Home Sections Archive by category Construction

Construction

Architecture Construction

Designs on Growth

As one local architect noted, we’re far enough away from the last recession to start worrying about the next one — and recessions tend to hit this sector particularly hard. Still, despite mixed signals in the long-term economic picture nationally, work remains steady locally, with municipalities, colleges, and businesses of all kinds continuing to invest in capital projects. Even if storm clouds do appear down the road, the 2019 outlook in architecture seems bright.

Curtis Edgin put it in simple terms when asked how 2019 is shaping up in the architecture sector.

“We’re busy; I can’t complain,” he told BusinessWest. Those five words sum up a strong outlook in an industry that tends to be a leading indicator for the economy as a whole — when things slow down, construction, finance, and other areas tend to follow — and is currently trending up, or at least holding steady.

“We’re far from the last recession — maybe far enough to worry about the next one,” said Edgin, a principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates (CBA) in Chicopee. “But I don’t see that coming yet, looking at our workload.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reports a similar outlook, with architecture firm billings nationally strengthening to a level not seen in the previous 12 months. Indicators of work in the pipeline, including inquiries into new projects and the value of new design contracts, also improved in January.

“The government shutdown affected architecture firms but doesn’t appear to have created a slowdown in the profession,” AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker noted. “While AIA did hear from a few firms that were experiencing significant cash-flow issues due to the shutdown, the data suggests that the majority of firms had no long-term impact.”

Broken down by region, the Northeast is performing better than the West, but slightly trailing the South (which continues to rebuild from a rough 2018 hurricane season) and the Midwest. Nationally, billings softened slightly in February from the January pace, but remain strong in the big-picture sense, Baker said. “Overall, business conditions at architecture firms across the country have remained generally healthy.”

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm, serving as a buffer against a downturn in any one area.

Jonathan Salvon, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, reports strong business as well, especially in the education realm, traditionally a strength for the firm, with projects for UMass and a historic-renovation conversion project for Elms College.

“Then there’s a mix of multi-family housing and commercial projects,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve got a new office building for Way Finders going up on the old Peter Pan site in Springfield, which is our biggest commercial project at the moment. And there’s a 36-unit, multi-family housing project going up on University Drive in Amherst.”

Caolo & Bieniek, known for its wide range of public projects, from schools to fire and police stations, has expanded its base of private projects since merging with Reinhardt Associates in 2017.

“It’s been kind of a good synergy. We’ve blended our strengths and their strengths,” Edgin said, noting that one example is the recently completed Baystate Health & Wellness Center on the Longmeadow-East Longmeadow line, as Reinhardt has a solid history in medical office buildings.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity. Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

Other recent CBA projects recently started or well underway include a senior center in West Boylston, a police station in Williamstown, a public-safety complex in Lenox, a renovation of Chicopee’s public-safety facility, a pre-K to grade-8 school in Easthampton, and some work with UMass Amherst, Westfield State University, and other colleges.

“There’s a good mix of private and public, and we seem to be doing a fair amount of work with human-services agencies,” Edgin added, noting that the firm just did a project for Guidewire in Chicopee, and Sunshine Village in the city has also been a consistent client. “We seem to have a bit going in that sector right now. We’re busy, and it’s a good mix all around.”

Strong Pace, but Red Flags

The AIA suggests that growth in architecture should continue at least through 2020, but a number of emerging red flags suggest a cautious outlook.

Spending on non-residential buildings nationally is projected to grow by 4.4% this year, paced by healthy gains in the industrial and institutional building sectors, it notes. For 2020, growth is projected to slow to 2.4%, with essentially no increase in spending on commercial facilities, but gains in the 3% range in the industrial and institutional categories.

“Still,” Baker said, “there is growing concern inside and outside of the industry that a broader economic downturn may be materializing over the next 12 to 24 months.”

Nationally, growth in gross domestic product is estimated to be close to 3% in 2019, while the job market continues to be healthy, with more than 2.6 million net new payroll jobs added in 2018, an improvement over 2017’s figure of just under 2.2 million. In fact, the national unemployment rate was below 4% for most of 2018. Consumer-sentiment levels remained strong, and the nation’s factories also were busy, with industrial output achieving its strongest growth in almost a decade.

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction over the past decade, but a rising portfolio of multi-family projects has picked up the slack.

However, there are several signals that point to an emerging slowdown in the broader economy, and therefore in the construction sector, Baker noted. These include declines in leading economic indicators, weakness in some key sectors of the economy, and softness in the markets of major U.S. trading partners. “These signals may be temporary responses to negative short-term conditions, but historically they have preceded a more widespread downturn.”

Meanwhile, since dropping sharply during the Great Recession, housing starts have had a very slow recovery, the AIA notes, and Salvon can attest to that reality locally. But Kuhn Riddle has adjusted in other ways.

“We’ve always been a stool with three legs,” he said. “One-third is work for various colleges, charter schools, prep schools, secondary schools, and even some day cares — we run the whole gamut in education. The second third is residential work; in the past, before the 2009 recession, that was often single-family residences. That market has never really come back, at least for us. But we’ve been lucky to develop a new market in multi-family projects.”

The third leg is a variety of commercial projects, including office buildings, restaurants, and bank renovations, to name a few, Salvon said.

“Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Nationally, Baker sees design work on the commercial front as a bit of a mixed bag at the moment.

“Business investments often reflect what corporate leaders feel is the growth potential for their companies. Investment nationally in new plants and equipment saw healthy growth in 2017 and through the first half of 2018, but slowed significantly beginning in the third quarter of last year,” he noted. “Given the recent trends in business-confidence scores, investment is unlikely to accelerate anytime soon. Business confidence fell sharply through 2018, with the fourth quarter showing the lowest levels in six years.”

In the Bay State, the picture is equally muddy. The Business Confidence Index issued monthly by Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) reported a gain in February after dropping in January to its lowest level in more than two years.

“Employers remain generally optimistic about a state economy that continues to run at full-employment levels and a U.S. economy that is projected to grow by 2.2% this year,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “At the same time, the erosion of confidence among Massachusetts manufacturers during the past 12 months raises some concern about the long-term sustainability of the recovery.”

On a sector-by-sector basis, Baker reported, design work for retail facilities continues to suffer from the growth on online shopping.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity,” he noted. “Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

On the other hand, office projects represent the strongest commercial sector in construction right now, with 5% growth projected for this year and 1% in 2020. “This sector has benefited from strong job growth and the apparent bottoming out of the years-long decline in office space per employee,” Baker said. “Much of the increase has come from the booming technology sector, so the outlook is dependent on continued growth in this industry sector.”

Meanwhile, eds and meds — or education and healthcare, two pillars of the Western Mass. economy — represent very healthy sectors nationally for architects and general contractors. AIA projects 5.5% in the education sector this year and an additional 4% in 2020, and 4% growth in healthcare in 2019 followed by 3.6% in 2020. 

“We’re pretty diversified and active in a lot of different environments,” Edgin said. “It’s not just schools, not just police stations, not just fire stations, but a little bit of everything.” He cited the recent renovation of Polish National Credit Union’s Front Street branch in Chicopee, as well as a new Arrha Credit Union branch in West Springfield and a project with the Boys and Girls Club of West Springfield. “A lot of things take a while, so it’s that advance planning that keeps you busy a year or two from now.”

Leading Indicator

Baker reported that business conditions at U.S. architecture firms in 2018, as measured by AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI), were essentially unchanged from 2017.

“Since the ABI has been shown to lead construction spending by an average of nine to 12 months, this would suggest that the growth in spending on non-residential buildings in 2019 should be close to the growth rate of 2018,” he noted. “Additionally, new design contracts coming into architecture firms grew at a healthy pace in 2018, underscoring the robust level of backlogs currently enjoyed by most firms.”

Meanwhile, Dodge Data & Analytics recently released its 2019 Dodge Construction Outlook, which predicted that total U.S. construction starts for 2019 will be $808 billion, staying essentially even with the $807 billion estimated for 2018.

“There are, of course, mounting headwinds affecting construction, namely rising interest rates and higher material costs, but for now these have been balanced by the stronger growth for the U.S. economy, some easing of bank lending standards, still-healthy market fundamentals for commercial real estate, and greater state financing for school construction and enhanced federal funding for public works,” said Robert Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics.

Locally, both architects and builders are maintaining the same sort of cautious optimism, at least in the short term.

“Right now, it’s strong,” Edgin said. “We’ve increased our staffing.”

Finding talented staff remains a challenge, he said, because strong growth among architecture firms in general means stiff competition, and Greater Springfield isn’t always a top destination for young professionals in the field compared to, say, Boston or New York, where pay scales are higher (but, of course, so is the cost of living).

