How to Restart Paused Construction Projects
As the construction industry grapples with the implications of the coronavirus, some projects have been put on pause as owners and financiers reevaluate the marketplace as well as their own status. Some will need to rely on bailout programs just to keep the doors open and may not be able to fund construction projects. Others will consider severing their current contracts and will start again with a smaller program. Smaller, heavily financed projects using multiple instruments may not be in a hurry to restart, depending on the recovery time.
In any case, it’s vital to understand that decisions made during the shut-down process will have implications for the project’s restart. Thoroughly documenting the as-built conditions of the site at the time of stopping the job will facilitate the orientation of new and returning crews or contractors returning to the site.
The availability of labor is a significant question in any restart plan. Incorporating the subcontractors into this phase can provide insights about what is the best point to resume work as well as on how to ramp up and transition to full operation again.
Many workers have to decide whether to return to the job or not. With schools shutting down, they have had to choose between staying home and getting childcare (if that is even an available option) and going to work. Others who have family members with at-risk health conditions face a similar dilemma.
Getting Back to Work
Workers returning to a construction project will encounter some new procedures and conditions. In the absence of specific federal guidelines for maintaining a COVID-19-conscious jobsite, safety protocols are being developed by a broad range of entities: states, cities, trade organizations and unions, and construction firms.
Many construction firms are holding regular safety stand-downs — in small, socially-distanced groups — to explain the new guidelines and to check on their implementation. Designating a site-specific COVID-19 supervisor to monitor the health of employees and enforce the safety plan can give workers a sense of security as well as provide an accountable representative for contractors and owners. Maintaining social distancing at jobsite choke points, such as elevators, entries and exits, and mess tables, can be a challenge. One way to achieve this is to stagger access to skips, lifts, stairwells and other high-risk areas.
Among the basic steps being implemented is adding more hand-washing and sanitizing stations across the site. The normally standard personal protective equipment (PPE) gear of hardhats, goggles and gloves is now expanded to include face masks and shields. All workers should be screened for fever and other symptoms of the virus.
Cleanliness protocols won’t be limited to personnel. Tools, materials and equipment that are used on site will also be subjected to disinfection processes. At the top of the list are high-touch surfaces on the job site and in offices. These include shared tools, vehicles and other equipment, telephones, keyboards and digital devices, handrails, elevator control buttons, doorknobs and portable toilets.
Clean and Safe, But at a Cost
Predictably, responsibly observing these precautions impact the bottom line and the schedule of the project. It’s largely a domino effect. Maintaining social distancing may precipitate a reduction in manpower on the site, and lower productivity. Workflow and trade sequencing will be disrupted, and the baseline schedule may need to be adjusted accordingly.
Some projects will adopt split shifts to maintain social distancing and/or schedule, incurring a premium payment for nighttime work. All of these factors should be discussed at the restart meetings, with the understanding that resuming work won’t be instantaneous; it will be an evolving process, as the team members collectively learn how to navigate this new scenario.
Demand and Supply
Of course, another part of the remobilization equation is the availability of materials and equipment. Especially if governments authorize shovel-ready construction projects as part of economic stimulus programs, contractors and project managers should anticipate a rush on critical materials, with shortages as a result.
With the supply chain having been interrupted, there could be some surprises as materials originally meant for one project are diverted to a different project that restarts sooner. Producer backlogs will make schedules less predictable. Depending on the countries of origin, that delivery delay could be sufficiently consequential to at least consider a literal return to the drawing board to explore possible substitutions for materials.
Related to this, it’s necessary to determine what equipment is required to start transitioning back to activity. Are there orders for long lead items that have been put on hold and now need to be reactivated? If a major piece of equipment, like a crane, was sent away from the site, can it be returned in a timely fashion?
For some projects, like schools, civic buildings and healthcare facilities, the need to adapt to end-users’ new concerns about disease transmission may require a substantial redesign to incorporate new infection-resistant features into the building. Complicating today’s picture is the fact that again, the definition of essential services varies, often in ways that are genuinely confounding.
Pennsylvania, for instance, has classified companies that supply building materials as essential, but wholesalers and manufacturers were deemed nonessential. Under ordinary circumstances, restarting a paused construction project is a methodical, prescribed process. Under coronavirus-complicated conditions, it’s apparent that process will require proactive collaboration with all project partners and a commitment to mitigate both known and unknown risks.
Julian Anderson is president of Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB) North America. RLB is an international firm that provides project management, construction cost consulting and related property and construction advisory services.