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Greener Days

MassDevelopment announced that Abercrombie Greenfield, LLC will receive $450,000 in financing for energy improvements to its office building at 56 Bank Row in Greenfield, the first project financed under the agency’s new Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Massachusetts program.

Through PACE Massachusetts, capital provider Greenworks Lending from Nuveen will provide financing for a range of energy upgrades that were installed to the building, including  efficient electrification of space heating, energy-recovery ventilation, LED lighting and controls, improvements to windows and insulation, and a solar photovoltaic system on the roof. This financing will be repaid via a betterment assessment on the property.

“PACE Massachusetts stands to be a key financing tool for making commercial properties more energy-efficient,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who serves as chair of MassDevelopment’s board of directors. “These efforts will benefit the Commonwealth and its communities by creating jobs, reducing energy consumption, and making progress towards Massachusetts’ clean-energy goals.”

MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera noted that energy upgrades at 56 Bank Row are the first to be financed under PACE Massachusetts. “We encourage property owners throughout the Commonwealth to consider how this flexible, long-term financing tool can help them tackle an energy-improvement project.”

Launched in July 2020, PACE Massachusetts is a new long-term option for financing energy improvements to commercial and industrial buildings, multi-family properties with five or more units, and buildings owned by nonprofits. The program enables commercial property owners to fund energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects by agreeing to a betterment assessment on their property, which repays the financing.

“The renovation of the Abercrombie Building rescued a blighted historic property that was structurally failing.”

Offering more flexibility than a direct loan, PACE Massachusetts allows property owners to undertake comprehensive energy upgrades without adding new debt to their balance sheet and through longer financing terms of up to 20 years. MassDevelopment administers PACE Massachusetts in consultation with the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER).

“DOER commends PACE’s first approved project for its commitment to comprehensive energy improvements and building electrification using heat pumps,” Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Patrick Woodcock said. “As the number of municipalities opting into PACE grows, we look forward to having more commercial properties take advantage of this program to finance renovations and retrofits to help meet the Commonwealth’s ambitious greenhouse-gas emission-reduction goals.”

Massachusetts cities and towns are required to opt into PACE Massachusetts by a majority vote of the city or town council or the board of selectmen, as appropriate, in order for a property within that municipality to be eligible for the program. Forty-seven cities and towns have opted in; the city of Greenfield was one of the earliest to do so in April 2018.

“This historic PACE financing for the complete energy-efficiency renovation of an underutilized building on Bank Row joins many energy-efficiency ‘first’ accomplishments in our city since we became the first green community in Massachusetts in 2010,” Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said. “It’s a legacy we should all take pride in and continue to support.”

Built in 1896, 56 Bank Row is a 12,696-square-foot office building. The energy improvements are projected to save 189,000 kilowatt hours from the grid annually compared to a building built to current Massachusetts energy-efficiency code, which equates to a 28% overall reduction.

“Greenworks Lending from Nuveen is very proud to have worked with MassDevelopment to bring financing for Massachusetts’s first C-PACE project at 56 Bank Row,” said Greenworks Lending from Nuveen CEO and President Jessica Bailey. “We hope that this is the first of many C-PACE projects to come with MassDevelopment as we work together to bring financial and environmental benefits to local businesses and communities in Massachusetts.”

Bradley McCallum, owner of 56 Bank Row, added that “the renovation of the Abercrombie Building rescued a blighted historic property that was structurally failing. The project combines factors including a long-term lease with the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, state and federal historic tax credits, an innovative design by Tom Douglas Architects, and a committed contractor, Mowery & Schmidt, and their team of subcontractors. Thanks to this team, we were able to transform the bones of this historic structure into a vibrant resource for the city of Greenfield.

“As with projects of this ambition and scale,” he went on, “we faced cost overruns, and one of the positive contributions that PACE Massachusetts provides Abercrombie Greenfield is the ability to retroactively refinance key energy-efficiency investments that we made and consolidate the outstanding bridge financing and private loans into a fixed 20-year repayment structure, providing credit beyond the 80% LTV, which our primary mortgage with Berkshire Bank is capped at. Berkshire Bank, which is our tax-credit investor and lender, has worked in partnership with Abercrombie Greenfield to secure our PACE Massachusetts financing.”

Construction

From Parking Lot to Plaza

MassDevelopment has awarded a $10,000 grant to the North Adams Chamber of Commerce to transform the Center Street parking lot at 55 Veterans Memorial Dr. in North Adams into a seasonal public dining corridor dubbed Mohawk Plaza.

The organization will use funds to add outdoor seating, a sidewalk surface mural, wayfinding signage, ambience lighting, and landscape work. The chamber will also crowdfund this summer and fall; if the organization reaches its $7,850 goal, it will receive an additional $7,850 matching grant from MassDevelopment.

The funds are awarded through MassDevelopment’s special Commonwealth Places COVID-19 Response Round: Resurgent Places, which was made available specifically to assist local economic-recovery efforts as community partners prepare public spaces and commercial districts to serve residents and visitors.

“Before this pandemic, the vibrant centers of our cities and towns were not only a driving force behind the strength of local economies, they were the places where we gathered to dine, to shop, and to be entertained, and the Commonwealth Places program is one way that we can help these areas bounce back stronger than ever,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who serves as chair of MassDevelopment’s board of directors.

“The Baker-Polito administration continues to support downtowns and town centers through various economic-recovery programs,” he added, “and these Resurgent Places grants are providing nonprofit community organizations with the resources to activate public spaces, boost economic activity, and support an equitable recovery.”

Created in 2016, Commonwealth Places aims to engage and mobilize community members to make individual contributions to placemaking projects, with the incentive of a funding match from MassDevelopment if the crowdfunding goal is reached. In response to the pandemic, MassDevelopment announced the opening of the first Commonwealth Places COVID-19 Response Round: Resurgent Places in June 2020, and from August through October 2020, $224,965 in funding was awarded for 21 placemaking projects across Massachusetts.

In December 2020, MassDevelopment announced the availability of $390,000 in funding for a second Commonwealth Places COVID-19 Response Round: Resurgent Places. Nonprofits and other community groups can apply to MassDevelopment for seed grants of between $250 to $7,500 to fund inclusive community engagement, visioning, and local capacity building that will support future placemaking efforts, or implementation grants of up to $50,000 to execute a placemaking project. For implementation grants, up to $10,000 per project may be awarded as an unmatched grant; awards greater than $10,000 must be matched with crowdfunding donations.

“Amazing things can happen when communities reimagine underutilized public spaces, such as North Adams Chamber of Commerce’s vision for a parking lot steps away from the city’s Main Street,” MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera said. “MassDevelopment is pleased to help the organization create Mohawk Plaza, a space that will increase foot traffic downtown, provide additional outdoor dining, and reinvigorate a prime public way.”

Construction Special Coverage

Framing the Issue

Few industries have been immune to the supply shortages and rising costs that have plagued the world economy over the past few months, but construction is especially vulnerable, relying heavily on materials — most notably lumber and steel, but dozens more as well — riddled by soaring prices. The good news is that demand for work is high, but many still worry about the long-term implications of a cost problem with no end in sight.

 

By Mark Morris

Early in 2020, several lumber mills and steel plants expected demand for their products to take a nosedive once the pandemic hit, so they slowed down or closed some of their operating plants. Instead, after only a brief hiatus in March, home and commercial construction resumed — and then significantly increased.

For Bob Boilard, vice president of Boilard Lumber, the decreased supply of lumber and growing demand have created multiple challenges. Orders for lumber that once took a week for delivery now have vague timetables and constantly changing prices.

“Pricing right now is set at the time of shipment, so we don’t know exactly what it’s going to cost us until it’s on the back of a truck,” Boilard said.

Because lumber prices change so often, Boilard and dealers like him study the commodity market every day to make sure they stay current. At press time, an eight-foot 2-by-4, used primarily to frame houses and certain commercial buildings, had increased to $11, up from $4 several months ago, a price hike of 175%.

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says shortages are nothing new in construction, but so many types of materials being in short supply at one time is very uncommon.

Construction professionals have called this an unprecedented time. Price hikes and shortages of certain building materials are nothing new to the construction industry, but no one has seen inflation and scarcity of so many supplies that go into building a house or a business.

BusinessWest spoke with several construction managers who said we are currently in a perfect storm of greatly increased demand, COVID-related manufacturing slowdowns, and, literally, storms.

For instance, back in February, ice storms knocked out the power grid in Texas, shutting down several resin plants there and in neighboring Louisiana for several weeks. The resins from these plants are used in a broad range of building products, from adhesives to make plywood to the plastic that insulates electric cables. The resins are also used in many paints and primers.

“This is the first time I’ve seen drastic increases and shortages affect this many products. In the past, we’ve seen oil prices drive up the cost of roofing shingles, but never across the board with nearly every building material.”

Dan Bradbury, director of Sales and Marketing for Associated Builders, said the commodity price he follows closely is cold rolled steel. Most of the structures his company builds are pre-engineered metal buildings for commercial and industrial use.

“Cold rolled steel prices have increased 225% since last August,” Bradbury said. Due to shortages in getting the steel, he tells customers the building they order today will be delivered in about 20 weeks. Before COVID-19, that same project would take 10 to 12 weeks.

