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Thomas Morin

Thomas Morin says the season has been busy as usual.

With recession clouds building and supply-chain issues still affecting industries across the board, area roofers say they’re still maintaining a steady workflow.

That’s partly because, when it comes to a leaky roof, there’s no skipping out on fixing the problem, said Fran Beaulieu, co-owner of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement Inc. and PBHI Roofing. “Unfortunately for people, whether they beg, steal, or borrow to get money, when you have water leaking into your home, you have to fix it. So roofing is generally pretty consistent.”

PBHI was started in 1967 by Beaulieu’s father, Phil Beaulieu, and has been family-owned and operated ever since, offering full roof replacement and repair, new roof construction, roof inspections, flat- and low-slope roofing, storm-damage repairs, and skylight installation, as well as vinyl siding, windows, doors, decks, porches, and more.

The roofers at CDA Roofing and Siding agreed with Beaulieu’s take on basic demand for roofing services. Chris Dore, lead estimator and project coordinator, said that as long as the phones are ringing and estimates are going out, business can be considered healthy.

CDA has been family-owned and operated for the past 11 years in Agawam, since Clarke Dore and Jimmy Acerra merged their roofing businesses to strengthen their clientele. Dore owned and operated CDA Roofing, but primarily focused on residential shingle work. When merging the two companies, Acerra brought forth his expertise on commercial roofing; he has earned an A+ rating with Firestone Building Products, a leading roofing-products manufacturer.

Fran Beaulieu

Fran Beaulieu

“There has never in my adult life been a better time to get into the trades, period.”

A healthy flow of business doesn’t necessarily mean a peak year, however. Dore said he and his team have a theory: during a typical summer, kids are home from school and people are on summer vacations, but as the weather starts to change and people are getting their kids back into school mode, there’s an influx in business.

But this year, the recession has caused some hesitancy among homeowners.

“It was slow in the sense that people were a little gun-shy, I think, to commit. Regardless of the size of your house, roofing is a huge project, whether it’s a million-dollar mansion or a modest cape or even a shed or doghouse,” he said, noting that issues like inflation and the supply chain are disrupting homeowners’ decisions. “There’s a million fingers pointed at the highest level of government down to the local government. Who’s to really blame? Everyone’s got their theories.”

 

Fixing a Hole

Thomas Morin, owner of Valley Roofing and Restoration, agreed and said that people are being more conscious about what they’re spending their money on and “comparing apples to apples for every estimate.”

Shingles are generally the more affordable option depending on the company, but just like everything else in the world, the roofing industry is driven by petroleum costs. Each of the businesses BusinessWest spoke with said that, when the price of oil is high, all their building products are going to cost more, but roofing shingles, which are made with oil, and other commercial roofing products are especially vulnerable.

Morin launched Valley Roofing and Restoration about a decade ago. He specializes in new roof installations and repairs, and among his products is metal roofing, which he says is a growing trend due to its price.

“We’re just trying to stay busy at this point, but things have been good,” Morin said. “In roofing, it’s hard to expect anything. You have to go with the flow, and if something isn’t working, you change it.”

It doesn’t help, Beaulieu said, that roofing is one of the heaviest materials to transport, and diesel costs are through the roof (no pun intended). “When things are heavy, you need heavy trucks that are capable of moving really heavy materials, and they use a lot of diesel.”

Dore described the rise in prices as a “kick in the head.” In these circumstances, he explained, it’s difficult for businesses to maintain consistent profit margins. While prices seemingly never slow and continue to rise, that cost is relayed to the customer, but the company doesn’t benefit.

“The profit margin is what it is,” he went on. “You try to remain competitive — and there’s a lot of competition in this area. You just have to try to keep your head down, stay the course, and weather the storm; that’s really what it is.”

As the harsh cold of New England starts to settle in, both Beaulieu and Dore stress that homeowners should conduct due diligence and research the company it hires to do a job, but for different reasons.

Ice dams are a homeowner’s enemy in New England; those are ice buildups on the eaves of sloped roofs of heated buildings that result from melting snow under a snow pack reaching the eave and freezing there, especially in the middle of winter. The first inclination is to call a roofer, but Beaulieu advises against that.

Workers for Valley Roofing and Restoration make progress on a residential roof replacement.

Workers for Valley Roofing and Restoration make progress on a residential roof replacement.

“You need an insulator contractor. When you have ice dams on your house, homeowners tend to call roofers, and unfortunately, roofers in this industry aren’t always the most ethical guys,” he said. “They will just sell them a new roof or charge them to shovel snow off the roof, which causes all kinds of problems.”

Winter also brings an influx of storms and storm chasers. For example, after the June 2011 tornado, Dore explained, roofers from out of state were patrolling neighborhoods in hopes of “repairing” roofs.

“A lot of potential future work for myself and other companies in the area evaporated. I don’t want to say it hurt us by any means, but we noticed, ‘OK, there’s that house, that house,’ whole neighborhoods that got roofs that really weren’t ready for them,” he said. “They were done by guys who you can’t even get on the phone if you wanted to. They came in, and a lot of them did the wrong thing; we ran into it multiple times.”

 

Getting Better

As the roofing season heads into winter and unemployment is still high, Beaulieu, who is also president of the Western Massachusetts Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc., stressed the importance of trades as a career path, saying the writing is on the wall for continued disruption in the industry due to workforce challenges.

“There has never in my adult life been a better time to get into the trades, period,” he told BusinessWest. “Whether you want to be a mason, a carpenter, a vinyl-siding installer, a roofer, you want to do windows and doors, you want to build decks, there’s never been a better time because it’s really hard to find younger people that want to do it.”

And roofing is a place they can start at the top, in a sense — and only move up from there.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Special Coverage

Managing Change

As Bryan Hughes listed off some recent projects at Western Builders, where he took the reins as president on Oct. 3, he mentioned the new Girls Inc. of the Valley headquarters on Hampden Street in Holyoke.

“I’m excited to see that project, how they’re doing in that building,” he said, “because I have some memories there.”

He certainly does, as the property was previously the headquarters of the O’Connell Companies, of which Western is one of five divisions. The main construction division, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC), is where Hughes cut his teeth in the industry and then built his experience and skillset for nine years.

While at DOC, Hughes filled numerous roles over the years, most notably as a project manager on several college and university campuses, overseeing projects that ranged between $30 million to $80 million in overall construction cost, including Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum and the UConn Athletic Village.

“We had a lot of diverse projects, and I was able to learn a lot just being in the field,” he told BusinessWest.

Construction management wasn’t his first career path, however. “I’m math- and science-based for the most part; that’s how my mind works,” he said of his enrollment at Lehigh University to study engineering.

East Gables in Amherst

East Gables in Amherst is a passive-house project, a voluntary standard for energy efficiency.

