Home Sections Archive by category Construction

Construction

Construction Special Coverage

Constructing a New Way Forward

By Mark Morris

Essential.

Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary School

Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary School is an $82 million project currently being built by Daniel O’Connell’s Sons.

That one word made all the difference for the construction industry as most sectors of the economy shut down, except for a handful deemed ‘essential’ by the state, construction among them, and thus able to continue working.

But to do that work, they had to quickly adjust to a new reality, as construction managers adopted new guidelines and procedures to prevent workers from catching the virus on the job site.

“At that time, building the project became secondary,” said Joe Imelio, project executive for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons. “The first item on our list was the health and well-being of everyone on the job.”

On March 25, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an order outlining COVID-19 guidelines and procedures for donstruction sites. In addition to reinforcing CDC guidelines on frequent handwashing, wearing face masks, and maintaining social distancing, the guidelines detailed specific procedures for construction sites.

In addition to providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and face shields when social distancing is impossible, the mandate also imposed a “100% glove policy” while on the job site.

Another guideline emphasized zero tolerance for sick workers on the job. The guidelines stated in all caps: “IF YOU ARE SICK, STAY HOME!” Every day, each person reporting to work is expected to self-certify their health status by completing a brief questionnaire to confirm they are healthy enough to work for that day. If the construction work is inside, known as a “closed building envelope,” a medical professional must take everyone’s temperature before they can enter the building.

BusinessWest spoke with several construction managers about the adjustments they have made to maintain a safe environment for workers and keep their projects moving.

David Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Brothers, said he began preparing pandemic protocols in February, before the guidelines were established, to make sure his company could continue to operate safely.

Joe Imelio

Joe Imelio

“At that time, building the project became secondary. The first item on our list was the health and well-being of everyone on the job.”

“In our industry, many of the products in the supply chain come from overseas, so we saw ripples of this a little earlier than others,” he noted.

In early February, Nate Clinard, vice president of safety for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, began purchasing more PPE than the normal stock, as well as hand sanitizer and disposable rags and towels. He also tried to buy hand-washing stations for outdoor job sites, which were selling fast.

“Because they were difficult to get from vendors and suppliers, we built our own portable wash stations,” he said.

But, despite the hurdles, at least firms were working, and continue to work, although the long-term economic impact from the pandemic and the shutdown — and what that means for the volume of projects contractors will compete for down the line — remains to be seen.

Starts and Stops

Within some niches, the pandemic offered opportunity. For example, in mid-March, as much of the state began shutting down, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) accelerated its scheduled projects for the roadwork season that was about to begin in a few weeks.

Janet Callahan, president of Palmer Paving, which has many DOT contracts, said her crews would normally work on large road projects at night when traffic is lighter. As stay-at-home orders resulted in empty roads across the state, the DOT allowed paving crews to switch to daytime construction.

“For the same number of hours, we are able to work safer and more efficiently,” Callahan said. “You just get more done in daylight.” She noted that daytime paving is a big reason DOT projects across the state are 25% ahead of schedule.

Other construction managers saw several projects delayed at the outset of the coronavirus. Stephen Killian, director of New England Operations for Barr and Barr, said a number of his company’s projects were pushed back by as much as 12 weeks.

“Our people worked on the jobs as best as they could remotely, but if you can’t put it in the ground, you’re not moving the project forward.”

Killian added that, even when projects begin again, it’s not as simple as bringing all the workers back and resuming the job. Among the governor’s guidelines is a mandate that construction managers devote one day as a “safety stand down” to make sure everyone understands the new protocols. Combined with CDC guidelines restricting meetings of no more than 10 people, restarting a job can become a logistical challenge.

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr.

“In our industry, many of the products in the supply chain come from overseas, so we saw ripples of this a little earlier than others.”

“If you have 130 people on a job site, the ramp-up is slow because everyone needs to have the stand-down meeting to understand their responsibilities,” Killian said. “Doing that for all 130 workers in one day isn’t possible now because you can’t meet in groups larger than 10 people.”

One concern cited by several managers involves the uncertainty and anxiety about a virus that everyone is still trying to understand.

“Everyone seems rattled, and tempers are shorter because people constantly feel under pressure,” said John Rahkonen, owner of Northern Construction Services.

Callahan agreed. “Managing people’s anxiety and insecurity is something we work on every day, even before workers start their shifts.”

To try to ease some of the anxiety, Clinard and his staff made themselves available at all the company’s job sites to answer questions and listen to concerns.

“Early on, a lot of people just needed to talk,” he said. “We were there to help educate and provide an ear for them.”

As the owner of his company, Rahkonen said he feels a real responsibility to his employees. He described the decision to continue working during the pandemic as a scary one.

“There were a lot of people who thought we should shut down, but I don’t think that would have been beneficial to the families of our workers,” he said. “So far, knock on wood, we’ve been right.”

Trial and Error

As might be expected, suddenly adapting to new protocols is a process of trial and error. Killian noted a problem with getting accurate temperature readings back in March when it was still cold outside. “People were running temperatures of about 86 to 90 degrees because they were walking to the site after they parked their cars.”

To get more accurate readings, Killian said they changed the protocol to a drive-up system where everyone’s temperature is taken while still in their vehicles.

On face masks, Killian said his safety director found a contradiction in the state regulations. Guidelines for the construction industry say masks must be worn when social distancing is not possible. The regulation that covers all businesses, however, says face coverings must be worn by all workers. While Killian supports wearing masks near other workers, requiring masks at all times may cause problems. He’s concerned about worker fatigue and potential health issues on those summer days when 90-degree temperatures are common.

“We have to be mindful that the average age of the tradesmen and construction workforce is over 45 years old,” he said, adding that he has reached out to state officials seeking clarification on the requirement.

Palmer Paving crews

As more people stayed home and off the roads, Palmer Paving crews switched to daytime work.

Clinard said his job sites are using technology to make the daily self-certifying questionnaire work better. By assigning a QR code to each project, workers simply hold their phone cameras to the code to launch the questionnaire. Once completed, the information is loaded to a master document for that project.

“This gives us a real-time read of who’s on site and that they are healthy,” Clinard said.
“If any responses to the questionnaire suggest issues with that person’s health, they are not allowed on the job site that day.”

Requiring people who aren’t feeling well to stay home contributes to what Imelio called a “culture change in the construction industry,” adding that, “for many of the workers, if they stay home when they’re sick, they don’t get paid.”

On the flip side, Killian said many healthy workers who would normally be on the job are instead filing for unemployment out of a concern they may bring the virus home. “Unfortunately, that affects the daily number of men and women on site. Even the union halls are having a difficult time getting additional staff.”

Several managers addressed the real costs that come with COVID-19 mandates that didn’t exist a few months ago. Fontaine said his company’s staff is able to address many of the requirements but not all of them.

“There are definitely additional costs associated with COVID, such as the increase in labor to sanitize the site and bringing in medical professionals for temperature screening,” he noted.

Killian said building owners have agreed to pay for many of these extra costs, but they’re not happy about it because it’s an added expense they could not have anticipated when budgeting the project.

Factoring in all the added expense from the COVID-19 protocols creates another challenge when bidding on future projects as well. “If you bid on a job and put the cost of all the mandates in your bid, you may not be competitive,” Killian said.

In recent meetings on future projects, Imelio said he was asked about the impact of COVID-19 going forward. “It’s like asking, ‘what do you think interest rates will be in a year?’”

Fontaine’s company is currently building South High Community School, a $200 million project he described as the largest public project in the history of Worcester. He’s concerned that projects like these, which depend on tax revenue from state and federal sources, will be hit hard in the future. In the past, the company has adjusted by taking on more private construction when public projects slow down.

“The biggest question for us is how will COVID affect the 2021 and 2022 workload,” Fontaine said. “We may have to refocus our project mix for a couple years if we go through another significant downturn.”

Hit the Road

If nothing else, Callahan said, the pandemic is a reminder of the important role infrastructure plays in the region’s safety and economy. “Essential service providers such as hospital workers, firefighters, power-company crews, and delivery people all depend on our road system to get to their jobs and to help people.”

Despite the extra steps to start each day, all the managers said they are adapting to the new requirements. The trick now is to stay diligent.

“Our processes are in place, and they work well for the personal protection of all our employees,” Imelio said. “It’s different than the old way of doing business, but we’re making progress.”

“Managing people’s anxiety and insecurity is something we work on every day, even before workers start their shifts.”

Even though their work is outdoors, Callahan said it’s important for her crews to remain diligent. “It would take only one person to affect the jobs of 25 people, and that’s only one crew. We’ve made it clear to our staff, there is no relief from these guidelines.”

Strict compliance is worth it, she went on, because it gives her company the opportunity to repair roads for the DOT and municipalities around the state.

“We are so grateful to be working and employing people,” she said. “We are not part of the 41 million people who have suffered a job loss during the pandemic.”

Fontaine said his workers have had a great attitude during a time of difficult adjustments.

“Being in an essential industry, you know it’s important to be cognizant of your safety and the safety of those around you,” he told BusinessWest, “and you know it’s important to keep moving forward.”

Construction

Essential Questions

Since the state ordered most workplaces to close their doors last week, there has still been plenty of work going on — just less of it, in most cases, including in construction. Amid that slowdown are questions — is construction considered an essential function during this time? — and concerns, particularly concerning the amount of work being postponed in the short term and the potential long-term impact of a broad economic shutdown.

Is construction essential?

Well, to those who make their livelihood in that field, sure. Which is why they’re pleased that Gov. Baker, in his March 23 order to shutter most businesses in Massachusetts for two weeks, included among the exempt, ‘essential’ services “construction workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction.”

That’s broad enough to include most firms — but it does nothing to prevent individual jobs from being shut down due to widespread uncertainty about the impact of coronavirus on the overall economy.

“Since Governor Baker made his announcement, I would say maybe 25% to 30% of our projects were postponed or put on hold. Some just didn’t want any outside contractors on their site,” Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, said — only two days after Baker’s order.

The news isn’t all bad, she added, especially concerning work that’s critical to a client’s supply chain. “Our phone is still ringing, and we’re still seeing some quotes going out.”

That’s worth noting, especially as many businesses, like bars and restaurants, have closed up shop completely for the time being, Campbell noted. “We’re still working, so we’re still feel quite fortunate. But, quite honestly, I don’t know what this means in the future. We have a pipeline of work, but I don’t know when this is going to break.”

For his part, the governor doesn’t want construction to slow down too much, announcing last week that his administration is finalizing guidance to establish standards around safe practices for construction work during the outbreak of COVID-19. At a press conference, he noted that, when a project is shut down, “you may be shutting it down permanently in some cases.”

While Boston Mayor Martin Walsh ordered construction sites to shut down for two weeks, and a few other communities have followed suit, Baker is trying to avoid a broad rollback of work that could have a long-term ripple effect.

“We have a lot of housing construction currently going on in Massachusetts. To completely lose, potentially, all of that new housing for the Commonwealth, housing stock, would be a tremendous loss,” the governor added. “There’s public construction that’s going on that needs to be completed. Some of it has to do with upgrading existing infrastructure, but a lot of it has to do with expanding infrastructure that people have deemed critical and important, that needs to be continued and finished.”

In other words, essential work. Which is why Campbell hopes the economy comes back to life soon, though not at the expense of public safety.

“We have a lot of housing construction currently going on in Massachusetts. To completely lose, potentially, all of that new housing for the Commonwealth, housing stock, would be a tremendous loss.”

“The president is saying Easter, but I think that’s too aggressive,” she said, adding that she thinks other economic experts’ projections of an early-June return to normal activity seems more realistic.

“But then I fear what that means,” she added. “I made a commitment to myself two weeks ago that we’re not going to do layoffs; we’re going to go two weeks by two weeks. We are keeping people busy; when we have jobs, they’re put on jobs. We’re doing additional things in house to make sure they have a full week’s paycheck and health benefits. So, right now, my business brain is still working, but the empathy and social side of my brain and heart have me worried about my employees.”

Vital Arguments

Across the U.S., the construction sector in in varying shades of limbo at the moment because the federal government recently released a list detailing industries whose workers are “essential” and should continue normal work schedules. Although the document lists industries for which construction is critical, construction itself was not explicitly included — and some states consult that list when determining which industries can work during shelter-in-place orders, notes Stephen Sandherr, CEO of Associated General Contractors of America.

“Halting construction activity will do more harm than good for construction workers, community residents, and the economy,” he said in a statement last week, noting that construction firms are already acting to ensure the safety and health of their employees in the face of the outbreak, including increased hygiene and halting group gatherings of staff, on top of the fact that construction workers already wear protective equipment, including gloves that will help protect them and their co-workers.

“Given the precautions already in place, halting construction will do little to protect the health and safety of construction workers. But it will go a long way in undermining economic vitality by depriving millions of workers of the wages they will need over the coming days,” Sandherr added. “At the same time, these measures have the potential to bankrupt many construction firms who have contractual obligations to stay on schedule or risk incurring significant financial penalties.”

Boston’s temporary construction ban — which excludes “emergency work,” including emergency street repairs and utility hookups — has alread caused concern due to the threat of delay-related claims, note Steven Gates and John Gavin of the international law firm K&L Gates, writing in National Law Review.

“Although each contract needs to be examined individually, many contracts contain force majeure clauses that may excuse delays based on the city’s ban on construction or delays generally caused by the outbreak,” they explain, noting that an analagous situation was the restrictions put in place in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, when courts recognized that the circumstances could support a defense of impossibility.

During the temporary shutdown in Boston, some companies are looking to make an impact against coronavirus. Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) reported that Suffolk Construction of Boston is donating more than 1,250 N95 protective masks to the Mass General Brigham hospital network so they can be used to protect patients and medical personnel. The firm has also reached out to other construction companies in the Boston region to encourage them to donate their masks to local hospitals to assist in the effort.

Spreading Anxiety … and Hope

Back in Western Mass., Campbell said her company’s policies and protocols for a time like this are in order, and they’ve always been diligent about cleanliness and reducing the spread of germs.

What she’s more concerned about is the long-term damage any sort of major construction-industry slowdown will produce. The global financial collapse of 2008 spurred the Great Recession, but because of how its projects were scheduled, Chicopee Industrial Contractors had strong years in 2008 and 2009.

“Then, wham, it was like hitting a brick wall,” she said. But at least there was time to see the tough years coming. “With this, we felt it right away with everyone else, and usually we don’t because of the type of business we are.

“If you go back to every recession when I’ve been interviewed by BusinessWest, I’ve made the same statement — ‘I’ve seen nothing like this before,’” she continued — and she especially feels that way right now, even though no one can tell whether the current climate will, in fact, bring on the ‘R’ word.

“I feel every recession should be the same, right? You play by the rules and come out on the other side,” Campbell went on. “I don’t know. With the stimulus package, I hope there’s help for small businesses, yet the other side of me knows, with all the increases in taxes we’ll see, we’re going to be chasing our tails for quite a long time.”

In AIM’s report on employer concerns surrounding COVID-19, Gary MacDonald, executive vice president of AIM HR Solutions, said those he’s spoken with have, like Campbell, been busy exercising the empathy part of their brains because they know workers are worried.

“I made a commitment to myself two weeks ago that we’re not going to do layoffs; we’re going to go two weeks by two weeks. We are keeping people busy; when we have jobs, they’re put on jobs.”

“We have seen an overwhelming sense of concern from companies about their employees’ welfare. ‘How can we best keep them safe? What can we do to keep them employed? If we have to reduce our workforce, how do we continue pay and benefits the best we can?’” he noted, adding that his team has answered countless calls from worried AIM members during the past two weeks. “The crisis has really brought out the best instincts of employers as they fulfill their responsibilities as the keepers of economic opportunity in Massachusetts.”

In short, he added, “we hear this consistent expression of compassion, care, and ‘we are in this together.’”

Sandherr said he hopes that concern is reciprocated by lawmakers and governors who can, in some ways, impact the amount of construction work going forward. “We understand the need for social distancing to help slow the spread of coronavirus. But needlessly shutting down projects where workers are already protected will not help. Instead, it will threaten the livelihood of millions of craft professionals, force many small and family-owned businesses to shut down, and undermine the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters, including the coronavirus.”

Right now, Campbell said, her employees are not too frightened.

“We’re telling them we will get through this — and it is we — and we will come out on the other end,” she told BusinessWest. “But other people I’ve talked to are panicked, and rightfully so. How many people have six to eight months of income in their savings accounts? I know all the financial advisors say to do that, but most do not.”

At a time when everyone — employers and workforce alike — are in an unprecedented kind of limbo, that other end can seem frustratingly out of reach.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Home Makers

Walk-in closets in master bedrooms, low-emissivity windows, and laundry rooms are the most likely features in typical new homes in 2020, based on a recent survey of single-family home builders by the National Assoc. of Home Builders.

Energy-efficient features such as efficient lighting, programmable thermostats, and ENERGY STAR appliances will also be popular, as will open design concepts such as great rooms and nine-plus-foot ceilings on the first floor. Energy-efficient or eco-friendly features not likely to be included in new homes, however, are cork flooring in main-level living areas, geothermal heat pumps, and solar water heating and cooling.

Consumers continue to desire smaller homes, not only in overall square footage, but also the number of features, such as bedrooms and bathrooms. This four-year downward trend has led to the smallest average home size since 2011 at 2,520 square feet — only 20 square feet above the average in 2007, the pre-recession peak. The percentage of homes incorporating four-plus bedrooms, three-plus full bathrooms, and three-plus-car garages have also dropped to levels not seen since 2012.

“This points to an industry trying to meet the demands of the entry-level home buyer,” said Rose Quint, NAHB assistant vice president of survey research. “Builders are struggling to meet these demands, however, because of factors such as restrictive zoning regulations and lot prices, with the price of a new lot in 2019 averaging $57,000.”

NAHB also examined preferences among first-time buyers and repeat buyers to help builders determine what features are most likely to resonate in the market in 2020. When asked which they prefer, the majority of both first-time buyers and repeat buyers would rather have a smaller home with high-quality products and services than a bigger home with fewer amenities. The top features desired by both groups include:

• Laundry rooms;

• ENERGY STAR windows;

• Hardwood flooring;

• Walk-in pantries;

• Patios;

• Ceiling fans; and

• Kitchen double sinks.

These trends are reflected in this year’s Best in American Living Award (BALA) winners as well. For example, designers are including flex spaces that add increased functionality to laundry rooms, hardwood flooring and wood finishes to add warmth and character both inside and outside the home, and creating outdoor spaces that seamlessly integrate with indoor living.

“This points to an industry trying to meet the demands of the entry-level home buyer. Builders are struggling to meet these demands, however, because of factors such as restrictive zoning regulations and lot prices.”

“Every year, winners of the Best in American Living Awards showcase the best of what the home building industry has to offer,” said Donald Ruthroff of the Dahlin Group. “As the chair of the BALA subcommittee and BALA judging, I am privileged to see projects from across the nation, and those projects help me identify the design trends that drive discussions in our offices with our clients.”

Designers are also working to address attainability concerns by developing multi-family and higher-density projects that feel more like single-family homes to meet consumer interest at more affordable price points.

Construction

Doors to Success

Invigorated.

That’s not the word many people would use to describe themselves after being in the same business, with the same company, for 34 years. But that’s precisely how Al Herringshaw feels about his most recent career move.

Specifically, he purchased Pella Windows & Doors of Western Massachusetts, a window and door sales and installation business headquartered in Greenfield, which he first joined as a teenager in 1985. It’s been a long and challenging road to ownership, one that required decades of experience in the field and lots of “homework,” as Herringshaw called it, to be ready to take that leap.

Despite the challenges, he would be the first to say he’s glad he decided to take the reins. The second would be Gary Sherman, former owner of Pella Windows & Doors, whom Herringshaw credits with not only showing him the ropes, but also providing support throughout the transition process.

“As succession occurred from Gary Sherman to me. I wouldn’t have done it without his support and without the support from all the employees,” said Herringshaw. “It wasn’t a one-man show. Gary wanted it to happen, I wanted it to happen, and it allowed Gary and I to provide a fairly seamless experience for the employees.”

Herringshaw said making this an easy transition for staff members topped his priority list — not only out of respect for them, but because he knows how it feels to be an employee. In fact, he held several positions in the company before ascending to ownership this past July.

“It feels really good that they’re, in my opinion, back to promoting innovation and coming up with unique things within the window and door industry that set us apart. They’ve really come up with some neat products over the last couple years.””

Herringshaw was only 19 when he started at Pella in the summer of 1985 as a sliding-door builder. He worked in the shop for two years before moving to commercial coordinator, as recommended by his shop supervisor. He spent two years there, then moved into an outside sales rep position in West Springfield for 10 years — all positions he says he enjoyed greatly.

“It’s good to spend time in the field,” he said. “You certainly learn a lot about a business in a sales position.”

In 2000, he came back to Greenfield as Sherman’s general manager and spent 20 years in this position before purchasing the business last year. He said the company had a great back end to 2019, and he’s excited to tap into his extensive experience to bring even more success to an already thriving business.

Opportunity Knocks

Herringshaw believes his experience within the company will help him bring many skills to the table in order to take Pella to a new level.

“I think it helps me garner some respect from the employees because I have seen a lot of the business,” he said. “I also think it gives me perspective on how to look at certain things when people come to me with issues, or even when a customer comes to me.”

Herringshaw said minimal changes were made to staff or location of employees during the transition, and he hopes to fill seven to 10 open positions in the near future.

And that’s only the beginning.

He says he has several ideas and goals he would like to implement to take Pella Windows & Doors to the forefront of the construction field.

“I think we need to add new talent to our business, and I think we need to grow our social-media profile,” he said. “I think those are two key things for our business to get us to the next level.”

Perhaps one of his biggest goals is to raise the Pella profile in the architect community.

“I think we do well there. I’d like to be awesome there,” he told BusinessWest. “I would like Pella products to be the number-one thought-of brand in an architect’s office.”

Al Herringshaw says his many years and layers of experience in the company will help him garner respect from his employees.

As for how to accomplish this, he said he’s excited about some new products that the Pella corporation is introducing to help stand out from the competition.

“It feels really good that they’re, in my opinion, back to promoting innovation and coming up with unique things within the window and door industry that set us apart,” Herringshaw said, adding that he is on a product board where he gets to give input to the company. “They’ve really come up with some neat products over the last couple years.”

For example, he hopes to become a business that is very focused on the ability to supply replacement windows, noting that this will be in high demand in the future.