Increases and shortages don’t end with commodities, but also affect other materials involved in construction. Craig Sweitzer, co-owner of Sweitzer Construction, said an electrical contractor told him about the price instability of a heavy-duty cable used in commercial applications.

“His supplier would only hold the price for one day,” Sweitzer said. “Usually, our material prices are good for 15 days, so we’re not used to seeing this.”

What makes this time different is the broad array of materials impacted, said Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction.

The price of a basic 2-by-4 has risen by 175% in recent months.

The price of a basic 2-by-4 has risen by 175% in recent months.

“This is the first time I’ve seen drastic increases and shortages affect this many products,” he noted. “In the past, we’ve seen oil prices drive up the cost of roofing shingles, but never across the board with nearly every building material.”

As someone who builds medical and dental offices, Sweitzer uses steel studs in place of 2-by-4 wood studs for interior wall partitions. At one time, the two products were close in price. While prices for both have increased, a steel stud is now far less expensive than wood.

“While the price of a steel stud has increased about 30%, it’s well below the double and triple price hikes we’ve seen with wood,” he said, adding that he’s also experienced shortages in random materials such as joint compound to finish walls, acoustical insulation, and interior doors. “There’s a particular style of door we use that once took a week to get. Now it can take eight weeks, and the price has increased.”

 

Steady On

Despite shortages and price hikes, the construction managers we spoke with are all grateful to have plenty of work scheduled.

“I’m fortunate to be busy, and at the same time, it’s incredibly stressful to keep everyone happy and meet deadlines,” Riley said. “It’s a crazy time right now.”

To manage some of that craziness, he has invested in a new tool, a CRM (customer relationship management) system.

“Through our system, we can keep everyone on the same page, and it allows customers to check in on their project,” Riley said. “By staying in closer contact with our customers, they’ll know immediately about any issues that might slow down a project.”

Managing expectations becomes essential when prices and timelines are uncertain. When someone wants a fast turnaround on a project, Bradbury gives them straight talk. “We’re honest and upfront with our customers as to what’s realistic,” he said.

Some customers have chosen to delay their projects, anticipating that prices may come down. Bradbury said that may work for some, but when a company needs a building to grow their business, they can’t always wait it out.

“My advice is to build it sooner rather than later because we are more likely to see further price increases,” he said. “Also, with lead times so long, the sooner you get in the queue for your project, the better off you’ll be.”

Beyond materials, shortages have also extended to the human element. Riley said finding laborers for home building has always been challenging, and the increased demand for new homes only exacerbates an already-tough situation.

One of the thorniest challenges to solving supply shortages, Boilard noted, involves finding truckers to move the goods. “You can’t get drivers to get behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. There are lots of trucking jobs open right now, but few people to fill them.”

Construction workers were deemed essential during the pandemic, so their time off the job was brief. Bradbury said the short shutdown allowed his company to retain most of its workers. “Some of our subcontractors have felt labor shortages, but we are grateful that has not had a significant impact on our business.”

When COVID first hit, Sweitzer gave all his employees a raise to make sure they were compensated well enough to stay with his company. “We’ve been lucky because we have an extremely good and loyal crew. I’ve found that good labor is worth the investment.”

 

Looking Ahead

Predictions on when prices and supplies might stabilize is anyone’s guess. Boilard explained that his company determines its lumber-buying needs early in the year, which these days is a real challenge. If a dealer stocks up heavily now only to see prices eventually crash, they are stuck with expensive inventory in a market that no longer supports those higher prices.

This building under construction shows how much cold rolled steel Associated Builders uses in a project.

This building under construction shows how much cold rolled steel Associated Builders uses in a project.

“It’s not a fun time because we have to do a balancing act of meeting our customers’ needs without having too much inventory on hand,” he said.

Riley has seen conflicting predictions about lumber prices dropping either at the end of 2021 or sometime in 2022. He’s seen lumber and electrical wire come down before, but he’s more concerned about other materials that go into building a house.

“In my years in business, when windows, siding, and roofing shingles increase in price, I’ve never seen them come back down,” he said. “I think increases like that are here to stay.”

Bradbury said he can’t predict what will happen in his industry, but he hopes to see the supply of steel catch up to demand by the end of this year. “My best guess is supply will get better and lead times will improve before we see prices start to stabilize.”

Sweitzer noted that he has a degree in management, while his two sons have degrees in economics and business administration, so they often discuss what may lie ahead. And their conversations have been optimistic.

“Markets always find some level of equilibrium, and I believe that will happen in this market,” he said. “Market equilibrium may take a temporary vacation, but it has always returned, and I think it will again.”

Construction

Air Apparent

Scott Cernak’s expertise and development of the residential division at M.J. Moran

Scott Cernak’s expertise and development of the residential division at M.J. Moran are serving him well today as the head of his own venture.

Never underestimate the influence of a teacher.

Or, in Scott Cernak’s case, two of them, who taught plumbing when he was a student at Smith Vocational & Agricultural High School, and proved engaging enough in the subject to capture his attention.

“I wasn’t sure which trade I wanted to take,” he said. “The plumbing teachers there were really good — I never thought I would have chosen plumbing, but I ended up liking it quite a bit.”

He likes the trajectory of his career as well. Today, Cernak is the owner of a company — Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing — that recently spun off M.J. Moran Inc., the only company he’d ever worked for, and where he latched on as an intern early in his junior year at Smith.

“I started on my 16th birthday and started liking it more and more,” he recalled. “I got into more and more things; I started doing sprinkler fitting, all kinds of pipe fitting, welding and plumbing and HVAC.”

“It was a really good, mutually beneficial decision to have us part ways and for me to buy the division.”

All of that appealed to him, but he was especially interested in the residential division, which hadn’t been a significant part of Moran’s business, but which he and two other employees started growing steadily. “At this point, I was in my early 20s and running a lot of large residential and small commercial jobs, new-construction service calls — anything from packing a faucet to doing a whole new house and everything in between.”

His success in that division led to a promotion to general manager of the company in 2016, and something bigger four years later. “I got the opportunity to buy the division that I helped build,” he told BusinessWest, “and here we are.”

The reason for the spinoff company is that Jim Moran, who launched his enterprise 42 years ago, is heading — slowly — toward retirement, Cernak explained.

“He’ll never fully retire, but he wanted to take a little off his plate right now. His sons, Chad and Kyle, who run the commercial-industrial division, don’t have any interest in the residential divison — they relied on me for that anyway — so it just made sense for Jim and myself and our departments.

“It was a really good, mutually beneficial decision to have us part ways and for me to buy the division; it worked really well for them, and it’s worked really well for us,” he went on. “We still communicate frequently, and we still collaborate; I hire them as a sub when we need extra manpower, or they hire us as a sub on some jobs. So it works out pretty well.”

Roughly eight months into his new enterprise, Cernak said his work is well-balanced, split fairly evenly between service work, major renovations for general contractors, and installing and replacing heating and cooling systems. “It’s a pretty good mix, and some of that is commercial, too — service work and small installation work.”

Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing is more departmentalized than most similar firms, he added, with a full service department.

“Most companies around us don’t have a service department; they just throw in a service call here and there. We actually have a service department that’s dedicated to service work, then we have a new-construction installation department that’s dedicated to the bigger work. That works well for our dispatching and keeping things organized and keeping the right guys on the right jobs. It’s one reason we’re able to stay efficient and continue to grow.”

 

Into the Pipeline

What first drew Cernak into the plumbing field at Smith Voke was, simply, realizing for the first time the breadth of what tradespeople in that field do.

“As a teenager, I didn’t realize that plumbing was more than just cleaning a drain or fixing a toilet. A lot of people — not just young teenagers — think plumbing is just fixing plumbing; they think it’s just dirty work. But I got to see a different side of it — learning how the pipefitting works, doing some welding and some soldering.”

“Even before 2020, new houses were getting a lot tighter, and indoor air quality was becoming a much higher priority for people.”

He also quickly learned, by researching the field, that it’s a trade with stability and good job security. “It’s one of the higher-paid trades, so there were a lot of factors. But before that, it had never clicked to me that, hey, plumbers actually install the plumbing in a new house, too, not just fix the plumbing in an old house.”

The science of plumbing hasn’t changed much during his career, but HVAC is a different story.

“Indoor air quality has been a big factor,” he said. “Coronavirus certainly helped with that — or hurt with that, however you want to put it. But coronavirus certainly put a new spin on it. But even before 2020, new houses were getting a lot tighter, and indoor air quality was becoming a much higher priority for people, so we sell a lot of products that help with filtration and literally zap bacteria and viruses out of the air; there are all kinds of air-cleaning products that we’re selling as part of our systems, part of our installations, part of our services. It’s not the core of our business, but it certainly is a pretty big part of our business.”

Businesses in Massachusetts took the lead on emphasizing air-quality measures indoors, much of it driven by regulations. But in the era of COVID-19, people increasingly demand high-tech air-purifying systems in their homes.

“We’d never had people asking for indoor air-quality measures — or very rarely; maybe 1% of people would ask for something like that back before coronavirus. And now, probably close to 20% to 30% ask for it specifically.”

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring, even though his industry is challenged by a slow pipeline of young talent entering the field.

Clearly, there will always be a market for plumbing and HVAC work — as Cernak said, this is a stable field — and he can see his fledgling company growing, but one challenge will be attracting talent as it does. Right now, nationwide, roughly three workers are aging out and retiring from these disciplines for every two young people who come in.