Salvon understands that reality as well, but said Kuhn Riddle has benefited from its location in downtown Amherst, where it has easy access to the UMass architecture program. “We’ve been a little spoiled — we’ve been privileged to get some employees out of that program over the last decade or so, and we’ve tried to make a nice work environment, so people been staying here.”

All things considered, he told BusinessWest, the outlook seems strong in architecture locally, and others agree.

“We’ve been able to build some good staff and a good team, so we’re happy about that,” Edgin said. “Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

From Bedside to Job Site

Dorothy Ostrowski says she’s never been happier than she is at the helm of a venerable construction firm.

After more than a decade in nursing, Dorothy Ostrowski says she’s never been happier than she is at the helm of a venerable construction firm.

Dorothy Ostrowski has never settled for having just one ball in the air.

Like the time, a few years ago, when she was building a house with her husband, Mike, while pregnant with their second child, completing a dual master’s degree, and starting a new nursing job.

“Somehow, I don’t know how everything fits on my plate, but it all does,” she told BusinessWest. “One of the biggest things I believe is that anyone’s capable of anything. It’s really how bad do you want it, and how much does it impact you, your life, and your family?”

“One of the biggest things I believe is that anyone’s capable of anything. It’s really how bad do you want it, and how much does it impact you, your life, and your family?”

She had to ask all those questions, plus a few more, when the opportunity arose last April to purchase Adams & Ruxton Construction, a 110-year-old West Springfield company, from its then-owner, family friend Andy Touchette.

With Mike busy running his own company, Amp Electric, it was a decision that rested fully with Dorothy, who had worked in nursing for well over a decade but was intrigued by putting the MBA she earned in 2015 to good use.

He said, ‘what do you think? Do you think you can run it?’” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘you know what? It’s time to do something for me. It’s time to do something for our family. It’s time to do something where I know I have a passion and I can be a good leader.’ So I immediately contacted Andy and said we’re interested.”

Mike had long admired Adams & Ruxton and the work Touchette did there. “I knew it wasn’t a dud. It was all about if the numbers worked and whether or not we could afford it — and whether or not she wanted to run it. That’s how it came to be.”

Once the deal and a transition plan was in place, Dorothy spent the next six months working with Touchette, unpaid, learning every aspect of the business, from contracts and estimating to equipment and planning — “every nut and bolt,” as she put it.

Mike Ostrowski knew enough about his friend’s company

Mike Ostrowski knew enough about his friend’s company — and his wife’s skillset — to know this would be a good fit.

With a diverse range of work, from excavation to commercial buildings, the firm’s recent clients include Chicopee Electric Light, Bank of America, the Diocese of Springfield, Callaway, and Coldwell Banker, among others. The company is also currently being evaluated for woman-owned and veteran-owned certifications, which would open up more doors, especially in the realm of state and federal contracts.

It’s a new adventure for sure, one far different than her career stops to this point would have predicted. For this issue’s focus on construction and architecture, BusinessWest talked with Ostrowski about the many twists in her path, from the roads outside Afghanistan’s capital to emergency departments at area hospitals, to her new task, building a new career — both literally and figuratively.

Joining the Force

Growing up, Ostrowski’s plans were much different than her eventual path into nursing. Specifically, she wanted to be a police officer, eventually studying criminal justice at Holyoke Community College.

Before that, though, at age 17, she signed up with the Army National Guard. A friend had recently joined the service, so she spoke with the same recruiter, who explained the opportunities available in a military police role.

“It was one of those turning points in life, like, ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’” she recalled. After attending boot camp the summer after her junior year, she left for Fort McClellan in Alabama the following year, after her high-school graduation, for what would become a seven-year stint, with stops in Italy, Honduras, Panama, and — most memorably — a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, two years after the 2001 U.S. invasion.

“Wherever I’ve been, we’ve always talked about us opening a business — maybe a daycare for special-needs children or something else. I’ve always had that desire to do more and be more.”

“We did a lot of security stuff in Kabul; we were there to support the rebuilding of the Afghan national army,” she explained. Partway through, she became a chase driver for Gen. Karl Eikenberry, tasked with ‘defensive driving’ to protect the general and others from gunfire and IEDs.

“I’ve had dinner at President [Hamid] Karzai’s palace,” she recalled. “We traveled by Chinooks and Blackhawks with Apache escorts through the mountains, met with warlords, and rode in armored-up Chevy Suburbans with thick, bulletproof glass.”

But her future wouldn’t be in police work — civilian or military. Instead, while taking classes at HCC, she crossed paths with some people who got her interested in medical assisting. After earning her certification in that field and working for a podiatrist, she landed in the Emergency Department of Baystate Medical Center. It was an eye-opening experience.

“That was my first taste of the chaotic world of emergency-room nursing, and I loved it,” she said. “I don’t think you ever get stagnant in that kind of environment. You never know what’s going to come around the corner next, and if you become complacent somewhere, you start to miss things and start to make mistakes. It’s the ever-changing part of it and the constant knowledge. No two patients have the same cookie-cutter symptoms or diagnosis. It’s that constant education that keeps you on your toes.”

She performed well in that environment, and colleagues began suggesting she attend nursing school, which she did, earning an associate degree in nursing at Springfield Technical Community College with help from G.I. Bill benefits, and soon found herself in a new-graduate residency at Baystate.

“But I always wanted more,” she said. “I stayed there long enough to get experience, then I did travel nursing. I saw a lot of different places and different ways procedures are done.”

Ostrowski eventually returned to Western Mass., where she dated, then married Mike, and earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Elms College. She took ER jobs at Baystate and Mercy Medical Center, but soon decided she wanted to shift into a less hectic type of job that allowed her more time with family. So she accepted a job with Sound Physicians, a medical process-improvement company, and went back to Elms for a dual master’s degree in nursing and business administration.

“Throughout these transitions, I always wanted more,” she said. “I wanted to be more in a leadership position.”

She found that by buying Adams & Ruxton.

“Wherever I’ve been, we’ve always talked about us opening a business — maybe a daycare for special-needs children or something else,” she said. “I’ve always had that desire to do more and be more.”

After Sound Physicians, she worked at St. Francis Medical Center in Hartford as a process-improvement nurse, and had moved to a role as nurse manager at Connecticut Children’s Hospital when the opportunity arose to buy the construction company.

“I’ve never not been happy as a nurse, and I think I would have potentially stayed in nursing longer had I stayed at the bedside,” she explained. “But I had moved into more of that management piece of nursing, and I constantly struggled with being a nurse’s nurse versus the business of healthcare. It was a difficult internal turmoil to be in, when you know what you want to do through your nurses and patients, but your constraints are based on finances.”

Furthermore, the job was keeping her busy 60 hours a week or more, and she felt she wasn’t home nearly enough to be with her family, especially her older son. “He was struggling to read as a first-grader, and I could have counted on my two hands how many times I was home in time to be able to read to him.”

Time to Change

Something had to give. And her husband could see it, too.

“Between the unhappiness of where she was and having a friend of ours running this [construction] business the past 10 years and how well he’s done, that put it into perspective — ‘hey, it’s just another type of business,’” Mike said. “We’re buying a fully established business that’s completely up and running. All you have to do is go in and replicate what’s going on. You don’t have to build it from the ground up — you can make your changes, you can improve it and grow the business, but in the beginning, all you have to do is replicate it and keep it going.”

“Knowing where to get the answers and knowing to tell someone you don’t know the answer — you get more respect from that than from anything.”

The transition period was important, Dorothy said.

“Andy said he had gotten multiple offers from people he thought would potentially be able to take this business on, but they weren’t the right fit,” she noted. “There’s a certain quality that Adams & Ruxton provides. You have to be the right kind of person who’s going to be there for your clients and your prospective clients. And Andy really wanted to make this a warm handoff. So, the last six months, he made sure he introduced me to all his key clients, and he’s come back in a consultative way; if there’s someone I didn’t meet during those six months, he goes out and meets them with me so they know they’re in the same hands they were before.”

She said the most gratifying aspect of her career move was the fact that Adams & Ruxton’s employees, many of whom have been there more than 20 years, stayed on board when she arrived — and have been a rich resource.

“There’s a constant conversation — if I don’t know something in the construction realm, I have the support system and the knowledge within these walls to ask the questions. I know finances, and I understand how to run the business. I may not know everything there is to know about general contracting, but I know when to say I don’t know, and I know when to ask the questions. I have a great support team.”

Mike agreed. “Knowing where to get the answers and knowing to tell someone you don’t know the answer — you get more respect from that than from anything,” he said.

Both are pleased that business — both at the firm and in the industry as a whole — is healthy right now, Dorothy said. “Our construction rampup this year has started much earlier this year than previous years, so I have no worries about the busy-ness or sustainability.”