“I landed on civil engineering because I was interested in the building side of things and heavy, highway-type construction. But when I graduated, I realized I have people skills as well that would go underutilized if I stayed in the engineering field. So construction management was a perfect fit in terms of combining the technical and personal aspects of the the construction field. And I really fell in love with it when I started with DOC.”

During his time at O’Connell, Hughes attended a hybrid program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to earn his MBA. “That further honed my interest in the business side of things and ultimately got me interested and inspired to lead a company.”

When the opportunity came up to lead the 26-employee team at Western Builders, both Hughes and O’Connell leadership felt it was a good fit. “What led me to Western was my experience, just having a passion for construction and getting into the details of a project, both techically and in terms of relationships with clients and the community.”

“Part of what we provide as a service is to understand the issues with the supply chain and try to react to them as best we can, or at least propose solutions to owners to work around those challenges.”

James Sullivan, president of the O’Connell Companies, agreed. “We are very fortunate to have someone of Mr. Hughes’ caliber and experience, and I am very confident that Bryan will successfully lead Western and will do so with a clear understanding of our culture and reputation,” he said at the time of the hiring.

“He has exceptional operational and communication skills and is client- and employee-focused with deep leadership capabilities, proven to me in his nine-year tenure in another subsidiary company, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons,” Sullivan added. “With this renewed leadership, I am confident our best years lie ahead of us, and that Western will continue to be the builder of choice in the communities we serve.”

 

Learning by Doing

Hughes’s final job for DOC was managing a project in Rhode Island with the Narragansett Bay Commission, which followed a design-build project-delivery method.

“We were in control of the design process for two new buildings — the administration and maintenance buildings,” he explained. “I think design-build is a method that could be more ubiquitous in the future, combining our talents as construction managers to include the design team in that process.”

While his role will certainly change as the president of Western, his experience as a project manager on multiple large projects helped him hone his organizational and leadership skills.

Western’s 26 Spring development

Western’s 26 Spring development is among the projects in Amherst aimed at mitigating the town’s housing shortage.

“As a PM, it’s a lot of correspondence with the design team, building a relationship with the owner so there’s a trust factor there, and just bringing the team together — working with the superintendent to nail down a schedule and keeping subcontractors accountable.

“Inevitably in the construction industry, things come up, so PMs manage the change-order process as well and how to solve problems on behalf of the owner, and come up with solutions to those problems,” he added. “We provide the service for the owner so they feel a comfort level going into a project and through that project — we’re kind of looking out for their best interest.”

Hughes takes over at a company that has built a strong reputation in recent years in commercial housing projects, including two in downtown Amherst in partnership with Archipelago Investments that are attempting to fill a critical shortage of housing in town — an issue many municipalities are facing.

“There’s a lot in the pipeline in the housing sector,” he added. “That’s one thing people come to us with — people trust us based on past performance in the housing market, or the commercial-housing space,” he said. “We’re working with some developers now on some other potential properties, all in Western Mass. or Connecticut.”

While Western boasts a wheelhouse of sorts in housing, “we have the capability and the capacity to broaden those horizons and take on more challenging projects because of the experience level of our people,” he added, noting, as examples, a current project to build a PeoplesBank branch in South Windsor, Conn., and the firm’s work a few years ago to renovate the Basketball Hall of Fame and update the weatherproofing of its signature sphere, panel by panel.

“Developers and owners come to Western and ask us to help them with their projects because we have close-knit roots in the area,” Hughes went on. “And what I’ve really learned to love about Western is the sense of feeling comfortable and at home and part of the community. That makes Western more attractive to a lot of developers who are coming from New York City or Boston or all over the country to develop Western Mass. And I think we’re ready to take on the challenges of guiding those folks through that journey to develop the area.”

“If we have a plan to grow as a company and take on some of these challenging projects, we’re going to need more people to do that, especially as some of our highly talented, very experienced people start to retire. In terms of age demographics, there are more people going out than people coming in. So that’s a tide that’s working against us too.”

An increasing number of such projects involve passive housing, which is a voluntary standard for energy-efficiency in a building, he added. “We see that as a space that’s going to continue to grow. So, when I mention developing Western Mass., there’s a smart and climate-conscious way of doing that.”

 

Supply and Demand

While Hughes sees opportunities to grow the business at Western, he’s also dealing with the same inflation and supply-chain issues plaguing all other companies in this sector.

“The supply chain has been a challenge for us and for a lot of our competitors for sure,” he told BusinessWest. “Part of what we provide as a service is to understand the issues with the supply chain and try to react to them as best we can, or at least propose solutions to owners to work around those challenges. It’s nobody’s fault … it’s just another thing that has come up in the industry, like everything Western has dealt with for the past 45 years or so — just another bump in the road. It too shall pass.”

The hope is that price pressures will ease sooner than later, of course. “I think there will be some level of plateau, especially with interest rates going up, and hopefully the broader industry can find that balance of prices that are acceptable for everyone so that owners and developers still want to do business, still want to proceed with their projects. And I think we’re on that path for sure.”

As he looks to future growth, Hughes faces another national headwind — the challenge of hiring and retaining a workforce in a tight market for employers.

“Just like every other company around, we can always use more good people; it’s hard to find help,” he said. “If we have a plan to grow as a company and take on some of these challenging projects, we’re going to need more people to do that, especially as some of our highly talented, very experienced people start to retire. In terms of age demographics, there are more people going out than people coming in. So that’s a tide that’s working against us too.”

But he’s hopeful about the younger generation, noting that he attended an awards gala at Springfield Technical Community College earlier this month, and “we heard some stories about the students there and their willingness and excitement to get out into the industry. I think there are a lot of good opportunities for young people — at STCC, Bay Path, Westfield State, Putnam, even up at UMass there’s a building and construction technology program. That’s a lot of young people I hope are willing and excited to stick around Western Mass.”

Originally from Rhode Island, Hughes chose this region as well, as did his fiancee, an Ohio native whom he met playing dodgeball in Northampton seven years ago; they’ll marry in April.

“When I started working with DOC, I was able to find a home in Western Mass.,” he said. “I really enjoy this area of the country and hope to stay here for many years to come.”

He remembers first settling down here and those early days at O’Connell, when he was one of those young people excited to get started in construction.

“I really considered the older, more experienced people role models for me, listening to their stories. Coming up through the ranks as a laborer doing physical manual labor and working up to being a superintendent, those types of stories really inspired me; I knew I could learn a lot from those people. So while a lot of our more experienced people are on the way out the door, the more people we can bring in to learn from them before they’re gone, the better-positioned Western will be for the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Survey Says

Construction’s skilled-labor shortage is a well-known and serious concern for the U.S. construction sector, but the extent of the problem shows issues that need to be resolved right away if the country is to satisfy rising construction demand.

Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and Autodesk conducted a workforce survey, and the results show that 93% of construction companies report having positions available they are trying to fill, and 91% of those firms are having trouble trying to fill at least some of those positions, especially among the craft workforce that accomplishes the majority of on-site construction activities.