“And out of those two, probably only one to one and a half are going to make it past five years,” he went on. “So there’s a big-time shortage, and it’s going to get worse and worse.”

As one way to counter that trend, “I have longer-term goals of creating more education within our company,” he explained. “I’d like to bring a sheet-metal school in house, not necessarily from us, but probably third-party, using our facility; that’s going to help attract some people.”

Meanwhile, “we have ads out on different internet platforms, and we’re trying to recruit internally too. Everyone who works with us knows we’re looking for at least one or two more service techs on top of other positions as well. We have been hiring — four people in the past month and a half — so we’re definitely growing, and we’re on a trajectory of more growth as well.”

 

Investments in the Future

One key to achieving that growth, Cernak said, is not being afraid to invest in the kinds of things that will attract top talent.

“I’ve got an eye for talent — and I’m not afraid to hire the best and pay for the best, that’s for sure,” he told BusinessWest. “I provide the best tools, the best training, we have new, well-equipped trucks, and we’re working on getting even more trucks. So all our people have the right tools, the right trucks, and the right infrastructure to do their jobs.”

In addition, “I’ve invested heavily into software and IT systems to organize how we do our work and how we bill for our work and how we store data and how we access data, which is a huge part of the industry that people generally overlook,” he went on. “We’re not fumbling through file cabinets to find the customer’s history. With a couple clicks, we’re there. Same thing with our guys in the field — they have access via tablet or smartphone to access any of our customers’ history. When a customer calls, we know what they have already, and we know the right tech to send to the right job.”

What it adds up to is efficiency, which both employees and customers appreciate, Cernak said. “We’re very good in the service department, dispatching, getting people there. We have quite a backlog sometimes, but we’re also very good at prioritizing emergencies.”

Creating efficient systems and investing in better resources may not bring an immediate payback, he added, but he’s looking long-term — at the kind of success his mentor, Jim Moran, enjoyed for more than four decades. It’s why, when he saw an opportunity to build upon his experience and set out on his own, he took it.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you’ve got to go with your gut and know what’s right and do it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Soaring Again

 

MassDevelopment has provided an $800,000 loan to Eagle Mill Redevelopment, LLC, which is using the proceeds to redevelop the former Eagle Mill and surrounding parcels in Lee into a mixed-use complex featuring 128 residential housing units and 14,000 square feet of retail and office space.

The developer used loan proceeds and additional financing from Adams Community Bank to buy 10 adjacent properties that will be combined and subdivided into six separate parcels for future redevelopment. Construction on the project, which is expected to cost approximately $55 million, is slated to begin in the fourth quarter of 2021, with its first phase completed within 14 to 18 months.

“A priority of the Baker-Polito administration is to breathe life back into underutilized factory and mill buildings that were once integral to the Commonwealth’s industrial success,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who serves as chair of MassDevelopment’s board of directors. “These properties are uniquely situated for redevelopment into mixed-use communities that accelerate economic growth and expand housing opportunities, and we were proud to deliver a $4.9 million MassWorks award to facilitate needed infrastructure work at Eagle Mill. MassDevelopment’s contribution of loan financing advances the transformation of the site and complements the other state, local, and private investments.”

“Bringing additional housing, businesses, and jobs back to Eagle Mill, a defining site in Lee’s industrial history, will be an important part of the community’s next chapter.”

Built in 1808, Eagle Mill is located along the Housatonic River in Lee. In the later part of that century, Lee was the national leader in papermaking and home to 25 paper mills. As operations dwindled, Eagle Mill closed in 2008 — resulting in the loss of 165 factory jobs — and has remained vacant since. The town received a $4.9 million MassWorks Infrastructure Program grant in 2018 to upgrade the water main in the town and install 9,000 linear feet of new water main to the development site, allowing the Eagle Mill project to move forward. The project is also supported with both state and federal historic tax credits.

“Bringing additional housing, businesses, and jobs back to Eagle Mill, a defining site in Lee’s industrial history, will be an important part of the community’s next chapter,” MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera said. “MassDevelopment is proud to be a financial partner in Eagle Mill Redevelopment, LLC’s plans to unlock the economic potential of this property.”

Jeffrey Cohen, the lead developer in the Eagle Mill redevelopment, has been involved in the project since 2012. He has done similar, large-scale historic restoration and redevelopment projects in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Maine; and St. Paul, Minn. DEW Construction, another partner and the project’s general contractor, brings similar experience and expertise to the effort, with projects of more than $150 million each year.

“It is incredibly fortunate that MassDevelopment has so many tools by which they are able to enhance the likelihood of our project’s success,” Cohen said. “They provide financing for predevelopment, amongst other things, which is otherwise so difficult to obtain, making their support invaluable to our project. The essential turning point that will lead to the project’s ultimate success was, and is, the approval by then-Secretary [Jay] Ash and MassWorks of the $4.9 million grant to the town of Lee, enabling the replacement of the water line to the mill, without which we would not have been able to move forward.”

MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development agency, works with businesses, nonprofits, banks, and communities to stimulate economic growth across the Commonwealth. During FY 2020, MassDevelopment financed or managed 341 projects generating investment of more than $2.69 billion in the Massachusetts economy. These projects are estimated to create or support 10,871 jobs and build or preserve 1,787 housing units.

Construction Special Coverage

Building Momentum

The past year has been an unusual time for the construction industry — one marked by project postponements, soaring prices for materials, and the establishment of strict COVID safety protocols on job sites. But for most builders, it wasn’t a devastating year, and, in many cases, it led to a surprisingly promising 2021. After all, the need for projects to be completed hasn’t gone away, and the backlog is actually creating a surplus of projects to bid on. The aforementioned challenges still remain, contractors say, but the work rolls on.

Laurie and John Raymaakers

Laurie and John Raymaakers say there’s plenty of infrastructure work available — and that trend should continue in the coming years.

 

By Mark Morris

 

For Dan Bradbury, 2020 was “a year of pivoting and finding new ways to get the job done.”

As director of sales and marketing for Associated Builders, Bradbury saw a slowdown at this time last year as several projects that were scheduled to break ground were instead postponed indefinitely.

By including construction as an essential industry, Gov. Charlie Baker allowed job sites to stay open and keep workers employed while following pandemic protocols. While Bradbury appreciated the ability to keep projects moving, other slowdowns were out of his control.

“There are a lot of hurdles to get over in a large industrial or commercial project, and COVID hit the brakes on all of them,” he said, noting in particular the new challenges surrounding what in the past had been routine business with municipal governments.

“We already had some projects scheduled to start this spring, but, more importantly, we’re starting to fill our pipeline again with projects that will take us well into the fall of this year and potentially into 2022 as well.”

“Because municipalities had to move to fully remote meetings, they occurred less often, which made it difficult to get building permits, zoning-board approvals, and the other essential documents we need to start and finish a building project,” Bradbury said, adding that Associated has projects in the works in a number of different sectors. One example is a 30,000-square-foot building in Bloomfield, Conn., where a local chemical company will occupy part of the building and lease the remaining space.

His company’s experience isn’t unique. BusinessWest spoke with several area construction managers to discuss how their industry looks this spring compared to a year ago, when COVID-19 suddenly changed the world — and the main takeaway is one of optimism and promise.

A significant part of Houle Construction’s business involves interior renovations for medical facilities. Company President Tim Pelletier noted that, when COVID first struck, business came to a complete halt as medical professionals were dealing with rapidly increasing numbers of COVID patients. One year later, he’s optimistic about the increase in construction activity.

“It’s absolutely busier than last year,” he said. “We’re seeing more projects taking shape, especially with our hospital clients.” In the meantime, Pelletier has picked up renovation projects at organizations that offer hall rentals, such as the Masonic Temple in East Longmeadow.

“The temple has not been able to host gatherings for the past year, so they are using the downtime to make renovations for when they can open again,” Pelletier said, adding that it’s a way to take advantage of what everyone has gone through and find a positive side.

An aerial view of Worcester South Community High School

An aerial view of Worcester South Community High School, one of the many recent school projects undertaken by Fontaine Brothers.

Bradbury credits pent-up demand for the increase in projects his company has been taking on this year.

“As soon as the calendar page turned to 2021, our phones started ringing,” he said. “We already had some projects scheduled to start this spring, but, more importantly, we’re starting to fill our pipeline again with projects that will take us well into the fall of this year and potentially into 2022 as well.”

Dave Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Brothers, said his company has been fortunate to have several projects ongoing since before the pandemic hit. Many of his largest projects involve building schools, for which budgets are approved long before breaking ground, so funding for them was not affected by COVID concerns. Since the pandemic hit, Fontaine said some towns have delayed public funding approvals, but not as many as he had anticipated.

“In the last six to eight months, we’ve picked up more than $400 million in new work,” he noted. “Some of these projects are in pre-construction now and will start this summer.”

Among the projects scheduled to begin in June are the $75 million DeBerry-Homer School in Springfield and the $240 million Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester.

Infrastructure construction also experienced steady business last year. J.L. Raymaakers and Sons Construction specializes in installing water and sewer lines as well as site excavation for municipalities, airports, and private companies. After a busy 2019, co-owner John Raymaakers said 2020 was nearly a record year for his company, and he’s on pace to fill up the project list for 2021.

