After months of recession, it’s survival of the fittest among manufacturing and telecommunications contractors as they fight this summer over a few hot spots of demand in the consumer markets on which they rely. “We’ve been in the doldrums, but owners expect that we’ve used the recession to sharpen our pencils,” says Bart Eberwein, vice president at Portland, Ore.-based Hoffman Construction Co. Looking for value in an acute buyers’ market, owners are demanding contractors be sharper, faster and more flexible. While there are fresh rounds of investment in sustainable energy products, auto plants and data centers, only the top dogs are winning those contracts. “[Owners] expect that construction practices at least mirror their own internal zero-defect culture; at best, they would like to see continuous quality improvement and monitoring of metrics leading to flawless projects,” Eberwein says.

An industrial-process expansion project for Calgon Carbon Corp. was completed last year in Catlettsburg, Ky.
Photo: Courtesy Of Graycor Construction
An industrial-process expansion project for Calgon Carbon Corp. was completed last year in Catlettsburg, Ky.

That’s a tall order and good for some firms but not for others. “Owners who are used to working with smaller firms have started looking to bring in competition on bids looking for additional services, and so we’ve landed some first-time clients in this market,” reports Matt Gray, president at Homewood, Ill.-based Graycor Construction Co. “They’re looking much harder at your financials, which has been a good thing for us.” The dynamic sees firms jumping across market sectors, sometimes stepping beyond experience levels and into unfamiliar terrain—vertical builders taking on process projects, for instance. “We have not yet seen the fallout that may come from that,” Gray says.

Owners are exceedingly tight-lipped about projects this summer, note contractors that are reluctant to disclose project details because of clients’ proprietary concerns. Gray declines to give specifics but says the firm has a full schedule of industrial-process projects this year for petro-industry owners. “Many projects that were on the back burner are coming online now,” Gray says, pointing to a process expansion project for Calgon Carbon Corp., finished last year in Catlettsburg, Ky. The firm completed in July a 15-month brownfield hydrogen plant for Praxair in Whiting, Ind., of undisclosed value, and a $63-million project for assembly and body shops for Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Automakers are awake again. Along with Volkswagen, GM, Ford, Toyota and Honda have announced expansions in the U.S. this year and next, including Toyota’s resumption of construction this month of its Blue Springs, Miss., plant; work was suspended last year after the downturn. Hope for economic recovery is touted for the manufacturing sector by President Obama, who plans to cultivate green energy jobs in the sector. Indicative of the green push are projects such as the 24,000-sq-ft, $3.6-million solar panel plant under construction at Iron Mountain, Minn., by Minneapolis-based Kraus-Anderson Construction Co. The owner, Silicon Energy, says the job is scheduled for completion this year. The project represents a shifting paradigm that is making constructors adapt to new streams of opportunity. “This is the first time we’ve done a solar plant project, even though the work is pretty straightforward,” says Jim Golden, Kraus-Anderson project manager. Lexington, Ky.-based Gray Construction Co. is leading design and construction of the first two nacelle plants in the U.S. Siemens confirms that the first—a $60-million, 276,933-sq-ft facility—will begin producing wind turbine components this year at Hutchinson, Kan.

Competition remains fierce in telecom where a rush for new data centers is an oasis of opportunity. Among projects heralding a fresh wave of telecom construction is an expansion of a $200-million, 147,000-sq-ft data-center project already being built for Facebook in Prineville, Ore., to be completed by early 2012. The first phase of construction is being handled by a joint venture of Redwood City, Calif.-based DPR Construction and Portland-based Fortis Construction. This summer, Oracle, with Atlanta-based Holder Construction Co. leading, resumed its work on a $285-million 240,000-sq-ft data center in West Jordan, Utah.