According to Ken Simonson, chief economist at AGC, the most common rationale for problems filling positions, mentioned by 77% of employers, is that available individuals lack the skills required to work in construction or cannot take a drug test.

According to the national employment figures, the construction sector’s unemployment rate as of July was actually slightly lower than that of other sectors, he added. That’s remarkable in a sector where workers aren’t always kept on the payroll once a project is completed. With a 3.5% rate, virtually no one with prior construction expertise is actively seeking employment in the industry.

However, a panel of construction professionals in a webinar hosted by AGC said the industry needs to attack the issue from every perspective, which includes education and training, public relations, and things as simple as employers improving wages, perks, and labor standards. The survey results highlight the need for public officials to invest in new workforce-development programs focused on the construction industry.

According to Simonson, federal, state, and local officials must invest in the kinds of professional and technical education programs that will introduce more current and future employees to the myriad job possibilities that exist in construction. Additionally, these programs offer the kind of fundamental capabilities employers are looking for.

On a completely separate note, Simonson proposed that, in order to help cover demand gaps, federal officials could also take action to permit more workers to legally enter the nation. Later in the online conversation, the panelists discussed how to spread the word about the advantages of a career in construction to other undiscovered labor pools, including those in the retail and hospitality industries.

The panelists also talked about considering those who have served time in prison as job seekers because many of them are trying to better their lives but haven’t had much luck finding work.

Regardless of potential remedies, the existing shortages will undoubtedly hinder the completion of projects.

Construction enterprises of all shapes, sizes, and labor arrangements are suffering from a serious scarcity of laborers, according to Simonson. These labour shortages are making it harder for businesses to deal with supply-chain risks that are driving up building material costs and causing uncertainty in delivery times and product availability.

Indeed, 82% of businesses claim that projects they are working on have been delayed due to supply-chain issues, and six in ten state that projects have been delayed due to manpower shortages. The federal government’s new infrastructure spending and more recent expenditures on semiconductor manufacturers and energy-infrastructure projects won’t deliver as much as promised if there aren’t enough people to keep up with demand, Simonson cautioned.

The findings indicate that all kinds of businesses are facing the same difficulties. Contractors working on building projects, highway and transportation initiatives, federal and heavy work, or utility infrastructure reported results that have been remarkably similar, whether they used only union craft labor or open-shop employers, contractors with annual revenues of $50 million or less, or those with more than $500 million.

Construction is becoming more expensive as a result of labor shortages and supply-chain issues. In the past year, 86% of businesses increased the basic pay rates for their employees, while 70% passed on higher material costs to project owners.

Some project owners have canceled or delayed projects due to cost and supply-chain issues; according to 58% of respondents, owners have done so due to rising costs, while one-third of enterprises say projects have been affected by extended or unknown completion deadlines.

Many construction companies claim to be taking action to address the labor shortage. Along with the fact that most companies have increased pay rates, 45% of them are now offering incentives and bonuses, and 24% of them have also upgraded their benefit packages.

Technology is a key factor in how well businesses are able to deal with difficulties like labor shortages. In fact, 87% of businesses agree that, in order to enable new technologies to succeed, staff must be proficient in digital technology. Even if few candidates have the necessary construction abilities, at least half of the responding businesses claim that the individuals they are employing have the necessary technology skills.

While the majority of construction companies are now having trouble filling vacant positions with qualified candidates, Allison Scott, director of Customer Experience and Industry Advocacy at Autodesk, noted that, as more workers retire, the labor crisis will only worsen. What’s promising is that construction companies understand this and are proactively training young people for careers in the industry.

She added that the industry is committed to taking action to build the next generation of the workforce, as seen by the increased efforts in career development and training programs, as well as an emphasis on digital skills.

The AGC is urging officials at the federal, state, and local levels to support career and technical education initiatives that will introduce more current and future workers to the diverse career options in the construction industry. In order to help bridge demand gaps until the domestic channel for training personnel is established, the group is also pleading with federal officials to permit additional workers to legally enter the country.

There is a lot of work for the business to undertake, but there aren’t enough workers or resources to finish the projects, according to Simonson. The construction industry will be able to rebuild America’s infrastructure, modernize its manufacturing sector, and contribute to the delivery of a more dependable and cleaner energy grid by addressing labor shortages and supply-chain issues. u

 

This article first appeared in World Construction Today.

Construction

Center of Activity

MassDevelopment recently issued a $30 million tax-exempt bond on behalf of the Berkshire School, an independent, coeducational, college-preparatory boarding and day school in Sheffield for grades 9 through 12 and post-graduates.

The school will use bond proceeds to build a 17,000-square-foot addition to the existing 31,000-square-foot student center; replace the building’s roof, windows, and mechanical, electrical, and fire-protection systems; and fund furniture, fixtures, and equipment for the building. When complete, the student center will house a kitchen, dining commons, music center, gathering space, snack bar, club space, Student Life offices, post office, bookstore, radio station, and more.

Construction is expected to begin in the late spring of 2023 and be completed in the fall of 2024. TD Bank purchased the bond, which will also fund construction of new faculty housing.

“The Commonwealth is fortunate to have many independent preparatory schools in our education ecosystem that provide quality academic experiences for students and open the door to successful career paths in our communities,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who serves as chair of MassDevelopment’s board of directors. “MassDevelopment’s financing solutions gives these schools the chance to make cost-effective upgrades to their facilities.”

MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera noted that “a key component to a well-balanced academic and social experience is providing students with a place to join together outside of the classroom. We’re pleased to be a part of the Berkshire School’s investment in student life and faculty housing that will improve the foundation of its campus and community.”

Andrew Webster, TD Bank’s vice president and senior relationship manager, added that “we are thrilled to work with MassDevelopment and be a part of the expansion and improvements being made to the Berkshire School campus. The local community is an integral part of what we do at TD, and we are honored to be able to support quality education for the students and faculty who live within it.”

Established in 1907, the Berkshire School is located on a 400-acre campus and serves approximately 400 students from 30 states and 31 countries. It offers signature programs in advanced math and science research and advanced humanities research with a range of artistic and athletic offerings, along with national recognition for its efforts in sustainability. In addition, students have their choice of more than 50 extracurricular clubs, interest groups, affinity spaces, and activities to foster individual talents, promote self-esteem, and encourage leadership.

MassDevelopment has previously supported Berkshire School with tax-exempt financing. In 2018, the  agency issued a $3 million tax-exempt bond to help the school build, furnish, and equip an approximately 2,280-square-foot addition to its Spurr dormitory, demolish and reconstruct portions of the building, and replace about 185,000 square feet of existing athletic turf fields.

“Once again, MassDevelopment has stepped up to support Berkshire School in a truly impactful way,” Berkshire School Chief Financial Officer Robert Boyd said. “This financing will help us to build and create an open and multi-functional space where everyone is welcomed and has a place to come together as a community.”

