traffic areas with blue tape and sanitizing them regularly, adding hand wash stations and administering health questionnaires to workers. With certain supplies difficult to find, like thermometers for monitoring workers’ temperatures and hand sanitizer, Hoffman has been forced to adapt in some ways, Statz says.

Like Hoffman, Manitowoc-based A.C.E. Building Service has put steps in place to keep workers safe. It’s following the advice of Associated Builders and Contractors, which created an action plan and resources for construction companies, says Stan Johnson, president of A.C.E.

A.C.E.’s steps include following social distancing guidelines, having employees work from home when possible and frequently sanitizing high-touch surfaces. As the situation continues to evolve, the company revises its policies.

Johnson says he and other company leaders work to allay workers’ anxieties. They maintain strong relationships with employees and encourage them to bring forth feedback on needed steps. Once society moves beyond this crisis, Johnson says his company will maintain many of the steps it’s implemented. He predicts companies will look back on this time and wonder why they hadn’t followed certain practices all along.

As for A.C.E.’s work, much of it continues. Johnson says some projects the company had been pursuing remain possibilities. Some will proceed, while other companies and organizations have said they need to talk with their bankers before making any decisions, he says.

“We’ve probably had half of them say, ‘With everything up in the air, I’m not doing anything.’ That’s going to hold us back some,” Johnson says.

Statz, whose company specializes in school, senior living, business office, health care and manufacturing projects, says securing new work has become tougher. With conferences canceled, a major source for leads has dried up, and he and other leaders can no longer simply walk into clients’ offices to introduce themselves.

“My concern isn’t right now; my concern is what about in the back half of the year?” he says.

Given the uncertainty, Statz says he’s focusing on finding new ways to generate leads. He and other leaders are turning their focus from building new relationships to strengthening existing ones, making sure to check in with existing clients frequently.

Like Johnson, Statz wonders how many changes going into place now will remain and what the new normal may look like. “Creativity always comes in times of challenges, and hopefully some of the good things can stay,” he says.

New ways to learn

Learning has gone online for most higher education institutions. While many programs can adapt to the change seamlessly, the process is trickier for those earning hands-on degrees or diplomas. That’s been the case for students in Fox Valley Technical College’s construction programs.

When FVTC moved all programs online, Paul Lewandowski, an instructor in the college’s residential building construction program, says he and other staff members needed to pivot quickly.

In the program, students typically spend half of their time in the shop and classroom completing lecture and lab work and the other half on a job site building a house, Lewandowski says. Now instructors have moved lectures online, where they share demonstration videos that they shoot at job sites.

Lewandowski admits that for a hands-on program, it’s less than an ideal way to learn. However, instructors are making the best of it, encouraging students to listen to podcasts, watch videos and read journal articles.

Many students, who are set to graduate from the 46-week program in August, have shared some concerns about timelines and being able to finish the program on time. Instructors are reassuring them and encouraging them to stick with the program, Lewandowski says. He hopes that by summer, students will be able to resume in-person learning.

As for the future of the profession, Lewandowski says the school could see an influx of students interested in construction careers. Those who are now out of work may realize that they could have remained working if they had a trade skill, he says.

“Trades wide, there’s a huge demand. The construction industry, in some degree, has slowed down a little bit, but for the most part, it’s still a necessary type of an occupation,” he says.

Stepping up in a crisis

Across the state and many industries, companies have stepped up with innovative ways to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The construction industry is no exception.

Appleton-based Boldt Co. began construction of a prefabricated modular solution designed by HGA, a national multidisciplinary design firm, to house COVID-19 patients.

Called the STAAT Mod (Strategic, Temporary, Acuity-Adaptable Treatment), the modular can be deployed in diverse environments from convention centers to freestanding hospital expansions.

HGA and Boldt Co. partnered with Tweet/Garot, Faith Technologies and IMEG to provide the STAAT Mod solution that can be configured for the following applications:

• A two-room isolation unit designed for use in an interior shelter, such as in a convention center.

• An eight-bed unit of critical care isolation rooms consisting of four two-bed modules designed to connect to a hospital or existing structure.

• A 12-bed unit of negative-pressure open-bays consisting of four three-bed open bay modules connected to the central support spine. An unlimited number of additional self-sustaining tiers can be added.

Multiple independent modules can connect to one another or to a hospital with segregated spaces for patient care and health care workers. The units allow additional capacity to be added or redeployed to sites where the need is greater.

Boldt builds hospitals and clinics nationwide. Its teams have prefabricated elements of customized construction and are now employing that knowledge to create self-contained modules.

“Building in a controlled environment allows us to set and achieve aggressive production schedules that improve quality for the end user and maintain safety for our team members,” said Dave Kievet, Boldt’s
chief operating officer.