“When you look at the inventory of homes we have in New England, there are a lot of old homes,” he said. “I think energy-efficient replacement is a big deal, and a good experience for customers is something that we have to focus on and be ready to supply.”

“My folks are very available, I’m very available, and we want to make sure people are happy with the end result. I think that’s a big deal for any company today — to be conscientious and to understand that that’s probably the one way you can truly make yourself unique.”

Standing out is difficult in this industry marked by stiff competition and often vulnerable to economic tides. But Herringshaw is confident that, by diversifying the business and continuing to provide excellent service to customers, Pella will be able to stand out.

“I think the innovation makes a big difference in standing out,” he said. “I truly believe that the overall quality of our products, the fit and finish, really is superior to anyone else’s. But I’ll also tell you, at the end of the day, I believe our customers would say that they do business with us because of the way we respond and take care of them.”

Looking Ahead

Installed sales manager Dan Wells is enthusiastic about the new ownership, noting that “Al has a way of keeping everyone engaged and focused on priorities. One of those priorities is supporting the communities where we live and work.”

A fixture in Western Mass. and Vermont since 1962, Pella has long been known for its customer-centric approach to business, Herringshaw noted, and he expects that to continue. “I have one goal — to make Pella of Greenfield the number-one place to purchase windows and doors, and the number one place to work.”

In short, with plenty of experience in the field, a mind full of ideas and goals, and a hardworking team ready to make it happen, Herringshaw is ready to take Pella Windows & Doors to the next level.

“My folks are very available, I’m very available, and we want to make sure people are happy with the end result,” he said. “I think that’s a big deal for any company today — to be conscientious and to understand that that’s probably the one way you can truly make yourself unique.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Powered Up

Mike Ostrowski says having the right tools and resources for each job matters, but so does a focus on the personal service and small details.

Mike Ostrowski says having the tools and equipment to be able to do any job is at the top of his priority list.

In fact, it has been that way since the day he started his business. 

Right after high school, Ostrowski went to work for an electrical company in Westfield. For 10 years, he gained extensive experience beyond what many believe is the typical job description of an electrician. 

“When people think of electricians, they think lights and plugs and stuff like that,” said Ostrowski. “While that’s part of it, my specialty and what I got into is automation controls and machinery.”

While he felt he gained an ample amount of experience at this position, he did not feel appreciated for what he brought to the table, so he left the company to start his own business in 2004.

“I went out to see my dad and said, ‘hey, can I borrow enough money to buy a van?’” Ostrowski told BusinessWest. “So, I went out and bought a van and put tools in it.”

“When people think of electricians, they think lights and plugs and stuff like that. While that’s part of it, my specialty and what I got into is automation controls and machinery.”

The rest is history.

This van — and Ostrowski’s dream‚ turned into Ostrowski Electrical, which became AMP Electrical in 2006. He gained a partner that year, and before they parted ways in 2010, they were still able to grow the company from seven employees to 35.

AMP has since downsized to 12 staff members, and while the company has taken some twists and turns over the years, Ostrowski continues to promote the same values he started with, specifically focusing on delivering strong personal service to customers.

“Quality and neatness still count for us,” he said. “Sometimes that’s missed in projects that I’ve seen. Even though we’re a smaller company, we have all the tools and equipment that it takes to do big projects, which a lot of smaller guys don’t have.”

Around the World

As Ostrowski said, many tend to view electricians as just that: people who install lights. But one way AMP Electrical is able to stand out from the crowd is its automation and support services, which have taken Ostrowski everywhere from local cities and towns to all the way to Egypt.

“I like watching the whole process run from start to finish,” he said. For example, beginning in 2005, he picked up a couple projects for Qarun Petroleum Co., based in Cairo, where he designed, built, and tested control panels and wired pump skids locally. He then shipped them off to Cairo, flew there himself, and ran the startup process.

While this is certainly not a regular occurrence, Ostrowski says this is a process that he encounters locally as well.

More recently, AMP Electrical worked on a bleach-dilution process for KIKCorp, a leading independent manufacturer of consumer packaged goods. Ostrowski and employees programmed the valves and controls so the bleach could be diluted to whatever temperature the company wanted.

Of course, AMP is capable of much more than these complex jobs. The company also offers complete electrical construction services, municipal water and wastewater controls, building electrical maintenance, telecommunications solutions, complete service to industrial manufacturing, electrical testing, and bucket-truck services.

The key, as Ostrowski said, is having the tools for every job.

But this field does not come without its challenges. With the wide array of services they offer, AMP has managed to stand out from area competition, but has struggled, as many in this and related industires have, with a lack of skilled workers. “There are not enough skilled people out there,” he said. “There’s a gap in knowledge.”

This, he noted, is partially due to the solar boom, which has created a deficiency in electricians. When people go into solar as apprentices, they come out with the skills to put solar panels on, but often lack basic electrical skills.

“The biggest challenge today, being in this field, is finding talented electricians,” he told BusinessWest. “The solar industry has created a lot of electricians that don’t have a lot of the basic pipe-bending skills and electrical knowledge that you would get working for a traditional electrical contractor.”

Ostrowski himself has quite a few more skills than the average electrician. Moving from business owner to employee, he’s had to do some research to strengthen his expertise in areas including finances, estimating, and business management, all without a college degree.

“I’m a licensed electrician that basically figured it out and made it happen,” he said.

Getting the Job Done

No matter what hat Ostrowski may wear at any given time, electrician or business owner, he makes sure his employees have the tools to get the job done and sets an example of what quality service should look like.

“You’re still going to see my face on job sites,” he said. “When the phone rings and everyone’s busy, my boots are in the corner. I’ll grab my tools and go out and fix somebody’s piece of equipment, or I’ll plug my laptop in and be able to look at somebody’s process and take care of them.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Building a Bridge

Cynthia DeSellier instructs Aleah Pannell, second from right, and other students in a classroom at STCC.

Civil engineers help design bridges, roads, and other critical infrastructure projects. In fact, “we make civilization possible,” Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) Assistant Professor Cynthia DeSellier tells her first-year students.

“You turn on the water in your house — a civil engineer made that possible,” DeSellier added. “Engineering truly does make civilization possible. Without us, the standard of living we enjoy wouldn’t be there.”

The civil engineering technology (CET) program at STCC prepares students for robust careers as technicians who help civil engineers to plan, design, and build highways, bridges, utilities, and other infrastructure projects. They play a key role in commercial, industrial, residential, and land-development projects.

With a two-year associate degree, a civil engineering technology graduate is poised to work in a growing field where the median pay in 2018 was $52,580 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Graduates typically search for jobs in industries such as construction, engineering, planning, design, and management.

The bureau projects that jobs for civil-engineering technologists will continue to grow over the next several years. “The need to repair, upgrade, and enhance an aging infrastructure will sustain demand for these workers,” according to the BLS.

“CET is a hallmark engineering technology program at STCC,” said Professor Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, an STCC graduate who chairs the department and earned a master’s degree in civil engineering. “The program was founded in 1968, and our graduates have always been in demand. That speaks to the consistency of overall demand and growth in the field. The need to build new infrastructure or upgrade existing infrastructure is constant. Local employers are eager to hire our graduates in a range of civil engineering sectors.”

First-year students enrolled in STCC’s civil engineering technology program will acquire skills in computer-aided design (CAD), construction estimating, and construction materials and methods. In the second year of the program, students will study structures, hydrology, surveying, quality control of materials like concrete, asphalt production, and roadway construction.

“Our graduates have always been in demand. That speaks to the consistency of overall demand and growth in the field. The need to build new infrastructure or upgrade existing infrastructure is constant.”

DeSellier graduated from STCC’s CET program in 2000. She went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering technology from a four-year institution. After working in the field for several years, she joined STCC as an assistant professor. Since then she has been able to combine her passion for civil engineering with her love of teaching.

“I went into the civil engineering technology program as a young student at STCC not knowing anything about the field, but I came out with my degree loving it,” she said. “After working as a civil engineer for several years, I started teaching. Civil engineers specialize in areas such as structural analysis, transportation, soils and foundations, water resources, and environmental engineering. Our jobs are extremely important.”

While there have been great strides toward gender equality in the workforce, female engineers continue to be underrepresented at companies and in classrooms. According to the Society of Women Engineers, only 13% of working engineers are women, and only 3.7% of female college freshmen plan to major in engineering. Latinos and African-Americans make up about 12% of the engineering workforce, according to U.S. News & World Report.

McGinnis-Cavanaugh, who is the faculty advisor for the Society of Women Engineers, said the college would like to see more overall diversity in the classroom and in the field.

“We have several women teaching engineering at STCC, which is terrific,” she said. “There’s a misconception that civil engineering is a man’s field, but that’s not the case. Women successfully manage large construction and engineering projects and make significant contributions to the planning, design, construction, and sustainability of buildings, bridges, dams, water and wastewater facilities, and road and highway systems.

“The work of the civil engineer helps society by ensuring clean water, safe structures, and innovative transportation systems, among other civil works,” she added. “Women who enter this field are passionate about helping society and applying their knowledge and training to improve the quality of life for all. I would love to see more women and people of color enrolled in the civil engineering technology program. It’s important to bring diverse backgrounds to the field to offer different perspectives and better solutions to critical infrastructure and sustainability problems.”

Aleah Pannell, who graduated from STCC in May and was sometimes the only woman in a class, said women should not feel intimidated by engineering or any of the science majors.

“Some other programs might be easier than engineering, but I like the challenge,” Pannell said. “I would say to any woman — or anybody — take the chance. At the end of it, you will be able to say you accomplished something that was challenging.”

Construction

Slowing Trend

Dodge Data & Analytics recently released its 2020 Dodge Construction Outlook, predicting that total U.S. construction starts will slip to $776 billion in 2020, a decline of 4% from the 2019 estimated level of activity.

“The recovery in construction starts that began during 2010 in the aftermath of the Great Recession is coming to an end,” said Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “Easing economic growth driven by mounting trade tensions and lack of skilled labor will lead to a broad-based but orderly pullback in construction starts in 2020. After increasing 3% in 2018, construction starts dipped an estimated 1% in 2019 and will fall 4% in 2020.”

However, he was quick to note, “next year will not be a repeat of what the construction industry endured during the Great Recession. Economic growth is slowing but is not anticipated to contract next year. Construction starts, therefore, will decline, but the level of activity will remain close to recent highs. By major construction sector, the dollar value of starts for residential buildings will be down 6%, while starts for both non-residential buildings and non-building construction will drop 3%.”

The pattern of construction starts for more specific segments is as follows:

• The dollar value of single family housing starts will be down 3% in 2020, and the number of units will also lose 5% to 765,000. Affordability issues and the tight supply of entry-level homes have kept demand for homes muted and buyers on the sidelines.

• Multi-family construction was an early leader in the recovery, stringing together eight years of growth since 2009. However, multi-family vacancy rates have moved sideways over the past year, suggesting that slower economic growth will weigh on the market in 2020. Multi-family starts are slated to drop 13% in dollars and 15% in units to 410,000.

• The dollar value of commercial building starts will retreat 6% in 2020. The steepest declines will occur in commercial warehouses and hotels, while the decline in office construction will be cushioned by high-value data-center construction. Retail activity will also fall in 2020, a continuation of a trend brought about by systemic changes in the industry.

• In 2020, institutional construction starts will essentially remain even with the 2019 level as the influence of public dollars adds stability to the outlook. Education building and health-facility starts should continue to see modest growth this year, offset by declines in recreation and transportation buildings.

• The dollar value of manufacturing plant construction will slip 2% in 2020 following an estimated decline of 29% in 2019. Rising trade tensions has tilted this sector to the downside with recent data, both domestic and globally, suggesting the manufacturing sector is in contraction.

• Public-works construction starts will move 4% higher in 2020, with growth continuing across all project types. By and large, recent federal appropriations have kept funding for public works construction either steady or slightly higher — translating into continued growth in environmental and transportation infrastructure starts.

• Electric utilities and gas plants will drop 27% in 2020 following growth of 83% in 2019, when several large LNG export facilities and new wind projects broke ground.

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

Construction

Beneath the Surface

Jeff Weinman stands on the former York Street Jail site, where a new, state-of-the-art pump station is being built.

The wastewater pump station at Springfield’s riverfront has done its job for more than 80 years, but it’s nearing the end of its useful life and lacks the capacity to keep up with the region’s growth — which threatens the cleanliness of the Connecticut River itself. That’s why the Springfield Water & Commission has launched a $115 million project to build a new station and three new pipelines across the river — a project that comes with some intriguing challenges and equally innovative solutions, including something called microtunneling.

When the wastewater pump station on York Street in Springfield was built 81 years ago, the city’s infrastructure was much different — and so were its sewage-treatment needs.

“The existing pump station is pretty old, though it’s still functional,” said Jeff Weinman, senior project manager Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC), the contractor overseeing the construction of a new, much larger pump station at the site. “The capacity is the issue. As the city has expanded over the years, it’s kind of at its capacity right now, so they need to create additional pumping capacity there. In order to that, they needed to build a bigger pump station with bigger pumps, bigger piping, bigger everything.”

The $115 million project will serve 70% of the region’s population by conveying wastewater from Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, and East Longmeadow across the Connecticut River to the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility on Bondi’s Island. A new, higher-capacity wastewater pump station will be constructed, as well as three new wastewater-conveyance pipes across the Connecticut River.

The project is a cornerstone of the Springfield Water & Sewer Commission’s efforts to comprehensively plan projects that will meet multiple pressing needs such as combined sewer overflow reduction, climate resiliency, system redundancy, and infrastructure renewal. Construction is expected to last well into 2022.

“It’s part of a capital investment on the part of the commission to both increase their infrastructure and enhance water quality in the Connecticut River,” Weinman told BusinessWest. “It can reduce the potential for severe storms to impact water quality in the Connecticut River by having storm runoff or having the city’s sewer system overflow.”

A rendering shows the future pump station’s footprint both above and well below the ground.

The innovative project, expected to create about 150 construction jobs over the next three years, is designed to address four key issues, including:

• Infrastructure renewal (the new, modern station will replace an aging station nearing the end of its useful life and accommodating future growth in the region);

• Environmental protection (increased pumping capacity will prevent an additional 100 million gallons of combined sewer overflows from entering the Connecticut River in a typical year);

• System redundancy (three new pipes under the Connecticut River will add redundancy and improve service reliability for customers in Springfield, Ludlow, East Longmeadow, and Wilbraham); and

• Climate resiliency (flood-control protection will be increased by repurposing the old pump station).

The project is a culmination of years of planning — specifically through the commission’s Integrated Wastewater Plan (IWP). Adopted in 2014, the IWP was one of the first such plans in the country to integrate project planning for regulatory compliance — specifically, projects that fulfill an unfunded federal mandate to eliminate combined sewer overflows — and for renewal of aging infrastructure.

A Question of Capacity

The new station is being built on the former site of the York Street Jail and will connect to the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility on Bondi’s Island through three new, 1,200-foot river crossing pipes. The additional pipes will supplement the two 80- and 50-year-old pipes under the river now, allowing for more regular maintenance and alternatives during emergencies.

“It can reduce the potential for severe storms to impact water quality in the Connecticut River by having storm runoff or having the city’s sewer system overflow.”

A $100 million low-interest loan from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust State Revolving Fund (SRF) is the source of funding for the majority of the project. The SRF is administered by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection with funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and from repayment of past loans.

The project also utilizes an innovative form of construction called ‘construction manager at risk’ (CMAR). Rather than designing a project and then sending it to bid for construction, CMAR incorporates the construction manager earlier in the process to help identify risks that may arise in the construction phase due to design. This garners more price certainty and minimizes project delays due to unforeseen circumstances.

“The delivery method is a little different,” Weinman said. “We did a technical proposal for the job, and based on that we were awarded the contract, then we worked with the design team during the final stages of development of construction documents, providing budgeting support and working with design team as they finalized documents and tailored them to the approach to the work that we thought best.”

The current, 81-year-old pump station is much smaller — and can thus handle much less wastewater — than the one coming online in 2022.

One of the interesting challenges of the project is where it’s sited, shoehorned between West Columbus Avenue and the flood-control wall and the infrastructure on York Street, including the main interceptor pipe for the city of Springfield.

“The pump station needs to be deep enough to work with the existing elevations of the infrastructure and also be able to have the capacity to handle the flow that it needs to handle,” Weinman said. “The bottom elevation of the pump station is 50 feet below existing grade. The site is so small, you have to go pretty much straight down with excavation to build the pump station.”

So, in a move uncommon in Western Mass., DOC will use a slurry wall for supportive excavation. “It’s a type of system usually used in downtown Boston and urban settings where you don’t have a lot of real estate. A concrete wall is built in the ground without using formwork,” he explained. “It’s kind of a unique process — the first time I’ve been involved with a project that employs that system.”

Another challenge involves running the new pipelines under the Amtrak tracks, Weinman noted. “So they’re going to be microtunneling under the tracks. We did a smaller supportive excavation for the launch pit for the microtunneling. That’ll be going on hopefully next summer — boring a hole beneath the flood wall and the railroad tracks out to the other side of the tracks down toward the river.”

Next summer will also see the start of the underwater pipe installation. That phase of the project should take about 12 months, as will DOC’s infrastructure upgrades at Bondi’s Island to expand the capacity of the sewage intake there. The construction of the pump station itself is the most involved part of the project; a groundbreaking took place in the spring, and it should be complete in May 2022.

Water Works

The river-spanning pipe installation — which DOC will subcontract to a firm that specializes in such work — is a relatively straightforward job, but the process of completing the work has become more difficult in terms of the regulatory aspects, Weinman told BusinessWest.

“There’s a lot more awareness now of the potential environmental impacts, so the planning of it becomes a lot more intensive. You work with regulators, MassDEP, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other regulatory agencies involved, making sure you’re tailoring your work in a way that complies with all the regulations and minimizes the impact,” he explained. “It’s an arduous process, and I understand why it’s there.”

Still, the entire project itself will have a major environmental benefit, and that’s keeping the Connecticut River cleaner while better meeting the region’s growing wastewater needs.

“The York Street Pump Station and Connecticut River Crossing Project is a sign of the commission’s smart and future-oriented approach to stewarding the region’s water and wastewater infrastructure,” Commission Executive Director Josh Schimmel said at the spring groundbreaking. “These types of projects may not always be the most glamourous, but they are critical to maintaining public health, service reliability, and environmental protection in the region for the 21st century. We are proud to initiate this project that will maximize ratepayer dollars by meeting multiple needs.”

To Weinman and his team at DOC, it’s another rewarding challenge, particularly in terms of innovative methods like the slurry wall and the trenchless tunneling under the railroad tracks, that promises to lead to a positive outcome.

“That’s the nature of construction,” he said. “There are so many different systems out there, and every job has different challenges and different solutions.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Training Ground

Jeff Napolitano says he hears from contractors weekly that they need more skilled workers to grow.

Every week, Jeff Napolitano hears from contractors, and the message is always the same: We need more help.

“Contractors are always looking for skilled labor,” said Napolitano, project director of Community Works, an innovative arm of the Worker Education Program at UMass Amherst funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

“With the building trades, you have an older, whiter, maler workforce that has been retiring because, really, the biggest push for the trades ended in the ’70s,” he explained. “Back then, the mantra was, ‘after you graduate high school, you go to college.’ Going into the trades has been less and less common. But we’re finding now that, whether it’s electricians to wire things or laborers to work on job sites or carpenters to construct things, there’s a need for skilled trades. That’s where our programs come in.”

Community Works is an adult pre-apprenticeship program for the construction trades and the transportation and highway industry, with a specific focus on women, people of color, and veterans, although people of all demographics may participate.

A six‐week course offered in Springfield and Holyoke to prepare qualified applicants for an apprenticeship in the building and transportation industry, Community Works uses classroom and hands‐on learning experiences to equip participants with the skills needed to be accepted into a state‐registered apprenticeship program or transportation-industry employment, from which they can build a career. Participants also receive case-management and placement services to help achieve their career goals.

Even though he works on a university campus, Napolitano admitted the program is, from a financial perspective, much different than the college pathway.

“There’s almost no debt that you really have to rack up,” he told BusinessWest from his office at UMass Amherst. “We call it the inverse four-year degree because apprenticeship programs generally take three to five years on average. And unlike going to college, where you need to take out a bundle of money in order to go, you get paid while you train, while you’re working, while you’re waiting to become a full plumber or full electrician or whatever. So people don’t have to take any debt; in fact, they get paid, with benefits, to train to become a journey-level tradesperson. That’s a lot better deal than college.”

The training — delivered by instructors experienced in the trades as well as guest presenters who have expertise in their field — replicates an actual work experience to increase the likelihood of successful placement into apprenticeship. Classes run Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., to mirror a typical construction workday.

“We’re a workforce-development program on steroids, Napolitano said. “A lot of programs have a very narrow niche — afternoon training for a week to do one particular technique in one part of the industry. Our program is six weeks, five days a week, eight hours a day.

“We call it the inverse four-year degree because apprenticeship programs generally take three to five years on average. And unlike going to college, where you need to take out a bundle of money in order to go, you get paid while you train, while you’re working, while you’re waiting to become a full plumber or full electrician or whatever.”

“So our program is way more intensive, and people graduate with OSHA 10 certification, first-aid/CPR certification, highway flagger certification, and other certifications that are, by themselves, extremely valuable,” he went on. “Over those six weeks, it isn’t just classroom training, things like blueprint reading and construction math, but also a lot of hands-on training.”

For instance, last year, 14 participants spent a day at a Habitat for Humanity site in Holyoke and insulated the whole house, he noted. “Folks also spend a whole week at the official carpenters’ apprenticeship training facility in Millbury, learning, as other carpenter apprentices learn, how to hang drywall and do flooring and that sort of thing. So they get exposed to a wide range of tools and equipment and techniques.”

And not just in carpentry, as they also visit electricians, sheet-metal workers, and others who can provide hands-on training experience.

“Instead of this being a program that just narrowly focuses on ‘you need to manufacture these widgets, and this is how you do it,’ we actually train folks in a wide variety of things. We bring in the folks from the ironworkers, the plumbers, the glaziers, the operating engineers, the elevator constructors, to basically explain these specific trades and what’s involved in getting into them. We have a very broad focus, and despite having that larger focus, it’s still a very intensive program in terms of amount of time and detail and exposure to the work.”

Immediate Success

Community Works began in 2009 as Springfield Works, a 20-member employer/union partnership to address a gap in the regional workforce-development system: too many Springfield residents were in need of additional skills training for entry into apprenticeship programs. Within a year, the program had the highest job-placement rate in the state among pre-apprenticeship graduates.