 

Construction Special Coverage

Building Toward Stability

 

John Raymaakers, operations manager and estimator at J.L. Raymaakers & Sons, says he is happy to have the projects he does to carry him into the fall of 2023.

“In this area, I can’t give a for-sure number of how many people are doing this kind of work,” he said of the civil construction company, which works on projects mostly for cities, the government, commercial and industrial interests, and commercial properties, as well as some private jobs. This type of work includes a lot of underground sewer, drainage, and water.

“Some of these jobs have had to be pushed off for almost a year because it’s just about nine to 12 months to get product in.”

“When we bid on jobs, usually eight to 15 people are bidding on that job,” Raymaakers said. “When you look at things, it’s really not that many companies. Even though there doesn’t seem to be many projects to be done, there is still a lot of work to be done in those projects. Right now, we’re very busy.”

The Westfield-based firm is currently working on a C5 hangar at Westover Air Reserve Base, a cannabis dispensary in the Whip City, and several pump stations. The company also has a few emergency contracts with the city of Westfield in case of emergencies.

Just like J.L. Raymaakers, many construction businesses are surviving in the current economic state. Sweitzer Construction, based in Monson, has been filling its backlog with projects going into 2023.

John and Laurie Raymaakers

John and Laurie Raymaakers say there’s an understanding between contractors and clients when it comes to supply-chain issues because everyone is dealing with them.

The family construction business specializes in work ranging from zoning and permitting for customers to acquiring sites for them to find, as well as helping customers secure financing. Its projects range in geographic location from Greenfield to Springfield; from Southwick to Lenox. Over the summer, it worked on projects in a number of its specialties, including medical, dental, high-tech, education, and cannabis facilities.

“We have a multi-year high-tech customer, IMI Adaptas, in Palmer Industrial Park,” explained Craig Sweitzer, general manager of Sweitzer Construction. “We’ve done six buildings for them, and again, it’s all high-tech manufacturing, from clean rooms to research and development to mass spectrometry labs.”

Springfield-based Gagliarducci Construction has been working on a multitude of projects this summer also. Projects range from site work in Springfield and Amherst and road work in Easthampton and Northampton to the Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst and the new Aliki Perroti & Seth Frank Lyceum building at Amherst College.

“Some of these jobs have had to be pushed off for almost a year because it’s just about nine to 12 months to get product in.”

Jerry Gagliarducci, the firm’s president, said he’s got “a lot of stuff going on at Amherst College and UMass.”

Tim Pelletier, president of Raymond R. Houle Construction in Ludlow, said his business performs commercial and industrial construction, primarily working on medical facilities in the Western Mass. area. The firm has been busy this summer, “renovating said medical facilities and a few other private projects on the outside, but still medical-related.”

 

The Price for Projects

Despite the constant work at many area firms, supply-chain issues and inflation have taken a toll on productivity.

Raymaakers told BusinessWest that a lot of his projects have gotten pushed back almost a year because products aren’t coming in on time.

“We’ve been told that some of our sewer pump stations that need electrical components won’t be in until June of next year,” he said. “Some of these jobs have had to be pushed off for almost a year because it’s just about nine to 12 months to get product in.”

Sweitzer had a similar story to tell. He explained that some electrical equipment needed for jobs can take up to 40 months to come in. Basic water pipes, such as the Delta Liner pipe, are also among the hottest items waiting to be delivered.

Jerry Gagliarducci

Jerry Gagliarducci says he may be looking for help, but the help he has now is “excellent.”

Gagliarducci said he must be “very diligent” when it comes to ordering products ahead of time. The hope is to order products now, so there can be some sort of possibility of seeing it before spring.”

Pelletier agreed. “Most supply-chain issues were definitely a concern, but knowing what products take longer to get and approximately how long it’ll take to get it, I planned accordingly so I could meet the timelines we promised to our customers,” he said. “It’s just a matter of reorganizing our planning process so that we can acquire the materials needed when we need them.”

Supply-chain issues aren’t the only thing putting a halt on production; the rising price of fuels and materials is causing companies to account for it in their estimates. Gagliarducci said that he must be very cautious of where he buys from and what he buys, and he has to be careful to not let machines idle for too long.

Raymaakers agreed. He explained that one of the downfalls of city and state work is that it doesn’t follow the escalator clause. If the price of something increases or decreases more or less than 5%, the price is adjusted. A lot of contracts, such as diesel fuel and concrete, run with an escalator clause.

“We’ll be looking more into the public sector for roadwork and things like that. There seems to be a big push for infrastructure money — water, sewer, and new roads, that kind of thing.”

“This is what it was at when you bid it, but if it goes up or down, this is what you get,” he said. “But a lot of these contracts won’t allow it, so it does hurt us on our end of it. The change in prices this year is really tough.”

 

Projected Plans

Even though prices look to be staying where they are for the moment, construction companies are planning ahead to hopefully get themselves started earlier. All the contractors who that talked to BusinessWest mentioned bidding on projects way ahead of the starting timeframe.

“Taking a vacant lot and bringing it back to life in the city is an exciting project for us,” said Pat Sweitzer, partner at Sweitzer Construction. “One of the projects that we are looking forward to is breaking ground on a dispensary on Boston Road in Springfield.”

She went on to say it’s a real privilege to be part of revamping old mills in Holyoke and Hardwick; “it’s an exciting project, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

Raymaakers said one of his firm’s next projects is going to be at the airport in Garner, as well as four to five pump stations. About five crews are currently out in the field, allowing the company to work on different jobs at once.

Gagliarducci is planning to branch out this upcoming season in the public sector.

Tim Pelletier

Tim Pelletier (fourth from left, with some of his team) says he’s had to plan around expected supply-chain issues to meet customer timetables.

“There’s not as many projects, and we’ve done a lot of site work on schools in the past dozen years — it doesn’t seem like many schools are being planned and coming out for bid this coming season,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ll be looking more into the public sector for roadwork and things like that. There seems to be a big push for infrastructure money — water, sewer, and new roads, that kind of thing.”

Even though the past year has been tricky, construction employers are feeling fortunate to have dedicated employees by their side. With a lot of work to be done in the construction sector, new employees are hard to come by, but Raymaakers is proud to have new trainees on his team.

“We’ve taken in a few employees that are just raw to this field. They’re learning, and it’s good for us in the future to have younger people. We are very lucky because the employees we have are very dedicated to us and very knowledgeable. They’re fantastic workers.”

It’s clear that the challenges that have beset construction over the past couple of years aren’t going away any time soon. But as the summer construction season comes to a close, area companies see enough positive signs — and have enough work in the pipeline — to feel good heading into 2023.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

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WESTFIELD Tighe & Bond, Inter-Fluve, the Town of Falmouth (MA), and project partners have been recognized with two awards for the Coonamessett River Restoration and John Parker Road Bridge project.

