In late February, Clayco founder Bob Clark canceled his company’s annual meeting, planned for Chicago two months later.
Having employees travel from across the country was something Clark, executive chairman of the design-build construction firm, was uneasy about having watched news about the new coronavirus spreading across China at the time. Experts expected it to spread around the world, but the virus hadn’t yet reached the U.S. Clark canceled the meeting anyway. Hundreds of construction cancelations—meetings and some whole projects—have occurred since.
“I had huge pushback in the company,” Clark says. “I had people that thought I was kind of kooky. Even my wife thought I was scaring everybody unnecessarily.”
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Contractors and the companies that work with them have all had to adapt, changing schedules, work practices and planning for a future that, even if regulations are relaxed, will still require some level of vigilance against the threat of COVID-19.
The construction industry must live the code of safety first, Clark says, and many contractors felt comfortable putting new rules in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Clark released a plan for Clayco construction sites, adopting extreme site cleaning and personal hygiene, as stated in the company’s COVID-19 Construction Guidelines. Clayco gave employees screening questionnaires with questions like “Do you feel sick?” and “Did you commute to work with anyone?” as they entered work sites. A nurse is now stationed at every Clayco construction site to take the temperature of workers as they enter the site, Clark says.
Two months after putting the new procedures in place, Clark still drives by Clayco sites in Missouri and Illinois (Clayco is headquartered in Chicago), to see if everyone is following guidelines.
“I didn't see anything that I didn't like, and I'm pretty critical,” he says. “I pulled up and there's a nurse at the front. She looks like she's in an emergency room at a hospital. She's fully gowned and has her shield on and her mask on. I couldn't even see her face.”
Implementing new safety measures is familiar to the construction industry. Clark shares all of Clayco’s safety guidelines on the company’s website.
Ken Swartz, vice president of construction management and design-build construction company Summit Design + Build LLC, says that his company has adopted a policy where each person entering a construction site must check in with the project’s superintendent every morning. Through this change, Swartz has noticed a strange phenomenon—workers on construction sites are now curious about each new person on that site.
“What we found is that these job sites have literally become bunker-mentality communities,” he says. “If somebody new comes to the job site, they all want to know who that is, where they've been. It’s like allowing them into the community.”
The most frustrating change, Swartz says, is the delays in material deliveries. Some Summit construction jobs have been delayed because shops it works with have been temporarily closed by COVID-19. A 12-person countertop contractor Summit works with was shut down and workers were self-quarantining after someone contracted coronavirus, he says, so now countertops are a week late because they have fewer people to do the job.
And then there’s the issue of actually working on the job. Sure, workers are now wearing masks and gloves in addition to their hard hats and safety glasses, but certain jobs require people standing and heavily breathing in close quarters.
“We have a 6-ft-wide by 12-ft-tall window, which doesn't happen with one person,” Swartz says. “They've got to have two people standing side by side putting that window in. So now, Mr. subcontractor, what are you going to do to mitigate your employees’ exposure to being so close together?”
What was once a process built off the muscle memory of contractors must now be broken down into pieces to account for the threat of the virus. Swartz says that Summit also requires subcontractors to have specific safety plans: How can a two- or three-man job, like installing a window, be done safely? How will people stay safe while the job gets done?
“As long as we can keep our people safe, to be able to keep working and help them all continue to get their paychecks,” Swartz says. “If we let our guards down and all of a sudden, a high rise in downtown Chicago ends up with 20 people with COVID, we run the risk of the whole city getting shut down.”
Daniel Safarik, editor-in-chief at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, says that the most significant challenge for the nonprofit group has been the need to cancel the 2020 Tall + Urban Innovation Conference. The event, scheduled for April, would have brought people to Chicago from across the world and is one of the Council’s biggest moneymakers. Safarik says that Council executives decided to cancel the conference in February when they saw that the virus was spreading across Asia.
The virus will unquestionably damage the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s coffers this year, Safarik says, as most of the Council’s revenue comes from conferences. But not all hope is lost. The Council has decided to take much of the programming and scheduled events from April’s conference and move them to the group’s other flagship event, CTBUH 2020 Conference, scheduled for October in Singapore. While they can’t be sure this event will happen—no one knows when the virus will relent and allow for travel to return—Safarik says that the Council has been pleased that they have more than 120 speakers scheduled so far, which is critical to the success of their events. Funding is still uncertain, as it usually comes from companies noticing others are speaking and sponsoring, motivating them to do the same.
“That rhythm is a little bit off at this point, though, because we're really not trying to push people super hard for commitments, because we don't know if we're going to be able to honor them,” Safarik says.
The bright side, he adds, is that the council’s employees are able to keep working on the conference from home. They’re all bracing for uncertainty, since the conferences used to fund their work could be canceled for the foreseeable future.
Several construction executives ENR spoke to for this story said that now is the time for companies to focus on adapting to the pandemic. No one knows how long it will last, but they believe that COVID-19 will change what kind of structures companies want to build.
“We have been planning for how to come back to work in the markets where there has been a shutdown,” says Christopher McFadden, vice president of communications at Turner Construction. “In the markets where construction is considered essential, our response is changing daily. We’re already planning logistics for when we can return to our office here in New York City. We’re taking measures such as putting up plexiglass barriers in office kitchen areas and other spaces and staggering seating in cubicles. It’s not going to be just going back to work.”
McFadden said that Turner is using the time for training, testing what capabilities of its virtual design and construction programs can be expanded and planning for the logistical changes that will necessarily come with reopening where necessary. He stressed that sites in markets where construction has been shuttered don’t just reopen as soon as possible, and that safety from the virus on the job will remain essential.
“We'll have to keep changing as we learn more,” Clayco’s Clark says. “The virus has only been around for [about] five months and it’s already very much a changed environment.”
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