The program was rebranded in 2013 with an expansion into Holyoke, and continues to target underserved populations in the construction and transportation trades, including women, people of color, and veterans.

“Our focus is on closing the demographic gaps. These industries are heavily male, heavily white,” Napolitano said, noting that some public-works projects mandate 5% or higher percentages of women on the job.

Beyond that, Community Works applicants must be at least 18 years old; have a high-school degree or equivalent; be authorized to work in the U.S.; pass a drug test; pass a physical test, consisting of a ladder climb and other tasks; be a proficient (if not perfect) English speaker; and have a valid driver’s license and a registered, working vehicle.

“You don’t need to have any experience,” he said. “It can definitely be a plus, but you don’t need any. I’ve had people who weren’t even familiar with a measuring tape go on to construction careers. We presume that folks don’t have that experience. At the end of the class, everyone’s in roughly the same place, ready to go.”

After the six-week course (the next one runs from Feb. 24 to April 3) comes the apprenticeship placement phase, and that’s where Napolitano comes in.

“When they graduate, I help them figure out where they want to apply, what jobs they want to do,” he said. “Our partners commit to taking a look at people. After MGM was finalized, there was a dip in the labor market, but it’s coming back now. Contractors are calling me in a weekly basis looking for graduates to be put to work.”

The goal is to place graduates into apprenticeships in the building trades or into careers in the transportation industry, and sometimes both, he explained. The skills required for most trades take years to learn and are usually developed through apprenticeships, which combine classroom instruction and paid on-the-job training under the supervision of an experienced tradesperson. The sponsoring apprenticeship program pays the costs of apprenticeship training, and, upon successful completion of the apprenticeship, the participant is credentialed as a journey-level tradesperson.

In fact, all the training is free, starting with the six-week Community Works course, Napolitano added, and people receiving unemployment benefits are not required to search for a job during the program to maintain those benefits. Furthermore, all participants — there are between 20 and 25 slots in each annual class — also receive a basic set of tools and equipment.

It’s the kind of opportunity that has some college graduates rethinking that degree.

“Apprentice program directors are seeing more and more people with college degrees, who have a lot of debt and can’t get a good enough job with just a college degree,” he noted. “I had a couple of people with master’s degrees in my program last year. So it’s pretty remarkable.”

Do Your Job

After listing the requirements to apply for Community Works — things like English proficiency and the ability to drive — Napolitano remembered the most important one.

“The thing that’s required the most is the enthusiasm and initiative to want to get into the construction industry,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a physical job, and it requires some hustle. That’s really what we’re looking for in people.”

That’s why participants are bounced from the program for multiple absences and tardies. “We’ve been told that 95% of the industry is showing up on time. The other 5% is having a good attitude and being willing to learn something.”

After all, the construction and transportation industries, in dire need of new blood to replace an aging workforce, are certainly willing to teach a few things.

“It’s definitely an issue, particularly for the larger companies that are trying to expand their base of work,” he said. “They need an expanding group of workers who can do the job.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Hot Opportunity

From left, Gloryvee Diaz, internship coordinator at STCC; Elliot Levy, senior director of Workforce Development; and Barbara Washburn, interim dean of the School of STEM, stand in front of the asphalt lab with industry partners.

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) plans to open a mobile lab on campus to meet a demand in the construction industry for trained asphalt technicians and inspectors.

Students will train in the mobile lab as they pursue certification as hot-mix asphalt plant technicians and hot-mix asphalt paving inspectors. The jet-black lab, which resembles a boxcar without wheels, is located next to a civil engineering technology classroom on the STCC campus.

The college plans to offer courses in 2020. The program is designed for students without prior asphalt training.

STCC will be the only community college in the state with asphalt certification training, said Jim Reger, executive director of the Massachusetts Aggregate and Asphalt Paving Assoc. (MAAPA), which provided funding for the mobile lab. The training is made possible through collaborative efforts with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), MAAPA, and the NorthEast Transportation Technician Certification Program (NETTCP).

“There is a tremendous need for asphalt technicians,” Reger said. MAAPA represents owners and operators of hot-mix batching plants and quarries in Massachusetts.

Reger explained that new specifications from MassDOT will require more licensed technicians and inspectors who will be in demand for jobs working in the field or at asphalt-production facilities.

Janet Callahan, president of Palmer Paving Inc., initiated the idea of an Asphalt Academy while serving as chairwoman of MAAPA. She echoes Reger’s sentiments that the industry needs trained technicians and inspectors. Asphalt training has been available only in Eastern Mass.

“We really wanted to establish something for people in the western or central part of the state. This is critical for our industry,” Callahan said. “There are not enough inspectors in the market right now. As a business owner, I know how difficult it is to fill these positions.”

Students who enroll in the program will be able to choose between two courses, which will be taught by NETTCP instructors: hot-mix asphalt plant technician certification, which is for individuals responsible for the sampling and testing of hot-mix asphalt at a production facility, or hot-mix asphalt paving inspector, which is for those responsible for inspecting, sampling, and testing hot mix in the field.

Also in development is a 420-hour asphalt pre-apprenticeship program designed to introduce people to the asphalt industry. The program would align with MAAPA’s 2,000-hour asphalt apprenticeship program and would offer advanced certification.

For more information about the program, including prerequisites needed to enroll, visit www.stcc.edu/wdc/asphalt-academy or contact the Workforce Development Center at (413) 755-4225 or [email protected].

Construction

Sphere of Influence

Work continues on an intriguing and highly visible project to put a fresh, more watertight face on the sphere at the Basketball Hall of Fame. The project is a study in efficient teamwork and bringing intricate work to a polished finish — quite literally.

While the Campanile and the larger Court Square complex are perhaps the most recognizable landmarks in Springfield, the large sphere that encompasses the museum at the Basketball Hall of Fame has certainly joined that list.

And right now, that sphere has taken on the look of a giant jigsaw puzzle — with some pieces in place and many still missing — which, in many respects, is exactly what it is.

Indeed, the Hall of Fame is in the midst of a $4 million project to repair the outside of the dome, easily the most visible component of a larger project will modernize the Hall and make it far more user-friendly.

The dome work, which began in March, has become somewhat of a spectator sport because of the Hall’s high degree of visibility, especially from I-91 and even the MGM Springfield parking garage. What people can see is dramatic change between what would be considered the old and the new, even though the 900 panels that make up the sphere are not actually being replaced.

What people can’t see, though, is how intricate and challenging this reconstruction project is, and the high level of choreography involved as crews attempt to make a museum façade comprised of nearly 1,000 panels look like one very shiny globe.

Paul Dowd, president of Bloomfield, Conn.-based Managed Air Systems LLC, which is leading the initiative, explained that “what makes it unique is there are not many spherical buildings out there. This replication of a basketball is a unique structure in and of itself.”

“It didn’t give us the opportunity to really reflect all the content that’s out there, whether it was a long-time-ago hall of famer or an honoree just enshrined last year; we weren’t able to really bring them alive. The objective in our new Hall of Honor will be to provide as much information as we possibly can on all the hall of famers, no matter what era they came in, and have it be much more engaging.”

Elaborating, he said that, again, like a jigsaw puzzle, no two pieces of this dome are exactly the same, despite how things look to the naked eye and even the photographs on these pages. This means each panel must be marked when it is taken down in order to ensure that it is put in the same place when it is returned.

After they’re removed and marked, 10 pieces at a time are shipped to Managed Air Systems where they are sanded and painted — a process that takes several hours per panel.

Each panel is unique and must be marked before being taken off, repaired, and put in the exact same spot it came from.

Although his firm specializes in this kind of work — Managed Air applies protective or decorative coating to anything that needs it, from cars to planes to furniture — the Hall project is somewhat different in that requires a focus on timeliness and ensuring an ultra-high level of consistency across 900 individual panels weighing 110 pounds each.

“One of the big concerns going into this was having a coordinated effort from the people taking the panels off to the people doing the rubber membrane repair on the inside to us getting the panels repaired and back to them,” said Dowd. “It was a very large, coordinated effort to make this all go smoothly.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest takes an in-depth, up-close look at the Hall project and how it is a shining example, figuratively but also quite literally, of effective teamwork in construction — and reconstruction.

Round Numbers

By now, a good number of people across the region have seen John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame, hold up and talk about what he affectionately refers to as a ‘spaceship.’

That’s his pet term for the individual lights that were affixed to the museum dome as it was constructed nearly 20 years ago — the lights that took on different colors for various occasions.

He calls them ‘spaceships’ because, well, they take on the 1950s-ish, sci-fi shape of a UFO.

There are — or were — 900 of these lights — one for each panel — and roughly half of them leaked, said Doleva, adding that the damage caused by these leaks inspired the $4 million reconstruction project which will restore the panels to the original luster and replace the spaceships with LED lighting.

The project commenced in the spring, and, as both Dowd and Doleva noted, it’s been an intriguing project that requires a high level of coordination among Managed Air Systems and a host of local contractors.

John Doleva says the $4 million dome reconstruction should be finished by the end of September.

That list includes Western Builders of Granby, Chandler Architectural Products Inc. of Springfield, Kent Brothers Excavating of Southampton, Superior Caulking & Waterproofing of Palmer, Collins Electric of Chicopee, Healey & Associates of Belchertown, and project management by Colebrook Realty Services of Springfield and Holyoke.

“That was a key element as we chose vendors,” said Doleva. “We wanted them to be qualified, but there are plenty of qualified vendors in our area, and we wanted to make sure that we were employing people from our region.”

Managed Air Systems spends about 10 hours, on average, refurbishing each of the panels. Some have been damaged over the years and need additional repairs, meaning they need to be kept overnight. Once the repair and reconditioning work is done, the panels are painted to give the dome a fresh, new look.

Doleva said construction is moving quickly, so when these panels aren’t quite ready to be placed back in their positions, they are stored in the garage located under the Hall of Fame.

Dowd said the board at Hoop Hall chose a high-gloss finish for the panels, which will provide long-term durability against UV rays and weather.

“It almost looks wet when you look at the panel, very similar to a freshly painted car part,” he explained. “That glossy finish helps protect it more long-term from the exposure to the sun and the elements.”

But there’s more to it than slapping some paint on. There are three different materials that go on the panels — a sealer that allows the paint to go on, a grey metallic coating, and a clear coat that encapsulates and seals the panel. Dowd says each panel is painted in a downdraft-heated paint booth that he compares to a giant convection oven. Once the panels are painted in the booth, the press of a button cures the panels at up to 200 degrees.

Perhaps the most intricate part of this process is making sure each panel looks the same as the rest, even though they are all slightly different sizes.

“From our end, the biggest challenge we have is to have the repeatability in the quality of finish,” Dowd said, adding that the company has had to redo some panels that weren’t quite right. “You want this globe, when it’s all done, if someone was to walk around it, to have the same luster and shine and quality on it to look consistent as if it was just one giant globe.”

Once the dome is finished, LED projection lighting will be installed to light the front of the building.

“I think it will attract a lot of attention,” Dowd said. “You can’t miss it when you drive on 91 — it should get some ‘wow’ factor.”

The Bigger Picture

That phrase ‘wow factor’ applies to the many other components of the Hall renovation project as well, said Doleva.

These include the new Hall of Honor, which recently opened. It allows visitors to view any hall of famer in a brand-new, digital manner.

“It didn’t give us the opportunity to really reflect all the content that’s out there, whether it was a long-time-ago hall of famer or an honoree just enshrined last year; we weren’t able to really bring them alive,” said Doleva in reference to the old display. “The objective in our new Hall of Honor will be to provide as much information as we possibly can on all the hall of famers, no matter what era they came in, and have it be much more engaging.”

This includes the next phase of the indoor construction: a complete remodeling of the top floor of the museum. Doleva says this exhibit, sponsored by the NBA Players Assoc., will feature 16 key moments in basketball displayed in graphics on the ceiling.

“We’re going to take advantage of the verticality of that space by having a big sailboat sail of graphics and then an exhibit in front of it,” he said, adding that, while they are taking a more digital approach, they are not totally abandoning the original values of the museum, which includes physical artifacts. “What we haven’t lost sight of is what makes a sports museum different than going on your telephone and looking up sports history.”

Meanwhile, the outside of this particular sports museum will have a different look and feel as well.

The refurbished sphere will reflect a new era at the Hall — in all kinds of ways.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

A Surge of Confidence

By Kathleen Prause and J.D. Harrison

Results from the USG Corp. and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index from the second quarter of 2019 indicate that more than half of contractors are highly confident that the market will provide sufficient new business opportunities in the next 12 months.

Overall, the Q2 composite score of 74 — up two points from 72 in the first quarter — shows a vibrant commercial construction sector, although contractors’ revenue expectations slightly decreased.

“The construction industry is a reflection of our country’s broader economic health, so contractor optimism is a great sign for everyone,” said Chris Griffin, president and CEO of USG Corp. “Even so, it is important that we think about solutions to our big challenges, like building a healthy pipeline of new workers and incorporating technology to make our job sites safer and more efficient.”

More than half of contractors (52%) are highly confident about the ability of the market to provide new business opportunities in the next 12 months, an 11% increase over last quarter’s findings. The backlog ratio — comparing contractors’ average current backlog of projects to the ideal amount of work companies would like to take on — reached 82, the highest since the Index launched in 2017. Hiring expectations also recovered between Q1 and Q2 2019, with most contractors (60%) anticipating employing more people in the next six months.

Furthermore, 60% of contractors report confidence that revenue will remain stable. They also expect access to capital to continue, with 66% believing access to financing will get easier or remain the same over the next six months.

In a notable shift from the last three quarters, the number of contractors who report “high concern” about the availability of skilled labor declined to 46% (down from 54% in the first quarter. While confidence in having access to skilled labor shows some improvement, 85% of contractors still express high concerns about the cost of that skilled labor.

For the third time since the launch of the Index in 2017, this quarter’s survey explored sustainability practices in construction. The findings show that the average share of green projects for contractors is declining. This finding is interesting, since other industry studies reveal no slowdown in the number of green construction projects. One explanation may be that the majority of green work is becoming more concentrated among a smaller group of specialized companies. The study shows that green projects are done more frequently by large contractors.

The Index also reports a mismatch between green standards and green incentives, with most contractors (84%) saying they must meet green standards on at least some projects, but fewer than half (47%) take advantage of green incentives. Finally, general contractors report that the most important green attributes swaying their purchasing decisions are energy efficiency (80%), materials without harmful chemicals (65%), and water efficiency (64%).

The Index comprises three leading indicators to gauge confidence in the commercial construction industry, generating a composite index on the scale of 0 to 100 that serves as an indicator of health of the contractor segment on a quarterly basis. The second-quarter results from the three key drivers were:

• Backlog: contractors’ ratio of actual to ideal backlog rose five points (to 82 from 77), hitting its highest point since the Index launched in 2017;

• New business confidence: the level of overall confidence rose three points (to 74 from 71), suggesting a return of optimism about the market’s ability to provide new business opportunities in the next 12 months; and

• Revenue: the revenue score dropped one point (to 66 from 67), although most contractors (60%) expect revenue to remain the same.

Kathleen Prause is director of Corporate Communications for USG Corp., a manufacturer of building products and innovative solutions. J.D. Harrison is executive director for Communications & Strategy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Construction

People Pipeline

Eighty percent of construction firms report they are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of the construction workforce, according to a national, industry-wide survey released last week by Autodesk and Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). Association officials said the industry was taking a range of steps to address the situation but called on federal officials to assist those industry efforts.

“Workforce shortages remain one of the single most significant threats to the construction industry,” said Stephen Sandherr, AGC’s CEO. “However, construction labor shortages are a challenge that can be fixed, and this association will continue to do everything in its power to make sure that happens.”

Of the nearly 2,000 survey respondents, 80% said they are having difficulty filling hourly craft positions, Sandherr noted. All regions of the country are experiencing similarly severe craft-worker shortages, with 83% of contractors in the West and South reporting a hard time filling hourly craft positions, slightly higher to the 81% rate in the Midwest and 75% rate in the Northeast.

Seventy-three percent of firms report it will continue to be difficult, or get even harder, to find hourly craft workers over the next 12 months. One reason for their worries is that contractors are skeptical of the quality of the pipeline for recruiting and preparing new craft personnel. Forty-five percent say the local pipeline for preparing well-trained and skilled workers is poor. And 26% say the pipeline for finding workers who can pass a drug test is poor.

Labor shortages are prompting many firms to boost pay and compensation. Two-thirds of firms report they have increased base pay rates for craft workers. And 29% report they are providing incentives and bonuses to attract craft workers. Firms are also taking a greater role in developing their own workforce. Forty-six percent say they have launched or expanded in-house training programs, and half report getting involved in career-building programs.

“Construction workforce shortages are prompting many firms to innovate their way to greater productivity,” said Allison Scott, head of Construction Integrated Marketing at Autodesk. “As the cost of labor continues to increase and firms look to become even more efficient, technology can enable better collaboration and ultimately lead to more predictable outcomes. There is also opportunity in untapped pools of talent such as tradeswomen, veterans, and young people looking for an alternative to the traditional four-year university.”

Scott noted that 29% of firms report they are investing in technology to supplement worker duties. One-quarter of firms report they are using cutting-edge solutions, including drones, robots and 3-D printers. Meanwhile, 23% of firms report they are taking steps to improve job-site performance by relying on lean construction techniques, using tools like building information modeling and doing more off-site prefabrication.

Association officials called on the federal government to boost funding for career and technical education. They also called on federal leaders to allow more immigrants to enter the country to work in construction, let construction students at community and career colleges qualify for federal Pell Grants, and make it easier for firms to establish apprenticeship and other training programs.

Construction

Shining Example

Sean Callahan and James Jaron didn’t expect the level of competition — make that outright opposition — they faced when they decided to enter the field of lighting distribution, which is dominated by a handful of huge, national players. But through patience, persistence, and adherence to a customer-first philosophy, they broke through, and gradually expanded their locally owned firm into a major regional player. And they’re not done lighting the way to further growth.

Opening a business — and keeping it going — isn’t an easy proposition. Still, Sean Callahan and James Jaron had no idea what obstacles lay before them when they decided to open Ion Lighting Distribution Inc. in 2016.

Jaron owned Zap Electric in Chicopee, and Callahan worked for Needham Electric Supply. “One day, we decided we needed to perfect one area of the distribution business, and that was the lighting,” Jaron said, noting that, in the large, corporate-owned stores, “the guy across the counter knows nothing about lighting, so he has to call somebody to call somebody to get some rep to talk to you” — and that adds layers of cost.

“So we established a distribution company from scratch, against all odds,” he said.

Those odds included a full-court press by those aforementioned large companies, he recalled. “They made a big effort to make sure we failed by cutting off our supply houses and manufacturers, telling them, ‘we’re multi-million-dollar companies; don’t sell to these guys, or we’re going to cut you off.”

Callahan remembers it well. “The day we started the company, I reached out to people I’d known for 15 or 18 years. All the manufacturers’ reps, literally 100%, across the board, all of them said ‘no.’ I was leaving a perfectly good job, I had customers ready to buy, and when I started reaching out to our manufacturers, it was ‘no,’ across the board — because our competition was trying to squeeze us out.”

He went so far as to e-mail the CEOs of those companies, saying, “‘I’ve been selling your products for 15 years.’ And they would look into it and say, ‘we’re not taking on new distribution at this time.’ It was very difficult to get started, but it’s nice to have people coming to us now saying, ‘hey, we screwed up. We didn’t think it was possible you guys would last. We want to do business.’”

Today, the Chicopee-based firm covers the state of Connecticut and Western and Central Mass., and extends into Rhode Island and New York City as well — and is looking to move into its fifth different facility in four years, all to accommodate Ion’s growth. How Callahan, the company’s president and CEO, and Jaron, principal and treasurer, managed that feat is a lesson in persistence.

Early on, Callahan said, “we flew to Hong Kong and China and met with manufacturers. Through that process, we found most major companies were buying overseas. So we got set up with container companies there and here and opened our business. As we got traction, more vendors started jumping on board because they saw we weren’t giving up. But it took a little while.”

Today, Ion purchases only in the U.S., he noted. “But it was tough getting started, and that was our only option at that point. It took a little more capital getting started than we would have liked, but eventually, we got our first vendor here — a small company we never would have thought about.”

Sean Callahan (left) and James Jaron

Sean Callahan (left) and James Jaron are looking for a larger headquarters — it would be their fifth in four years — to consolidate their warehouses and accommodate more growth.

Electricians are busy this summer installing 14,000 LED lights in the Du Bois Library building at UMass Amherst, one example of a large project for which Ion distributed products. But it deals with small businesses, too.

“Little by little,” Callahan said, we started picking up more and more work, and now we can sell top-of-the-line lighting on a big UMass project or commercial job, but we also have affordable lights for someone with a machine shop or small business who doesn’t want to pay top dollar when they can buy a fixture for $50.”

Green from Green

Ion is not an installer, Jaron emphasized; rather, it sells lighting to businesses, municipalities, and schools, as well as contractors, which is the ideal client.

Today, the company is a top-five distributor for Mass Save, a rebate program for using energy-efficient products; all the states Ion distributes in have similar initiatives. But the pitch isn’t just about cost savings.

“Think about the impact we have on the environment — it’s mind-boggling,” he told BusinessWest. “When we think about LEDs, we think about rebates and electric bills, but really, it’s an environmentally conscious thing to do.”

At the same time, the goal is to give customers the best solutions for the best price. “Our products are tested. If it doesn’t pass my scrutiny as an electrician, we don’t put it out,” he said, noting that Energy Star-rated products automatically imply that the fixture has a five-year warranty and has been through a rigorous quality-assessment process.

Jaron also noted that some of the large distributors won’t always explain the Mass Save rebate to customers and pocket the savings themselves.

“We put that savings in your pocket. We’re not doing anything hocus-pocus; we’re just being fair and giving customers what they need. We take care of our customers and talk to them like human beings,” he said. “Companies out there don’t want people to know. They’re gouging the end users. We said, ‘no. Make your margins, make money, but play fair, be a human being.’ You’ve got to do the right thing, and that’s what we’re doing, and that’s why our competition hates us. We’ve disrupted their little game. And our customers are very happy.”

A lot of people don’t understand the Mass Save incentives, Callahan said, so Ion makes a point of helping people maximize them. Jaron added that Ion has no commitment to any manufacturer’s rep, which makes it fairly unique in the upper tier of the industry — and allows for more cost savings.