The project team received the Bronze Engineering Excellence Award from The American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts (ACEC/MA) and the Nicholas Humber Outstanding Collaboration Award from the Environmental Business Council of New England (EBC).

The awards recognize the successful transformation of 56 acres of abandoned cranberry bogs, which established a thriving, self-sustaining ecosystem supporting wildlife, increasing coastal resiliency, and providing educational opportunities. Numerous barriers to fish passage were removed including a dam, water control structures, a series of undersized culverts that were replaced with the new John Parker Road Bridge, and 5,560 feet of the river were reestablished to closely match the historic natural flow of the river. A river overlook is a gateway to miles of trail with interpretive signs about the natural history placed along the river that is protected by town and land trust conservation lands.

“The Coonamessett River restoration achieved its goals to be a nature-based solution to increase resiliency to climate change and community resiliency,” said Elizabeth Gladfelter, Falmouth Conservation Commission Member. “This project has increased awareness and stewardship of natural resources in Falmouth and both formal and informal educational programs.”

Project partners spanning local, state, and federal organizations collaborated with the technical engineering and construction teams to successfully complete this project. The restoration is serving as an example for other Cape Cod communities transforming former cranberry bogs across the region into thriving wildlife habitats and educational and recreational opportunities for all.

Architecture Construction Daily News Real Estate

SPRINGFIELD — Developer Peter A Picknelly, along with Springfield city officials, on Thursday unveiled a proposal to build a new Hampden County courthouse on a 14.5-acre site along the Connecticut River north of the Memorial Bridge. The proposal, which also includes housing and a marina, comes with a pricetag of $475 million.

The plans, unveiled at a press conference, call for a four-story, 210,000-260,000-square-foot courthouse; an 11-story residential apartment building with 120-180 units; and a 50-slip marina on the waterfront and a space for an outdoor restaurant.

The proposal hinges on whether the state decides to replace the troubled Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse on State Street. The state is exploring potential new sites and the cost of building a new courthouse; the existing facility has been plagued by health concerns.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said that if the state decides to build a new courthouse, the proposed riverfront site would be the ideal location.

Sarno, Picknelly, and Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief development officer, all said that a development of this size and with its various components could be a catalyst for growth along the river and in the North End of the city, similar to what the Basketball Hall of Fame has done for the area south of the Memorial Bridge.

Construction

Increase Pushes Level of Planning Above Most Recent Cyclical High

A measure of nonresidential building projects, the Dodge Momentum Index provides an analysis of the construction industry. Analysists delivered some bright news recently with the announcement that the Dodge Momentum Index increased 7% in May.

The index measures data about nonresidential building projects planned, to track spending in the sector. For May, the institutional component of the Momentum Index rose 9%, and the commercial component increased 6%.

May’s reading came in at 176.2, up from April’s 165.2.

According to Dodge Data & Analytics, May’s increase in the Dodge Momentum Index pushed the level of planning above the most recent cyclical high in November 2021.

During the month of May, commercial planning was led higher by an increase in office and hotel projects. Institutional planning saw a boost in education and healthcare projects entering planning. On a year-over-year basis, the Momentum Index was 17% higher than in May 2021. The commercial component was 24% higher, and the institutional component was 8% higher than one year ago.

A total of 19 projects with a value of $100 million or more entered planning in May.

The leading commercial projects were:

• $333 million Bitcoin Mining Facility (a large computing building) in Corsicana, Texas

• $300 million Gun Lake Hotel and Resort in Wayland, Mich.

The leading institutional projects were:

• $250 million Drexel University life sciences building in Philadelphia

• $160 million Colorado Research Exchange life sciences campus in Broomfield, Colo.

Despite higher interest rates and fear of recession, nonresidential building projects continue to steadily enter the planning cycle, according to Dodge. While higher prices and labor shortages may result in projects reaching groundbreaking later in 2022 or early 2023, they provide hope that the construction sector will be able to withstand a potential economic slowdown fed by higher interest rates.

Construction Cover Story

History in the Remaking

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Crews working on the $64 million initiative to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing say the project takes them back in time. Actually, it takes them to several different periods of time — from the property’s days as prominent hotel to more recent days, when it hosted a popular tavern and several other businesses. While doing this time-traveling, these same crews are living in the present and confronting a number of challenges as they usher in the next chapter in this property’s intriguing history.

Dave Fontaine Jr. calls it a “cool memento.” Actually, it’s turned out to be more than that.

He was referring to a bid package submitted by his firm, Fontaine Bros. Inc., for redevelopment of the former Court Square Hotel in the heart of downtown Springfield. The date on the three-ring binder, crammed with interior and exterior photographs and other materials, is 2000.

And that wasn’t the first — or only — time the company had submitted a bid on a project to transform the property, now vacant for more than 25 years, for a different use — endeavors that never saw the light of day for one reason for another.

There have been so many in fact, that Fontaine, vice president of the company started by his great-grandfather and his brother, had some humorous material for use when he was asked to say a few words at one of the many ceremonies to mark milestones for the project that actually made it off the drawing board — a $64 million initiative to convert the property into 71 units of market-rate housing.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project,” he told BusinessWest, adding that both his father, Dave Sr., and grandfather, Lester, were involved with similar proposals. “We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

More than a quarter century after the first such bid, Fontaine is finally at work in Court Square, with one of its banners hanging on the front of the property. It’s an intriguing project, said Fontaine, one of many the company has handled that falls in the broad category of historical restoration. Others include the transformation of Classical High School into condominiums, Berkshire Hall at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, the public libraries in Holyoke and Shrewsbury, and even the conversion of 95 State St., visible out the windows of the Court Square property, into the home of MGM’s headquarters in Springfield.

Work at Court Square began early this year, he said, noting that the first phase involved weatherizing the property and making it structurally sound, significant steps for a building that was, in his words, in “terrible shape” when crews arrived and set up shop.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

Actually it was in terrible shape in 2000, as photos in that bid package reveal, he said, adding that conditions only worsened over the past two decades as the elements took their toll on the structure.

“It had been vacant for 20 or 30 years,” he explained. “When we got there, the envelope needed work — and there are still areas where water gets into the building when the weather is poor — and historically there has been no heat in the building in the winter. The building was really on its last legs.”

Repairing and renovating what Mother Nature has damaged is just one of many challenges on this project, said Fontaine, noting that, like all construction projects undertaken at this time, this one has had to contend with everything from supply-chain issues to often dramatic increases in the prices of materials and labor.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project. We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

So much so that the Springfield City Council approved an 11th-hour request for $6.5 million in emergency funding to handle cost overruns for the project which came to fruition through a public-private partnership that includes a number of players, from the state, to Wynn Development and Opal Development, to MGM Springfield.

Another challenge is implied in that phrase ‘historical renovation.’ Indeed, the property, which dates to the 1890s, is on several lists of historic properties, said Karl Beaumier, on-site superintendent for the project, adding that, in many respects, crews from Fontaine are dismantling what was in place in the old hotel rooms and other spaces, storing those pieces, and putting them back after mechanicals, equipment, and appliances are installed and finishing work is completed. Everything that goes into the renovated structure, including new windows (600 of them) must be reviewed by the National Park Service.