Associated Builders project in Bloomfield, Conn

In this Associated Builders project in Bloomfield, Conn., a local chemical company will occupy part of the building and lease the remaining space.

“It’s amazing the amount of infrastructure work that is out there for bid,” Raymaakers said, explaining that his company subscribes to a register that lists all the new public and private projects available for bid. Since the middle of last year, he has seen no slowdown in the volume of bidding opportunities. “Looking only at our category of construction, there were five to six new projects announced just last week.”

Raymaakers predicted bridge construction, another area of expertise for his company, will also see increased activity.

“In the next few years, I think we are going to see a lot of work on replacing aging bridges in New England,” he said, adding that this should happen even without a federal government infrastructure bill, citing two recent bridge-replacement projects his crews are working on in Stockbridge and Pittsfield. Still, he’s hopeful that some kind of infrastructure legislation passes, saying it would be “a huge boost to us and others in our industry.”

 

Help Wanted

While business activity is brisk for everyone BusinessWest spoke with, they’ve all faced recent challenges; some are unique to doing business in the COVID environment, and others are chronic problems made worse by the virus. The issue of having enough workers was a challenge on both fronts.

“We’ve definitely lost people from the workforce due to COVID concerns,” Fontaine said. “They might be taking care of a family member, or they might be in a group that has underlying health concerns.”

He added that managing COVID on the job site is also difficult. “Anytime someone tests positive for COVID, that individual and anyone in close contact with them has to go home and quarantine for the time period,” he explained. “That can result in a lot of labor disruption on a daily basis.”

COVID also exacerbated the long-running problem of fewer workers in skilled-trade and general-labor jobs. Raymaakers said finding help in construction is a constant challenge. Co-owner Laurie Raymaakers pointed out that heavy-equipment operators and construction laborers can make a good living.

“There’s a misconception that laborers aren’t paid well,” she said. “The pay and benefits at our company are pretty good; the reality is there are just fewer people who want to do this type of work.”

She added that it’s also misleading to suggest laborers are not skilled, pointing out that her company’s laborers are highly skilled at making sure pipes are situated properly and secured to withstand years of service.

“Our workers also put together fire hydrants, which require about 50 bolts that have to be tightened in a certain pattern. Hydrants are under constant water pressure, so if it’s not built correctly, parts of the hydrant will go flying in the air.”

As older craftsmen such as plumbers and electricians continue to retire, their ranks are not being filled by enough younger workers. With projects increasing, Bradbury said an already-competitive labor market gets squeezed even further.

Tim Pelletier, president of Houle Constrution

Tim Pelletier, president of Houle Constrution, at the Masonic Temple in East Longmeadow.

“Between the demand for commercial/industrial as well as residential, everyone in the trades is busy, and they can’t find enough workers,” Bradbury said. “On top of that, solar companies are hiring all the electricians they can find at a time when electricians were already in short supply.”

The biggest hurdle to doing business right now, according to Bradbury, involves managing enormous price increases for materials, in some cases rising by more than 100% compared to this time last year.

“Over a period of months, we’ve seen multiple price increases in steel and lumber products,” he said. “Those two create a trickle up that affects prices for every other building material.”

Bradbury noted that steel manufacturing has been affected by labor outages due to COVID, leading to product-supply shortages. He also pointed to increased demand for lumber, especially on the residential side, where housing starts are booming. In addition, his company and many others receive a great deal of lumber from Canada, where the U.S. still has tariffs in place on lumber.

Bradbury said COVID issues are not affecting project schedules because his firm will not start a job until it has a guarantee that materials are available. “We are also adding cost protections in our contracts as a way to guard against the constant increases in materials.”

It’s too early to determine what immediate impact the pandemic will have on building design, but Bradbury said clients from current and future projects have begun asking about air handling and filtration.

“For sure, air handling and using UV light to sanitize a space are areas where people have been putting more focus,” he said. “I think these requests will continue as there is an increased emphasis on clean air and other ways to keep facilities sanitized.”

At Worcester South Community High School, workers installed air-handling units that use bipolar ionization, or, as Fontaine described it, a system that cleans the air and removes many of the germs and bacteria from the building.

“The motivation to install this system was driven by COVID, but there are other benefits, too,” he said. “Systems like this provide a better environment for people with asthma and other health concerns.”

 

Spring of Hope

The arrival of spring and increased numbers of people receiving COVID vaccines gives all the construction managers we spoke to a sense of optimism about life and getting their projects done.

At press time, asphalt plants in the area had begun to open. Because the plants close for the winter, municipalities will not allow road construction because there is no access to repave the roads. So the plant openings are great news for companies like Raymaakers, which plans its water- and sewer-line projects around those openings.

Other managers look forward to a time when they do not have to socially distance their crews and wear masks all day.

“Masks are another nuisance to deal with,” Pelletier said. “If we can start to get distancing and masks behind us, it will speed things up on the job site.”

As part of planning for future business, Bradbury has begun to ask some fundamental questions about what lies beyond the horizon. “Where is the growth potential going to be as we come out of COVID, and which industries will still want to build and have the money to build?”

As he considers the types of industries that are prevalent in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., such as aerospace and manufacturing, he wonders if government spending will still drive those industries. He has also given some thought to the insurance industry.

“Typically, there has been a huge demand for office space for the insurance industry, and how they address that moving forward is a big question mark coming out of COVID.”

As the insurance industry reconsiders its needs, Bradbury added, there has been a sharp decline in demand for all office space. “We are definitely not building more office space anytime soon.”

But his and other firms are building — and that’s good news after a year of uncertainty and a pandemic that hasn’t yet gone away.

Construction

Firm Foundation

Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan says public work — his firm’s main niche — slowed down in 2020, but activity looks strong for the coming year.

Mark Sullivan wasn’t unlike countless other business owners, watching the COVID-19 story develop last February and March and wondering how his construction firm, D.A. Sullivan & Sons Inc., would fare.

While no one knew early on what the pandemic’s impact would be, the general consensus was “this isn’t going to go well at all,” he said. But the company, like all others, managed to keep moving forward, with office staff working from home and Zoom meetings a new fact of life.

“Ultimately, we were able to keep people working in whatever format worked best for the individual, and we’re thankful we didn’t have any layoffs in the field,” he went on. “We were able to employ everyone through 2020.”

What makes that notable is that this fourth-generation family business, which opened its doors in Northampton in 1897 and has been headquartered in that city ever since, relies heavily on public work, including some of the highest-profile municipal and collegiate projects in the region at any given time.

“Now it’s to the point where projects we built 30 or 40 years ago are being renovated or being torn down and replaced. It’s all cyclical.”

“We’ve always had a heavy mix of public work — probably half to 60% of what we do has been public work,” said Sullivan, who is the firm’s fifth president, while his brother, Dennis, is chief executive operator. “We certainly have private clients we do a lot of work for, and we look for that private work, but public work over the years has been the most consistent.”

When Gov. Charlie Baker shut down large swaths of the economy just over a year ago, “we were certainly fortunate we were deemed critical, or essential, and we were able to keep some projects going,” Sullivan recalled. “When COVID hit, we did lose some work; some projects were paused and some outright canceled as people tried to figure out what the pandemic was and what it meant in the near-term future.”

Some of the projects the firm completed in 2020 included a fitness center transformation at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, a new administration building at Harriman & West Airport in that city, a renovation of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority para-transit maintenance and storage facilities in Springfield, and the renovation of a mill building in Easthampton into apartments and office spaces.

“We rely on public work, and the state froze most public work after the first quarter. UMass did, too,” Sullivan said. “We had a backlog going into the year, and we finished up that work, but it was difficult getting new work toward the end of the year because everything had been frozen.”

renovation on Ferry Street in Easthampton

This mill renovation on Ferry Street in Easthampton features a mix of office space and apartments. (Photo by CHODOS INC)

However, after the firm’s work volume in 2020 totaled about 20% from the year before, things are looking up. “What we’re seeing now is that, as the vaccine rolls out and people see the light at the end of the tunnel, those projects paused last year are coming back online.”

Considering that, he said, and the fact that new municipal projects are starting to emerge from the drawing board, “it looks to be a busy year.”

 

Plenty to Build On

Indeed, the projects currently underway — the firm typically manages 10 to 15 each year — speak to the breadth of the opportunities available in the municipal, academic, and other realms. They include:

• General-contracting services for the construction of the Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst, the UMass Fine Arts Center bridge renovation, a renovation and expansion of the Worcester Public Library, and the Chicopee City Hall renovation;

• Construction-management services for a renovation of Mount Holyoke College’s Gamble Auditorium and the construction of 38 cottage-style homes at Lathrop Community; and

• Owner’s project-management services for the renovation of the Westhampton Public Safety Complex and a renovation of the historic Grafton Public Library.

“It’s cyclical,” Sullivan said of public work. “You might be doing elementary schools for a decade, then find yourself doing middle schools after that. Now it’s to the point where projects we built 30 or 40 years ago are being renovated or being torn down and replaced. It’s all cyclical. We do a lot of work for the Five Colleges, UMass especially. It’s always varied, and it’s always interesting.”

The mill renovation in Easthampton was a fun challenge because of the condition of the building when the project began, he noted, while the Worcester library project is fun in other ways.

