The construction industry was one of many that was forced to switch up its workflow and get creative this year with the drastic changes, uncertainties, restrictions and additional safety protocols that were put in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
West Michigan firms found ways to innovate and were helped by going into 2020 with a healthy backlog of projects, but many developments were also put on hold or suspended indefinitely during the pandemic. Construction and architectural firms had to adapt to a changing market and new restrictions to stay viable, industry representatives told MiBiz.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first stay-home order that took effect March 24 stopped non-essential construction for nearly two months. Remobilizing after the construction shutdown proved difficult because everything was out of sequence, said Chris Beckering, executive vice president of Pioneer Construction Inc. During the shutdown, Pioneer was focused on keeping its finger on the pulse of material availability, Beckering said.
“One of the biggest challenges was trying to figure out what needed to be done, how to comply with ever-changing executive orders, and trying to figure out what the best route would be with conflicting information about the virus,” Beckering said. “We had to plan the best way to work in this pandemic in real time.”
The virus and subsequent restrictions and safety protocols caused firms to adjust to some employees working remotely, as well as reconfiguring site layouts to comply with social distancing.
“We have been doing what we can virtually,” said Mitch Watt, senior vice president and principal at Triangle Associates Inc. “We tried to go back to the office but had some people get sick. We’ve been Zooming and doing conference calls.”
Once employees returned to work after the shutdown, lumber was more expensive and harder to source, and the whole process was more time consuming with social distancing measures in place, said Jackie Koney, chief operating officer for Paper City Development LLC, which is managing the $80 million The Mill redevelopment in Vicksburg south of Kalamazoo.
The virus spread also exacerbated the industry’s talent shortage, especially when employees contracted COVID-19 or were exposed to the virus and had to quarantine.
“We only had one roofer on the site that contracted COVID-19, but if anyone from a company that subcontracts for us got COVID, we would ask their whole team not to come on site for 14 days, which really slowed things down,” Koney said.
However, safety screenings added to the process for worker safety are now an efficient part of the workday, Watt said.
“It has taken a lot of work and making sure everyone is checked in on the job site and keeping masks on,” Watt said. “We’ve done daily screening and temperature taking at the beginning of each day. Back in May it took a long time to adjust, but now that we have the system in place, it’s running smoothly.”
For some tasks, Pioneer has added physical barriers when possible when workers have to be closer than 6 feet apart, Beckering said.
“Gearing up is part of our regular routine, so adding a mask is one additional step,” Beckering said. “In that sense, I think adoption was fairly simple compared to other industries.”
Working remotely was initially a hard transition for some industry employees, especially at TowerPinkster, said Chloe Beighley-Ludeke, the firm’s marketing manager.
“We are really culture focused at TowerPinkster, so it was hard for us to not be in the office together and have those in-person meetings, stopping by people’s desks and having those interactions throughout the day in our open-concept office,” Beighley-Ludeke said.
Several firms in the region, including TowerPinkster, told MiBiz that being forced into the remote work flow will be beneficial long term.
“We’ve found new ways to interact to get projects done quickly, to meet with our clients efficiently over Zoom,” Beighley Ludeke said. “This is something we will continue with some of our clients in the future who are farther away.”
Other firms also see benefits with the transition to more virtual work.
“You still miss the in-person activities, but sometimes it’s been even better than before just because people are so respectful of everyone’s time and everybody has more of an opportunity to contribute when you are meeting virtually,” said Eduardo Blanc, senior vice president at TMP Architecture Inc. “Every crisis you have to learn from and it was a good lesson learned, how to conduct the same type of process remotely.”
There is a renewed emphasis on the importance of communication among team members and clients to keep everyone on the same page, Beckering said.
“That takes a lot of collaboration onsite and offsite,” Beckering said. “We’ve fared well, largely as a trade, by transitioning to digital and remote platforms. Now we’re much more able to work remotely as much as necessary.”