“We salvaged a tremendous amount of the wainscoting on the corridors — some of it was left here, some of it came off and it’s going back on,” said Beaumier. “All of the doors were salvaged, the door frames, the door cases, the window cases on all the exterior windows, the baseboard, the chair rail, the crown molding — all of that stuff got saved; there are 10 40-foot conex boxes (shipping containers) completely full of salvaged woodwork that has to go back in the building.

“It’s been carefully removed, catalogued, and stored,” he went on. “It will all go back as part of the historical renovation.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest took a hard-hat tour of the property, and talked with Fontaine and Beaumier about the massive undertaking and the steps still to come.

 

Past Due

As they started their tour on the ground floor of the property, most recently home to several storefronts and eventually to be the site of a restaurant, Beaumier and Fontaine said that for the on-site crews, going to work each day also means going back in time.

Or to several different times, to be more precise.

view out one of the windows on the sixth floor

This view out one of the windows on the sixth floor explains why there has always been interest in converting the property for residential use.

Indeed, on the ground floor, the areas housing the storefronts bear evidence of their former uses, especially the space that was home to the tavern known as the Bar Association, a name chosen to reference the many clients from the legal community, many with offices within a block or so from the courthouse just south of the Court Square property.

“It was like things were stuck in time from the late ’80s,” said Fontaine, noting such items as the stained-glass window in the Bar Association and a door that still had the ‘R’ from owner Tony Ravossa’s name. “It’s cool seeing the old storefronts.”

From the ground floor, Beaumier took BusinessWest to the basement, where collected water provided evidence of still-ongoing work to shore up the property, and then to the second floor, where the next use of the property is starting to come into focus.

There, and on the remaining floors, long rows of what used to be hotel rooms —most all of them with doors to the rooms on either side — have been essentially gutted, with the masonry walls that divided them (see photo, page 30) taken down and the groundwork laid for what will become one- and two-bedroom apartments. In one hallway, rows of shower units were waiting for eventual installation.

While the property will have a completely different use than it did a century ago, it will look, in almost all respects, as it did back then, Beaumier explained.

“When we’re done, and we look down this corridor, it’s supposed to look just like it did in 1900,” he told BusinessWest as he gestured down the narrow hallway of the wing of the property that runs north-south toward State Street. “All these doors that went into the individual hotel rooms … we’ve opened up the spaces, so there will probably be two dummy doors for each unit; the doors that we took off have to get pinned back in the wall so that when you look down this corridor, it looks the same as it did historically; every third door will actually open into a unit, the rest will be dummy doors.”

Elaborating, he said that the actual walls to the units were pushed back a foot from where they stood originally, because the original corridor is too narrow for a wheel chair to turn in, an example of how some adjustments have to be made to enable a century-old building to comply with modern building codes and state and federal regulations.

The tour then provided more glimpses into the past as it went to and then down one of the original staircases to what was the lobby area of the former hotel, complete with the remains of a revolving door, marble-covered walls, and a ceiling, now in an advanced state of decay, that will be restored.

“Right now, we’re getting the building structurally back to where it needs to be so we can do the mechanicals and other systems,” said Fontaine adding that the initial phases of this project have involved demolition, structural work, and salvaging a number of features. When these have been completed, crews will move onto installation of those mechanical systems, replacing hundreds of windows, building out the individual apartments, and putting the salvaged items back in.

When the tour reached the sixth floor, Beaumier pointed out one of the north-facing windows to dramatic views of Court Square (see photo, page 26), looks that help explain why there has always been interest in redeveloping the property for housing, and why there has been a high level of interest in this project.

As they walked and pointed out specific areas of note in the sprawling property, Fontaine and Beaumier talked about everything from the significance of the project to Springfield and its central business district to the many challenges involved with undertaking a project like this at this time of soaring prices, supply-chain issues, and a workforce crisis that has affected all sectors of the economy including construction.

Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Work to convert the property into a mix of residential and retail spaces is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023. Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Fontaine, whose family has developed or redeveloped many properties downtown, from the aforementioned State Street project to the expansion of what is now known as the MassMutual Center, to the creation of MarketPlace, said the Court Square is an important next step in the revitalization of that area.

“That downtown area means a lot to us, we’ve handled a lot of projects in that area,” he said. “I grew up in this area, we’ll stay in this area; I want my daughters to be able to stay around here and work and live here if they choose to, and I this is a big step toward making downtown attractive to working professionals and people who want to be downown.”

As for the many challenges that come with building at this time, Fontaine said there have been some adjustments to make.

That includes the emergency funding from the City Council, he said, adding that the amount allocated should cover the escalating cost of the project. But it also includes longer lead times for items and, in some cases, having to use different products or materials because the lead times are too long.

“As with every construction project going on right now, there have been a lot of items with long lead times — significantly longer than normal,” he explained. “We’ve been working through that with the designers to use some products that do what we need them to do, but also get here within the lead times. With the mechanical systems, one of the manufacturers that was specified for the unit heaters had a 52-week lead time; we found something we could get in the time frame in which we needed them.”

 

Finishing Work

The elaborate project is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023, said Fontaine.

There will certainly be an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony at that time, one that will close the book on the long, often-frustrating efforts to create a new life for the historic property, and usher in the next chapter.

Fontaine can also close the book — figuratively but also quite literally — on more than 25 years of bidding on projects to transform the property.

That binder from 2000 is, as Fontaine said, a cool memento, but it’s also a symbol of this property and how long its fate has been a critical issue in Springfield.

 

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

Construction Special Coverage

A Framework for Continued Growth

D.A. Sullivan & Sons.

Mark Sullivan, center, with several members of the team at D.A. Sullivan & Sons.

It started with a few people building a home in Williamsburg in 1897. And over the past 125 years, the firm that came to be known as D.A. Sullivan & Sons Inc. has expanded in every way a construction firm can. Its vast portfolio of projects includes construction and renovation of schools, libraries, hospital facilities, dormitories, churches, and much more. While there are many keys to the success of the firm, it’s fourth-generation president says it all comes down to relationship-building.

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Mark Sullivan knows the elements of a successful building — strength, stability, durability, to name a few. And he should know — he’s the president and executive project manager of D.A. Sullivan & Sons, a construction company in Northampton.

Sullivan also knows firsthand that these same elements are essential for a successful company.

While constructing schools, churches, municipal buildings, and more, the Sullivan family has built an enduring business with a strong foundation. Indeed, D.A. Sullivan & Sons is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year — a milestone that speaks to the impressive legacy the Sullivans have built.

“Now I’m the fourth generation — my brother Dennis and myself are the fourth generation,” said Mark. “Our nephew, Andrew, joined us a few years ago, he’s the fifth generation. Hopefully we’ve got more to come.”