“Our partners got a kick out of the high-end millwork installation,” he said, noting details in the children’s room like a rocket ship and an eight-foot-tall book. “Most projects are budget-driven from a carpentry standpoint and may not get a millwork package that’s particularly interesting, so to speak. But every now and then, we get a library project or private-client work — we do a lot of private work for prep schools in the area — and those are projects carpenters can really sink their teeth into; they’re a lot of fun.”

Sullivan noted that construction management is becoming more the norm in the firm’s projects than straight general contracting. What hasn’t changed, however, is a reliance on cultivating relationships with municipalities, colleges, and other types of clients over time.

“It can be difficult to be a contractor of our size in the area we’re in and sustain longevity,” he said. “Every project is different, every client has a different process, and the relationships are unique, too; we value those relationships and rely on those relationships to keep work coming.”

That stability was in direct contrast to the upheaval of COVID-19, and how that affected the way workers were able to do their jobs.

“Initially, everyone was trying to figure it out,” he said. “There was no guidebook to follow; it was being established as we went along. That was true for everyone in our industry and in other industries deemed essential, and we were able to keep some projects moving forward in the field.

“Certainly, productivity took a hit, when we were sanitizing projects twice a day, taking temperatures, and keeping logs,” he went on, noting that, when a delivery person was found to have COVID, a whole job site shut down for a few days.

“In the big picture, we got through the whole year without too many issues,” he added. “It’s literally been a year since this thing hit; everyone has the protocols down pat.”

 

Getting to Work

Now that things seem to be looking up — both in the public-sector construction world and in general, with vaccines generating positive news on the COVID front — Sullivan is ready to tackle what he sees as pent-up demand.

“The need for work didn’t go away,” he told BusinessWest. “I think there’s a lot of liquidity in the market; last year, people held on to figure out a way through the pandemic, and now that they see an end in sight, things are starting to loosen up, and we’re very busy on the building side of things.”

As his family’s business has been for more than 120 years.

“We’ve been around a long time in Western Mass. We work roughly from Pittsfield to Worcester — that’s our zone — and there aren’t many mid-size contractors of our size left in Western Mass.,” he said, noting that the firm generates about $40 million in sales each year. “There are a few bigger firms and several smaller firms out there, but we’re happy with the size we are; it’s a good size. And we’re thankful just to be able to be working every day and be around as long as we have.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Starts and Stops

Total construction starts fell 2% nationally in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $797.3 billion, according to the latest report from Dodge Data & Analytics. Non-building construction starts posted a solid gain after rebounding from a weak January; however, residential and non-residential building starts declined, leading to a pullback in overall activity.

“With spring just around the corner, hope is building for a strong economic recovery fueled by the growing number of vaccinated Americans,” said Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “But the construction sector will be hard-pressed to take advantage of this resurgence as rapidly escalating materials prices and a supply overhang across many building sectors weighs on starts through the first half of the year.”

Non-building construction starts gained a robust 20% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $200.3 billion. The miscellaneous non-building sector (largely pipelines and site work) surged 76%, while environmental public works increased 26%, and highway and bridge starts moved 11% higher. By contrast, utility and gas plant starts lost 17% in February.

For the 12 months ending February 2021, total non-building starts were 13% lower than the 12 months ending February 2020. Highway and bridge starts were 4% higher on a 12-month rolling-sum basis, while environmental public works were up 1%. Miscellaneous non-building fell 26%, and utility and gas plant starts were down 37% for the 12 months ending February 2021.

The largest non-building projects to break ground in February were the $2.1 billion Line 3 Replacement Program, a 337-mile pipeline in Minnesota; the $1.2 billion Red River Water Supply Project in North Dakota, and the $950 million New England Clean Energy Connect Power Line in Maine.

Non-residential building starts fell 7% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $208.1 billion. Institutional starts dropped 8% during the month despite a strong pickup in healthcare. Warehouse starts fell back during the month following a robust January, offsetting gains in office and hotel starts, and dragging down the overall commercial sector by 8%.

For the 12 months ending February 2021, non-residential building starts dropped 28% compared to the 12 months ending February 2020. Commercial starts declined 30%, institutional starts were down 19%, and manufacturing starts slid 58% in the 12 months ending February 2021.

The largest non-residential building projects to break ground in February were Ohio State University’s $1.2 billion Wexner Inpatient Hospital Tower in Columbus; ApiJect Systems’ $785 million Gigafactory in Durham, N.C.; and Sterling EdgeCore’s $450 million data center in Sterling, Va.

Residential building starts slipped 7% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $388.9 billion. Both single-family and multi-family starts fell during the month, with each losing 7%.

For the 12 months ending February 2021, total residential starts were 4% higher than the 12 months ending February 2020. Single-family starts gained 12%, while multi-family starts were down 15% on a 12-month sum basis.

The largest multi-family structures to break ground in February were Bronx Point’s $349 million mixed-use development in the Bronx, N.Y.; the $215 million Broadway Block mixed-use building in Long Beach, Calif.; and the $200 million GoBroome mixed-use building in Manhattan, N.Y.

Regionally, February’s starts fell lower in the South Central and West regions but moved higher in the Midwest, Northeast, and South Atlantic Regions.

Earlier this month, Dodge Data & Analytics released its Dodge Momentum Index, which rose 7.1% in February. The Momentum Index is a monthly measure of the first (or initial) report for non-residential building projects in planning, which have been shown to lead construction spending for non-residential buildings by a full year. The institutional component of the Momentum Index jumped 26.3% during the month, while the commercial component was essentially flat.

February’s Momentum Index marked the highest levels in nearly three years as a result of a surge in large projects that entered planning. It remains to be seen if this level of activity, especially in the institutional sector, is sustainable given the tenuous economic recovery and rising material prices. Institutional planning projects in February were concentrated in large hospitals and labs, while commercial planning projects primarily included data centers, warehouses, and office projects. Compared to a year ago, the overall Momentum Index was up 9.2%; the commercial component was 15.2% higher, while the institutional component was down 3.3%.

Construction Special Coverage

Space Jam

By Mark Morris

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says he had to reschedule in-home jobs at the start of the pandemic until he could figure out how to do them safely.

For home builders in Western Mass., 2020 brought opportunity and challenge in equal measure.

For example, Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction, said 2020 was his best year based on the number of projects, but COVID-19 posed obstacles to nearly all facets of the job. In fact, when the pandemic first arrived, he rescheduled all his in-home projects until he could learn how to safely do those jobs.

“We were fortunate that we had several new construction projects that kept us working until we could figure out the right way to get our in-home jobs done,” Riley said.

Other home builders shared similar stories of adjusting to a new reality on the fly.

When many industries were mandated to stop working back in March, home builders were deemed an essential business by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration. That was the right call, said Bill Laplante, president of Laplante Construction. “We had projects with critical work that needed to be completed so people, in some cases, could get back into their homes.”

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on.”

The builders who spoke with BusinessWest all construct new houses as well as additions and renovations to existing homes. On balance, they say, renovations and additions account for more business than new home construction.

“Most of the calls we get are from people who want to stay where they are, so many of them are looking to build additions or do a renovation,” said A.J. Crane, partner at A. Crane Construction.

Of course, staying put became nearly universal as COVID-19 mandates resulted in many people working from home. Even those who continued to work at their place of business found themselves at home more often because so many recreational activities and destinations had been curtailed or shut down.

And that posed opportunity for builders. As Laplante observed, the more time people spend at home, the more looking around they do. “They start thinking about adding a room or renovating part of the house to make their space more comfortable.”

In the age of COVID, that means builders must approach job sites differently than in the past. For starters, more people — both adults and children — are likely to be at home while the work is getting done. While workers follow screening protocols before going into the home and wear PPE once there, Laplante instructs his crews to isolate the work area from the residents as much as possible. That’s easy to do for additions and outside renovations, but some work is just more intrusive.

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on,” he said, adding that other projects were pushed off because customers were simply not yet comfortable with outside workers in their homes during the pandemic.

But enough homeowners were OK with their presence to generate a successful, if unusual, year for the home-building and renovation industry.

 

Slow-building Issues

Keeping work crews and homeowners safe was only one challenge builders faced due to COVID-19. In a normal year, the process of getting a permit for a new home or addition is fairly straightforward. Builders bring plans to the appropriate municipal office and pick up the permit a week or two later. As COVID-19 shifted city and town business to e-mails and Zoom calls, it delayed the permitting process — in some cases, for months.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop.”

Meanwhile, supply-chain shortages of common consumer goods such as toilet paper and cleaning products marked the early days of the pandemic. The manufacturing supply chain around the world was disrupted for many building products as well. Riley said appliances and electrical components such as circuit breakers were often delayed by as much as three or four months. As another example, Crane learned that window companies were having trouble getting glass.

“As a result, we were only getting three-fourths of the windows we ordered for a job,” he said. “This created a delay that frustrates the homeowner and puts a big dent into our profit margin.”

In short, COVID-19 kept people at home, they wanted to improve their space, creating high demand for building materials at a time when many manufacturers were already experiencing delays due to the coronavirus, resulting in shortages. And in the wake of those delays, price increases followed.

Andy Crane

Andy Crane says he wants to present a home show this year, but only if he can do so safely.

“We saw a 45% spike in the cost of building materials,” Laplante said. “That was difficult to deal with because we had jobs that were already under contract.”

Shortages of special-order or custom materials were no surprise to the builders, but everyday items were affected, too.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop,” Crane said.