It’s a peace she said she began to forge during the period she worked directly with Touchette.

“Over those first six months, there were times I’d never been more sure of something in my career, even as a nurse, and I’ve never been happier than I am now,” she told BusinessWest. “I probably have more stress because I directly impact the livelihoods of the people who work for me, but I’m happier. I enjoy coming to work every day. I enjoy learning new things every day.”

Ostrowski thinks back to other times of transition during her life — like when she missed her graduation from Elms in 2010 because she was delivering her first child — and sees one whirlwind after another, but that suits her just fine.

“I’ve never backed down from a challenge, and I think this is probably the coolest challenge I can embrace, and I will make this successful because I’ve got a great team around me,” she said. “I’m lucky to be where I am right now.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Home Free

Partners Stephen Ross (left) and Bob Walker

Partners Stephen Ross (left) and Bob Walker

Construct Associates has built a reputation for home renovation and restoration in Western Mass. over the past few decades, which is fortunate these days, since business is surging in that area. The reasons are myriad — among them, plenty of old housing stock in the Pioneer Valley, a generally strong economy, and the continued aging of America and the desire among the senior set to remain in their homes and age in place. It all adds up to opportunity, and Construct is making the most of it.

Stephen Ross says residential renovation is looking up — in more ways than one.

“We’re doing a lot of aging-in-place stuff — personal elevators, residential elevators, additions,” he told BusinessWest. “I like to say that an elevator costs probably 10 months worth of a decent retirement community. There, you’re not going to get that money back. But with an elevator, it’s equity toward your house.”

Ross and Bob Walker, the partners at Construct Associates in Northampton, say aging in place is a major trend in residential construction and renovation these days, with the Baby Boom generation continuing to swell the ranks of the over-65 age group, many of them loath to give up independent living.

“I saw a poll recently where 88% of people want to remain in their home, and a lot of them are trying to do just that,” Ross said, noting again that elevators, accessible showers, and other additions pay for themselves if they make the difference between staying there and moving to a retirement community. “I’ve got two of those in the works now. One is an in-law suite, where they’re making it accessible for the in-laws, and the other is a professional couple that wants to be able to utilize their whole house.”

Meanwhile, Walker is wrapping up a first-floor master suite in Northampton with an aging-in-place concept. “It’s an older home right in the middle of town, but all the bedrooms are upstairs. A couple years ago, they did a big kitchen remodel, and now they want a bedroom and bath and laundry on the first floor, where they can get to all of it. We’re putting in a curbless shower, in case of limited mobility.”

“We did a pretty serious job search back in the fall, but we we got a lot of people we felt weren’t qualified for the quality work we do. Sometimes you do get good people come in who are older guys. The labor pool is aging, and it would be nice to see a lot more young people coming into the field.”

Not only do older people want to age in place, Ross said, but the Five College area tends to have consistent rotation of housing stock, and new owners want to come in and put their mark on their new house. And many newcomers to the region arrive from pricier markets, so they’re getting relative bargains and have money left over for remodeling.

“We’re a high-end firm,” Walker added. “We’ll do the whole gamut of work, but our real money is in high-end residential remodeling. At this point, we really are working off our reputation, our referral base. I’m doing a major house remodel in Longmeadow now — four bathrooms, going through the house and upgrading. I have another major job like that, a big Victorian in town here with a high-end kitchen, a big master bath, upgrading mechanical systems, making it as energy-efficient as possible.”

New home building remains a quieter market, Ross added, so Construct is in the right place these days. “Kitchens and bathrooms are our bread and butter, and it always seems like weve got one or two, if not four or six, going on in the background.”

Innovative Idea

Walker and three other partners — Hobie Iselin, Bob Reckman, and Chris Dawson — launched Construct Associates in 1984 with a bright idea — and good timing.

The idea was to create a construction company based on the model of a law office, where the owners share space, marketing, and accounting, but are responsible for managing their own projects.

This residential addition in Northampton

This residential addition in Northampton features an elevator, an amenity that has become more popular in recent years.

The good timing had to do with the company’s home city of Northampton, which was growing quickly and had recently begun to capture the imagination of developers. Construct had a hand in shaping the commercial rebirth of the city, building or renovating the Northampton Brewery, the Hotel Northampton, the Calvin Theater, two Bart’s Ice Cream Shops, Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, Pinch Pottery, Pleasant Street Video, Silverscape Designs, and other properties.

Other partners have come and gone over the years; today, Walker shares ownership with Ross, who first joined the company as a carpenter in 1988 and became a partner in 2006.

The workload has changed over the years; Construct Associates does far more residential work — mainly home-renovation projects — than it used to. But it still does some light commercial work, notably the recent renovation of New England Treatment Access, the marijuana dispensary a block away from its Northampton headquarters.

The firm’s design and construction capabilities cover everything from antique designs to modern styles, the partners note, but they specialize in older buildings, providing innovative designs and construction for kitchen and bathroom remodeling, renovations, and additions, as well as new construction projects.

“We do all our carpentry. We don’t sub out any carpentry because we have our in-house guys,” Walker said.

While the volume of work has been strong lately, he noted, the staffing issues that plague many contractors may be the only thing holding back further growth.

“We lost a few guys last year, and we’re trying to replace them. We did a pretty serious job search back in the fall, but we we got a lot of people we felt weren’t qualified for the quality work we do. Sometimes you do get good people come in who are older guys. The labor pool is aging, and it would be nice to see a lot more young people coming into the field.”

He said he hired a carpenter last year who recently graduated from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School — one of only three students in the carpentry program at the time. That’s not surprising, as a decades-long emphasis on pushing kids into college has contributed to talent shortages in what are generally well-paying careers in the construction trades.

“The most interesting thing I see in vocational schools is the percentage that are going to college,” Ross said. “Back when we were kids, if you went to vocational school, that meant you were going into a vocation. I’m personally shocked at the kids going on to higher education.”

Walker agreed. “It’s interesting. You can make a really good wage doing this rather than try to come into the job market with some computer skill that every guy and his brother has.”

Smooth Sailing

Other than finding talent, the construction-industry landscape is looking strong in 2019, Walker said.

“One of my lumber-yard reps asked how we were doing because he was really surprised that, right after the first of the year, things are still hopping. He sees it because he supplies a lot of builders. Generally, you get to this time in January, and things kind of slow up, but they’re moving quite well.”

Part of that has been the mild winter — though at press time, shortly after this interview, a major snowstorm was expected to sweep through the Northeast.

“There are jobs where I might have pushed a little harder to get concrete in the ground had I known we would have had this mild weather,” Ross said, “but you had that first [November] snowfall that made you think winter was coming, and then it didn’t.”

He’s expecting a solid spring surge this year, though, once people get their tax refunds and the weather starts to get truly warm.

“One of my lumber-yard reps asked how we were doing because he was really surprised that, right after the first of the year, things are still hopping. He sees it because he supplies a lot of builders. Generally, you get to this time in January, and things kind of slow up, but they’re moving quite well.”

“People are funny,” he said. “They’ll call you in the spring when it starts warming up and want to do something right then, but in reality, some of them should be talking to us right now and planning ahead.”

At the start of 2019, though, the calls have been coming in, partly due to the lack of snow.

“With the weather being mild,” Ross said, “some of them are a little more anxious to get some projects started, when normally they would be hunkered down because they don’t want people tramping sand and salt into their house, and opening and closing doors. So we have more calls than we usually do this time of year, but winter will have to come sooner or later. It’ll be interesting to see what happens then.”

The desire to age in place, however, or simply to turn an old house into something fresh and modern, aren’t ideas subject to the season, and on that front, Construct Associates continues to make its mark on Northampton and the region.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

National Outlook

According to the 2019 Dodge Construction Outlook released by Dodge Data & Analytics, a leader in construction-industry forecasting and business planning, total U.S. construction starts for 2019 will be $808 billion, staying essentially even with the $807 billion recorded in 2018.

“Over the past three years, the expansion for the U.S. construction industry has shown deceleration in its rate of growth, a pattern that typically takes place as an expansion matures,” said Robert Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “After advancing 11% to 14% each year from 2012 through 2015, total construction starts climbed 7% in both 2016 and 2017, and a 3% increase is estimated for 2018. There are, of course, mounting headwinds affecting construction, namely rising interest rates and higher material costs, but for now these have been balanced by the stronger growth for the U.S. economy, some easing of bank lending standards, still-healthy market fundamentals for commercial real estate, and greater state financing for school construction and enhanced federal funding for public works.”