The company was started by his great-grandfather, Dennis A. Sullivan (D.A.) along with his brother, in 1897. They worked mostly on houses in Northampton — the city they’ve been based in for the past 125 years. Initially the pair traveled wherever the work was, even as the company grew, but for the past 75 years D.A. Sullivan & Sons has concentrated its services from Pittsfield to Worcester.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons acts as a construction manager or a general contractor. Sometimes it even acts as an owner’s project manager or “OPM” for towns that are undergoing building projects. It acts as a consultant to shepherd municipalities through the whole process of a public building project — undertakings that are often large and complex in nature.

“As a construction manager or a general contractor, we’re responsible for everything,” Mark Sullivan explained. “We self-perform with our own forces — more work than most firms our size. We’re responsible for the coordination of the entire process,” Sullivan said.

Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan says that relationship-building has been the key to success for this family business.

Of course, the industry has evolved dramatically since the company started all those years ago — the nature of commercial work has changed considerably since D.A. Sullivan & Sons was established in 1897. Even in the 35 years that Mark Sullivan has been with the company, he notes that technology and efficiency have been ever-improving.

“It used to be that my brother and I would each run three or four projects, we had a secretary with us, and that was it,” he explained. “Now you’ll have teams of personnel for each project. You can have four or five people dedicated to a single project … it’s worlds apart from where we were 55, even 35 years ago,” Sullivan said.

And it’s not just the industry that’s been evolving and growing.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has also grown considerably, now having more than 50 employees. However, it’s important to note that there are certain elements to the company that have not changed, even after all this time. The firm continues to be a community-oriented family business, and it is still equally as committed to maintaining close relationships with its clients as it was over a century ago.

“Because we’ve been around a long time and we’ve worked with almost every municipality in Western Mass, we have long-standing relationships with a lot of the private colleges and schools in the area,” Sullivan told BusiniessWest. The Eaglebrook school in Deerfield, in particular … that relationship is three decades old. It culminated a few years ago in their new science, art, and music building, which was a signature project on campus. That was a lot of fun.”

For this issue and its focus on the region’s construction sector, BusinessWest looks at the 125-year history of D.A. Sullivan. Along the way there has a been a good deal of that fun that Mark Sullivan described, but mostly hard work, attention to detail, lots of that relationship-building, and adding on that solid foundation that was put down when William McKinley was roaming the White House.

 

From the Ground Up

Just a quick look at the portfolio of completed projects on the firm’s website provides some deep insight into the diversity of work the company has taken on in recent years and some perspective into how it has changed the landscape in the region — figuratively, but in some cases, also quite literally.

Indeed, the firm handled the recent project to renovate Springfield’s Pynchon Park, which links the downtown to the Quadrangle area. It also took on a massive renovation of Chicopee’s historic City Hall, a project that included rehabilitation of the auditorium, exterior work on the main building, and renovation to the existing clock tower and numerous stained windows.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has been changing the landscape

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has been changing the landscape at UMass Amherst for decades, including this dormitory built in the 50s.

Meanwhile, the firm also took on projects to renovate the Worcester Public Library, Gamble Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College, the Fitness Center at Mass. College of Liberal Arts, and the 646-foot-long Fine Arts Center Bridge on the UMass Amherst campus, a complex undertaking that ultimately created more space for the Art, Theater, and Music departments.

Going back further, the portfolio includes projects (some could be called landmarks) such as the Blake Arena on the campus of Springfield College, the Springfield Materials Recovery Facility, Northampton’s new post office, Westfield High School, and countless others.

“Because we’ve been around a long time and we’ve worked with almost every municipality in Western Mass, we have long-standing relationships with a lot of the private colleges and schools in the area.”

Taken collectively, these projects show how the firm has evolved over the years and taken its teams across New England and well beyond. They also show how the firm has consistently added to a diverse list of clients over the years, while also maintaining relationships for years, and, in some cases, several decades.

Perhaps the best example of this is UMass Amherst. Indeed, one of the firm’s longest-standing relationships is with the university, said Sullivan, noting that the firm built 12 of the original 13 dorm buildings there, several other buildings, including Curry Hicks Cage, former home to the basketball team, and is still working with UMass today.

“I just came back from the previously mentioned Newman Center at UMass, which is a new facility for the Springfield Diocese,” he noted. “We haven’t built a church in a couple decades, so that’s been an interesting project.”

This relationship with UMass, one of many that go back 40, 50, or more years, explains why D.A. Sullivan is able to celebrate 125 years in business, and why five generations from the family have worked there.

“We’re a fifth-generation firm, which is incredibly unique. I believe we’re Northampton’s oldest firm,” said Sullivan. “We’ve just been here a long time and it’s crazy to think that my brother and I have been working for more than 35 years,”

Of course, maintaining such an accomplished family legacy comes with a daunting amount of responsibility. Not only do the projects themselves present challenges, but there is the added stress of each new generation keeping the company alive.

“We’re starting to think about that next leadership group coming behind us, and hopefully they’ll shepherd the company to the next century,” Sullivan said, “There’s a certain pressure to keep it going and not screw up on my watch, but we’ve been thankful throughout the years for the relationships we’ve had and the project’s we’ve built. We’ve got great people. More than anything, the people that work for us and with us, have enabled us to stick around for as long as we have.”

The team at the firm is consistently adding to that already large and diverse portfolio of projects with a number of current initiatives.

They include renovation of the public library in Grafton, the Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst, renovation of Goessmann Labs at UMass, renovation of the home for the Carpenter’s Local 336 headquarters, and a closely watched initiative in Easthampton called the One Ferry project.

This is an effort to stimulate economic development in the city by renovating a collection of abandoned mill buildings, said Sullivan, adding that the One Ferry Project has been and will continue to be a very important project for Easthampton and the surrounding area.

“It’s a build-out of a campus of old mill buildings, and we’re on phase two right now, which is Building 5,” he explained. “We’re looking toward phase three, which is either a renovation of Building 7 or new construction of a new facility next to the mill building.”

He told BusinessWest that the mill area has been a blight on Hampshire County for many years, and D.A. Sullivan & Sons is working with One Ferry Project developer Mike Michon to write an intriguing new chapter in the history of the property.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons is also currently providing general contractor services for the construction of a new library building in Greenfield, a project that started last fall. Sullivan said this is the type and size — $5 million to $35 million — project the firm specializes in.

As it turns 125, D.A. Sullivan obviously has quite a bit to celebrate — a glorious past, a solid present, and a promising future with new milestones to mark.

 

History in the Making

As noted earlier, the images on the company’s website and the photos in its vast archives tell a story.

Its main theme is one of longevity — 125 years is a milestone in any business — but it’s really about the forces that made such longevity possible — excellence, perseverance through the tough times (and there were many of them over the years and the decades), an ability to change with the times, and enduring relationships with scores of clients.