While they acknowledge that delays, shortages, and price hikes will be here for the near term, all three builders are optimistic about 2021. Because mortgage interest rates remain at historic lows, Riley does not expect a slowdown anytime soon. “For 2021, our company is operating full steam ahead for both new construction and remodeling projects.”

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office. I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

One challenge going forward, he noted, is finding property in Western Mass. to purchase at a reasonable price where he can make a profit on new construction.

For 2021, Laplante has plenty of new construction and renovation projects in the pipeline both in Western Mass. and on Cape Cod, where he recently opened a satellite office.

“We’ve always done work on the Cape, but this is the first year we made it official with an office,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of activity and opportunity there.”

Expanding to Cape Cod is a bet Laplante is willing to make because he believes that the pandemic has severely shifted consumer trends. As he sees it, the people who would have sought out exotic travel to places like Europe are now spending their money on their home or investing in a vacation home close to where they live.

 

On with the Show?

For 66 years, hundreds of home projects started with a tour of the Western Mass Home and Garden Show held in late March on the Big E fairgrounds. In 2020, the show was canceled for the first time in its history as the initial wave of COVID-19 swept across Massachusetts just before the event.

Will there be a show in 2021? Andrew Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts, faces a common dilemma in this time of COVID-19: there is plenty of interest in holding the show, but no one knows if conditions will allow it to take place.

“When things clear up and people can safely go out and stay healthy, we will run a home show, and not until then,” he said. At the same time, his organization, which runs the home show, has nearly sold out all available booths.

“We don’t even have dates for when the home show will happen, but I sold two booths this week,” Crane said, noting that his members are involved in nearly all areas of home improvements. As most of them had success in 2020, they would like to keep the momentum going this year.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says the more time people spend at home, the more they think about how to improve their homes.

When BusinessWest spoke with vendors in preparation for last year’s event, several said a key strength of the home show was the opportunity for people and contractors to speak with each other, as well as the ability to see and touch the latest products in home improvements.

Plexiglass dividers, one-way aisles, and mandatory mask wearing are among the different ways Crane and his staff are looking to configure this year’s show. He doesn’t want a situation, however, in which a member pays for an expensive booth only to allow one person at a time to visit.

“That’s not fair to the vendor or the people attending the show,” he said. “It’s not even fair to the folks who just drop by a booth to take the candy.”

Because planning events is so difficult these days, Crane continues to move forward in planning the home show, but understands that nothing is certain. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know if it’s a freight train or if it’s the vaccine coming to solve our problems.”

Even with an effective vaccination rollout, Laplante predicts the home-building industry will continue to thrive locally. In addition to new construction, he has several whole-house renovations in the works — projects in which an existing house is torn down and a new one is built on the same lot. With many projects in the pipeline, Laplante believes people have changed their behavior long-term, and the home will continue to be a focal point long after COVID-19 is under control.

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office,” he said. “I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

Construction

Building Confidence

Construction may be on the upswing in 2021, according to a report by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

“While many contractors enter 2021 with significant trepidation, the most recent backlog and confidence readings suggest that the onset of vaccinations has generally led to more upbeat assessments regarding nonresidential construction’s future,” said ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu. “Backlog is down substantially from its year-ago level, and profit margins remain under pressure, yet many contractors expect to enjoy higher sales and to support more staff six months from now.”

The organization’s Construction Backlog Indicator rebounded modestly to 7.3 months in December, an increase of 0.1 months from November’s reading, according to an ABC member survey conducted from Dec. 18 to Jan. 5. The backlog is 1.5 months lower than in December 2019.

“While many contractors enter 2021 with significant trepidation, the most recent backlog and confidence readings suggest that the onset of vaccinations has generally led to more upbeat assessments regarding nonresidential construction’s future. Backlog is down substantially from its year-ago level, and profit margins remain under pressure, yet many contractors expect to enjoy higher sales and to support more staff six months from now.”

ABC’s Construction Confidence Index readings for sales, profit margins, and staffing levels all increased in December. The sales index climbed above the threshold of 50, indicating contractors expect to grow sales over the next six months. The index reading for profit margins remained below that threshold. The staffing level index increased to 56.3 but remains well below its December 2019 reading.

“The baseline expectation is that, by the spring, the U.S. economy will blossom,” Basu said. “With many households sitting on mounds of savings and sustaining pent-up demand for many goods and services, the U.S. economy is set for rapid growth as it reopens more fully during mid- to late 2021. While it will take time for that to fully translate into new construction projects, some that were postponed earlier during the pandemic are likely to come back to life over the next several months. That should help many contractors begin to rebuild backlog, and to eagerly await 2022.”

The report comes on the heels of news that the construction industry added 51,000 net new jobs in December, according to ABC analysis of data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the last eight months, the industry has added 857,000 jobs, recovering 79.1% of the jobs lost during the earlier stages of the pandemic.

“The expectation remains that, as vaccination proceeds, the U.S. economy is poised for a significant uptick in growth during the latter half of 2021,” Basu said. “That will set the stage for improving industry performance in 2022 and beyond, particularly if the new administration is able to push forward an aggressive infrastructure stimulus package.”

 

Construction

Something to Build On

By Joe Bousquin

The term ‘construction’ appears 636 times in the $908 billion pandemic relief package and $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump at the end of December.

In other words, while the relief package was less than half the size of last spring’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, there’s still plenty in the overall bill for contractors to be happy about.

“Lots of construction spending is always a good thing, as long as everyone has access to it,” said Kristen Swearingen, vice president of Legislative and Political Affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors. Her cautionary tone refers to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which many non-union contractors oppose, potentially being passed in the 117th Congress after Democrats regained control of the Senate earlier this month.

But in general, construction advocates said the new pandemic relief package should be viewed as a win.

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall,” said Jimmy Christianson, vice president of Government Relations at Associated General Contractors of America. “I would say, on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall. I would say, on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

Nevertheless, one lament is that the package doesn’t include liability protection for employers against lawsuits from employees who were exposed to or became infected with COVID-19 at work.

Here’s a closer look at some of the provisions that should help contractors in 2021:

• Paycheck Protection Program. There are several wins for contractors in the the legislation’s renewed PPP funding, including a provision to ensure expenses paid for with forgiven PPP loans are tax-deductible, an issue many contractors were wringing their hands over last fall.

• Expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit. This gives qualifying employers a $5,000 credit per worker for employees not paid with PPP funds in 2020, as well as a $7,000 credit per worker per quarter in the first half of 2021.

“That’s a huge deal for construction companies and employees to help manage the continuing uncertainty that’s still happening,” Christianson said.

• State transportation funding. One of the headline numbers for contractors is the $10 billion earmarked for state DOTs, many of which saw their funding decline in 2020. That should provide relief for road and other civil builders who have increasingly felt the impacts of stalled projects.

“It will help mitigate the impact of bid-letting delays and project cancellations that we saw in 2020 throughout the country,” Christianson said. “And the fact that it’s dedicated funding means that states can’t use it for other things.”

• School construction. The package also includes $82 billion for education, at least some of which can be used for construction and renovations post-COVID-19, when students return en masse to classrooms.

 

Joe Bousquin reports on the construction industry for Construction Dive.

Construction Special Coverage

Constructing a Picture

In its recently released 2021 Dodge Construction Outlook, Dodge Data & Analytics predicts that total U.S. construction starts will increase 4% in 2021, to $771 billion.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and recession has had a profound impact on the U.S. economy, leading to a deep dropoff in construction starts in the first half of 2020,” said Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “While the recovery is underway, the road to full recovery will be long and fraught with potential potholes. After losing an estimated 14% in 2020 to $738 billion, total construction starts will regain just 4% in 2021.”

Furthermore, he added, “uncertainty surrounding the next wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall and winter and delayed fiscal stimulus will lead to a slow and jagged recovery in 2021. Business and consumer confidence will improve over the year as further stimulus comes in early 2021 and a vaccine is approved and becomes more widely distributed, but construction markets have been deeply scarred and will take considerable time to fully recover.”

He noted that the dollar value of starts for residential buildings is expected to increase 5% in 2021, non-residential buildings will gain 3%, and non-building construction will improve 7%. “Only the residential sector, however, will exceed its 2019 level of starts thanks to historically low mortgage rates that boost single-family housing.”

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

• The dollar value of single-family housing starts will be up 7% in 2021, and the number of units will grow 6% to 928,000. Historically low mortgage rates and a preference for less-dense living during the pandemic are clearly overpowering short-term labor-market and economic concerns.

• Multi-family construction, however, will pay the price for the single-family gain. The large overhang of high-end construction in large metro areas combined with declining rents will lead to a further pullback in 2021. Dollar value will drop 1%, while the number of units started falls 2% to 484,000.

• The dollar value of commercial-building starts will increase 5% in 2021. Warehouse construction will be the clear winner as e-commerce giants continue to build out their logistics infrastructure. Office starts will also increase due to rising demand for data centers (included in the office category), as well as renovations to existing space. Retail and hotel activity will languish.

• In 2021, institutional construction starts will increase by a tepid 1% as growing state and local budget deficits impact public-building construction. Education construction is expected to see further declines in 2021, while healthcare starts are predicted to rise as hospitals seek to improve in-patient bed counts.

• The dollar value of manufacturing plant construction will remain flat in 2021. Declining petrochemical construction and weak domestic and global activity will dampen starts, while a small handful of expected project groundbreakings will level out the year.