One important question going into 2019 is whether deceleration is followed by a period of high-level stability or a period of decline, he noted. For 2019, it’s expected that growth for the U.S. economy won’t be quite as strong as what happened in 2018, as the benefits of tax cuts begin to wane. Short-term interest rates will rise, as the Federal Reserve continues to move monetary policy towards a more neutral stance. Long-term interest rates will also rise, reflecting higher inflationary expectations by the financial markets. At the same time, any erosion in market fundamentals for commercial real estate will stay modest. In addition, the greater funding from state and local bond measures passed in recent years will still be present, and it’s likely that federal spending for construction programs will increase.

“In this environment, it’s forecast that growth for construction starts will decelerate further, but not yet make the transition to the point where the overall volume of activity declines” Murray noted. “For 2019, total construction starts are forecast to hold basically steady at $808 billion. By major sector in dollar terms, residential building will be down 2%, non-residential building will match its 2018 amount, and non-building construction will increase 3%.”

The pattern of construction starts by more specific segments includes the following:

• Single-family housing will be unchanged in dollar terms, alongside a modest 3% drop in housing starts to 815,000. There will be a slight decline in homebuyer demand as the result of higher mortgage rates, diminished affordability, and reduced tax advantages for home ownership as the result of tax reform.

• Multi-family housing will slide 6% in dollars and 8% in units to 465,000. Market fundamentals such as occupancies and rent growth had shown modest erosion prior to 2018, which then paused in 2018 due to the stronger U.S. economy. However, that erosion in market fundamentals is expected to resume in 2019.

• Commercial building will retreat 3%, following 2% gains in 2017 and 2018, as well as the substantial percentage increases that took place earlier. While 2018 market fundamentals for offices and warehouses were healthy, this year, vacancy rates are expected to rise as the economy slows, slightly dampening construction. Hotel construction will ease back from recent strength, and store construction will experience further weakness.

“There are, of course, mounting headwinds affecting construction, namely rising interest rates and higher material costs, but for now these have been balanced by the stronger growth for the U.S. economy, some easing of bank lending standards, still-healthy market fundamentals for commercial real estate, and greater state financing for school construction and enhanced federal funding for public works.”

• Institutional building will advance 3%, picking up the pace slightly from its 1% gain in 2018, which itself followed an 18% hike in 2017. Educational facilities should see continued growth in 2019, supported by funding coming from numerous school-construction bond measures. Healthcare projects will make a partial rebound after pulling back in 2018. Airport terminal and amusement-related projects are expected to stay close to the elevated levels of construction starts reported in 2017 and 2018.

• Manufacturing plant construction will rise 2% following a 18% jump in 2018. The recent pickup in petrochemical plant projects should continue, and cuts in the corporate tax rate from tax reform should encourage firms to invest more in new plant capacity.

• Public-works construction will increase 4%, reflecting growth by most of the project types. The omnibus federal appropriations bill passed last March provided greater funding for transportation projects that will carry over into 2019, and environmental-related projects are getting a lift from recently passed legislation.

• Electric utilities and gas plants will drop 3%, continuing to retreat after the exceptional amount reported back in 2015. New generating capacity continues to come online, dampening capacity utilization rates for power generation.

Dodge Data & Analytics is North America’s leading provider of analytics and software-based workflow-integration solutions for the construction industry. 

Construction

Screen Test

Andy Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass.

Andy Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass.

Online learning isn’t a recent innovation, but in the world of continuing education for construction professionals, there aren’t many programs doing it — and few are doing it more effectively than the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass., says the association’s executive director. Its partnership with Holyoke Community College, he notes, is helping contractors get the training they need on a schedule that doesn’t take them off the worksite at critical times — and that benefits everyone.

Education, Andy Crane says, isn’t an afterthought for the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass. — it’s part of its mission statement.

“We get calls multiple times a day just asking questions, all over the spectrum,” said Crane, the HBRA’s executive director. “It could range from grading the soil to what you need on the roof to what kind of energy efficiency you need, and we’re expected to know that — and if we don’t, we know who to call. The fact that you can call and get an answer to your question is, I think, critical to the building trade in general. I think it validates us.”

On a broader scale, the association has long conducted continuing-education classes for construction supervisors and building professionals. The state requires 12 hours of classwork every two years, but the value of education goes beyond that, Crane said. Take, for example, a course on writing construction contracts.

“Very few people know how to do it properly, how to write a good contract,” he told BusinessWest. “There are contracts written on the back of napkins, or on lumber yard receipts. You’re collecting thousands of dollars from Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the contractor may or may not take off, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith have no avenue to turn to. Contracts are not just one-way — they protect me, but they protect you as well. Writing the proper contract and including the right licensing and registration numbers and insurance — it’s huge.”

In recent years, the state began allowing up to six of those 12 hours of classwork to be conducted online. Crane said the HBRA wanted to get into that — but wanted to do it right. So the association approached Ken White, dean of Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC), to develop an online continuing-education platform that would compare favorably with any live classroom experience.

“More and more education and training is going from live classroom instruction to convenient online learning,” White said, adding that it makes particular sense in the construction world.

“We’re serving construction supervisors who are critically important individuals on the job; they’re overseeing everything that’s happening,” he explained. “To have them off site to go to a full-day program is a huge commitment of time that many times might not be in the best interest of the homeowner or the builder.

“HBRA has been doing premium classes for decades — of the six or seven home builders associations in the Commonwealth, they’re recognized by the rest of them as the best, by far,” he went on. “They asked us if there was a way to take their live instruction and create an online opportunity. That way, they can wrap their training and continuing development around their schedules, which may be weekends, evenings, and early mornings. And instead of taking it in these huge chunks of four hours or eight hours, they can do it an hour here and an hour there.”

HCC partnered with MindEdge Learning and MRW Connected to create a gateway and learning-management platform, White explained.

“We used a videographer to actually film all the live classrooms that take place here at the HBRA, with a three-camera setup. We keep the anonymity of the students because all you’re seeing are backs of heads; the focus is on the instruction. It’s filmed, it’s edited by the college to make sure it flows correctly, then it’s reviewed by the presenter, who is a builder or someone in the construction industry here in the Commonwealth. They look at it, and when it’s approved, it’s released to the public.”

The current course list is a deep dive into key construction issues: “Building an Airtight House,” “Energy Code Overview,” “Avoiding Costly Building Mistakes,” “Lead Safety Isn’t Just About Lead Paint,” and “Fall Prevention and Silica Exposure” are just a few of the topics.

“The reviews have been superlative,” White said. “They’ve picked some really great individuals who not only know their trade, but have great communication skills and keep up to date.”

He called continuing education the “lifeblood of decision making” for construction supervisors.

“On the job, if you make the wrong decision, people could get hurt, or something could leak, or something might not be up to code. They have a lot on the line. That’s why it’s important to have to be the best-educated, most experienced individuals in this profession. The college is just happy to be a part of it.”

Anytime, Anywhere

Crane said the HBRA is still teaching about 100 people a month at its headquarters in Springfield, but contractors are increasingly choosing the convenience of the online model.

“Some leave the job site and attend a live training,” White added. “But you can get an identical experience taking the same class online around your own schedule.”

Purchasing a class is as simple as logging on to the HBRA website, perusing course options, and paying for them via a secure checkout. A few minutes after payment is processed, the user receives an e-mail with a link to log onto a class at his or her convenience.

Since the online program began in the summer of 2017, it has seen 295 registrations through the portal, White noted, adding that the HBRA of Western Mass. is at the forefront of this type of education in the construction industry.

Ken White says HCC aimed to create an online platform that would be as well-received as the live classes the local HBRA is already known for.

Ken White says HCC aimed to create an online platform that would be as well-received as the live classes the local HBRA is already known for.

“They’re the only ones who have online learning that’s a live video capture of the actual classes, so what students are seeing is a very engaging, identical experience that they can take in smaller portions if they’d like. Whenever they stop, they can get back in back exactly where they left off. And at the very end, there’s a final examination with 20 multiple-choice questions they have to get right to get credit.”

Crane noted that questions need to be answered every 20 minutes or so, too, which ensures that the user actually watches the material.

“The problem with online classes, when they first came out, was that you could literally pay your fee and pay your kid five bucks to pass the test by sitting there doing this,” he said as he mindlessly pressed a button. “Because we’re considered leaders in the industry, we thought that was wrong, so we helped get the rules changed so that, if you want people to learn stuff, you have to create a platform that makes them learn. You take a certain portion of time, maybe 20 minutes, then you’re tested on that 20 minutes. When you pass, you move on to the next 20 minutes. So you get your six hours of credit, you actually have to do six hours.”

After passing the final exam, the user prints a certificate to send in to the state to renew their license.

It works well for many construction professionals, Crane added, though many still prefer to be in a live classroom.

“You can take 12 hours live or do six live and six online. Personally, I don’t like doing things online. In fact, I hate it. I first came here because they offered classes here, downstairs in our conference room. I sat here for two days — there’s no tests when you do it this way; if you’re here 12 hours, they assume you learned.”