“When the big supply houses have a commitment, they have to use their product. So when you come in buy a fixture, they’re obligated to use these certain brands for $120 or $130, where we have the same fixture, with the same manufacturer — apples to apples — and we can sell it to you for $80. Then add the Mass Save rebate, and it goes down to $40. Think about that for a second. No wonder they were terrified — because we’re not handcuffed to use certain brands.”

In many cases at corporate-owned distributors, Callahan said, the end user saw the inflated price and often decided not to buy because they didn’t have all the facts and options, and that was frustrating.

“But we found all these little offshoot manufacturers’ reps, all these other companies that we can work with, and can offer good, solid products that I would put up against any mainline manufacturers, and we were able to have stuff people could afford.”

Ion has a presence throughout Southern New England and New York City

Ion has a presence throughout Southern New England and New York City, and a forthcoming e-commerce website aims to expand sales nationally.

Take auto garages, for instance, which use big, 400-watt fixtures that stay on for long hours. Many shop owners have seen the long-term savings of LED lighting — typically knocking off two-thirds to three-quarters of the old cost — and were willing to make the shift. But Mass Save also, in many cases, brought the initial cost of the new fixtures down to nearly nothing.

“And the maintenance is almost none; you can go 10 to 15 years without changing a bulb,” Jaron said. “With the price, the maintenance, and the environment, it’s just a win-win-win.”

Seeing the Light

When Callahan and Jaron went into electrical distribution, they decided early on it would be in everyone’s benefit — theirs and customers’ — to focus on lighting. “That was our niche, that’s what I had a passion for, and it’s what I gravitated toward throughout my career,” Callahan said. “We decided we could do lighting better than anyone else. So that’s all we do.”

It’s a model that has worked. Counting outside salespeople, Ion’s team numbers about 15, and sales have grown significantly every year. After opening in an office above Main Street in Northampton, the firm has relocated three times in the mill district of downtown Chicopee, and is looking to expand again, in order to consolidate all its operations, including its additional warehouses currently located in Palmer and Springfield.

Callahan isn’t worried demand for LED lighting will dry up anytime soon, with so many businesses and municipalities still in need of a changeover. “You can drive down any street anywhere, and you’ll find opportunities.”

Meanwhile, he noted, Ion is getting ready to launch an e-commerce website. “We’re excited to bring it to a national level and start selling to everyone in that way as well.”

He and Jaron are gratified by stories like a big job they supplied lights for in Worcester. They later received letters from the thankful customer, noting that electricity costs had dropped from almost $120,000 a month to around $68,000 — with the savings essentially paying for the project cost in year one.

“Three years ago, it was tough. We’re one of the only privately owned companies like this, because every other supply company is owned by a multi-million-dollar corporation somewhere,” Jaron said. “Now, these reps that didn’t want to talk to us, they’re coming through the doors, apologizing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Surveying the Landscape

The National Assoc. of Landscape Professionals (NALP) recently released its annual list of the top 2019 landscape trends.

Drawing upon the expertise of the industry’s 1 million landscape, lawn-care, irrigation, and tree-care professionals, NALP annually predicts trends that will influence the design and maintenance of backyards across America in the year ahead. NALP develops its trends reports based on a survey of its members. It also draws from the expertise of landscape professionals from across the U.S. who are at the forefront of outdoor trends.

“Homeowners yearn for beautiful outdoor spaces without the hassle of upkeep. With the rise of multi-functional landscape design and automated processes, consumers can spend more time enjoying their landscapes than ever before,” said Missy Henriksen, NALP’s vice president of Public Affairs. “This year’s trends reflect current lifestyle preferences as well as innovations happening in the industry that are transforming landscapes across the country.”

NALP listed the following five trends influencing outdoor spaces in 2019.

Two-in-one Landscape Design

Functional elements are becoming a necessity in today’s landscapes. Consumers desire stunning outdoor features that have been cleverly designed to serve a dual tactical purpose. An edible vertical garden on a trellis that acts as a privacy fence, a retaining wall that includes built-in seating for entertaining, and colorful garden beds that divide properties all combine function and style.

Automated Lawn and Landscape Maintenance

The latest technology and equipment allow tasks to be more streamlined and environmentally efficient than ever before. Robotic lawnmowers continue to rise in popularity among both homeowners and landscape professionals. Also, programmable irrigation systems and advanced lighting and electrical systems help outdoor spaces become extensions of today’s smart homes. Homeowners relish knowing these technological advancements give them more time to relax and enjoy their outdoor spaces.

Pergolas

A staple of landscape design for years, pergolas constructed of wood or composite materials are now becoming more sophisticated. They can now come with major upgrades, including roll-down windows, space heaters, lighting, and sound systems. When paired with a luxury kitchen, seating area, or fire feature, pergolas can become the iconic structure for outdoor sanctuaries.

Pretty in Pink

Pops of coral and blush are anticipated to add a more feminine touch to landscapes this year. With ‘living coral’ named Color of the Year by Pantone, a leading provider of color systems and an influencer on interior and exterior design, landscape professionals predict this rich shade of pink could bring fresh blooms of roses, petunias, zinnias, and hibiscus to flower beds. Experts also anticipate light blush tones to become the ‘new neutral’ and another option for hardscapes and stone selections.

Mesmerizing Metals

Whether homeowners want a bold statement or whimsical touch, incorporating metals can bring new dimensions to landscape design. Used for decorative art, water features, or furniture and accessories, creative uses of metals, including steel and iron, can make for lovely accents or entire focal points.

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.

Construction Sections

Building Momentum

construction-2018artdpAfter years of slow recovery after the recession that struck almost a decade ago, area construction firms are reporting strong volume in 2017 and predicting the same, if not better, in 2018. Whether relying on diverse expertise, a widening geographic footprint, or repeat business from loyal customers, there are plenty of ways to grow in the current economic environment, and contractors are optimistic they will do just that.

Even during good times for the construction industry — which 2017 certainly was, to hear area contractors tell it — everyone still has to keep on their toes.

“We’re optimistic for next year, but there are a lot of smart people working in New England, and everyone’s trying to get their fair share of the pie,” said Jeff Bardell, president of Daniel O’Connell’s Sons. “It’s still very competitive, and it’s been that way for a long time.”

While O’Connell is based in Holyoke, the firm has branched out over the years to develop a significant presence in Eastern Mass., Connecticut, and Rhode Island, particularly with large utility projects, while closer to home, it has maintained strong activity at area colleges and universities, including work at Amherst College and UMass, not to mention Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Marist College in New York.

We’re optimistic for next year, but there are a lot of smart people working in New England, and everyone’s trying to get their fair share of the pie.”

“We’re busy, but not out-of-control busy, in Western Mass. The projects we’re doing now aren’t as big as they were for awhile, but we’re still fairly busy.”

However, the heavy civil side has been a different story, featuring projects like upgrades to the Uxbridge Wastewater Treatment Facility, a runway rehabilitation at Hanscom Airfield in Bedford (one of many projects for MassPort), and a biogas co-generation facility at the Bucklin Point Wastewater Treatment Facility in Rhode Island — not to mention some MassDOT highway work in Worcester and a pedestrian bridge over the Providence River.

“Things are going fairly well for us,” Bardell said. “Everyone is working.”

Kevin Perrier, president of Five Star Building Corp. in Easthampton, had a similar outlook, noting that “2017 has proven to be one of our busiest years, with work from one end of the state to the other. Both public and private work has certainly kept our guys busy, and it looks like next year will be more of the same.”

While margins are still tight, workload has remained busy, including two large mechanical upgrade projects for MassPort and increasing work at Logan International Airport over the past several years.

While those two firms have broadened their reach, Chicopee-based A. Crane Construction recorded a strong 2017 mostly close to home, said partner A.J. Crane. “We do a lot of local, private commercial work, and it seems that sector is booming, with a lot of small to medium-sized businesses either building new facilities or renovating their existing facilities. It’s nice to see. And we’re helping as much as we can with that, which we really like to see.”

Recent projects include a remodel of the Sunshine Village offices in Chicopee, Arrha Credit Union’s new West Springfield branch, a new office for Ameriprise Financial in South Hadley, two renovations for Oasis Shower Doors, an office renovation for Noonan Energy, and ongoing work for Ondrick Natural Earth and AM Lithography.

Five Star Building Corp

Five Star Building Corp. opened its Boston office to handle a growing volume of business from the eastern part of the state.

“We’re in that sweet spot between small firms and huge commercial industrial contractors,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re a good size where we can serve a lot of those people that are upgrading and building new, local businesses. We’ve recently serviced quite a few financial-services offices, some retail, and, obviously, the whole legalization of medical and recreational marijuana is going bananas, and we’re doing quite a bit of that, too.”

Clearly, these are high times for area builders, and they expect to keep rolling in 2018.

Branching Out

Bardell said O’Connell’s broad geographic footprint — and its expertise in many different types of work — are both hedges against shifting economic tides.

“We see it rotate from place to place. I would say from ’09 to ’12 or ’13, we were really busy in Rhode Island, hundreds of millions of work there. Now we have maybe $20 million in work there. When we’re not busy in the Eastern Mass. region, we’re doing a lot of work for MDC in Hartford, redoing their treatment plant. It just rolls from one area to the other.”

As a result, he went on, “we pursue a lot of college work, and then we pursue heavy civil work. We do bridges, water and wastewater plants, drinking-water facilities — those have kind of become the bread and butter of our company.”

From a backlog standpoint, O’Connell is in pretty good shape, he told BusinessWest, but firms need to stay aggressive. “Talk to any contractor, and they’ll say they’re looking for more work; you burn it off quickly. But we’re here working through the holiday, with a lot of projects coming out in all kinds of places. There are projects in the Hudson Valley in New York out to bid right now, projects with Connecticut treatment plants, a very large university job in upstate New York, and some treatment-plant projects in Rhode Island.

Now boasting 50 employees, Five Star has developed a strong presence out east as well, opening a Boston office to support the “booming” seaport and commercial construction happening there. Long-term relationships with airlines like Southwest and Jet Blue have kept the firm busy at Logan, while projects like a new Westborough Town Hall, a library in Sherborn, a new charter school in Plymouth, and the Uxbridge fire station attests to the company’s diversity. Closer to home, major projects have included new life sciences laboratories at Holyoke Communtiy College and an ongoing upgrade of the entry at Noble Hospital in Westfield.

“Between healthcare and the airport and transportation sector, we’ve found ourselves all over, with a lot of long-time clients keeping us very busy this year,” Perrier said. “We’re fortunate enough to have another $30 million on the books for next year, so we’re happy about that.”

One goal has not to become too focused on one particular niche or industry, like some companies that focus almost all their energy on, say, healthcare or auto dealerships, he went on. “We’ve always been somewhat reluctant to do that, because it makes you more susceptible to shifts in the economy. We’ve been lucky to have some diversity and to be spread out across the state.”

That said, he added, “we’ve seen our fair share of the work. It’s safe to say the bad economy is behind us. Everyone has a pretty full plate.”

Crane has diversified in other ways, opening divisions in property management and condominium management, and taking on more and larger commercial jobs. And customer loyalty is important, because a construction job might lead to other jobs down the line. “We’re not just building someone a new, 5,000-square-foot facility. They’ll call us for everything else, which is nice.”

The benefits of a strong local construction market are twofold, Crane went on. “Businesses are spending money on their real estate here, which brings everybody’s property values up, and second, if they’re investing in property here, that means they’re not moving their business anywhere else, which is huge. Everyone knows construction drives the economy.”

Help Wanted

Perrier says contractors remember what the recent recession years were like — and how many years it took to return to something resembling normalcy — so everyone is a little gunshy, but they’re also optimistic that a strong 2017 will spill over into an even better 2018.

“The last two or three years, the economy has been strong,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re fortunate to stay busy. During the recession, most general contractors just wanted to keep people busy, try to see some growth and not lose their key players, and weather the storm. We made it out of that, and we continue to see growth. Last year was one of our best years.”

Bardell added that most operations professionals in construction will say they don’t have enough good, quality workers.

“It seems like things are picking up a little with availability of work to pursue, so we’re pretty optimistic, to be perfectly honest with you,” he said. “The biggest problem is finding people to do the work. That’s not getting any easier, and it’s going to be the biggest issue for us. We actively recruit at a lot of colleges; we’re trying to build a little farm team of guys and gals who can move up the ranks. We’ve been pretty successful doing that, but sometimes you can’t keep up with the volume.”

Not that high volume is a bad thing, of course.

“Things were good last year, and next year is looking great, too,” Crane concluded. “Hopefully it keeps rolling.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

A Matter of Resiliency

union-station-before

The Grand Concourse at Union Station before (top) and after.

The Grand Concourse at Union Station before (top) and after.

Springfield’s Union Station — and the project to bring it back to productive life after more than 40 years of dormancy — have both been described using a whole host of words and phrases.

But ‘a bureaucrat’s delight?’

That was a new one, and one that most people probably wouldn’t expect to see the light of day. But Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer, summoned it as he talked about the latest additions to what is becoming known as the Union Station trophy case — only there is no such thing. Yet.

These would be two awards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)— one for the best environmental rehabilitation project in New England region, and the second, announced after all the regional awards, is the so-called Phoenix Award, for the best brownfield redevelopment project in the country.

This was the first such honor for the Western Mass. region, and to earn it, the Springfield project prevailed over a wide range of impressive initiatives, from transformation of 14 acres of former rail yards, junk yards, and auto-repair shops into a recreational center in New Jersey, to a stunning metamorphosis for the so-called ‘Big Marsh’ in Chicago.

The award — and the efforts that made it possible — are significant on many levels, said Kennedy, because this was the work that went on behind the scenes, in every sense of that phrase. And this is what he meant by ‘bureaucrat’s delight.’

“From a professional basis, this is what we do in the background to make these projects happen,” he explained. “Everyone focuses on the public side of things, the up-front things that you see. But when you develop a project, you have to be able to work within the bureaucracy to satisfy all the regulatory issues and help with some of the funding.”

Indeed, while much of the focus on the station project has been on high-profile, highly visible initiatives, such as the façade, the parking garage, the new bus terminal, and the stunning transformation of the main concourse, all that wouldn’t have been possible without the environmental remediation work that came before it.

This environmental cleanup involved the former baggage-building property adjacent to the terminal, which was demolished, and the former site of the Hotel Charles, said Kennedy, noting that the property had petroleum, metals, and asbestos contamination. Meanwhile, the project — creation of a new and expanded intermodal transportation facility — also addressed air quality and congestion mitigation.

The Springfield Redevelopment Authority, owners of the building and managers of the redevelopment project, and lead contractor Daniel O’Connell’s Sons worked with a number of vendors to handle the remediation. The Westfield-based environmental engineering firm Tighe & Bond handled the analysis, specifications, and oversight of the work, while T&M Equipment Corp. in Springfield, LVI Environmental Services in Everett, American Environmental in Holyoke, and NCM Contracting Group in Weston handled various aspects of the cleanup and demolition work.

But when Kennedy says the $95 million could not have come to its successful conclusion without that remediation, he really means it, and on many levels, from not only a construction standpoint, but also what would have to be called a momentum standpoint.

Indeed, there were several times over the past few decades when the Union Station project was stalled, even dead in the water. But it was progress with the environmental issues that kept the project relevant and put it, well, back on track.

“Back around the turn of this century, there was a start to this project, and then it stopped,” Kennedy recalled. “We had to figure out in 2007 and 2008 how to restart the project, and there were two very important funding sources that enabled us to get things restarted.”

The first was a $350,000 planning grant awarded by then-Gov. Deval Patrick that enabled the city to hire an architect to start the process of organizing the project, and the second was a roughly $250,000 EPA assessment grant to be used to identify to scope of the environmental issues at the site, including the baggage building and Hotel Charles footprint.

Lauren Liss, president and CEO of MassDevelopment, addresses those assembled at a press conference on Dec. 11

Lauren Liss, president and CEO of MassDevelopment, addresses those assembled at a press conference on Dec. 11 to announce that the Union Station project had won the Phoenix Award.

“Those were the two items that kick-started the project again,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “They allowed us to scope out how to do this, and without them, I don’t know how we would have been able to start.”

In essence, the initial environmental work enabled planners to “get our arms around the project,” as Kennedy put it, enabling them to go back to the major funders, including the Federal Transit Authority and the Mass. Department of Transportation with a far sharper picture of what needed to be done at the site and what could be done with it.

“There were so many of those boring things that those of us in the inside of the government had to put together,” he went on, adding that these boring, behind-the-scenes efforts, spearheaded by SRA director Chris Moskal and consultant Maureen Hayes, eventually made those stunning ‘after’ shots in the before-and-after scenarios possible.

The environmental-cleanup efforts, and the project as a whole, were effectively summed up in the application for the brownfield awards, where Springfield officials listed the key project lessons as ‘resiliency.’  “A long-vacant train-station redevelopment project that had many starts and stops was restored to a state-of-the-art intermodal transit center thanks to the resiliency of its people and leaders,” the application reads.

As for that reference to a trophy case, there really is one, as noted. But the Union Station project has collected a number of awards, including the two EPA prizes, the Paul and Niki Tsongas Awards from Preservation Massachusetts in the category called ‘Best Now and Then,’ the Springfield Preservation Trust’s 2017 Project Rehabilitation Award, and the Honow Award from the Assoc. of General Contractors of Massachusetts.

Collectively, they speak to the enormity of the project and the significance of resurrecting a huge piece of Springfield’s past and making it a significant part of its future.

As for it being a ‘bureaucrat’s delight,’ only the bureaucrats can truly say.

— George O’Brien

Construction Sections

Happy Returns

President Joe Marois (left) and Vice President Carl Mercieri

President Joe Marois (left) and Vice President Carl Mercieri

A construction company doesn’t grow and thrive for almost a half-century — through some dramatic economic ups and downs — without the kind of client loyalty that makes it a go-to option for any number of job types. For Marois Construction, those include educational facilities, public buildings, medical offices, bank branches, and more. The firm has certainly left its mark on the Valley — with no signs of slowing down.

There are advantages to being in business for 45 years. One is that it’s plenty of time to build a reputation.

“People are looking for quality work — people they know they can trust,” said Joe Marois, president of Marois Construction in South Hadley, a business he built from the ground up — literally and figuratively — starting in 1972. “We’ve established that trust. We’ve made a lot of friends on our projects.”

A lot of friends means plenty of repeat business, and that has been a key component of the success of one of the region’s iconic names in construction, an entity that quickly grew beyond its roots building cabinets and restoring furniture from a small shed. Five years after that humble beginning, Marois boasted seven employees and five trucks. Today, headquartered in a large building on Old Lyman Road, the company currently employs about 45 people.

The repeat business has long been buoyed by the firm’s close relationships with area colleges and universities and expertise in niches as diverse as bank branches and medical offices. Current projects have the company busy at UMass Amherst, Elms College, a new Polish National Credit Union branch in Chicopee, the new state office building in Springfield, Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Agawam, and Central High School in Springfield, to put up a new press box and scoreboard.

The company also has a standing contract with the city of Springfield to perform needed maintenance and renovation jobs on public schools. “We’re all over the place there,” Marois said. “We never know what the needs will be.”

Carl Mercieri, Marois’ long-time vice president, said those assignments can be for just about anything. “They’re more maintenance-type things, on-call services, everything from changing a window to replacing ceilings in the classrooms over the summer, or repair old plaster. It’s pretty interesting. It’s more service work, but it’s good for the guys; they go to a job for two or three days, then move on to another for some change of scenery.”

Marois Construction workers prepare to install equipment on the roof of John Adams Hall at UMass Amherst.

Marois Construction workers prepare to install equipment on the roof of John Adams Hall at UMass Amherst.

In short, times are better for Marois — and for the industry as a whole, of course — than they were a few years ago, in the shadow of the Great Recession, when all firms were scrambling just to keep their crews reasonably busy.

“We were really coming off a bad time during the recession, where it was all about survival,” Marois said. “A few of our contemporaries did not make it. It was a culling of the industry, I guess you’d say. And it was further complicated by an influx of outside contractors into our area from New York and Boston; they were hungry too. Right now, we’re turning the corner and staying busy.”

Getting Around

A quick rundown of some of the firm’s recent project reflects its diversity. To wit:

• An upgrade of the electrical and fire-pump systems at John Adams Hall at UMass, a residential tower, included installation of twin emergency generators on the roof of the 22-story building, placed on a new structural steel frame.

• Also at UMass, a renovation of the Amherst Student Affairs Suite in the Whitmore Administration Building included the demolition of a 4,000-square-foot space, rebuilding of interior partitions, and finishes including porcelain tile flooring, recessed light fixtures, and a bamboo slat ceiling.

• A project at Veritas Preparatory Charter School included more than 22,000 square feet of demolition and renovated spaces, including new classrooms, a science lab, a music room, a reception area, and office space.

• The Keating Quadrangle at Elms College features the inlaid college logo and a large firepit that’s popular with students and staff. The project consisted of new drainage systems, underground electrical work, and multiple landscaping features including concrete, pavers, stone, and plantings.

• On the medical side, the Raymond Center at Baystate Health – South Hadley Adult Medicine consisted of developing 14,000 square feet of primary-care space within an existing building.

• At the Lee Hutt Gallery at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, the existing building was converted into a working sculpture studio, as Marois worked closely with the owner on all aspects of the design-build project.

• The company also built a single-story addition to Plainfield Congregational Church to provide new bathrooms and meeting space. Site improvements included a new well, septic tank, and grading. Repairs and improvements to the existing structure included replacement of piers supporting the existing timber-framed floor, thermal improvements to walls, and more.

• Marois also designed and constructed a facility to house supplies and equipment required to maintain the runways and grounds at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.

These cupolas are being designed for a project in Amherst.

These cupolas are being designed for a project in Amherst.

The jobs are still coming, but a new obstacle looms, he said. “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.”

National data bear that challenge out. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, construction employment increased by 28,000 jobs in August, yet contractors still face a lack of experienced workers. Association officials say construction job growth would have been even higher had a majority of firms not reported having a hard time finding qualified staff.

“Construction firms have stayed busy, adding employees in the past year at nearly twice the rate of employers throughout the economy, but more than two-thirds of contractors report difficulty finding craft workers as the number of unemployed, experienced construction workers hit a 17-year low in August,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. “Although construction spending has fluctuated recently, many contractors are still looking for qualified craft workers and project managers.”