• Public-works construction starts will see little improvement as 2021 begins due to continued uncertainty surrounding additional federal aid for state and local areas. Additionally, the unfinished appropriations process for fiscal year 2021, which began Oct. 1, raises doubt about the sector’s ability to post a strong gain in 2021. Public-works construction starts will be flat over the year.

• Electric utilities and gas plants will gain 35% in 2021, led by expected groundbreakings for several large natural-gas export facilities and an increasing number of wind farms.

 

Construction

It’s All in the Details

 

The pandemic has upended many activities; however, contractors are continuing to work to modernize homes across the country.

Professional remodelers are taking on extra safety precautions to help meet the needs of homeowners during the pandemic. If you’re interested in remodeling your home, consider the following advice from the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Massachusetts to help put your mind at ease, so you can comfortably start your next home-remodeling project.

 

Find a Remodeler That Prioritizes Safety

If you’re ready to start your remodeling project, you’ll want to work with a professional committed to keeping you and your family safe during a remodel. The best place to start is by utilizing a directory of professional remodelers. The National Association of Home Builders has a directory of professional remodelers dedicated to the highest professional and safety standards during the pandemic.

 

Ask About Safety Precautions

After you’ve narrowed down your list of potential professional remodelers, ask questions related to safety. A qualified remodeler will be forthright and answer any questions you may have about personal protective equipment, social distancing while in your home, and other concerns about sanitation or other potential hazards.

 

Establish an Online Communication Channel

When you’re working with a professional remodeler, you’ll have to discuss details about your project, from evaluating your design ideas to agreeing to the scope of work. Talk to your remodeler about what areas of the planning process can be discussed online instead of meeting in person. Some remodelers may even request a virtual tour of your home through a video call. Photos, design ideas, measurements, and estimates can also be shared electronically. If you must meet with your contractor in person, practice social distancing and wear a face covering.

 

Discuss Your Living Arrangements

If you’re working from home or if you have kids who are distance learning, tell your contractor. A professional will provide guidance on how to minimize significant disruptions, including those related to plumbing or electrical work. If you have small children, most professionals will be willing to remove tools at the end of each work day or place them out of reach as an extra safety precaution. A contractor can also erect temporary walls to minimize dust in your primary living areas.

 

Communicate Clearly

The most important thing to remember if you’re moving forward with a remodeling project during the pandemic is to keep an open line of communication with your contractor via videoconference or phone — and be flexible. Your remodeler may take extra time to ensure extensive cleaning while undergoing your project. Due to the nature of the pandemic, other unexpected delays may occur. A dose of extra patience may be required during this time, but a professional remodeler will remain committed to safety without jeopardizing quality workmanship.

 

Construction Special Coverage

Safety First

By Mark Morris

Carl Mercieri says the pandemic protocols have been challenging, but they’ve kept his company’s job sites totally free of COVID-19.

Call it a time of constant adjustments.

Since COVID-19 hit, area contractors have continued to work after adopting a number of state-mandated safety protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Construction managers have adjusted to the extra requirements to get the job done, but it has come with a learning curve.

After working with safety consultants, Kevin Perrier, president of Five Star Group, said his company established a COVID-19 compliance plan and implemented it across all its job sites.

“It’s been helpful because it covers everything — daily sign-in sheets, temperature checks, self-reporting procedures, sanitation of the job site, and social distancing.”

Even with a solid plan, Perrier admits the additional protocols make it more challenging to bring projects to completion on time.

“We try to maintain social distancing as much as possible, and that delays our production. The reason for the slowdown is that we can’t cram as many workers onto the sites as we have in the past.”

Tim Pelletier, president of Raymond R. Houle Construction, said it’s a common occurrence on a job site for a large number of people to work in close proximity to each other.

“There’s a point where you have lots of moving parts, where different trades are working together in order to meet a completion schedule,” he said. “Because of coronavirus mandates, we can no longer have large numbers of people in one spot.”

In the beginning, adopting the safety mandates proved cumbersome as Pelletier would allow only one trade at a time to work on a site. After a few adjustments, more crews were able to be on site and still follow the guidelines.

“It’s a challenge to stay on schedule, but at least we’re now able to bring more than one trade in at a time and assign them work in different areas, so they’re not on top of each other,” he noted.

Wearing a mask all day has also been met with grudging acceptance; Pelletier said crews typically look forward to the moment they can remove them. “In the 90-degree weather, wearing a mask is definitely a health concern, as well as a comfort concern, but they are required, so we wear them.”

In the early days of the pandemic, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) also affected construction projects, as each site needed certain quantities for workers, as well as extra devices such as thermometers and wash stations.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Marois Construction was overpaying for — and overbuying — things like thermometers because they didn’t know how many they would need, said Carl Mercieri, vice president and project manager. On one occasion, he recalled, the project owner stepped in and provided enough hand-washing stations for the entire construction site.

“That worked out well,” he said. “Everyone did what they had to do, and we got through it together.”

 

Pandemic Problems

Implementing safety protocols didn’t always go smoothly early in the pandemic. Mercieri noted a school building project where as many as 30 workers stood in line each morning for a temperature screening and sign-in before they could start their workday.

“Our biggest concern was the loss of labor caused by all the downtime in the beginning,” he said. “It’s hard to put a number on it, and you can never really recoup that cost.”

Building material costs also increased with the onset of the pandemic. Perrier’s construction portfolio includes retail buildings, which require substantial quantities of lumber. So far this year, lumber wholesalers are reporting price increases of 300%, and, to make matters worse, they won’t hold those inflated prices for more than 48 hours.

Kevin Perrier

Kevin Perrier

“We try to maintain social distancing as much as possible, and that delays our production. The reason for the slowdown is that we can’t cram as many workers onto the sites as we have in the past.”

“The volatility of lumber prices makes it difficult to bid on a large, wood-framed project that we wouldn’t be framing until next summer,” he said. “It’s a big problem because you really have no idea where the pricing is going to be.”

Availability of building materials has also been an issue this year. Perrier said light fixtures and flooring materials are two items he’s had trouble procuring for the last several months, while Pelletier said doors and hardware have been in short supply. Rahkonen said finding certain parts for heavy equipment, such as excavators, has been difficult as well.

“We had a couple projects that needed vinyl fencing, and we just couldn’t get it because it just wasn’t out there,” Mercieri said. “We’ve since finished those jobs, but we were delayed by four to six weeks in getting the fencing.”

Much of the supply deficits are caused by overseas factories that experienced shutdowns early in the pandemic. These manufacturing delays from months ago are still being felt now as contractors need these supplies. “We just can’t meet the same deadlines because we can’t get our hands on the materials,” Pelletier said.

From the delays caused by socially distanced workers to not having materials when they’re needed, Pelletier said it’s difficult to take on fast-track jobs that need to hit a deadline. Mercieri echoed that point when discussing his company’s many jobs at hospitals.

“If you are renovating an operating room, for example, the hospital will need it back on line by a certain date, no matter what.”

Mercieri also mentioned a recent instance where he was offered a project that involved complicated construction and needed to be built on a tight schedule.

“When COVID hit, we were up front with the owners and advised them that, with the tight schedule and all the uncertainties of COVID causing delays, they might want to consider some alternate plans,” he told BusinessWest. “They rejected our suggestion and wanted to move forward at 100%, but ultimately they scrapped the project.”

Another concern early on was lost time due to COVID-19 infections. However, Mercieri said none of his workers have tested positive. The closest call was an exposed plumber who was not on site, but had worked with the plumber on Mercieri’s job site. Contact tracing revealed these two had not worked together in the previous six weeks. Perrier said a few of his employees and subcontractors on projects in Eastern Mass. weren’t so lucky and contracted coronavirus.

“We shut down the site for two or three weeks while contact tracing was completed,” he said, adding that the employees recovered, and everyone who had been affected tested negative. “Sites were sanitized, and then back to work.”

Tim Pelletier

Tim Pelletier

“It’s a challenge to stay on schedule, but at least we’re now able to bring more than one trade in at a time and assign them work in different areas, so they’re not on top of each other.”

John Rahkonen, owner of Northern Constructions Service, said four of his employees came down with minor cases of COVID-19, with one showing no symptoms at all. He was quick to point out that no one contracted the virus from the job site.

“Even though most of our crews work outside, we encourage people to stay in their own bubbles,” Rahkonen said. “If you stay within your bubble, you’ll be in pretty good shape.”

 

Widespread Impact

The economic impact of COVID-19 on a national level is often reflected at the local level, especially for construction companies. In the travel sector, Standard and Poor’s recently projected a 70% decline in airline-passenger traffic for 2020. The core business of Perrier’s company involves aviation construction, ranging from airline and rental-car facilities to restaurants and retail stores located at Logan International, Bradley International, and other airports.

“We had a considerable amount of work that, within a period of two weeks, was flat-out cancelled for the airlines,” he said. “A great deal of the other work was either temporarily postponed or put on an indefinite hold.” One large airline client told Perrier that its facility’s goal was to reach a “zero spend by November first.”

Two to three months into the pandemic, Mercieri began getting word of projects being canceled. His company had already bought materials to start construction for one of those projects.

“When they first shut us down, they told us it was temporary,” he said. “Then, six weeks later, they wrote us a letter to say they had canceled the project.”