To feel the same confidence in an online platform, he said, “we had to build a program that follows the state’s protocol to a T, and make it tough so they’re actually learning something. Our classes are $90 for three classes. For-profit businesses will run that for $29, but they don’t care what you learn. They’re willing to wait for the hammer to drop and then close down, and they don’t care; they’ll just do it to somebody else.”

White said he works with other companies to provide various types of training, both live and online. “But in terms of this particular industry, we’re not aware of anyone else doing this. And the other plus is, with live training, most folks are local supervisors and builders. Online, we have folks as far as Cape Cod, Nantucket, even Cape Coral, Florida. It allows folks, wherever they’re located, to take this and not have to drive a half-day to get here and back and deal with traffic.”

Learning Curve

Even in its live classrooms, Crane noted, the HBRA of Western Mass. has been ahead of the curve.

“If other associations do it, they go get a professor at a college or some local professional and rent a room at the Holiday Inn and run a class,” he said. “Nobody I’m aware of has an online product. We’re the only ones out of the Home Builders Association running an online program. There are bootleg courses online, being taught by people in Arkansas and Canada and California at half the cost, but the content is nowhere near as professional as ours is.”

White said he was impressed by what he saw when he first attended a class in Springfield.

“I was really blown away because it was very professional and intensive, with an incredible amount of information, a lot of interaction between student and instructor, a lot of passion, and all relevant information that helps business owners and construction professionals and supervisors in their day-to-day decision making, whether it’s dealing with OSHA or lead issues or whatever the case may be.

“When I went back to report to my vice president, Jeff Hayden, I told him the instruction is superlative. I said, ‘there’s a lot of engagement, it was interactive — this is perfect for live video capture.”

In the end, he said, HCC and the association have turned out a premium learning experience.

“And it’s due to the folks that Andy hires to teach,” White added. “They’re experts. This isn’t a sideline; it’s what they’ve been doing all their lives. They live this 365 days a year. So folks are really happy about the product the HBRA has put out, and we’re happy to have been selected to partner with them and create these models.”

Crane agreed. “This is a unique partnership that benefits consumers, clients of builders, the state — it benefits everyone who touches this product.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Creating a Solid Foundation

This lake home in Westhampton

This lake home in Westhampton is one of the many projects in Keiter Builders’ portfolio of residential projects.

While earning his master’s degree in finance at the University of Rhode Island, Scott Keiter wasn’t thinking about using it to manage his own construction company. But after a dose of the ‘real world,’ as he called it, while working for an insurance company, his passion for carpentry took his career in a completely different direction. In a short decade, Keiter Builders has constructed a solid business foundation and a diverse portfolio of projects across several disciplines.

Scott Keiter likes to say his company is what he calls “a typical Valley builder.”

By that, he means it is relatively small, at least when compared to outfits in larger cities, boasts a diverse portfolio — out of necessity and good business sense more than anything else — is agile, and also always looking to add new disciplines to the equation.

Florence-based Keiter Builders is quite atypical, however, in that it is a first-generation company, started just 10 years ago, almost at the height of the Great Recession (we’ll get back to that challenge later), and therefore doesn’t have a long history.

Indeed, most of the builders in the 413 can boast in their ads — and on the sides of their trucks — that they were launched a half-century or more ago. Their principals can talk about starting out working for their fathers, who can talk about starting out working for their fathers.

Scott and Jill Keiter.

There isn’t any of that Keiter Builders, said Scott, who noted that his father is an aerospace engineer and he himself earned a master’s degree in economics at the University of Rhode Island, and while he was earning it, thoughts of putting it to use to manage his own construction company rarely, if ever, entered his mind.

However, and this is a big ‘however,’ Keiter worked as a carpenter during the summer while in high school and college, developed somewhat of a passion for building, and stayed in touch with the industry throughout his education.

“I tried different careers, and between my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, I went to work for State Farm Insurance in auto claims — that was my introduction to the real world,” he said. “Which wasn’t for me; when I got my master’s degree, I decided I needed a break and went back to carpentry.”

To move the story along, things “progressed,” as he put it, deploying a word he would use early and often, and Keiter Builders started to establish a foothold and begin its transformation into, well, a typical Valley builder.

Download the PDF: List of General Contractors

Today, as noted, it is diverse, specializing in commercial, residential, and institutional work, with clients including Smith College and Amherst College, a number of smaller businesses in and around Paradise City, and the city of Northampton itself — Keiter is currently handling a number of projects within Look Park, for example.

As much as Scott Keiter is into building dwellings, commercial spaces, and softball diamonds, among other things, right now he’s mostly engaged in building his business, a process that, like most, he finds enjoyable, but also quite challenging, given the pressures of what comes day to day.

“One of my challenges is looking ahead,” he explained. “You’re just so busy as a small-business owner, it takes everything you’ve got just to get through the day, but you need to focus on tomorrow as well as today.”

With that in mind, he wants to continuously expand the portfolio, and he’s doing that through various initiatives, everything from investments in the ‘heavy construction division,’ as he called it, which is pursuing subsurface utility work, trenching, and heavy civil projects, to efforts toward gaining certification to handle work for the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, or DCAM, which would enable it to pick up work at UMass Amherst and other state-run facilities (more on all that later).

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on Keiter Builders, a comparatively young firm that has constructed a solid business foundation and is looking to continue building upon it.

By the Booklet

As part of those business-building efforts he described, Keiter said the company has become more aggressive in its efforts to promote its brand.

Like most all builders, large and small, word-of-mouth referrals have always been the most effective marketing tool, but the company has added another component with a slick promotional brochure that Keiter and his staff, including his wife, Jill, invested considerable time and energy in and are quite proud of.

This booklet does a very effective job of explaining the company’s depth and agility — or that ‘progression,’ as Keiter described it, while detailing not only what it does, but also, and perhaps more importantly, how.

Indeed, it devotes pages to the firm’s work to carefully develop a sound pre-construction strategy and manage the construction process and meet the most fundamental of objectives in this highly competitive business — finishing on time and to the specifications set by the client.

But it mostly focuses on wide array of projects in the portfolio.

That list includes everything from a telescope observatory dome at Smith College to the memorial fountain at Look Park; from the Valentine Hall rooftop deck at Amherst College to the work at Roberto’s restaurant in Northampton; from the new Northampton offices of the law firm Bacon Wilson to the Convino Wine Bar in Thornes Marketplace.

It also includes an addition and renovation to the optical studios almost directly across Main Street in Florence from the Keiter offices, as well as a host of new homes, remodelings, and additions.

Overall, that brochure shows a great deal of progression in a decade and how quickly the company has been able to establish itself within this market.

And remember, it started at the height of the recession. Well, sort of.

“We weren’t really a construction company at that time,” said Keiter, adding that the enterprise amounted to him handling a wide array of carpentry work. “We went out and just built a network of clients, and kept at it.”

By that he meant, well, a lot of things, including taking whatever jobs he could get, eventually adding his first employee and then more as the project list grew — “we’re really fortunate to have an excellent group of craftsmen working for us” — and lots of hard work building the solid relationships that are the very bedrock of this sector.

The softball field at Smith College

This relationship-building ability is clearly evident in the list of projects the company is currently handling, including several smaller initiatives at both Smith and Amherst Colleges, for which Keiter has already handled a number of assignments, and ongoing work at Look Park — which is in the midst of a comprehensive capital-improvement project. Renovation of Pines Theater is among the current initiatives.

There are a also a few residential projects ongoing, as well as a new building to support teen housing being developed by a Greenfield-based group called Dial/Self, said Keiter, adding that the company continues to build on the relationships it has forged in its early years while also establishing new ones.

“I don’t think there’s a defining moment over the past 10 years when it comes to how we’ve arrived here,” Keiter explained. “We try to take a long-term approach to our work as it relates to the quality, but also the relationships, and that’s really paid off for us.”

He offered Smith College as an example.

“We’ve been working with them for about six years,” he explained. “We started off doing very small projects, and we’ve just earned their respect and worked our way up to being involved with larger projects. As a first-generation company, we have to consistently prove our value.”

The company currently handles work within a relatively small geographic radius — roughly 15 miles from its Florence base, by Keiter’s estimates — but it is looking to expand that reach as well as its list of core competencies.

Keiter Builders handled renovations of the common area at Amherst College, one of its many institutional clients.

Indeed, Keiter, as noted, is currently investing in a heavy-construction division — a subsidiary of the company, actually — based in Hatfield. This division pursues work with utilities and larger contractors and focus on excavating, trenching, and site work, and it has been growing steadily, said Keiter.

Such diversification is important, especially for a sector so profoundly impacted by downturns in the economy.