More than half of the survey’s respondents said they were having trouble finding carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, concrete workers, or plumbers, while some salaried positions, such as project managers and supervisors, are also hard to fill, Simonson added, noting that federal, state, and local leaders should act on measures aimed at recruiting and preparing more young adults for high-paying construction careers. “Exposing students to construction as a career path will encourage more of them to pursue these high-paying careers,” said Stephen Sandherr, the association’s CEO.

Marois would welcome that development. “I just don’t see a lot of evidence of new tradespeople or young people who are enthusiastic about learning a trade.”

Brave New World

Marois and Mercieri have an old-school ethos when it comes to quality work, but recognize that the way jobs are processed today is different than it used to be.

“It has gotten to be technically advanced as far as the computer systems we are using at the insistence, many times, of our clients,” Marois said. “For a dinosaur like me, that’s a challenge.”

Added Mercieri, “sometimes we run into a situation where a project requires specific software, either scheduling or reporting, and some are good, some are bad. It takes away from the normal, day-to-day business, and it’s something we do more to satisfy others than ourselves.”

Green building, however, is a building trend that has grown well past trendiness in recent years; instead, it’s standard operating procedure for many clients. Marois has worked on multiple LEED-certified structures, but even those that don’t reach for those goals are subject to a new world of sustainability.

“There are always new heating and cooling standards, new insulation values on buildings — seismic standards are another thing that’s a great concern for people — to the detriment of renovating older facilities that are non-correctable, for lack of a better word,” Marois said. “With these 100-year-old mill buildings they want to converting to loft apartments, none comply with the basic structural requirements in place today, and they either get variances on them, or it’s not affordable, with the money it takes to bring it to the standard they expect.”

The business has changed in other ways, too, such as Marois’ increased reliance on outsourcing some of the framing and demolition work than in the past, but he’s still keeping his crews active, after 45 years of loyal clients, technological advances, and economic ups and downs.

“I couldn’t even count how many repeat customers we have,” Mercieri said. “The past 18 months have been busier than we’ve been in a long time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

Green Goals

Thanks in part to the U.N.’s “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” ‘green’ building projects are increasing worldwide. From 2015 to 2018, the percentage of global builders with at least 60% of their projects certified green will double, according to the “World Green Building Trends” report.

One of the main motivations driving green construction is to reduce carbon emissions, reports Interesting Engineering. And successful ways to do that revolve around energy usage — namely, to decrease energy consumption and increase energy efficiency in homes and buildings around the world.

Here’s how those goals break down into the top five global green-building trends this year.

Solar Panels of All Sizes

The worldwide acceptance of solar as the energy of the future is causing solar technology to get better and cheaper — quickly.

In 2016, India set aside $3 billion in state funding to ensure its capacity for solar power reaches 100 gigawatts by 2022. In May, the United Kingdom generated nearly one-quarter of its power needs from solar panels. And China is currently in the middle of creating the largest solar-thermal farm in the world.

Huge, heavy panels with bulky grids are no longer the only options for a solar-roof install. In the U.S., Tesla has already rolled out its new solar shingles, while Forward Labs’ standing seam metal solar roofing is set to be released in 2018.

In Australia, Professor Paul Dastoor of the University of Newcastle is performing the final trials on lightweight solar panels made by printing electronic ink onto plastic sheets. These solar panels are cheap to produce and ship and could potentially be a game changer for the solar-panel industry.

Home Energy Storage

“Batteries capable of storing power at utility scale will be as widespread in 12 years as rooftop solar panels are now,” estimates Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And that makes sense, considering the same type of lithium-ion battery used to power an electric vehicle can also be used to store power in the home. This double demand enables manufacturers to increase battery production, which drives down prices. And lower prices mean home batteries will be within reach of more people.

Some major players have already jumped in on the home-battery-manufacturing opportunity. Mercedes-Benz has produced suitcase-sized at-home energy storage for Germany since 2015, but it plans to expand internationally and has recently made the product available to California residents in the U.S. Meanwhile, Powervault is the number-one at-home battery manufacturer in the UK, and ElectrIQ is one of the newest home-energy-storage manufacturers in the U.S., with a home battery that stores 10 kWh of energy.

Energy-management Systems

To get the most out of solar panels and batteries, energy-management systems (EMSs) are often installed in green homes and businesses. EMSs monitor how much energy a building uses and can automate lighting, power, and HVAC systems to ensure optimal energy savings.

For example, the Edge, a building in Amsterdam that won the BREEAM award for offices in 2016, has 30,000 sensors that connect to a smartphone app. This app collects data from office employees and adjusts temperature and lighting according to how many people are inside the building and even keeps track of individual employee’s air and lighting preferences.

Another example is Honda’s smart home in the U.S., which has an experimental home EMS that communicates with the electrical grid to create optimal energy performance.

Passive Building Design

Passive building designs help minimize energy consumption by reducing the need for electrical lighting and temperature control in the first place. How? By using advanced design techniques that allow for maximum amounts of natural daylight to come in, while restricting heat loss in the winter and reducing heat gain in the summer.

And one element of passive design that has a big impact in temperature control is what goes on the roof.

Green roofs play an important part in helping regulate the temperature inside and outside of many passive buildings and homes. The plants and soil systems put in place help insulate the building in the winter and shade it in the summer.

Sustainable Building Materials

Reclaimed wood and recycled materials are high on the list of sustainable building supplies. But there’s also a lot of innovation happening in the world of eco-friendly concrete.

Why is making concrete green so important? Because it’s the world’s most used construction material, and it’s responsible for producing copious amounts of CO2.

There are several concrete alternatives, such as AshCrete, Ferrock, and HempCrete — but the most recent buzz is self-healing concrete. This concrete is supplemented with bacteria that, when exposed to moisture, will become active and grow limestone that will fill any cracks that happen over time. This is a big deal since no added concrete is needed to maintain it.

Luckily for us, this worldwide trend of creating green building solutions will grow along with the burgeoning demand for better ways to sustain our planet.

Maybe soon, the term ‘green building’ won’t be needed because all building practices will be sustainable.

This article first appeared in Proud Green Building.

Construction Sections

Driving Force

As federal and state lawmakers continue to search for solutions to fund and finance critically needed transportation infrastructure, the latest America THINKS national public opinion survey by infrastructure-solutions firm HNTB Corp. finds Americans with definitive views on how that funding should be generated and who should be responsible for maintaining and building the nation’s transportation network.

According to the survey, “Paying for Infrastructure – 2017,” 70% of respondents expressed their willingness to pay higher taxes and tolls to maintain existing as well as build new infrastructure. That number jumps to 84% if those revenues are guaranteed by law to exclusively fund transportation infrastructure needs.

“Americans value mobility and are willing to pay more to maintain and grow transportation infrastructure, especially if they know how their money will be used,” said Kevin Hoeflich, HNTB Toll Services chairman and senior vice president.

The HNTB survey also found nearly three in four Americans (73%) support public-private partnerships as a way to maintain existing and build new transportation infrastructure. Fifty-two percent believe the responsibility for funding maintenance and building new transportation infrastructure should be shared by the government and private sector.

“P3s are in the news as an increasingly popular option for funding new projects,” said Hoeflich. “However, the deals must be structured properly so the public gets the best return on its investment in infrastructure. We can expect to see more of them as the sources of traditional funding are under pressure.”

The desire to avoid congestion and save time is behind the willingness of almost six in 10 Americans (59%) to pay a toll, even when a free alternative is available, according to the HNTB survey. Of these respondents, 57% are willing to pay an average of $1.70 to use a priced managed lane, also called express lanes, if that would save 15 to 30 minutes of time, avoid congestion, and provide a predictable travel time.

The conversion of general-purpose interstate lanes to priced managed lanes is supported by 77% of survey respondents. Among this group, 50% believe reducing congestion is the most important reason for this conversion, an increase from 43% from the same question asked in a 2016 HNTB survey.

“People are frustrated spending time stuck in traffic, and they want solutions. They are concerned about how congestion contributes to traffic fatalities,” Hoeflich said. “Priced managed lanes offer a promising solution to both congestion and funding by providing a choice to get out of traffic. The public has demonstrated a willingness to pay to use them in many urban areas.”

HNTB’s survey found 80% of respondents support adding tolls to existing highways and interstates. When asked how those toll revenues should be used, reducing congestion was cited by 41% of respondents; improving safety, 40%; adding vehicle capacity, 34%; and adding transit capacity, 21%. Twenty percent of respondents would never support tolls on existing highways or interstates.

The survey also found two-thirds of respondents (66%) support tolls to fund critical infrastructure projects if there are insufficient funds from other sources. Meanwhile, the concept of reduced toll rates for low-income users is supported by more than three in four Americans (76%).

“Most importantly, there is growing recognition of tolls as a source of revenue that can help fund decades of neglect of maintenance and operations, system improvements, and other critical transportation needs,” said Hoeflich.

HNTB’s America THINKS “Paying for Infrastructure – 2017” survey polled a random nationwide sample of 1,027 Americans, ages 18 and older, between July 14 and July 16, 2017.

HNTB Corp. is an employee-owned infrastructure-solutions firm serving public and private owners and contractors. HNTB professionals nationwide deliver a full range of infrastructure-related services, including award-winning planning, design, program management, and construction management; www.hntb.com

Construction Sections

In the Pipeline

Company principals Laurie and John Raymaakers

Company principals Laurie and John Raymaakers

John and Laurie Raymaakers had a decision to make after the early-’90s recession torpedoed their property-management business — try to rebuild that enterprise, or go in a different direction. They chose, of all things, asphalt seal-coating, but that was only the beginning. Over the years, their company grew, added equipment and services, and is now a heavy civil-engineering firm and general contractor boasting 26 employees, with an intriguing side business in materials recycling — a true, under-the-radar success story in the local construction world.

John and Laurie Raymaakers knew when to shift gears, even if they didn’t always know how.

As the 1990s dawned, the couple ran a successful property-management operation, with 14 employees and some 900 units in seven apartment complexes.

But, due to the recession that struck the nation’s economy at the turn of the decade, the owners the couple worked for started bleeding properties at a startling rate. “We lost 73% of our business within six months,” Laurie told BusinessWest.

With prospects bleak — Laurie went to work at a local police department and a Boys & Girls Club to help make ends meet — the pair looked for another opportunity to strike out on their own, and they found one in seal-coating asphalt driveways and parking lots.

“When we started the seal-coating business, our kids were young, and we would sit around the table and fold brochures into trifolds, then drive around in the station wagon, putting them in newspaper boxes. That’s why we say the kids have been in this business since they were little — it was cheap labor.”

Today, however, ‘this business’ has moved far away from its roots fixing driveway cracks. J.L. Raymaakers & Sons — the couple’s two boys, John Jr. and Joshua, grew up to become partners in the company — is a general contractor and heavy civil-engineering firm employing 26 people and maintaining a fleet of 17 trucks.

The progression between the two points is a lesson in identifying opportunities and working hard to grab them, with the goal of growing a modest, Westfield-based family business into a multi-faceted operation.

Exhibit A is the seal-coating idea itself, one John came up with while researching what types of businesses he might be suited for, and which of those weren’t suffering from an overcrowded market.

This culvert installation in Blandford

This culvert installation in Blandford is an example of J.L. Raymaakers & Sons’ civil-engineering work.

“I saw a need for it; there weren’t many people at the time doing it,” he explained. “It was mostly crack filling, and it wasn’t too expensive to get into. But it started mushrooming; we were doing asphalt work, but then doing little paving jobs.”

For instance, some parking lots couldn’t be seal-coated until a broken catch basin was fixed. So they learned how to fix catch basins, which became a lucrative part of the business. Then they added small excavating projects to their roster.

‘We can do that’ became the couple’s motto, Laurie said. “If someone needed work done, we’d say, ‘we can do that’; then we’d look it up on the computer or ask somebody.”

From a couple of employees and one dumptruck, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons expanded further, getting into some pipe work, which led to the company’s most significant niche to date, heavy civil engineering.

“We’ve always been a general contractor, even from the property-management days, when we’d do carpentry and electrical,” John said, but the firm would, indeed, find its most profitable growth from the ground — or beneath it, actually — up.

Big Digs

Today, John told BusinessWest, the firm regularly takes on $2 million to $3 million jobs, with work ranging from storm-basin cleaning and repair to storm-drain installation and repair; from water and sewer-line installation to concrete work and retaining walls — a step up, certainly, from seal-coating driveways.

Recently, these jobs include a pump station handling sewage for three Southwick schools, a fuel-containment center at Bradley International Airport that involved moving million-gallon tanks, a new water-distribution line for the Thorndike section of Palmer, and, on the general-contracting side, a new security building at Savage Arms, a company for which Raymaakers has completed several projects.

We’re trying to build in as much diversity as we can. We’re trying to stay well-rounded, so that, if the city and state work slows down, the private sector might pick up, and vice versa. The newest thing for us is buildouts on commercial property, additions and that type of thing.”

“We’re trying to build in as much diversity as we can,” he said. “We’re trying to stay well-rounded, so that, if the city and state work slows down, the private sector might pick up, and vice versa. The newest thing for us is buildouts on commercial property, additions and that type of thing.”

That’s being accomplished partly through a recent foray into a steel-building division that promises to keep crews busy in the colder months, when civil-engineering projects tend to shut down. In many instances, Raymaakers is working at the subcontracting level, with an eye on positioning itself as the lead contractor — controlling projects and hiring subcontractors — on an increasing number of jobs.

“The main focus of our business has been this heavy civil construction, but it’s seasonal,” Laurie said. “We’re trying to find ways to expand our season year-round. We’re not just outdoor people.”

That said, the flow of work on the civil-engineering side is strong, even though the firm is typically competing with 15 others to, say, install a water line.

“What we’re not seeing,” Laurie said, “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.”

Still, the company has hired at a consistent pace over the years, and expansion has taken several shapes recently, from new equipment purchases to the hiring of a second project manager. Meanwhile, John Jr., whose main role is project manager and estimator, and Joshua, a site supervisor, are slowly transitioning into greater leadership roles with the intention of someday running the company on their own.

“They’ve grown with us and learned with us, and they excel in their areas,” Laurie said. “John Jr. is involved in the steel buildings, and Joshua takes the biggest, hardest jobs and is always encouraging us to look at purchasing some properties and renovating them and putting them up for resale. They have their own ideas within the company.”

General-contracting work, like this warehouse

General-contracting work, like this warehouse, helps the firm stay diverse and busy throughout the year.

But the family didn’t stop there. Through their civil engineering and construction work, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons digs up a lot of dirt. So instead of piling it up and letting it go to waste on their 10-acre property, they began cleaning it and separating usable product to sell. That side company, called ROAR (Raymaakers Onsite Aggregate Recycling), employs four of the Raymaakers’ total team of 26.

“We were seeing a need for people wanting loam or trap rock, so we set up an area where smaller construction companies, landscapers, and homeowners can come and buy it,” John said. “We’ve grown that to where we’re selling bark mulch, colored rock, processed gravel, and all kinds of trap rock.”

ROAR simply makes sense, from both a financial and environmental perspective, Laurie added. “We’d rather utilize the land we have and make money off it, while recycling these products from our own jobs.”

Growing Together

Co-owner of a certified women-owned business enterprise (WBE), Laurie is gratified that perceptions about women in construction have come a long way.

She recalls, early in the seal-coating days, that John burned himself badly when a block filled with crack filler splashed him, and for four months, it was just Laurie and her sister-in-law working the driveways and parking lots. After one job, the property owner wouldn’t even answer the door to pay them, having trouble accepting the fact that women were doing the work.

Today, that’s just a humorous story in the history of a true regional success story. John is the first to admit that maintaining a strong family business is a tough road, but repeatedly praised the company’s dedicated crews and long-time employees for their role in growing the firm.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’ve worked hard to get here,” Laurie added. “It’s a constant in your life. There’s been some sacrifice at times, but I’m really proud of what we’ve done.”

John noted that not only their sons have grown up with the company, but so have many of their teenage friends, who now work there.

“All these friends of our kids, they’ve been here 10, 15 years. We don’t tend to lose people,” he said.

That’s a plus for this family that just keeps digging for more opportunities — literally and figuratively.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

On the Rise

Andy (left) and A.J. Crane

Andy (left) and A.J. Crane stand before a recent project, Arrha Credit Union’s new West Springfield branch.

When BusinessWest sat down in 2008 with the principals at A. Crane Construction, company founder Andrew Crane noted a motto he adhered to, reflecting the scope of projects his firm was willing to take on: “picnic tables or bridges — it doesn’t matter.”

“Well, we finally did a bridge,” his son, A.J. Crane, happily told BusinessWest recently, showing off some pictures of a small span over a culvert, connecting the former Chap de Laine’s Furniture site in South Hadley — incidentally, one of Crane’s first clients almost three decades ago — to Newton Street.

It’s just one example, said the younger Crane — who runs the company alongside his father — of how A. Crane has expanded its scope over the past decade, assembling a broader book of business in the commercial-building world and branching out into new realms.

“We’ve opened divisions in property management, condominium management, and we’re running more crews over the past four or five years,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve taken on many more commercial jobs — larger-scale commercial work. We now have the office staff and field crews to handle those types of jobs.”

For example, the company is in the process of completing a remodel of the Sunshine Village offices in Chicopee; other recent projects range from Arrha Credit Union’s new West Springfield branch to a Dairy Queen renovation; from a new office for Ameriprise Financial in South Hadley to a major renovation for Oasis Shower Doors, as well as ongoing work for Ondrick Natural Earth and AM Lithography.

“My dad’s skill set was more residential,” Crane said. “I went to school to do different types of things; I have a degree in civil engineering. We’ve tailored our system and processes in the office to accommodate larger jobs, dealing with architects and engineers — that’s right in our wheelhouse.”

As it approaches its 30th anniversary next year, the firm has come a long way since its humble beginnings in Chicopee in 1988, when it relied mainly on word of mouth, reputation, and loyalty — and that willingness to tackle any type and size of job — to build a healthy clientele.

From the Ground Up

Andrew Crane started in the construction world working for Daniel O’Connell, and from there spent eight years with a family business that built post-and-beam homes before striking out on his own.

For the better part of two decades, he conducted business out of a house in Chicopee, doing jobs only for people he knew personally. A little over a decade ago, he moved to Grattan Street, but has outgrown that space as well and has begun looking for a larger headquarters in the same city.

In a fiercely competitive industry, the father-and-son principals say they have avoided the low-bid trap by cultivating a reputation for attentive service and quality control — and a stable of loyal clients — allowing them to earn realistic profits and grow the business without cutting corners.

A. Crane Construction recently tackled a major renovation form Oasis Shower Doors.

A. Crane Construction recently tackled a major renovation from Oasis Shower Doors.

No contractor was unscathed by the Great Recession, which impacted construction, particularly residential work, as hard as any industry. But A.J. Crane said the firm’s reputation and relationships kept it afloat.

“Residential construction took a huge hit,” he said. “But we were always busy because our crews are talented, and we’ve taken the same personal approach, whether dealing with homeowners or private, family-owned businesses. We’ll never give up residential — we’re building a 3,600-square-foot house in Longmeadow right now — because that’s where our roots are.”

We want to work for people who have privately owned, family-owned businesses and plan on being here for generations, which means they have buildings and facilities that will be here for generations, and would rather not build them more than once.”

While seeking a diverse roster of work to keep crews busy, Crane says the company’s relationship-based style of doing business is especially appreciated by local clients, as opposed to national chains.

“We want to work for people who have privately owned, family-owned businesses and plan on being here for generations,” he said, “which means they have buildings and facilities that will be here for generations, and would rather not build them more than once.”

Design preferences are constantly changing, he added, not only in elements like a home’s floors, cabinetry, and trimwork, but in commercial building as well. For instance, EIFS, short for exterior insulation and finish system — a stucco-like, insulated, water-resistant finished surface, is becoming more popular. “We just put a bunch of it on AM Lithography. It’s a great-looking project, and improves the insulation value.”

Indeed, quality and sustainability are important to the Cranes; Andrew has been heavily involved with the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Mass., including a stint as president, during which time he advocated at the state level for continuing-education requirements for construction supervisors, as well as more stringent building codes requirements aimed at weeding out small, renegade contractors who use shoddy materials or fail to secure proper insurance.

The rise of ‘green’ construction brings its own set of high standards, and A. Crane has done plenty of that type of work as well.

“The codes are stringent now, not just HVAC and insulation, but occupancy-sensing lighting in office buildings, no more switches, things like that,” A.J. said. “It makes it more complicated to build, more complicated to fix or make repairs, and they drive the cost up.”

New Territory

Through the years, A. Crane has seen a roughly even split between homebuilding and commercial work, but its experience with multi-family residential work — for instance, it recently won a contract from a condominium association to build 60 decks — was one of the factors in the firm’s move into property and condominium management.

“We were asked to work for a local association down the street in Chicopee, then asked by another one in South Hadley,” A.J. Crane said. “We manage the finances, insurance, snowplowing — we don’t necessarily do it in-house, but we execute what the board of trustees decides, and make recommendations. We’re certified to do it, and we manage about 200 units now.”

The service is a valuable one for smaller companies — say, with a footprint of 6,000 to 7,000 square feet — that don’t have their own maintenance department, and don’t do much long-term facilities planning.

“Take a dental office. What does that guy know about buildings? But if you have 10 years left on the roof, and it’ll cost $12,000 to replace, you should start planning for that now. Or maybe there’s a $30,000 siding job coming up five years from now. Or you want to get on a maintenance schedule for HVAC and irrigation. You go to work every day, and you don’t want to think about that.”

A. Crane employs 11 people full-time, but on any given day, there may be 65 in the field, he noted. In addition, the firm supports and sponsors dozens of area organizations, from Sunshine Village to local high schools to the Springfield Thunderbirds. Andrew continues to pursue state-level advocacy with organizations like the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Massachusetts, while A.J. serves on the boards of the Western Mass. chapter of the American Red Cross, the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, the Westmass Area Development Corp., and several other entities.

In that latter role, he has seen interest rise the Chicopee River Business Park, “and that’s great for economic development,” he told BusinessWest. “Everyone knows we need business to drive housing, and housing drives the economy.”

A. Crane Construction plans to be around well past its 30th anniversary, building many of those homes and businesses so crucial to a growing Pioneer Valley.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

Home Makers

An example of Laplante Construction’s work

An example of Laplante Construction’s work creating both indoor and outdoor spaces.