Two natural-gas compression stations that Rahkonen’s company had planned to build in Pennsylvania this year have been put off until next year. While those still look viable for 2021, they represent $20 million less in projects for Northern Construction this year.

Perrier predicts the long-term impact of aviation construction will be felt by many for years to come. That’s why his company has diversified into other industries besides aviation.

Houle Construction

Houle Construction continues to take on work in the medical field, including this recent project at a local hospital.

“We are doing a decent amount of work in the cannabis industry. It’s booming right now, so that’s helped us out,” he said. One project nearing completion is Dreamer, a cannabis dispensary in Southampton scheduled to open in 2021.

The holiday season tends to be a time when activity begins to slow down in construction and many jobs approach their completion. It’s also a time for active bidding on projects for next year. Mercieri struck a positive tone and suggested a possible rebound in construction activity for 2021.

“Back in March, a lot of projects were delayed, and now they are getting put back on the table and going out for bid,” he said, adding that some of the projects getting approved involve bringing public buildings into compliance with COVID-19 mandates.

When Pelletier surveys the landscape, he senses both uncertainty and hopefulness.

“Clients have had projects on the docket to get done but were skittish for the last seven months, and with a rise in case count, there is still some uncertainty,” he said. “On the plus side, interest rates are extremely low, so borrowing the money for a project is less expensive now.”

Pelletier and the other managers we spoke with have all taken a one-day-at-a-time approach because they understand that coronavirus levels, and the government regulations aimed at lowering them, will most likely change again — and they will simply make the necessary adjustments.

“Because we’re wearing masks all day, everyone has a sore on their nose and a generally irritated demeanor,” Pelletier said. “But we’re navigating through it.”

Construction Special Coverage

Essential Work

Maple Elementary School, a Fontaine Brothers

The new Maple Elementary School, a Fontaine Brothers project, takes shape in Easthampton.

 

 

Back in March, ‘essential’ was a magic word for employers across Massachusetts. It meant they could continue to work, provide services, and generate revenue during a time when so many sectors were completely shutting down.

But to Laurie Raymaakers, the word means more than that, because construction has always been essential to communities — particularly the infrastructure and civil-engineering projects her Westfield-based company, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons, is known for.

“Through the pandemic season, we’ve continued to get new jobs, and we have been able to keep all our employees working,” she told BusinessWest. “We are considered essential workers because we do a lot of infrastructure work for municipalities, which is very important to every community. We do all kinds of infrastructure — sewers, water, drainage, pump stations, culverts.”

Among the firm’s recent seven-figure projects are a large sewer project in Shrewsbury, a large culvert replacement in Pittsfield, and a drainage pond for Barnes Airport that had to be completed on a tight, 45-day schedule.

The company also created a road for the installation of two wind turbines in Russell and replaced a 100-year-old culvert in a pond at Forest Park in Springfield, a job that involved building a temporary dam, as well as creating new walkways and overlooks in the area. And the company’s workload for the fall and winter, and beyond, looks strong.

“During COVID, a lot of our projects stayed open the entire time because a lot of work we were doing fell under the category deemed essential — a lot of public projects. t was a mixed blessing because it was great to continue working, but also difficult to adapt to the changes day by day.”

“We have enough work to keep going,” Raymaakers said. “But we’ve also worked very hard keeping employees safe. It was very difficult in the beginning, trying to get sanitary supplies for sites, like masks and sanitizer, and follow all the standards of the CDC and prepare all the proper paperwork. We value our employees, and we wanted to keep them safe. We’re very fortunate we work outdoors, with the type of work we do.”

David Fontaine Jr. tells a similar story about his company, Springfield-based Fontaine Brothers, when it comes to being essential.

“We’ve got a lot going on — we’re pretty busy this year and into 2021,” he said. “Prior to COVID coming along, we had a lot of backlog and a lot of work we had underway, so we were in a pretty healthy spot.

“During COVID, a lot of our projects stayed open the entire time because a lot of work we were doing fell under the category deemed essential — a lot of public projects,” he went on. “It was a mixed blessing because it was great to continue working, but also difficult to adapt to the changes day by day.”

Recent and ongoing jobs include building new high schools in Worcester and Middleboro, as well as a new K-8 school in Easthampton; the firm was also recently awarded a job to combine the Deberry and Homer schools in Springfield, with construction to begin next summer.

“The nice part about the public work is it’s funded with reliable state dollars; projects being constructed now were funded a year or two ago, so it’s an ongoing source of work,” Fontaine said. “It looks stable going forward next 12 months at least.”

The biggest concern right now, actually, is that some planned projects will hit a funding stall, which would manifest in a slowdown of projects a year or two from now, he added. But so far, 2020 has been a healthy year, even if uncertainty looms around the corner for many firms.

Reading the Signs

The signs were all there in February, Fontaine said, when COVID-19 was already starting to disrupt some material supply chains.

“We started preparing for it before some of our peers; we were already planning for how we were going to approach it when it came,” he told BusinessWest. “We put into place a pandemic protocol from a safety standpoint for all job sites, and tried to stay ahead of it as much as we could. We wanted to be proactive and make sure the job sites stayed open and safe.”

That involved measures that have become common in many businesses, including personal protective equipment like face coverings and gloves, worn 100% of the time.

J.L. Raymaakers & Sons recently completed an extensive project at Swan Pond

J.L. Raymaakers & Sons recently completed an extensive project at Swan Pond in Forest Park, which involved creating a temporary dam and replacing a century-old culvert.

“We also put additional handwashing stations and sanitizing stations on all job sites,” he explained. “We also require, on every job, a daily check-in process; before anyone enters the job site, they have to self-certify they have not had any symptoms or been in contact with anyone COVID-positive the last 14 days. We’ve also been doing temperature screenings on a couple of job sites.”

Those efforts have paid off, he added. “Knock on wood, but all those measures have been effective in not having many safety concerns or incidents.”

At least one trend in the year of COVID-19 has been a positive for J.L. Raymaakers, whose yard-products division, ROAR, has been extremely busy, adding more than 600 new customers this year and tripling sales.

“That’s partly through marketing and word of mouth, but partly because of COVID,” Raymaakers said. “People have been home, not at work, and they were sprucing up their yards and planting gardens.”

Those two elements of her business — public infrastructure work and yard products — have not only helped Raymaakers and her team weather an unusual year, but thrive during it. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t recognize acute needs elsewhere.

“People don’t realize you can make a good living, and we’re hearing that everywhere; it’s very difficult to find employees. If the the trades are dying, what’s going to happen then?”

“Because we’ve been so fortunate this year, and so many people and organizations have been struggling, we upped our charitable contributions to help out with food banks as well as the Westfield Boys and Girls Club, making sure we give back to the community and those that are struggling.”

One trend that has not changed this year, even with so many people out of work, Raymaakers said, is a persistent shortage of workers.

“For ourselves as well as other construction companies, as much as we’re busy, it’s very difficult to find employees or crew — equipment operators and laborers — in this industry,” she told BusinessWest.

“People don’t realize you can make a good living, and we’re hearing that everywhere; it’s very difficult to find employees,” she added, noting that many of her firm’s supervisors and project managers started on the ground floor and worked their way up. “If the the trades are dying, what’s going to happen then?”

It’s not a localized phenomenon. According to a workforce survey conducted by Associated General Contractors of America and software vendor Autodesk, 60% of respondents reported having at least one future project postponed or canceled this year, and 33% said projects already underway have been halted. Yet, a shortage of labor remains, with 52% having a hard time filling some or all hourly craft positions and only 3% of firms reducing pay, despite the downturn in business.

COVID-19 is playing some role in that trend. While some companies have laid off workers during the pandemic, 44% of contractors say at least some employees have refused to return, citing unemployment benefits, virus concerns, or family issues, among other reasons.

“Few firms have survived unscathed from the pandemic amid widespread project delays and cancellations,” Ken Simonson, chief economist of Associated General Contractors of America, told the Engineering News-Record. “Ironically, even as the pandemic undermines demand for construction services, it is reinforcing conditions that have historically made it hard for many firms to find qualified craft workers to hire.”

One positive from all this has been an accelerated adoption of technology. According to the workforce survey, about 40% of responding contractors said they have adopted new hardware or software to alleviate labor shortages.

“As bad as this situation is, it’s also pushing the industry forward into a better place,” William Sankey, CEO of data-analytics solutions provider Northspyre, said in Construction Dive, an online industry newsletter. “Maybe, where it would have taken seven to 10 years to catch up to where the finance industry is in leveraging data, I think that transition will now be underway in the next two to three years.”

Down the Road

What happens over the next two to three years is really the key for all construction firms, which expect COVID-related impacts to continue to be felt down the road.

For now, though, Fontaine is gratified that his company’s workload is healthy, with public projects complemented by a fair amount of private work, including jobs for MGM and several prepatory schools, including Northfield Mount Hermon School, Deerfield Academy, and Wilbraham & Monson Academy.

“We’re hoping those types of schools will have OK years fundraising for those types of projects,” he said, adding that private-sector clients can often move from funding to the construction phase quicker than municipalities, especially when they realize they can take advantage of recession-driven lower prices.

It’s just another way this unprecedented year has cut both ways for construction firms. The big question is what the coming years will bring for a sector that’s essential in more ways than one.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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.

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