“We need to stay engaged in many different disciplines,” he explained. “Sometimes, when commercial or institutional is a little slow, the residential fills the gaps. We really enjoy all the different kinds of projects; it keeps us sharp.”

Meanwhile, the company now owns a number of properties in the Northampton area and will look to develop them, said Keiter, adding that he’s eyeing a mix of commercial and residential development opportunities.

Then there’s the process of becoming DCAM-certified, which, Keiter said, should open a number of doors, including the large one involving UMass Amherst.

“We’re starting to enter the public arena,” he told BusinessWest, adding that DCAM certification should be a catalyst for growth within the heavy-construction division as well as the traditional contracting side of the venture.

Building a Legacy

Keiter, who has young children, said that someday, maybe his company can be one of those that boasts multiple generations of ownership and a half-century of history.

“I really enjoy building the business — it’s a pleasure to build a legacy,” he explained. “My hope is that maybe, sometime down the line, there will be a second generation.”

For now, he’s focused on that business- and legacy-building process, and said the formula for doing that is pretty straightforward.

“You have to keep grinding and building a reputation,” he explained. “And in our industry, there are no shortcuts to doing that.”

Indeed, there’s just hard work — on the job site and in creating and strengthening relationships. And success in those realms has enabled Keiter to come a in way in a short decade.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

New Life for an Old Building

Begun almost two years ago, a massive, $50 million project to convert the structure at Springfield Technical Community College, formerly part of the Springfield Armory complex, known as Building 19 into a new learning commons is moving rapidly toward its conclusion. Used more than 150 years ago to warehouse gun-barrel stocks, the building will become home to a wide variety of facilities and services — from the library to the admissions office; from common areas to learning spaces — and should be ready for occupancy late this fall, said Socha.

Construction Sections

Framing the Issue

Local union carpenters gather for a forum on women in construction at Mount Holyoke College.

Construction has long been a male-dominated industry, but the playing field doesn’t have to be so uneven, several carpenters with Local 336 told BusinessWest. They all took different paths to the field, but all say women with an interest in working with their hands shouldn’t shy away from a career society has too often said they’re not suited for. Progress in diversifying the workforce has been incremental, but several regional developments offer reason for optimism.

Lily Thompson laughs when she hears that women can’t handle themselves on a construction site.

“That’s a societal thing as much as anything,” said Thompson, a journey-level carpenter with Local 336 of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. “If a mother can pick a sleeping child out of bed 2,500 times, there’s no reason she can’t pick up metal studs and shlep stuff around; 90% of this business is moving and fastening.”

Yet, the stereotypical messages persist. “You wouldn’t believe how many times kids are told, ‘that’s a boy thing,’ or ‘that’s a girlie thing,’” she went on, recalling the day her young daughter was helping her install a barn door, and a passerby took note of them and commented, ‘a lady with a saw — how unusual.’

“It doesn’t get any more basic than that,” she said of how gender roles get reinforced in traditionally male professions. “But society has changed a lot lately, and Western Mass. is prime territory for people doing non-traditional things.”

Julie Boucher, another journey-level carpenter, didn’t get those messages at an early age, or, if she did, she ignored them.

“I wanted to be a carpenter since I was a little girl, probably since I was 4 or 5, playing with Lincoln Logs and Legos,” she told BusinessWest. Her route to that career was a circuitous one.

“I went to vocational school and learned the trade, but when I got out, it was difficult to find a job,” she said. “Being a woman, a lot of companies took one look and said I wasn’t needed or wanted, so I got a little discouraged.”

After serving in the Navy for a time before getting a medical discharge and then studying business administration at Holyoke Community College, she again became interested in carpentry, and after a professor handed her a pamphlet for the carpenter’s union, she applied.

“The job can be difficult mentally and physically, and sometimes I think the mental struggle is harder than the physical struggle,” she said. “But if building and working with your hands is something you love to do, you should follow your dreams.”

Katurah Holiness

Katurah Holiness, here pictured at the MGM Springfield site, says she appreciates the different avenues of training available in her union.

Lisa Clauson, director of Strategic Partnerships for the union’s Carpenter’s Labor Management Program, loves testimonials like that one.

“We’ve been working aggressively over the past two years to expand our union’s diversity and ensure we reflect the communities we work in and our members live in,” she said, noting that this effort includes bringing in more men of color, but in particular has focused on recruiting women of all backgrounds.

Tradeswomen, Clauson noted, represent fewer than 3% of the construction industry nationally, and closer to 2% in Springfield. “We, and many other building trades, all have very successful tradeswomen, so it is not an issue of women not being physically capable, but it is an issue of women being recruited and encouraged to do this work — and an issue of contractors being willing to employ them. The construction trades are one of the last industries to diversify opportunities for women.”

Indeed, while female representation in the construction trades rose steadily between the 1980s and 2007, the number then leveled off and has decreased ever since. One factor was certainly the Great Recession, which hit construction hard and chased many professionals out of the field — women at a higher rate.

They should come back, Thompson said, with opportunities on the rise.

“I’ve been doing this almost 16 years,” she said. “The pay and benefits are great, and I work with a great group of people. It’s something I like to do, versus sitting at a desk. I tried making sandwiches and was a receptionist in a hair salon, but that wasn’t where I wanted to be.”

Test of Time

Thompson graduated from Franklin County Technical School in 2001, and decided to focus on carpentry after trying out some trades — auto-body and electrical work, to name two — that she found less appealing.

“I like building things, and seeing things that are long-lasting. You get to look at it and have pride in your work for years to come,” she said, noting that her skills translate well to her personal life, too; she and her husband, a mechanic, bought a run-down property 12 years ago and worked to turn it into a home.

A home is something Katurah Holiness didn’t have when she entered the world of carpentry. An Air Force veteran, she was driving for Uber and sleeping on a series of friends’ couches, and when she got tired of hopping around, she went to stay at Soldier On in Leeds, where she lived for much of 2016 and 2017.

She had never had much interest in carpentry, but one day she gave a union carpenter a ride, and chatting with him piqued her interest. She applied with the union and quickly became an apprentice and got hired on the MGM Springfield job.

“With the carpenter’s union, there are so many avenues you can go as far as interest,” she said. “You can take a welding course, learn about framing and sheetrock … the avenues don’t end. There are a number of things you can get into, specialties and certifications you can train for.”

Her car broke down shortly before she started as a carpenter, and Holiness initially was able to get to work through getting rides with other members and sometimes from other women who lived at Soldier On. Steady work at the union apprentice rate enabled her to save, pay off some of her debts, and eventually move to an apartment.

Besides those pluses, she enjoys the work, and feels at home working alongside almost all men.

“I came from a male-dominated background in the military, so it’s not new to me in the least,” she said. “I can vouch for the men I’ve worked with; they’re for the most part good guys, and they’re willing to train you and educate you if you’re willing to learn.”

That’s not to say some stereotypes of the field aren’t occasionally true, Thompson said, including ribald or condescending teasing.

“I just put in my imaginary earplugs. Its ‘hey, you’ve got your sexy jeans on today,’ or ‘where did you get your boots from, the kids’ section?’ You take it with a grain of salt — smile, wave, give some s–t back when it comes down to it. As for the physical part, well, if you’re active in life and don’t want to go to the gym every day, come give this a whirl.”

The union has been trying to motivate more of that whirl-giving among women in several ways, Clauson said. One is recruiting aggressively from members’ networks, community organizations, career centers and job-training programs, vocational schools, and other sources.

“We’re spreading the word about the opportunities for this work and letting women know that, when this work is done union, they can earn living wages, be fully trained in the craft for free, and get great benefits. Our recruitment work has involved intensive outreach in the vocational schools throughout Western Mass. as well.”

Meanwhile, to retain women in the trade, the union has created a ‘Sisters in the Brotherhood’ chapter for its women to come together regularly to network and support each other.

“We have mentorship programs and are working to educate our members on the value of diversity and the need for harassment-free worksites. We are also working with our contractors on these issues,” she explained.

Finally, the union has been persuading developers to require diversity in their contractors.

“This last step is key to ensuring women get hired and get work,” she said. “Contractors are slow to change their hiring practices, but if owners of construction work require them to bring in a diverse workforce, they will do so. This often gives women — and people of color — a foot in the door to demonstrate their work ethic and skills, and many are then kept for other jobs that don’t have requirements.”

Success stories in this realm have included MGM, with women accounting for at least 6.9% of all work hours, people of color 15.3%, and veterans 8% — minimums that are consistently being exceeded. “MGM is a remarkably different worksite than most,” Clauson said. “Our women constantly talk about how different it is to be seeing other tradeswomen all around them.”

Lily Thompson

Lily Thompson takes a break from work renovating Blanchard Hall at Mount Holyoke College.