When it comes to custom homes, trends come and go, but buyers are always looking for the next big thing — or, to be more accurate, the next not-so-big thing, as one of those trends favors downsizing in favor of easier maintenance and more energy-efficient touches. But high-end homebuyers aren’t shorting themselves on the interior; they still want the best floors, trims, and technology money can buy. And many are turning to Laplante Construction to get the job done.

Ray and Bill Laplante both grew up around the construction business, so it’s not surprising they’ve made a name among the region’s top luxury home builders.

“My dad was a builder, and my older brother was a builder,” said Ray Laplante, who launched East Longmeadow-based R.E. Laplante Construction — since shortened to Laplante Construction — in the early 1970s. “I started out doing a lot of work for them, and after a few years, there wasn’t enough for me, so I went out on my own, doing remodeling and framing and building.”

At the time, duplexes were in vogue in Springfield, and he cut his teeth there, but soon started building custom homes in Longmeadow, Wilbraham, East Longmeadow, and surrounding towns. “Business just took off from there,” he said, and soon he was developing entire subdivisions of high-end residences in those communities.

His son, Bill, grew up in the business too, helping on job sites when he was only 13 years old.


SEE: List of Home Builders


“I would clean out houses, do final cleanings upon completion of houses,” he told BusinessWest. “Then I started in the framing crew, working as a mason tender and doing some finish work. I basically worked through all the way through high school and college, through the summer breaks and vacations.”

He graduated from Trinity College in 1992 with a degree in economics, but a few days after graduation, he was back out on job sites, where he worked for about five years, framing houses and performing myriad other tasks. But, though the experience was invaluable, his heart wasn’t in the field.

“So I started working in the office,” he said, “in project management and then in financial management and sales and marketing, touching virtually all aspects of contruction and understanding how everything goes together — all facets of building.”

Company founder Ray Laplante (left) and President Bill Laplante

Company founder Ray Laplante (left) and President Bill Laplante say a healthy mix of residential and commercial building and remodeling keeps their business thriving.

That’s the part of the business he enjoyed most, Bill said — working with clients on the big picture, and shepherding their vision to reality.

“Growing up, I always liked the idea of seeing something built,” he continued, “but I knew pretty early on, after getting out of college, that I didn’t want to stay in the field; I wanted to work with people, helping design and build what is, in many cases, their largest investment: a new home. That’s really what I’ve enjoyed. My passion is in working with the people and selling our services.”

Today, Bill Laplante serves as the company’s president, working alongside its founder to bring those visions to life — including, in 2014, a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s famed Monticello estate in Somers, Conn.

But luxury homes are only one staple of this family business, as it expands its reach in commercial construction as well, delivering a range of building and remodeling services with the diversity to weather economic cycles and record continued growth.

Estate of Mind

In fact, Ray said, Laplante takes on many different types of jobs, from single bathroom remodels up to large commercial buildings. “And every once in a while, you get a Monticello thrown in there.”

That’s not quite true, of course, as both he and Bill acknowledged that Monticello Somers, built at the behest of Friendly’s co-founder S. Prestley Blake, was a once-in-a-generation project. Ray and Bill Laplante designed the project themselves based on copious research into the original Virginia estate, creating a ‘modernized replica’ that’s historically accurate in the façade, yet decked out in 21st-century amenities inside.

“It was extremely interesting trying to recreate a building like that,” Bill said. “One of the most challenging aspects was trying to create a modernized interior within a very old exterior. And there were code issues that didn’t exist in the original Monticello.”

To be sure, custom finishes, modern touches, and code compliance have long been facets of Laplante Construction’s work building and renovating high-end homes in the Greater Springfield region. But, contrary to a Monticello-scale project, Bill said the trend in luxury homes today is moving away from massive floor plans and toward spaces that are smaller, but still pack all the bells and whistles.

While many homeowners are looking to downsize, Bill Laplante says, the company still puts up plenty of large homes.

While many homeowners are looking to downsize, Bill Laplante says, the company still puts up plenty of large homes.

“We’re seeing people generally downsize. There has been an increased demand for single-family living, low maintenance, and high energy efficiency. Many people are selling their 4,000-square-foot, two-story, inefficient colonial and want a 2,500-square-foot, very well-appointed, single-family house that’s very low-maintenance, which they can shut down and head to Florida over the winter and really reduce their operating expenses.”

He credits a desire for a simpler lifestyle; people are staying home more and enjoying the space they have, but don’t necessarily want to maintain a sprawling estate.

“It’s amazing — 15 years ago, we built one or two ranches. Nowadays, we’re building, six, eight, 10 ranches a year,” he went on. “That’s because of downsizing. Everyone used to want a colonial, but now focus on ranches and other things. It’s becoming desirable to buy those smaller homes and put money into them.”

And they are investing plenty of money into them, he added. “They want all the amenities — granite countertops, expensive finishes, Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances. They want those outdoor spaces, the screen porches, the outdoor kitchens, all very well-appointed.”

That goes for remodeling as well, Bill added, which has long been a critical part of the business — which was fortuitous when the market for custom homes dried up in the years following the financial crash in 2008.

“People weren’t building homes, but they were still trying to renovate their homes,” he noted. “What served us well was, we never abandoned the remodeling. Other builders at the time wouldn’t take on smaller remodeling projects; they were busy with bigger housing projects. We always maintained smaller remodeling jobs. Then, when the new-construction market dried up, we were well-positioned to respond to demand for remodeling as well.”

Those home remodels, which are often aimed at creating a getaway without actually having to get away, often include outdoor elements, particularly features that blur the lines between inside and outside living, Ray noted. “We’re starting to see a lot of outdoor-living projects — carriage houses, pool cabanas, outdoor kitchens, things of that sort.”

These can all carry hefty price tags, but, interestingly, other home costs have come down in recent years, notably whole-home technology — the devices that control heat, cooling, lights, security cameras, and irrigation remotely.

“The old ‘smart house’ was very expensive, but nowadays, with technology and with the iPhones and apps available, virtually every manufacturer has a product or an app that can be controlled on a cell phone from anywhere in the United States,” Bill explained. “That goes for heating, lighting, security cameras, you name it — and people are really embracing that. I mentioned people closing up the house and going down to Florida for the winter; they can check in with their phones, see what the temperature reading is in the house, or turn the lights on and off.”

clients want the interior well-appointed with high-end flooring, tile, trims, and technology.

No matter the size of the home, Bill and Ray Laplante say, clients want the interior well-appointed with high-end flooring, tile, trims, and technology.

Homeowners appreciate the cost reductions in that area, as they do the savings they realize from energy-efficient investments.

“Because of the spike in energy costs a few years ago, everyone became much more concerned with energy efficiency,” Bill said. “When people move from 4,000-square-foot homes into smaller, higher-energy-efficiency houses, they’re shocked by the savings in operating costs. We’re doing a lot with spray-foam insulation, energy-efficient windows, air sealing, and super-energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment. Then there are people who want to go even further, into geothermal heating as well as photovoltaic and solar.

“Some of these technologies, there’s not a great payback on, but there are some tax credits available to explore alternative energies,” he added. “And it makes people feel good to reduce their carbon footprint and be energy-conscious.”

Down to Business

Laplante Construction is widely recognized as a custom home builder, but its commercial roster is deep and far-reaching — and has been expanding over the past decade.

“Going back to the ’80s, when my father did a lot of Jiffy Lubes in the area, that type of work has always been there,” Bill said, “but I would say there’s been a resurgence over the past eight to 10 years in commercial. We’ve done a wide range of things, from banks to an eye-care office to a behavioral health clinic to Kringle Candle Country Barn in Bernardston to a school in West Springfield. We have a pretty good diversity of commercial construction.”

That mix of expertise promises to keep Laplante growing as it moves forward with what has been one of its best years in the past decade.

“Maintaining that diversity, and keeping the commercial work going as we do our residential new construction and remodeling, allows us to be flexible and weather turns in one or two sectors,” he told BusinessWest. “With the increase in commercial work, we feel very comfortable and confident moving forward.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

Blueprint for Growth

From left, the principals at Caolo & Bieniek Associates, James Hanifan, Bert Gardner, Curtis Edgin, and John MacMillan.

From left, the principals at Caolo & Bieniek Associates, James Hanifan, Bert Gardner, Curtis Edgin, and John MacMillan.

“More horsepower.”

That’s the phrase summoned by Curtis Edgin when he was asked to identify the primary advantage gained through the union of two architecture firms, Caolo & Bieniek Associates (CBA), which he serves as a principal, and Reinhardt Associates, a long-time competitor.

He would go on at length in his answer and use a number of different words and phrases, but the term ‘horsepower’ probably summed it up best.

He used it to describe everything the union brings to the table: experience, client bases, contacts within both the public and private sectors, and simple know-how — about this business, this market, and much more.

It’s a case of simple addition by … addition, said Edgin, noting that this new, larger firm has a bigger engine, if you will, one capable of fueling additional growth.

And by engine, he meant people in particular.

“In a service business, and especially architecture, it’s about the people; it’s not about tables and chairs and computers,” he explained. “Your main resource is the intelligence you bring to the table; architecture is about designs, but it’s really about relationships.”

John MacMillan, formerly president at Reinhardt Associates and now a partner with Caolo & Bieniek, agreed. With a larger team, he noted, the firm brings more experience to the forefront, especially in several specialty areas shared by CBA and Reinhardt, including schools, public-safety complexes, senior centers, and others.

“The competition is getting tougher, and you have to be able to show people more of what you can do,” he explained, touching on a theme he would return to often as he spoke with BusinessWest. “This union certainly strengthens the résumé; we can show 30 or 40 examples of past projects.”

Both MacMillan and Edgin agreed that, because of these shared specialities, talents, and especially relationships forged through decades of work with common institutions, cities, and towns, the union of the companies made sense on a number of levels.

“John and Reinhardt have a good, established client base, and CBA has a good, established client base,” Edgin explained. “And we thought that joining together those assets would be beneficial as we continue to serve those past clients and also pursue future clients.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the union of the two firms and what this additional horsepower means in terms of growth potential.

Progress — by Design

The walls of an architecture firm’s lobby — and this case, the conference room as well — usually tell a story.

It’s told through photographs and renderings of projects that have made it from the drawing board to reality — and the firm’s portfolio as well.

The walls within Caolo & Bieniek’s offices in Chicopee relate such a story, with images of schools, public-safety complexes, senior centers, bank branches, municipal offices, libraries, and more.

Actually, the walls and the images tell two stories — well, sort of. Caolo & Bieniek’s deep portfolio and wide diversity of projects mirror the body of work assembled by Reinhardt Associates.

The new Easthampton High School

The new Easthampton High School is one of many education-sector projects in the Caolo & Bieniek portfolio.

Indeed, both firms focused on both private and public-sector work, and especially the latter. In fact, they competed against each other for probably hundreds of individual projects for the better part of 60 years. (Caolo & Bieniek was founded in 1955, and the Reinhardt firm in 1957.)

These common specialties were among the most common-sense reasons for the firms coming together in what the principals prefer to call a “strategic alliance.”

Talks began sometime last fall, and they culminated in an agreement earlier this year that saw MacMillan and another architect join the Caolo & Bieniek firm.

As noted, the union gives the firm more horsepower at a time when it is certainly needed. Indeed, while the economy is relatively strong and work somewhat plentiful — in both the public and private sectors — competition for that work is as keen as ever.

And it’s coming from all points on the compass, especially the east, said MacMillan, where a number of Boston-area firms are becoming more aggressive in their pursuit of work in the 413 area code.

“We’re getting more competition from the east, including some of the larger firms, which have set up satellite offices in this area,” he explained. “And everyone is looking for specialists these days, so it’s harder to be a general practitioner.”

Overall, the firm intends to use its additional horsepower and existing strengths and contacts to generate more growth, said Edgin.

One of these strengths is simple diversity, a trait that helps keep operations afloat when one segment of the industry falls off, as school construction did years ago when the state cut back on funding. But it also helps when times are better and there are a number of projects to bid on.

And the company’s portfolio — not to mention those walls in the lobby and conference room — reveal that it has undertaken everything from restoration work on the clock tower of the Old Chapel at UMass Amherst to the new transit center in downtown Westfield; from a host of police and fire stations to school projects across the region and well outside it.

Roughly 75% of the joined firms’ portfolios fall in the public-sector realm, said Edgin, adding that schools are a big component of this work, and projects run the gamut from preschool to colleges and universities.

umasspolicefacility

Among the many projects in the Caolo & Bieniek portfolio are the new UMass Police facility, top, and the new Arrha Credit Union branch in West Springfield.

Among the many projects in the Caolo & Bieniek portfolio are the new UMass Police facility, top, and the new Arrha Credit Union branch in West Springfield.

The firms have collectively done a considerable amount of work for UMass Amherst, for example — the new police headquarters there is another example — and Westfield State University, where projects include a residence hall, classroom spaces, and the Eli Campus Center.

Public-safety complexes have become another strong niche, said MacMillan, noting that experience with such structures certainly helps in the highly competitive bidding process, and it has helped the firm amass nearly a dozen such projects over the years.

And he believes the combined experience of the firms helped CBA as it won the contract to build a new public-safety complex for the town of Westhampton.

Other specialties include libraries and senior centers, he went on, adding, again, that the firms have been very similar in the composition of their portfolios, although Reinhardt would often venture out of the 413 area code — it did a lot of work on both the North and South Shores of the Bay State — while CBA stayed closer to home.

The union of the companies also allows CBA to be more responsive because it can bring more resources to bear, said Edgin, adding that this is another important trait within a market that has become, in a word, more demanding.

“People want things faster, they wants things to be less expensive — they want it all,” he said. “By joining together, we can be responsive to clients.”

Building Momentum

Architects use numbers and images in their work, but, as Edgin noted, this is a relationship-driven business, where people make all the difference.

But ‘horsepower’ is a term that works, well, because it has a number of definitions, in this case the ability to offer valuable resources and experiences in efforts to serve the client.

And through this union of two former competitors, a larger firm can bring considerably more horsepower to bear.

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

Construction Sections

Driving Forces

An overhead view of work on the inner lanes of I-91’s Springfield viaduct.

An overhead view of work on the inner lanes of I-91’s Springfield viaduct.

In May 2015, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation signed a $148 million contract with the Joint Venture of JF White-Schiavone to overhaul the 1-91 viaduct in Springfield. The project is immense in scope, and although it has inconvenienced drivers, especially during peak hours, it is ahead of schedule and brings concrete benefits for the local economy and area businesses that manufacture or provide products needed for the repair and reconstruction of the 45-year-old section of highway.

Richard Masse says that, when the state Department of Transportation (or MassDOT, as it’s called) developed plans for reconstructing the 1-91 viaduct that runs through Springfield, it was well aware of the impact and inconvenience the project would have on drivers traveling north and south.

Indeed, state officials felt that completing the $148 million project on time or ahead of schedule was so critical that they built an attractive bonus into the contract to keep work moving along as quickly as possible.

“We established an incentive of $50,000 a day for up to 180 days to finish earlier than the contract specified,” said Masse, district project development engineer for MassDOT Highway Division District 2.

This equates to a potential bonus of $9 million for the Joint Venture of JF White-Schiavone if specific conditions are met. And those conditions are clearly outlined: the entire project does not have to be complete, but the ‘full beneficial use’ milestone has to be met, which means work on all lanes and ramps must be finished, and they must be open and functioning, before Aug. 6, 2018. This constitutes the majority of the work.

Such incentives are rare, and this is the largest ever offered by District 2, but it is tempered by a disincentive: There will be a penalty of $50,000 for every day the contractor is late in meeting the milestone.

But that’s not likely to happen. In fact, JF White-Schiavone, benefiting from mostly benign weather (the recent storm was a definite exception), is three months ahead of schedule, and workers continue to labor around the clock to get the project done.

The roadway under reconstruction is only eight-tenths of a mile in length, but the work involves far more than simply removing the old decking on the six traffic lanes and repaving them. There are 96 separate spans of bridge between the south abutment on State Street and the north abutment near the I-291 exit, and each span is supported by a pier that needs to be repaired.

Officials say the viaduct project is proceeding ahead of schedule

Officials say the viaduct project is proceeding ahead of schedule, thanks to relatively mild winters and some attractive incentives.

In fact, the $148 million contract holds enormous weight — literally and figuratively — and area businesses are benefiting due to the materials that are needed and will be used by the time the project is complete.

Specifically, crews will replace 44,000 tons of concrete with the new bridge deck and barriers, use 7.2 million pounds (3,600 tons) of steel reinforcement, install 134 drainage inlets on the bridge, erect 2.5 miles of snow fence on the barriers, and paint 28 acres, or 1.2 million square feet, of steel.

Concrete is being purchased from Construction Service in Wilbraham, asphalt paving comes from Lane Construction Corp. in Springfield, the 600-plus feet of noise-control curtains mounted in front of downtown hotels were purchased from Sound Seal in Agawam, and gravel and stone is being provided by Ginmar Enterprises in Ludlow.

In addition, Commonwealth Guardrail in Westfield is furnishing that product, all catch basins and manhole castings will be purchased from E.J. Prescott Inc. in West Springfield, and CJ’s Towing Unlimited Inc. in Springfield is part of the safety plan to remove vehicles involved in crashes as quickly as possible, which is important because traffic is already squeezed between the barriers on the viaduct.

The project has also had a positive effect on employment. The Federal Highway Administration has done studies on the impact of major undertakings and reports that every $1 billion in spending supports 13,000 jobs for a year. “Since this project will cost $148 million, that translates to more than 1,900 job years of employment that are either created or supported,” Masse said.

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the I-91 project — what’s been completed, what’s still to come, and what the long-term benefits will be for Springfield and the region.

Route Geometry

Although some people think the $950 million MGM Springfield resort casino has affected work that is being done on the viaduct or the way the on and off ramps will be configured in the future, it’s not true and simply a coincidence that construction on both projects is taking place simultaneously.

“We identified the need for the viaduct project late in 2011 before expanded gaming was even signed into law, and the project was approved and initiated prior to any casino proposals,” said Masse.

The viaduct was constructed and opened in 1971, and no improvements were made to it other than a few limited repairs that took place between 1999 and the early 2000s. As a result, the decking deteriorated as millions of vehicles passed over it and chemicals, salt, and sand were used to combat ice and snow during frigid winter months.

“It had reached the point where emergency repairs of potholes were becoming routine. We had to go out on the road in the middle of commuter traffic without warning, and it became clear that it was time for a long-term fix,” Masse said.

MassDOT did its best to identify challenges that might occur as it developed a plan for the project. The agency determined it was critical to keep the public informed about what was happening on a daily basis, so the contract contained language that mandated hiring a public-relations firm for that purpose.

Regina Villa Associates in Boston was chosen, and the company issues frequent notices and updates about the work in progress to all local media outlines. There is also a project webpage (www.massdot.state.ma.us/i91viaductrehab/home.aspx) where people can sign up to get e-mail alerts about daily or weekly changes.

In addition, work on the project is discussed at biweekly meetings that include officials from MassDOT, the Springfield Department of Public Works, the Springfield Parking Authority (two of its main facilities are under the viaduct), and MGM Springfield.

Masse noted that the casino has initiated its own street closings and plans to install a detection system at the end of the exit 6 ramp to facilitate traffic flow and help prevent accidents; if traffic starts to back up toward the highway, the stoplight will change to allow vehicles to move off the ramp. Other work is also being done on streets around the casino, but that has no bearing on the 1-91 viaduct project.

However, MGM’s presence at the meetings is important. “It gives us an opportunity to coordinate work and exchange schedule updates,” Masse said. “Their cooperation has been an important part of the project and helped to limit disruption.”

Although some media outlets have reported that a number of drivers have avoided the viaduct and will continue to do so until the project is complete, Masse said everything possible is being done to reduce the impact on local businesses.

“We understand that our projects are generally an inconvenience, and we certainly appreciate that there can be some negative impact on local businesses. But we haven’t had any feedback of that nature,” he told BusinessWest, adding that business owners as well as the general public are invited to send comments, suggestions, or inquiries to MassDOT via the project website, and feedback has already resulted in things such as adjustments to signage.

the reconstructed viaduct will help make Springfield an attractive destination

Richard Masse says that, when it’s completed, the reconstructed viaduct will help make Springfield an attractive destination.

Another change that went live Feb. 1 was made in response to input from drivers who expressed concern about safety where lanes on I-91 South are reduced from two down to one.

The feedback led MassDOT to implement a pilot program for a ‘dynamic lane merge system,’ which is designed to make merging safer and alleviate congestion.

It’s the first time this system has been used in the Commonwealth, and it will help to ensure that vehicles familiar with the lane closure don’t bypass others and cause them to wait for a longer period of time than those who use the roadway on a frequent basis. The system works by using computer sensors to monitor traffic and letting drivers know what the best merge strategy is via electronic signage.

Paving the Way

The viaduct project has many goals, including replacement of the reinforced concrete bridge deck, painting of all structural steel, replacing the bridge bearings, improving bridge drainage and highway lighting on and under the structure, miscellaneous structural steel repairs, improving traffic signage on the structure, and other safety improvements in the immediate vicinity, such as installing new sprinkler systems and LED lighting on the upper levels of the 1-91 North and South parking garages, which are run by the Springfield Parking Authority in space leased from the state.

Masse said the project was divided into two main phases so half the decks could be replaced at a time. Last year, work was concentrated on the inside decks, and traffic was moved to the outside, and now that phase I is complete, the process has been reversed, and construction is taking place in the low-speed travel lane and shoulder portions of the viaduct, and on the I-91 northbound on-ramp to I-291 East.

The same ramps that were closed during phase I will remain closed, and the only change is that the exit 9 off-ramp from I-91 North to Route 20 West/Route 20A East will be closed until phase II is complete.

About 100 people show up to work at the site every day, and in addition to day and evening shifts, construction efforts often continue throughout the night. The noisy work of demolishing the existing decks is done during the day, and debris is carried away after dark.

“The crews use very large jackhammers mounted to excavating equipment to break up the deck,” Masse said, noting that saws are also used to cut portions of the material.

Workers recently began painting the steel girders, which is no small task — again, there are 1.2 million square feet of steel to repaint. But when the job is complete, it will help enhance the perception of that section of the highway.

“The beige paint that had reached the end of its useful life is being covered with a blue-green hue that will be much more attractive visually,” Masse said.

In addition to aesthetics, safety will be improved. “When we finish the deck replacement, the shoulder on the median side in the high-speed lane will be wider,” he continued, explaining that, in the past, there were two feet between the guardrail and the edge of the road, but a narrower concrete barrier will allow the inside shoulder to expand to four feet in width.