Meanwhile, the UMass Amherst Building Authority has also set work-hour goals of 6.9% for women and 15.3% for people of color. Three years ago, she added, these goals existed but were ignored, but a compliance officer started enforcing them in 2015, and now the all jobs are exceeding these numbers.

Mount Holyoke College recently completed its first project (a renovation of Blanchard Hall) with work-hour requirements of 7% for women and 16% for people of color. And Smith College recently announced it will require the same percentages on its $100 million Neilson Library project.

Finally, the city of Springfield is reworking the Springfield Responsible Employer Ordinance, which requires city construction contractors to employ 35% Springfield residents, 20% people of color, 6.9% women, and 5% veterans.

“It has largely been unenforced, and they are now creating a new enforcement plan and have recently hired a compliance officer to oversee it,” Clauson said.

Small Steps

Boucher said every additional woman on a job site makes the environment healthier for all women. That’s partly why she coordinates the training center of the union’s apprenticeship mentoring program and helped launched its Sisters in the Brotherhood chapter.

“I naturally wanted to help other people; that’s in my blood,” she said. “I started a mentorship program at my local because I know how important it is to have that support. I wanted to be there for the apprentices coming in and help guide them in any way I can. Not all apprentices want mentoring, but the ones that do, I try to provide a support system for them. We have a great team of mentors to help out.”

The progress achieved in diversifying the construction workforce regionally is exciting, Clauson said, but much more needs to be done.

“Women historically have done many physically demanding and dirty jobs, but traditionally they are doing work of this type in low-wage and low-skilled industries,” she said, citing jobs in cleaning, food service, and personal care. “Construction careers, in contrast, are higher-paid, skilled, and, when unionized, have good wages, free training, and strong benefits. Women need to be able to access these opportunities.”

And be treated equally on the job site, Boucher said.

“There are companies that allow me to do my job, and then companies that don’t allow me to do my job, in the sense that I’ll get put on menial tasks, easy tasks, because my foreman or journeyman I’m working with don’t think I’m capable of doing it. I wish I was challenged a little more. Let me do the framing; let me handle drywall. But that’s not always the case.”

It helps that the union supports workforce training, she added. For example, Boucher earned a construction management degree at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, and the local paid for one-third of the tuition; most of the classes were held at Springfield Technical Community College through an exchange between the two institutions.

Thompson said women are ultimately responsible for taking such opportunities to better their careers. “Women today want to be 50-50, want to feel like they’re equal partners,” she noted. “Whether just out of college or age 50, as long as you’re physically able, there are lots of positions in construction. I didn’t see myself doing this full-time, but it works. I’m much happier than I’d be in an office.”

Holiness agreed. “A lot of people think it’s only for males because they’re stronger, but that’s not true,” she said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. There’s nothing you can’t do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

Building Concern

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr. outside one of his company’s current high-profile projects, the new Pope Francis High School.

The good news for area contractors is that construction is humming along in Western Mass. The bad news? A limited talent pool has been stretched even thinner, and companies often struggle to find skilled workers. It’s actually a national problem, as a decades-long emphasis on college degrees has steered young people away from the trades as a viable career option. That needs to change, industry experts say, if they want to keep growing.

Long before the MGM Springfield casino project put hundreds of workers — carpenters, ironworkers, plumbers, electricians, you name it — to work, the region’s construction companies found themselves struggling with a critical element of the business: finding workers.

n some ways, it’s a good problem to have — it means construction activity is up regionally — but it may not be sustainable.

“In Western Mass., it’s a combination of things,” said David Fontaine Jr., president of Fontaine Brothers in Springfield. “Everyone is very busy, with a lot of large projects going on and demanding a lot of labor. And then, you’re seeing a shortage of people entering the trades. Its hard to distinguish which is more the culprit right now, but it’s definitely those two things going on.”

Fran Beaulieu, president of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement in Chicopee, agrees.

“There is a shortage, and it’s hard to find new help; they just don’t come knocking on your door,” he told BusinessWest. “So we have to create from within. We do have a nice crop of younger guys working for us, under 30, and we’re doing everything we can to retain them — making a better work environment, making it profitable for them, and showing them there is a future in this. That’s how you retain them.”

Attracting new blood to the field? That’s a little more challenging.

“It’s hard work,” he said, perhaps referring to both the actual jobs and convincing people to do them. “When you decide you want to be a carpenter, plumber, or electrician, you know it will be hard work. And there will be days when it’s 28 degrees out — those are the bad days. But then there are a lot of good days — nice, sunny days when it’s 75 degrees out, and people sitting at their desks wish they were outside.”

It doesn’t help, he noted, that some elements of society have looked down at the construction trades over the past quarter-century, pushing hard the idea that young people need to earn a college degree.

Yet, “if you take the job professionally, you can do really, really well,” he said, noting that someone who starts at age 18 may be earning $80,000 to $90,000 by the time they’re 23 or 24, while someone who went to college is just starting out in an entry-level job, often saddled with six-figure debt.

“And that’s working for someone else; never mind venturing out and doing your own projects,” he went on. “I always tell young guys, ‘the carpenter becomes the builder, the builder becomes the developer, and the developer becomes the real-estate owner.’ After five or six years, they’re often no longer wearing a toolbelt, because they’re managing the people working for them. This business can be very lucrative; there’s a lot of opportunity. We all need a plumber from time to time.”

If You Build It…

America needs a lot more than that. Last year, the National Assoc. of Home Builders’ Economics and Housing Policy Group conducted a national online survey of 2,001 young adults (ages 18-25) in response to growing concerns over labor supply in the trades. The current scarcity is all the more concerning, the report noted, given projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the construction sector will add around 790,000 new jobs between 2014 and 2024.

Among respondents who say they want to work in construction, 80% cited good pay as a reason why — the top motivator, in fact. Other reasons include the ability to obtain useful skills (74%), the ability to work outside (53%), the ability to start one’s own business (50%), and the fact that it doesn’t require a college degree (37%).

On the other hand, when respondents who said they were not interested in a construction career were asked why, the top reason was the desire for a less physically demanding job, cited by 48%, followed by the difficulty of the work (32%), the desire for an office job (26%), the desire to open their own business (20%) and, interestingly, the desire to make more money than people in the trades make (19%).

Interesting, because there seems to be a perception gap when it comes to salary. Of the respondents uninterested in a construction career, almost half (44%) think annual salary averages less than $51,000, and only 2% think someone can earn more than $100,000.

Still, the report notes, “most young adults who have yet to make up their minds on a career see very little chance they would join the trades even if the pay was high. This decision is based more on their view that construction work is physically demanding and difficult, and less so on often-repeated presumptions that it is because they prefer ‘new economy’ type jobs, or because the work is seasonal or requires being outside in the elements.

Fran Beaulieu

Fran Beaulieu says recruiting talent is a constant challenge in the industry, which is why he focuses on creating a strong culture of retention and advancement.

“The helpful news for the construction industry is that many 18- to 25-year olds who in theory would not like to work in the trades would reconsider it for an annual salary of $75,000 or more,” it continues. “Although the average annual salary is below this for the trades relevant to the home building industry, $75,000-plus salaries are available for the top 10% to 25% of workers, and it may be worthwhile to make this more widely known.”

Fontaine is doing his part.

“I think this is a great career,” he said. “We have a lot of people here who have had long, successful careers. And certainly, a lot of other contractors in the area have employed a lot of the same people for years and years. A lot of that is the unions, which have great healthcare programs and pension programs that people can take advantage of.”

It’s the other side of the coin, the too-slow trickle of younger workers, that has contractors concerned. Take, for example, these comments published in BusinessWest during 2017 alone:

• From Joe Marois, president of Marois Construction in South Hadley: “Now we’re being faced with a labor shortage, which is always a challenge. That’s the nature of construction — it’s never perfect. I don’t know to what extent the casino is affecting that, but basically, the labor pool for tradespeople is very small.”

• From Laurie Raymaakers, co-owner of J.L. Raymaakers & Sons in Westfield: “What we’re not seeing is qualified or experienced people to hire to grow with us. The need for skilled tradespeople is not going away, and it’s not just us — everyone we talk to within the industry says the same thing. And it’s a field where you can make a very good wage.”

• And from Brian Ruud, owner of Vista Home Improvement in Chicopee, who noted that companies have to be willing to pay competitive wages for good talent: “It’s hard to find good people … We’re happy with where we are now. We could grow more if we had the right people, but we’ll find them.”

Jason Garand

Jason Garand says the local carpenters union has developed programs to introduce young people to well-paying careers in the trade.

Jason Garand, business manager of Carpenters Local Union 336 in Springfield, agreed that the promise of good pay is a must to attract young people, noting that, if an 18-year-old with no plans to go to college can earn $11 an hour at McDonald’s or $13 an hour on a job site, doing hard work in the elements, he might choose fast food, even though there’s a much lower career ceiling in that field — perhaps store management, but no higher.

“He might say, ‘I’ll take the easier path in the short term,’ but in the long term, it’s a dead end,” he noted.

As one of its efforts to raise the profile of its trade, the union recently partnered with Putnam Vocational Technical Academy to bring two students in as apprentices to work on the MGM Springfield project.

“We’re giving them a taste of what construction is all about, and our rate is $16 to start — that’s an apprentice, walking in with no skills,” Garand said, adding that, in the long term, “the union has a wage and benefit package that puts you in the middle class.”

Daily Grind

Fontaine was quick to note that the office side of the business isn’t seeing the same shortage, as the flow of young people graduating from schools like Wentworth Institute of Technology or Worcester Polytechnic Institute with degrees in construction management or engineering has been steady.

“We’re seeing more of a shortage of people going into the trades, the laborers — carpenters, plumbers, pipefitters.”

He added that young people who come from families with construction trades in their background are much more likely to enter the field themselves. Meanwhile, Beaulieu said, immigrants, many from South and Central America or Eastern Europe, are entering the field locally at a higher rate than American-born young people.

“There are some drawbacks,” Fontaine said. “There’s a lot of travel involved, a lot of driving to and from job sites. You’re up and on the road early; some people are averse to that. And there are fluctuations in the construction industry; the market is going to go up and down. It’s not a career where you expect to be employed 52 weeks a year. Especially in the early stage of a career, that can drive some people away, too.”

Beaulieu agreed that it’s not the easiest career. “It’s tough on the body; you have to take care of yourself and stay thin — but the job itself will keep you thin.”

For whatever reason, he went on, “I don’t think a lot of seniors and juniors, when they’re thinking about career opportunities, are necessarily thinking about a trade. But, on the other hand, you don’t have to leave college with huge debt, you’re going to get paid right out of the gate, and five or six years later, you can be a master at the trade.”

With that in mind, Beaulieu says he focuses on training from within, so that his own people can grow in their careers, stay with the firm, and advance to project management and beyond.

The Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry recently conducted its own study on why the construction business struggles to attract new talent, and emerged with five takeaways:

• Young people thrive on regular communication. They enjoy collaborating on teams. Mentoring programs will encourage them to stay on board with a company.

• What matters to a young person about work differs from older generations. Young people enjoy technology, and the construction industry is using more of it. Experts recommend appealing to young people’s interest in technology.

• Company culture is important. Young people want jobs that come with perks and ‘come and go as you like’ atmospheres, which are common among high-tech firms. To be appealing, construction firms need to create ‘good fit’ cultures.

• Companies need to develop new recruitment strategies to meet the long-term employment forecasts, which are positive.

• The construction industry needs to target the right group of young people for field positions — those out of high school but not in college. An older group, attending two-year community-college programs, is an up-and-coming recruitment target as well; they may have tried a career path or two and are ready to settle down.

Like others BusinessWest has spoken with recently about this challenge, Fontaine said there’s no one fix, but added that the tide may be turning when it comes to getting the word out that careers in the construction trades are more stable and lucrative than young people might think.

“I think it’s been a challenge for a while, but the unions have done a good job recruiting people into the trades the last couple of years; they’ve done a good job, especially with some projects like the casino, of reaching into the local market,” he noted. “People are becoming more aware of the opportunities than they were five years ago. But it’s still a constant challenge to get and keep good people.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

On the Horizon

In the construction industry, many firms, general contractors, and individual construction workers have done their job a certain way for decades. They learned a certain technique, process, or order of operations that they trust and has worked for them time and time again in the past. For this reason, many construction companies and workers are hesitant and skeptical of adopting new and emerging trends in the industry.

However, the technology developing for the construction industry has grown at an exponential rate, and companies that fail to adopt these new practices could seriously fall behind their competition.

Currently, the construction industry faces a variety of issues that have stifled many projects and raised concerns from the general public. One of the biggest issues facing the industry in 2018 is an overall shortage of laborers that are considered ‘qualified’ construction workers. Another major issue is the glaring number of fatal work injuries that the industry faces, highest among any sector in the U.S. Construction projects have grown increasingly intricate, causing contractors to underestimate the time it will take to complete the project on time and under budget. So, what will 2018 bring to help resolve these issues?

Cutting-edge Robotics

One of the ways the construction industry will try to address its issues with skilled labor is with cutting-edge robotics to streamline and standardize many of their work processes. There have already been great advances in this avenue of construction. Robotic bricklayers have been manufactured to correctly lay up to 3,000 bricks per day, equal to six times faster than a typical bricklayer. By using a combination of a conveyor belt, robotic arm, and concrete pump, this cutting-edge machine will not be able to fully take over a construction site but could offer a construction company huge efficiencies, when used in the right scenarios. These types of robots have only just started to be used in major construction projects.

So, why has this trend not already taken off? So far, the technology and reliance on these machines is still relatively new to the sector. As mentioned earlier, many general contractors are hesitant to adopt new technologies or new ways to complete projects, not to mention having to make a giant investment to do so. Plus, relying solely on a relatively new piece of equipment to lay thousands of bricks is a bold move. However, as these types of construction robots prove themselves more and more, work out their kinks, and skilled laborers become scarcer, a larger number of companies will be willing to make this plunge into the new age of construction robotics.

Internet of Things

As everyone has heard, the Internet of Things (IoT) is going to revolutionize everything: the manufacturing sector, retail, construction, even each individual household. Currently, there are companies offering machine-to-machine construction equipment that offers communication between the two, plus offering diagnostics on the machinery’s fluids, temperature, and even motion sensors. This instant communication between equipment and updates for operators means far less downtime for the construction company and easier maintenance.

So, why would the construction industry not have already adopted these IoT-connected machines, or be more hesitant to adopt these machines than a sector like manufacturing? Well, for the more sophisticated IoT-enabled machines, they can have a fairly high initial cost.

Now, this is the same for the manufacturing industry, too but with one major difference. A manufacturing environment is much more controlled and consistent than a construction environment. On a construction project, it can be very difficult to judge how much a company will use any particular set of machinery and, to go even further, how much they will use it from project to project. In a manufacturing environment, it is much easier to know exactly how often a piece of equipment is used for each process, and, therefore, it is easier to know where to invest in the IoT.

However, as these products become more common, prices will begin to decrease, and construction companies will find the smartest areas to invest in the IoT and begin to see just how beneficial it can be to the bottom line.

3D Model Videos

From architects to general contractors to the customers themselves, 3D models of a construction project helps the overall visualization of the project. For architects, a 3D tour of the structure allows them to see their building come to life rather than being a picture on a piece of paper or a CAD file. A 3D model allows them to see how the building will act and feel for the people using it, to see how each room compliments the next, and to see if everything makes logical sense.

General contractors have a similar reaction to the video, except in a practical sense, inspecting it for potential problems or issues in the construction process. It will not give as much information as a CAD file, but the 3D-model video could provide some insight that they may not have put together otherwise.

Finally, for the customer, they will get to see their final product. The customer will be able to familiarize themselves with the new structure and be able to point out the things they like and, potentially, the things they do not like.

Exoskeletons

Exoskeletons have drawn huge hype for the last few years, not just for the construction industry but for applications as far as military combat. These exoskeletons are mechanical suits that are worn outside of clothing that will help with lifting heavy equipment, machinery, or supplies. Basically, they give an outer shell that is sturdier and stronger.

However, these suits have had a hard time coming to fruition for a couple of major reasons. First off, the power supply of the exoskeleton has been very tough to develop (small engine doing lots of work over long periods of time). Second, they do not always provide the proper joint flexibility (can cause accidents on tough terrain).

However, strides have still been made in their development. Many of today’s exoskeletons use a combination of springs and counterweights in order to store potential energy and turn it into kinetic energy when you need it. There is still a long way to go for this technology, but these basic suits could prevent job-site injuries due to fatigue and general tiredness.

Autonomous Handling of Materials

Autonomous material handling is another technology that is easier served to a manufacturing or warehousing environment than a job site, and for the same reasons. A manufacturing environment has a set layout that can be programmed into the robot. The layout never changes, so the machine can easily predict where to go without things going awry. However, for a job site, things are constantly changing, not just from one job site to another, but even while the structure is being built. Plus, a construction site will not have the same uniform surface to travel over like a manufacturing facility.

So, how will the construction industry make it over these hurdles? One of the prevailing ideas is heavy-duty drones that provide a 3D map of the job site with designated loading and unloading zones. These drones would have a variety of cameras and sensors in order to account for variables not calculated in their original flight path. Also, it would use the Internet of Things to coordinate with other pieces of heavy machinery.

This article first appeared in Digital Journal.