Other safety improvements include the construction of a barrier to stop I-291 traffic from shooting across several lanes on I-91 South to exit 7 at the Memorial Bridge.

When the project was in the development stage, Masse noted, input about this dangerous maneuver led MassDOT to make plans to install the new jersey barrier.

The number of drainage inlets will also be increased, which will reduce the amount of water that collects along the shoulder of the roadway.

Passing Thoughts

After the roadways are fully open, the remaining work will commence, and by the time the project is finished, the structural steel will be painted, municipal street lights will be installed, all final paving and traffic markings on local streets will be finished, temporary traffic signals will be replaced with permanent ones, and the temporary off-ramp from I-91 South to Birnie Avenue will be removed.

There is no doubt that the project is an inconvenience to drivers who have to schedule additional time to get to their destinations. But the benefits will be concrete: sales of products used in construction will help local companies to flourish, and drivers will have a safer and more appealing roadway to travel on between downtown Springfield and the Connecticut River.

“When everything is newly paved and painted and a modern lighting system is installed, the viaduct should help to make Springfield a more attractive destination,” Masse said. “When people see a highway that is well-cared-for, it will provide a welcoming gateway not only to Springfield, but to Western Mass.”

Construction Sections

Building on the Past

Chris Jacobs

Chris Jacobs took the reins at Barron & Jacobs last year after more than 31 years with the company.

Chris Jacobs has construction in his blood.

“I’ve been with the company since it opened in 1986,” said Jacobs, who succeeded his father, Cecil Jacobs, last year as president of Barron & Jacobs Associates Inc. “I was 15 then, working summers, and I kept working summers through college.”

After graduation, he came on board full-time and worked his way up the chain, serving long stints as general manager of construction, then general manager of the whole company, before taking the reins from his father.

Growing up, he doesn’t recall a time when he didn’t want to work in the family business. “What young kid doesn’t like construction?”

But he also has an appreciation of history and tradition, and Barron & Jacobs is steeped in both, starting with its offices in an 1895 Victorian home in downtown Northampton, purchased from the city’s historical society and restored to its original look.

Behind that home sits a carriage house that once sheltered the first car-repair garage in Northampton — a garage visited frequently by Amelia Earhart early in her flight career, to learn about reciprocating engines.

That sort of history reflects the value that Cecil Jacobs, who’s known as “Jake,” places on the historical and architectural integrity of a building — a quality that has informed his company’s work and helped him forge a pioneering name in design-build construction — a tradition Chris Jacobs is excited to continue.

“We invented design-build back in the ’80s; previous to that, it was all general contractors,” he told BusinessWest. “Then everyone became design-build companies, even if they didn’t have designers and drafting people on their staff.”


Chart of General Contractors


His father established a philosophy at the company that whatever enhances a home should not take away from it — to have alterations and additions look like they’ve been there from day one, and to duplicate existing architecture and at the same time bring in modern conveniences.

“We’re doing a lot of the same: kitchens, additions, bathrooms, whole-house renovations,” the new president said. “The recession put a little slowdown on the bigger residential projects, but they are definitely coming back.”

Reconstructing History

Cecil Jacobs began laying the foundation for his future company in 1963 when he completed his tour of duty in Vietnam with the 6143rd Engineering Group, and went to work as a  designer for the Architectural Building Products Division of Reynolds Metals Co. (also known as Reynolds Aluminum). In the mid-’70s, he was appointed vice president of the division, overseeing the development, sales, and marketing of energy-conserving building products.

He loved working there. But his future started to shift when, in the early 1980s, David Reynolds, the company’s president, asked a question: is there another market for us other than remodeling and building new homes? In other words, is there something remodelers weren’t doing because it was too big, and that homebuilders didn’t want to do because it involved existing structures?

whole-house remodel in Longmeadow

This whole-house remodel in Longmeadow is an example of the way Barron & Jacobs updates homes while retaining their original character.

That was the birth of design-build. Jacobs was tasked with investigating the feasibility of a third major market that would encompass whole-home renovations and other major projects beyond the scope of smaller-scale remodeling. Over a two-year period, he conducted that study for Reynolds, establishing test locations in Springfield, Boston, and California, and became convinced there was a significant market.

However, Reynolds retired soon after, and the new president had virtually no interest in the project. Then, In 1986, the head of Jacobs’ division, Jim Barron, retired, and Jacobs, at age 45, felt that was a good time for him to leave as well. So after the company agreed that he could pursue and develop his design-build research on his own, Jake launched his own firm with his wife, Kathleen, putting Barron’s name on the door symbolically, to honor his mentor.

The company has benefited from the fact that Western Mass. isn’t a hotbed of new building, but there are plenty of older homes in need of renovation, meaning existing structures take on a higher value than they would in a more booming region for new construction.

As for individual projects, Chris Jacobs said, “it’s really up to the individual whether they want a European style or a traditional style. As full-service design-builders, we go shopping with them.”

That’s when many decisions are made, he went on. “The shopping is a crucial piece. Many homeowners don’t know a good cabinet from a bad cabinet, so the shopping is a crucial key to making sure the project goes correctly. We make sure they’re getting good appliances; the industry is plagued with bad appliances. We have people that we trust, that we’ve been shopping with for years.”

It takes not only skill to tackle whole-home remodels, he said, but also the personal touch and flexibility to interact with the homeowner, who may change their minds several times during a project. But, generally, detailed planning and productive shopping create a strong foundation for a successful remodel.

Steady Growth

In addition to home remodeling and whole-house renovations, Barron & Jacobs’ portfolio includes additions, add-a-levels, kitchen and bathroom remodels, screened porches and porch enclosures, three-season rooms, sunrooms and conservatories, garages and carriage houses, attic and basement conversions, as well as business renovations and expansions.

In the commercial realm, the firm recently did a rec-room project for Coca-Cola in Northampton, and is currently working on a financial building in West Springfield. While commercial building rebounded from the Great Recession quicker than residential construction, and most of Barron & Jacobs’ work is residential, the company managed to ride out those years successfully, thriving on its reputation. “It’s a tradition of building satisfaction,” Chris Jacobs said. “We’ve been doing it for over 30 years.”

In fact, the recession didn’t really hit the company until three or four years after it began in 2007,” he added. “We had a little bump in the road — as it turned out, bigger than a bump — but we could see it coming back last year, and this year is already looking good.”

As for new building, it’s not something the company pursues, although it recently built a house in New Hampshire for a past customer. “It’s usually a past customer who requests it. We don’t have our own building lots.”

Meanwhile, the firm has strived to develop a reputation as an environmentally friendly builder, both in its emphasis on energy-efficient insulation, windows, and other materials, and through an extensive focus on recycling building materials.

Through all of this, the company, which boasts 15 employees, continues to grow, with Jacobs and co-designer Adam Skiba — who comes from an architectural background and has been on board for a year and a half — looking to add another designer this year.

And, of course, the new president is already eyeing the third generation of leadership at the company, although that transition is far off — specifically, his 5-year-old adopted son.

“He’s already banged his first nail, and he’s good at it,” Jacobs said. “No pressure, though.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

Building Expectations

constructiondpartThe construction sector has always been a good barometer when it comes to the economy and what may happen with it in the foreseeable future. And this historical trend is one of many reasons why cautious optimism abounds in the region. Indeed, many firms report that they have a number of projects on the books for the year ahead and beyond, and that these projects involve a number of economic sectors.

 

Gagliarducci Construction in Springfield has been in business since 1916, and the fourth-generation, family-owned company has had to switch its focus many times over the years to keep pace with change. It specializes in excavation, earth moving, site work, and mobile crushing of stone, concrete, and asphalt, and the majority of its current projects are centered in educational and healthcare settings.

And it is extremely busy, reflective of a trend involving many players within the broad construction sector — one that is generating a good deal of optimism within the industry, and probably outside as well, because the sector has historically been a good barometer regarding the economy and what will happen with it.

“We have jobs on the books that extend well into 2018,” said Jerome Gagliarducci as he and his son Jay talked about their business history and projections for the future. “Most of the jobs are in the private sector and involve hospitals and schools. Between 2000 and 2006, we did a lot of work for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, but education and healthcare are a big part of the Western Mass. economy, and this is where the money is being spent now. There are a lot of colleges in the Pioneer Valley, and we’re glad to be involved in their ongoing projects.”

Still, having jobs booked this far in advance of a new year is not something they take for granted. “There have been times when all of our projects were completed by the end of the fall or winter and we had nothing scheduled for the upcoming year,” said Jay Gagliarducci. “We have been lucky: it’s unusual to have so many new jobs lined up this early that will continue into the future.”

Eric Forish, president of Forish Construction Inc. in Westfield, said his firm has also fared well.

“We’re celebrating our 70th year in business, and the last few years have been good ones; I credit that to our staff and expect that work in the commercial construction industry will continue to move in a positive direction,” he told BusinessWest, noting that the company typically has six or seven major projects taking place simultaneously.

Holyoke-based Daniel O’Connell’s Sons Inc. also reports that 2016 has been a good year. The company also has offices in Franklin, New Haven, Conn., and Kingston, N.Y., and President Jeff Bardell is often on the road. He told BusinessWest that entirely different dynamics exist in Eastern and Western Mass.

“Things are booming in the Boston area inside of Route 128. It’s obvious to drivers because there are so many cranes up,” Bardell said. Construction is also taking place in Western Mass., but not at the same level, and work in the public sector has declined.

“Work has been pretty steady here for the past few years, but the amount of roadwork, wastewater-treatment work, and public infrastructure spending has decreased over the past 12 months,” Bardell went on, noting that work in that sector was much more prevalent four or five years ago.

However, institutional jobs have filled the gap. “Colleges are still spending money, and we have done some nice projects,” he said.

Bardell believes some people are waiting for the work on Interstate 91 and the MGM casino in Springfield to be complete before launching new projects.

“A lot of people are looking at Springfield and hoping redevelopment will occur when the casino is finished,” he said, adding that one of O’Connell’s largest jobs in Springfield is the $60 million Union Station intermodal transportation center.

Eric Forish

Eric Forish says the $4 million, LEED-certified Westfield Transit Pavilion at Elm and Arnold streets is one of many projects his firm is working on at present.

It includes a 120,000-square-foot historical renovation to the old station in the downtown Railroad Historic District. The project has been complex and includes construction of a new, 24-bay bus terminal; a 480-car parking facility; and upgrades to the landscaping and hardscapes around the area.

Before the work began, Union Station consisted of two vacant buildings: a three-story terminal and a two-story baggage building that were both constructed in 1926.

“We’ve been working vigorously to wrap up the project and are very close to being done,” Bardell said, adding that he expects that to happen in the first quarter of 2017.

For this edition and its focus on construction, BusinessWest looks at a host of projects keeping commercial builders busy, as well as what they have lined up for the future.

Going Up

Bardell said O’Connell recently completed new residence halls at Amherst College. Four new dorms were erected as part of a greenway campus project, which will include demolishing the old dorms and building a 250,000-square-foot science center and expansive greenway along the full length of the landscape that can be used for recreation and relaxation.

Jerome and Jay Gagliarducci

Jerome and Jay Gagliarducci say they have work booked into 2018 and expect to be very busy in the coming year.

Another project at UMass Amherst will be completed in January, but right now work is still underway on its historic South College building. It includes a renovation of 30,000 square feet in the structure, built in 1886, and a four-story, 67,500-square-foot addition that will provide new common areas, faculty offices, classrooms, and an auditorium.

“The new building will be LEED-certified,” Bardell said. “It will be used next semester, and furniture is being moved into it now.”

The company has other ongoing projects in the educational sector. It just finished a $110 million job at Vassar College centered around an 80,000-square-foot Bridge Building that spans two sections of campus terrain and connects to the school’s Olmsted Hall via a two-level skywalk.

In addition, a $2 million renovation and addition to Philips Exeter Academy Center’s theater in Exeter, N.H. is underway. The job started two months ago and will expand the space to 63,000 square feet.

Four months ago, O’Connell began working on the $9 million Dartmouth College Hood Museum expansion and renovation project, which involves a restoration and addition to the existing gallery space. When it is finished by the end of next year, there will be five new galleries and advanced technology classrooms.

The company also has a few smaller jobs, including a renovation project at the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Another project in that state is at the Trinity-Pawling School, where O’Connell began working on a 27,000-square-foot addition to the Smith Field House about a month ago that will be complete sometime next year. “It will be used for basketball, lacrosse, and other sports,” Bardell said.

In addition to jobs in the educational sector, O’Connell has projects in other realms. Six months ago, it began a $29 million dollar upgrade to an existing wastewater-treatment plant that serves Mansfield, Foxborough, and Norton in the eastern part of the state.

Work on the MFN Regional Treatment Plant entails installing new aeration facilities, chemical facilities, and electrical upgrades as well as concrete work, and is expected to take another two years.

O’Connell is also doing a $17 million project in Providence, R.I. on the Providence River Pedestrian Bridge that connects two sides of the city and includes sections of a riverfront park.

“We’re optimistic as we look ahead at the coming year,” said Bardell. “We have some backlog, which we like, and are always looking for new work.”

Varied Portfolios

The majority of Gagliarducci’s projects take two to three years to complete.

“We’re usually the first on a site and the last to leave it. But it is a challenge to predict a year ahead of time exactly when we will be needed,” Jay said, explaining that schedules change from one month to the next, and although the end date is usually firm, weather and production by other trades affect the timetable.

Right now, all of the company’s work is institutional, and there has been plenty of it.

It just finished an addition at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield and started one at Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer that will open in 2018.

“We dig the foundations and put in sewer, water, and drainage systems, which is work that people don’t see,” Jerome explained, adding that such work takes place at the start of a project, while work at the end of a project involves paving, curbing, sidewalks, and more.

Galiarducci has also broken ground at the site of the new Pope Francis High School in Springfield, which is slated to open in the fall of 2018. This school is being built on 40 acres of open space, which is unusual in this area; most of the company’s projects involve working in or around existing structures.


List of General Contractors in Western Mass.


The company was just hired to undertake work in a massive renovation of what’s known as Building 19 at Springfield Technical Community College, and that job will carry over into 2018.

Gagliarducci worked with O’Connell on the Amherst College greenway residence project, and will complete phase 1 of another large project at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst this month, which involves relocating water, sewer, and drainage lines in the footprint and moving them to allow for new construction.

Although the work may not sound complex, renovations and additions in tight spots can be quite challenging. “UMass presented real challenges because we had to work around the student traffic,” Jay told BusinessWest.

Deerfield Academy has also hired the firm to do site work for a new hockey arena. The project began in March and will be completed in 2018.

“It involves a lot of digging inside the foundation to support the renovation,” Jerome said, explaining that the firm will put in new sewer lines, curbing, and a parking lot.

Later this winter, it will begin a drainage project at Springfield Armory Museum.

This is a federal project, as the museum is owned by the government, and will include new sewer lines and curbing, sidewalks, and pavement. The work should be finished by the end of next year. “We’re also starting phase 2 of an over-55 community in Hadley,” he noted.

The first phase consisted of building seven or eight units, most of which have been spoken for, and the second phase will commence next spring when Gagliarducci will do site work to allow additional housing units to be built.

The company is also involved with the new South End Community Center in Springfield. Jay noted that Fontaine Brothers is building the new center on Marble Street and his firm is doing the sitework, which began in September.

Westfield’s Gaslight District Improvement Project is also on Gagliarducci’s roster. “It was our job to put in the water, sewer and drainage lines, as well as the sidewalks, curbs, and two parking lots, in addition to reconstructing several streets,” Jerome said, explaining that the project began two and a half years ago and involves major reconstruction in the area.

Future Endeavors

Forish Construction has a mix of ongoing projects that include the new $4 million Westfield Transit Pavilion at Elm and Arnold streets. The glass and steel building will have five bus berths, a shelter for passengers, a coffee shop, and administrative offices, and will be surrounded by brick walkways. Parking will be available in an adjacent facility, and there will be repair stations and racks for bicycles.

“It is the first major piece of the city’s long-term downtown redevelopment plan that will be completed,” Forish said, noting that the pavilion will be LEED-certified.

Several buildings were knocked down to make way for the new pavilion, which will make it more convenient for Westfield State students to travel to and from the university via a shuttle that runs between them.

The company has also several projects underway or that have been recently completed at UMass Amherst, including a roughly $4 million renovation to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. “It is our third major project in this library, which they are redoing floor by floor,” Forish said.

Auto dealerships rank high on the company’s list of projects, and include work for Sarat Ford, Curry Nissan, and Sarat-Lincoln.

“We’re just wrapping up a renovation and addition to Lia Chrysler on King Street in Northampton,” Forish said, noting it is adjacent to Lia’s Honda store.

No one can predict the future, but work has been steady for Forish and other commercial contractors.

“We have a number of projects already under contract for 2017,” Forish said, noting that they include auto dealerships as well as private industrial buildings and the company is always active in the public sector and plans to bid on some local projects.

He told BusinessWest his optimism stems in part from the fact that Donald Trump is the new president-elect.

“It appears he is business-friendly and wants to see growth in U.S. and an increase in jobs here as opposed to abroad. We are already seeing a rise in the stock market, and people are optimistic about the direction the country is headed in, so we are hopeful that good things will come to fruition,” Forish said.

In the meantime, commercial contractors will continue to work hard to complete current projects, bid on new jobs, and rely on the stellar reputations that have kept them busy for generations as they plan for the New Year and beyond.

Construction Sections

Centuries in the Making

Rendering of the library in the renovated Building 19.

Rendering of the library in the renovated Building 19. (Ann Beha Architects)

As Springfield Technical Community College commences a year-long 50th-anniversary celebration, a landmark historic restoration project is taking shape — with the accent on ‘landmark.’ So-called Building 19, a 700-foot-long warehouse that predates the Civil War, is being converted into a campus center, a project that will enable the past and present to co-exist in a powerful fashion.

Tom Duszlak says he’s heard all the rumors.

Actually, they’re more like legends. And some of them are fact.

Like the story related to him about the construction crews that, while working to set oil tanks at what is known as Building 32 on the campus of the Springfield Armory more than a half-century ago, unearthed bones belonging to soldiers from the War of 1812.

“They were digging out the floors to put in these storage tanks when they came across some skeletons,” said Alex Mac-Kenzie, curator at the Armory, noting that, in the early 19th century, Building 32 was a barracks. An influenza outbreak swept the region, killing several soldiers, and they were buried right on site.

There are many other stories concerning people finding bones, uniform fragments, tools, and other items on the grounds during various building projects, and the validity of some tales is a matter of conjecture. But Duszlak says there is absolutely no debating the underlying (pun intended) sentiment regarding this historic site, chosen more than two centuries ago by George Washington: that one never really knows what might be found in the ground there.

Tom Duszlak

Tom Duszlak says the Building 19 projects comes with a healthy list of challenges, including uncertainty about what crews may unearth at this historic site.

And that’s just one of the many challenges confronting Hartford, Conn.-based Consigli Construction, which Duszlak serves as project superintendent, as it takes the lead role in an ambitious, $50 million project to convert the cavernous structure known as Building 19 (right next door to Building 32) into a new campus center for Springfield Technical Community College.

Actually, crews have already unearthed some “artifacts” (Duszlak’s word) while undertaking some extensive infrastructure work at the site.

“We found some cow bones and a few pieces of metal that might be part of an old piece of manufacturing equipment,” he said, adding that the ‘we,’ in this case, is mostly a reference to the full-time archeologist — hired by the National Park Service, which manages the Armory site — who is on hand whenever crews dig deeper than four inches.

And there’s been a lot of digging to date, with most of it still to come — this building is 700 feet long, said Duszlak, adding quickly that, while a small part of him wants to unearth something intriguing — “I’d love to find an old cannonball or something like that” — the project superintendent in him is more pragmatic and fully understands that finding ordnance, let alone old soldiers’ bones, would mean potentially lengthy delays in an already-demanding project.

As mentioned, the fact that the Armory grounds could be described collectively as an archeological site is just one of the challenges facing Consigli, Ann Beha Architects, the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), and STCC administrators as they proceed with this project. Others include the reality that this mammoth initiative must play itself out on a crowded college campus populated by 8,000 students and another 1,000 faculty and staff; that the site’s infrastructure, complete with some brick water lines, is quite old and mostly in need of replacement; that the work is taking place, in part, on a road system designed for horses and buggies; and that, with every bit of digging or restoration work, unforeseen problems may arise.

But the challenges ever-present in this project to convert what amounts to a 19th-century warehouse for walnut gun stocks into a thoroughly wired, 21st-century community-college nerve center, are also what make it so intriguing, and so rewarding.

“There’s history all around you here,” Duszlak noted. “Working in an environment like this — a functioning college campus — is logistically difficult, and this is demanding work. But it’s fun to blend the past with the present.”

Architect George Faber

Architect George Faber stands in the center of historic Building 19 as a multi-faceted restoration effort takes place around him

George Faber, project designer with Boston-based Ann Beha working on the Building 19 project, agreed.

“One of the main design goals here is respecting the building as it is, and as it was, while making it modern for contemporary use,” he said. “We’re obviously not trying to replicate the old; we’re trying to complement it in a way that might even teach someone about the history of this campus.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest talked with Duszlak, Faber, and others involved with this project — which is historic in every sense of that word — to get a sense for all that’s involved with an endeavor that has been centuries in the making — quite literally.

History Lessons

As he and others gave BusinessWest a quick tour of the Building 19 construction site, Faber stopped to point out a few of the original wooden shutters, or louvers, that graced the dozens of arches and curved windows that give the structure its unique identity.

Crews will replicate those features, and be meticulous in their efforts to match the material, look, and original color — something that was difficult to determine, Faber explained, adding that some of the originals that are in good shape will be restored and put back in place.

Thus, there will be an effective blend, or co-existence, if you will, of old and new, which, in a nutshell, is what this project is all about.

In construction circles, this kind work is considered a specialty, both for the architects and the contractors. And both Consigli and Ann Beha Architects have deep portfolios of similar projects.

Consigli, for example, has handled a number of projects in the category it calls ‘landmark restoration,’ including one unfolding just a mile or so, as the crow flies, from the STCC campus. This would be work on the headquarters building of the former Westinghouse complex on Springfield’s east side, now the home of the massive assembly plant being built by Chinese rail car maker CRRC MA.

Other projects in the portfolio include an elaborate restoration of New York’s historic Capitol Building, which dates back to 1867; restoration of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 19th-century Renwick Gallery; renovation of three historic buildings on the Trinity College campus in Hartford; and work to restore the exterior envelope of Maine Medical Center in Portland, opened in 1874.

Ann Beha Architects, meanwhile, has undertaken many historic preservation and restoration initiatives on college campuses, including MIT, the University of Chicago, Yale, Bates, and others.

“Ann Beha started her career doing historic-preservation work, so it’s always been a big focus for us,” said Faber, referring to the company’s founder. “We’ve done work in museums, colleges, and other institutions.”

This is the first project for both firms on the STCC campus, which means crews have undoubtedly absorbed a number of history lessons — and heard a number of stories, like the one about soldiers’ skeletons being unearthed — while taking on this ambitious undertaking.

They know, for example, that the buildings they’re using to stage and manage this project (as opposed to the traditional trailers that dot most construction sites) were once officers’ quarters dating back to the Civil War.

By then, of course, the Armory had accumulated almost a century of history, having opened its doors in 1777. Chosen by Washington in part because the site would be safe from naval bombardment — Springfield is located just north of a waterfall in Enfield that cannot be navigated by ocean-going vessels — the Armory did, nonetheless, come under attack. Sort of.

This was Shays’ Rebellion in 1787, a quickly crushed insurrection — one that nonetheless helped inspire the Federal Constitutional Convention — led by Pelham farmer Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War solider who had gathered a number of rebels who, like him, were upset with their financial plight and thus the state’s government, and decided that seizing the arsenal in Springfield would certainly get someone’s attention.

Since arriving on site several months ago, crews might also have been learned about John Garand, the legendary Canadian-born firearms designer employed by the Armory who created the famous M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle, which Gen. George Patton would call “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

building-19

Building 19,

Above, Building 19, as seen in the early 1930s; below, a rendering of what will be called the Learning Commons. (Ann Beha Architects)

At its height, during World War II, the Armory would employ more than 14,000 people making M1s and a host of other weapons, but two decades after that conflict ended, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara — earning himself an ignominious place in Springfield history — determined that private defense contractors could manufacture the nation’s weapons. He ordered the decommissioning of the Armory, putting more than 2,000 people out of work, a decision that would damage the local economy but also pave the way for the site’s next life.

Indeed, a group of area leaders, including then- (and also future) Springfield Mayor Charlie Ryan; Edmund Garvey, then-director of the Springfield Technical Institute; state Rep. Anthony Scibelli; and Springfield industrialist Joseph Deliso Sr. pushed for legislation that would create a “two-year college of technology.” (Their efforts, and their legacy, will be celebrated at STCC’s Founders Day festivities on Sept. 9, the first in a year-long series of events to mark the college’s 50th anniversary.)

Blueprint for the Future

The Founders Day speeches will be delivered in the gym in Building 2 on the STCC campus (a.k.a. Scibelli Hall). Those taking them in will need to look only a few dozen yards to the north to see the beehive of activity at ‘19,’ as it’s known colloquially.

Unlike other Armory structures, especially its main administration building, now named after Garvey, 19 has not had any significant role with the college since it was formed, other than as a warehouse for equipment that was no longer needed but couldn’t be discarded.

All that is about to change, though, and in a big way.

Indeed, the renovated structure, due to open in the fall of 2018, will be home to a wide array of offices and facilities now scattered across the campus, including the library, admissions, registration, financial aid, the bookstore, the welcome center, student government, the parking office, health services, student activities, a café, the IT help desk, meeting and conference space, and much more.

This collection of facilities will be called the Learning Commons, and if that sounds like a lot to put under one roof, remember that the roof of 19 covers a building longer than two football fields, complete with the end zones, and there are two full floors and a loft third floor.

As noted, converting a structure that large, built a century and a half before the Internet was conceived, 40 years before the lightbulb, 35 years before the telephone, and 80 years before air conditioning (and thus not designed for any of the above) — all while maintaining its original architectural elements and being on the cutting edge of energy efficiency (LEED Silver designation) — will be a stern challenge.

This will require, as Faber noted earlier, coexistence of the old and the new, because they’re both vital, but for different reasons.

“From a design standpoint, it’s really about respecting the tradition of the building,” he explained, adding that this can and will be done, while also making the facility ‘green’ and state-of-the-art with regard to information technology.

Duszlak said there are a number of stages to the project, many of which will be carried out concurrently.

Late this spring, work began in earnest on infrastructure, what he called the “enabling phase,” including water, sewer, and electrical lines. He added that crews made the very most of the three months when the student population is greatly diminished, with the goal of minimizing disruption when they return this week.

Maureen Socha, director of Facilities for STCC, said the project represented an opportunity for the college and DCAMM to greatly improve an aging, and often failing, infrastructure system, one that has been seized.

“A lot of our infrastructure is original to the Armory — we still have brick pipes and clay pipes everywhere,” she explained. “This was a huge opportunity to upgrade that system.”

renovated ‘19

An architect’s rendering of the forum section of the renovated ‘19.’ (Ann Beha Architects)

While infrastructure work continues on a smaller scale, restoration work on both the exterior and interior of the building have commenced, with the goal of preparing the structure for the extensive build-out work that will follow to create offices, a library, a café, and gathering spaces out of what was a cavernous warehouse.

“The roof gets brought up to current code, the second floor gets brought up to code, a lot of the existing joists get reinforced with structural steel,” Duszlak said. “There’s new elevators to be put in, new mechanical shafts to get cut through the building … a lot of it is just upgrading the skeleton of the building to get it ready for the tradespeople to create the spaces.”

There are many elements to this blend of restoration and renovation work, ranging from cleaning and repointing the hundreds of thousands of bricks to matching (after first determining) the original color of those louvers.

And in a way, the louvers are a microcosm of the project’s many challenges and the huge amount of research and even lab work that goes into such preservation and restoration efforts.

“We had a consultant who took paint chips off the building, took them to a lab, and, through use of a high-powered microscope, was able to pick out the different layers that had been painted over time,” he said. “We found four or five different colors layered on top of one another.” (A darker brown has been declared ‘original.’)

Research has involved poring over hundreds of old photos from not only the Armory but the Library of Congress, he went on, adding, again, the goal is a modern, energy-efficient facility that nonetheless pays respect to the building’s historic look and role.

Soon, work will commence on a 3D coordination of the space, said Duszlak, adding that this will enable crews to make sure all the mechanicals — plumbing, electrical, and HVAC services — are properly coordinated and there are no conflicts.

“There are a number of architectural elements that Ann Beha is concerned about,” he explained. “They want to keep a lot of the timbers exposed to give it some of the old-feel look, but keeping that much square footage exposed, and the ceiling, it limits where you can put duct work and electrical, which adds to the challenges and emphasizes the importance of the 3D coordination.”

Past is Prologue

Looking ahead, Duszlak noted that there is considerable digging (maybe 75% of the total for the project) still to be undertaken at 19 and its larger footprint.

“We have new structural upgrades that we have to dig foundations for,” he explained, “and we have electrical utilities that run the complete 715-foot length of the foundation. There’s new under-slab plumbing and drainage that services new bathrooms … we’ll be doing a lot of digging four to seven feet down.

“So there’s the potential for finding a lot of really cool artifacts,” he went on, adding that, while he doesn’t want to encounter anything that might hinder progress, he wouldn’t mind creating some new stories — or legends.

That’s what can happen when the past, present, and future come together in such dramatic, and historic, fashion.

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

Construction Sections

Raising the Bar

Roy family: Keith, his son Josh, his wife Jamie

From left to right, three generations of the Roy family: Keith, his son Josh, his wife Jamie, and their son Bentley.

The motto for the Keith G. Roy Construction Company is “When You Want It Done RIGHT.”

And those words are far more than a catchy phrase to Roy; they form the basis of a value system that pervades his company and leads to attention to detail that customers never know about because many of the things they do cannot be seen.

But the pride and satisfaction that Roy takes in “doing things the right way” has helped the company thrive during its 60-year history.

The business focuses on residential work that includes a handyman repair service; installing windows; installing and repairing roofing and siding; basement conversions; attic remodeling; home additions, remodels, and renovations; and other major projects.

“We work closely with each homeowner, and are willing to make changes at the drop of a hat,” Roy said, explaining that, after a project has started, people sometimes decide they want something different than they initially agreed upon or planned.

Such changes are not problematic, because one thing that sets the company apart from many of its competitors is that Roy does not use subcontractors, with the exception of licensed plumbers, electricians, and excavators.

His employees are paid by the hour, and since they remain at the job site until the project is done and meets his exacting standards, they don’t rush and never have to wait for a subcontractor to show up. Again, because Roy is focused on “doing it right,” his employees go above and beyond what is required or mandated by the building code.

For example, when they build a deck, which comprises a healthy share of their business, Roy insists on using ceramic-coated nails because he says new decking materials are corrosive to metal and the more-expensive nails prevent them from popping up later on. In addition, he uses copper flashing instead of using aluminum flashing where the deck meets the house because it doesn’t corrode.

“The building code doesn’t require it, but it’s the right thing to do,” Roy said, as he used the phrase that would occur repeatedly throughout the interview.

In addition, stainless-steel nails are used on cedar products instead of galvanized ones, as the latter can lead to black streaks as the wood weathers.

“The stainless-steel nails are four times more expensive, but we do things correctly with quality products while keeping the cost as reasonable as possible. It’s what people expect, but not what they always get, and it not only prevents future complaints, it satisfies the customer’s vision,” Roy told BusinessWest, adding that the company does a lot of repeat business and recently got a call from a customer he worked for 15 years ago who kept his contact information for more than a decade.

“You can’t please everyone, but I can’t sleep at night if I don’t do my best to make people happy,” he said. “I’ve stayed up many nights thinking about problem situations and the right thing to do to resolve them.”

Every employee must meet expectations, and although they must be qualified and experienced to be hired, Roy puts them through more training before they are sent to a job site.

His son, Josh Roy, is vice president of the company, and had to work his way up the ladder before he was put in charge of overseeing jobs. But he shares the same belief system.

“I like the satisfaction I get from making people happy,” Josh said. “We take pride in what we do, and many newly hired people have told me they are impressed by the quality of work we expect from them.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look at the history of this Westfield construction company, why it continues to grow, and how it has weathered several recessions and come out on top.

Changing Times

John L. Roy Construction was born in 1946 when Keith’s father returned home from the Navy after the end of World War II. He set up shop on Main Street in Springfield with his brother and began doing residential and commercial projects.

Keith’s mother, Elaine Roy, served as office manager, and although his uncle left the business after the first few years, his parents did well, and the construction firm thrived.

Keith began working at age 12, and already knew so much he was able to install a composite ceiling in his uncle’s home by himself.

The following summer, he built a treehouse that featured a Dutch door, paneling on the walls, and a linoleum floor, and continued helping his father with the business.

After graduating from high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting, became interested in marketing, and in 1980 was given the title of vice president of the company.

Three years later, John retired, and Keith changed the name of the business from John L. Roy Construction to Keith G. Roy Construction and took over for his father.

three-season room with a 12-foot knotty-pine ceiling

Keith G. Roy Construction created this three-season room with a 12-foot knotty-pine ceiling for a homeowner in Suffield, Conn.

When the recession of the late ’80s hit, Keith downsized in many respects, moved the office into his Southwick home, and began working as a sole proprietor.

Things improved considerably during the ’90s, and in 2008 Keith moved his business to its current location on Mainline Drive in Westfield. The Great Recession hit at about the same time, but he took the opposite strategy from most of his competitors and increased his advertising when others were cutting back, which not only worked but solidified his brand.

“We’ve been growing steadily since that time,” Roy said.

Josh Roy also began working in the family business at age 12 and joined the business in 2010.

“I take pride in the work that we do and the fact that we get it right the first time,” he said, echoing his father’s long-standing work ethic and adding that job sites are kept clean, and when a project is finished, the employees get on their hands and knees to make sure everything is immaculate so the homeowner has nothing to do but move their furniture into the space and enjoy it.

Part of the praise they frequently receive may be due to the fact that people understand what is taking place in their home, because sales manager Ken Faulker devotes time to educating each customer when he visits them to estimate a job or create a design plan.

“Our employees are motivated by quality, rather than speed, because they are paid by the hour,” Faulker noted, adding that, although this is a small company, it operates like a large one. All employees are certified in their trade and adhere to best practices, the company provides in-house training to supplement skill sets, it has its own warehouse, and is a distributor of the American-made Starmark cabinets, which it uses almost exclusively in its custom-designed kitchens and bathrooms.

Keith G. Roy Construction is also a dealer for Onyx countertops, which are made to order and look like marble or granite.

Additions are a big part of the firm’s business, and Keith takes pride in making them look like the rest of the house. The crew just finished a 22-by-22 addition with a breezeway-style area that will be used as an in-law suite. It includes a kitchenette, living room, full bathroom, bedroom, and deck.

However, the majority of the company’s recent work has been focused on remodeling kitchens and bathrooms and building decks.

Many of the decks are on local lakes with sweeping views and are multi-story structures with hidden or grand staircases that contain landings and seating.

For example, the company just finished a 700-square-foot deck over a walk-out basement that overlooks a lake and has a rain-removal system beneath it.

Josh Roy says that using their own crew rather than subcontractors allows them to address problems or concerns a homeowner may have immediately.

“They can talk directly to us instead of having to talk to a subcontractor who is only responsible for a specific part of the job,” he explained.

Continuing History

Keith G. Roy Construction was named “Best Contractor” and “Best Bathroom Remodeler” in the Republican’s 2015 Reader Raves, and has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.

The Roys are proud of these ratings, like the challenge of knowing every job will be different, and enjoy giving customers more than they expect.

“There are many little things they never know about because a lot of what we do can’t be seen, such as gluing down subflooring,” Keith said. “But it’s important to us; we do things the right way and try to exceed our customers’ expectations.”

To that end, the company offers the Keith Roy Guarantee, which ensures on-schedule completion, a cost-effective process from beginning to end, a final product that exceeds expectations, and honesty, integrity, and great value.

“We want to form good relationships and are proud that our business is in its third generation, which helps us guarantee our work long into the future,” Keith said.

Josh agrees and says the company plans to keep growing. “We’ve met or exceeded our goals for the last four years and will continue to increase them.”

Construction Sections

Varied Landscape

David Fontaine Jr

David Fontaine Jr. says Fontaine Bros. has a good mix of new construction and historic renovation work lined up.

The building industry has travelled a tough road in its efforts to recover from the Great Recession, with mostly modest improvements in business volume amid ever-mounting competition for available work. But in recent months, the skies have become brighter, and most builders are expressing real optimism that the better times are real and have some staying power.

It’s easy to notice major commercial construction projects underway during the summer, and this year is no exception. Business is booming, and local companies say they are doing well — one is actually having a record year — but competition is stiff, and it takes a good track record to get hired in today’s market.

“Business has been very good,” said David Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Bros. Inc. in Springfield. “The market is very competitive, but we have gotten our fair share of business over the last few years. We’ve been consistently busy and have work lined up on the books that is a good mix of new construction and historic renovation.”

Eric Forish, president of Forish Construction Co. Inc. in Westfield, said his company has also been fortunate. “The past two years have been our best out of 70 years in business, and the forward momentum is continuing,” he told BusinessWest.

But he says it takes a lot to win a bid. “A company has to have a multitude of strengths and share the customer’s expectations; they want a safe job site, quality, and performance, and these things, coupled with excellent customer service, have been our priorities.”

Although Keiter Builders Inc. in Florence has been very busy and has a number of projects underway, it is also aware of the high level of competition and what it takes to prevail in a contest for a job.

“The bids have been very close on the last half-dozen jobs we won; we were within a few percentage points of our competitors,” said company President Scott Keiter. “The owners are creating their short lists of candidates based on reputation; then it’s all about the numbers.”

However, the firm deliberately searches for challenging and complex projects.

“We truly enjoy them, whether they involve creating an observatory or a new restaurant. We’re good at complex undertakings; they keep us on our toes,” Keiter said, adding that he started his business eight years ago in the depths of the recession, but has done well. “Everything keeps going in the right direction, we are proud of our work, and we’re growing.”

Stephen Greenwald, president of Renaissance Builders in Gill, says there is considerable work available across the board in residential, industrial, and commercial sectors.

“We’re busier than we were last year and have work through the beginning of next year,” he said, noting that it used to be like that 10 years ago, but hasn’t been that way for a long time.

The type of work the company handles varies; about 50% to 60% is commercial, 30% is residential, and 10% to 15% is industrial, although the numbers change from one year to the next, and Greenwald agreed that landing jobs is highly competitive and a number of factors enter into the equation.

“Margins are still slim, but one of the reasons is that materials continue to go up in price,” he told BusinessWest. “But since the recession ended, business has steadily gotten better.”

However, Forish networks with many local, regional, and national firms and noted this year is unusual: some contractors are busy, while others are not. He doesn’t know why, but noted that, “historically, election years create a degree of angst.”

Different Landscapes

Fontaine said his company is frequently hired to do construction management.

“We help throughout the design process and are involved long before the actual construction work begins,” he said, explaining that the firm works in conjunction with the architect and owners, helps with the budget, and makes sure the job starts on time and stays on budget.

Most projects are several years in duration, and landing them is no easy feat.

“There are a lot of really qualified large and small companies bidding on projects, and we’re definitely seeing more companies with a national reach coming into the area,” Fontaine said. “We focus on our relationships with our clients, and the success of our projects keeps us busy. But we live and die based on our reputation and our continuing results. In our business, you can’t take a day off. You have to consistently do your best to get and keep clients.”

Eric Forish

Eric Forish (standing) spends a moment with Michael Oakes at Super Brush in Springfield, where Forish Construction Co. is putting on a 12,000-square-foot addition.

Forish agrees. “We’re always looking to take on new work. You can’t sit on your laurels; we’re constantly challenged to find new opportunities and markets,” he said. “If you’re good at what you do, every day you’re completing work, so you need to find new jobs. You have to keep going; you can’t assume that things will stay steady in any industry.”

Fontaine Bros. has a number of projects that were recently completed as well as ones that are underway or in the planning stages. It recently finished a historic renovation of the 100,000-square-foot, $33 million Shrewsbury Public Library that involved keeping the front of the building and adding 40,000 square feet, and it’s finishing a new elementary school in Athol.

Local work includes the $55 million Pope Francis High School being built by the Diocese of Springfield on the grounds of the former Cathedral High School on Surrey Road in Springfield that suffered extensive damage during the 2011 tornado.

“The project is in the final design stages, and we expect to break ground in September,” Fontaine said, adding that many people have wondered when the work will begin and don’t understand how much has to be done behind the scenes before construction can start.

“It’s a great project for us, and will put a lot of local people to work. I’m happy to see the school being rebuilt,” he added. The undertaking will take two years from start to finish, and the school is expected to open in September 2018.

Fontaine Bros. is also working on the MGM casino parking garage in Springfield; construction is underway, and concrete was being poured at the time of the BusinessWest interview.

“We partnered with Tishman Construction, and it’s great to be included in the project,” Fontaine said. “We’re excited about being part of the revitalization of the city and appreciate the fact that Tishman and MGM sought participation from local contractors and tradespeople.”

The majority of work Fontaine Bros. handles involves ‘green’ building, and many of its projects are LEED- or Massachusetts CHPS-certified. The company has been ranked as one of the Top 100 Green Contractors by the Engineering News-Record for the past few years.

Forish has also been busy. Over the past year, the company completed the new Sarat Ford and Sarat Lincoln auto dealerships in Agawam and the Marcotte Commercial Truck Center in Holyoke, put on a large addition at Astro Chemicals in Springfield, and most recently completed the Curry Nissan dealership in Chicopee and a new $6.5 million senior center in Westfield.

Projects underway include the $3.5 million PVTA Pavilion in Westfield, a 30,000-square-foot addition to Hillside Plastics in Turners Falls, a 12,000-square-foot addition at Super Brush in Springfield, and a multitude of jobs at UMass Amherst.

Keiter has a varied portfolio that includes a number of residential construction projects, and the firm is putting additions on a number of homes and building a few new ones in the Northampton area. However, about 80% of its work is commercial, and the roster includes a number of jobs at Smith College. The work includes a large window-and-door installation on the president’s house, a large dormer addition on a classroom building, and a renovation to another building to accommodate a gluten-free kitchen.

The firm is also handling a major renovation of the Alumni Gym at Amherst College, which houses its athletic operations.

“We’re very diverse, and also have a site division that does a lot of earthwork, which is a fast-growing part of our business,” Keiter said, adding that the firm began doing excavation and site work about three years ago.

Last year the company also completed a number of jobs at Smith College. It finished a telescope observatory in McConnell Hall, put a new roof on the building, and made mechanical upgrades; repurposed space to create a scientific drone research room in Bass Hall for the Science Department; and did a good deal of office-renovation work. Is also handled a buildout for an attorney’s office in Northampton and created a new restaurant (ConVino) in the basement of Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, which required completely changing the layout of the space.

Renaissance Builders also has a large, diverse portfolio. Last year, the company completed a major church renovation in Greenfield, a significant renovation of an apartment building in Northampton, another major renovation of a food-distribution company’s warehouse in Hatfield, and an addition for a commercial cabinet maker in Northfield. And on the residential side, it built two new homes in Chesterfield and Montague.

“Earlier this year, we did a large historical renovation in downtown Turner’s Falls, and right now we’re doing a renovation in Gardner for a service company,” said Greenwald. “We’re also building a day-care center and doing renovations at a private school in Northfield, and renovating a chain of tire stores in multiple locations.”

Future Forecast

Forish attributes his company’s success to the dedication of his employees, but said the company’s longevity poses its own set of challenges.

“We have a supervisor and general manager who both have 30 years of experience who are retiring, a tradesman with 25 years who is retiring, and two others who were recently recognized for 40 years of service who could retire,” he said. “Being a strong, mature company has its advantages, but it also creates challenges when you need to replace people. We’re always looking for motivated individuals to join our Forish family.”

Although it’s impossible for commercial construction companies to predict what the future will hold, Forish and other company spokesmen say this year looks like it will be a good one.

“But it’s always difficult to tell how much is due to the economy versus the typical busy summer, so we’re always looking ahead,” Keiter said.

Still, Greenwald noted that the economy in Western Mass. seems to be holding its own. “Businesses are putting money into expansion and infrastructure improvements, which I interpret to mean they are doing well; we see it as a positive sign.”

One that should contribute to a stellar season as local commercial construction companies not only hold their own, but thrive in a competitive environment where attention to detail and reputation makes a world of difference.