And the best part about this story is that there are many chapters still to be written.

Construction

A Powerful Argument

By Mark Morris

 

Ted Mendoza and Darci O’Connor note that the carbon-zero project at UMass Amherst will touch all of the more than 280 buildings on the campus.

Ted Mendoza and Darci O’Connor note that the carbon-zero project at UMass Amherst will touch all of the more than 280 buildings on the campus.

UMass Amherst chose Earth Day to announce an ambitious effort to convert the power systems for the entire campus to renewable energy by 2032.

UMass Carbon Zero puts the university at the “vanguard of a big idea,” according to UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy who added that the project will have ramifications far beyond the campus.

“For every advancement the university has made, there has always been support at the highest levels to create room for students to take part and learn.”

“UMass Amherst will be a leader of carbon-mitigation efforts in the Commonwealth while educating the next generation of leaders in sustainability,” Subbaswamy said. “Carbon Zero will also serve as a model for other large research universities as they pursue their own energy transitions.”

Massachusetts has set a target to reach carbon neutrality in all state systems by 2050. The UMass Carbon Zero effort has been in the works for two years to figure out the best way to achieve sustainability and a carbon-free future. The effort began with a task force that received input from hundreds of staff, faculty, and students to assess what it would take to move the entire campus to using renewable energy for all its heating, cooling, and electrical usage.

UMass officials estimate the project will cost at least $500 million over the 10 years, with funding expected from federal, state, corporate and philanthropic sources.

The main elements in designing a carbon-free system for the university will incorporate low-temperature hot water heating paired with geothermal heating and cooling. The plan also involves using a combination of battery-stored solar energy collected at UMass and purchasing energy from the green electrical grid.

Ted Mendoza, a capital projects manager for facilities at UMass Amherst noted that certain areas of campus make more sense for geothermal while other areas will incorporate low-temperature hot water heating.

“We have four buildings right now where we can run a pilot for geothermal and will expand that to 40 buildings,” Mendoza told BusinessWest. “What we learn from the pilot we will roll out to the entire campus.”

This large-scale transformation is not just a capital project. The university offers more than 500 classes on climate science, energy, technology, and other topics related to sustainability, so the Carbon Zero project will also be an opportunity to educate and train students.

“This is a chance to reboot our campus buildings and brand us as a destination for academic and operational interests. I see UMass attracting scholars, planners, engineers, and technicians looking to gain experience in the operation and maintenance of these new forward-thinking systems.”

In addition to the learning piece, students often provide new ideas, said Darci Connor Maresca, assistant director of the School of Earth Sustainability at UMass Amherst.

“There’s a value add in working with students because they push the envelope,” said Connor Maresca, adding that including students in major efforts is the way UMass does business.

“For every advancement the university has made, there has always been support at the highest levels to create room for students to take part and learn,” she said.

There’s data to back up the rationale for including students. Mendoza cited a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) survey that showed 91% of students agree that their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development.

“This is a chance to reboot our campus buildings and brand us as a destination for academic and operational interests,” Mendoza said. “I see UMass attracting scholars, planners, engineers, and technicians looking to gain experience in the operation and maintenance of these new forward-thinking systems.”

Both Maresca and Mendoza credit the UMass Chancellor as an early champion of the project. In many ways Subbaswamy sees UMass as a local community.

“Given our size, we are responsible for nearly 20% of overall greenhouse gas emissions among Massachusetts public facilities,” Subbaswamy said. “This makes us the single largest contributor among state entities. Our success in energy transition means success for the commonwealth.”

With a target date of 2032, it’s time for everyone to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

“Unlike any other capital project we’ve ever taken on, this effort will have to touch all 280-plus buildings,” said Mendoza. “That means new and old; big and small; they are all part of the project to transition our entire campus to 100% renewable energy.”

Construction

Filling Today’s Needs

By Mark Morris

When Craig Sweitzer built his first dental office 37 years ago, he thought it was the coolest thing he had ever done.

As owners of Sweitzer Construction, Craig and his wife, Pat, enjoyed learning the unique design requirements and the technical knowledge required to build dental suites, known as operatories.

“We like to work on projects that are new, fresh, and exciting,” Sweitzer said. “Dental offices fit that bill because dental technology is evolving, and it’s fun to stay current with it.”

In a recent string of projects, the Sweitzers’ firm built or renovated three dental practices in the Berkshires, all owned by women dentists. Berkshire Dental Arts and Krol and Nazarov Family Dentistry, both in Pittsfield, and Shire City Endo in Lenox all presented different challenges to the team, among them building dental practices during a pandemic.

Dr. Sarah Martinelli said the building where her practice, Shire City Endo, does business began as a “rectangular brick box.” Built in 1978, three different banks occupied the site before Martinelli purchased the building in February 2020. Having worked in the area, she knew that dentists referred patients for endodontic work from all over the region, so the central location of this building on Route 7 in Lenox made it an ideal spot.

Craig Sweitzer explained that, when dentists plan a renovation or construction project, they will meet with him early in the process. From the choice of equipment to how each room lays out, together they form a plan.

“By purchasing this unit, it saved us from ripping out the ceiling and replacing the entire ventilation system. That would have been absolutely disruptive.”

“There are lots of decisions to be made,” he said, “from where the plumbing and electrical lines go to whether the doctor is right-handed or left, and do they want cuspidors or just suction?”

A dental-equipment supplier also enters the picture early on to work in partnership with the construction crew and the dentist.

“We do all the underground, behind-the-wall, and under-floor infrastructure work to make sure it will accommodate the specialized equipment the doctor ordered,” Sweitzer said.

Craig and Pat Sweitzer

Craig and Pat Sweitzer say the dental practice owner is closely involved in the design process from the start.

Dental offices fit that bill because dental technology is evolving, and it’s fun to stay current with it.”

For Shire City Endo, part of the early work involved removing a drive-up window left over from the banking days. When the crew was drilling into the foundation to run plumbing and electrical lines, they ran into another legacy of the building’s former use.

Foundation floors in banks are usually much thicker than those in regular commercial buildings to deter would-be thieves from tunneling in from underneath. After much more effort, the crew was able to install the necessary lines in the right places.

“I wasn’t worried before about someone tunneling into my practice,” Martinelli said jokingly. “And I sleep well at night knowing I’m protected from that now.”

The thick floors didn’t slow down the project too much, but as Pat Sweitzer noted, coordinating schedules with the medical supplier is an important part of the process. “The whole project is orchestrated for our crews to finish their work just as the medical equipment and the installers are available.”

As a general contractor, Sweitzer Construction is well-acquainted with the difficulties of sticking to schedules during the pandemic, not to mention recent price increases for raw materials. Lumber is the most notable building material to see wild price increases of up to 250%. Craig said he does not use much lumber, but instead uses steel studs to frame walls in his commercial projects. Still, he noted that steel has begun catching up to lumber in price and difficulty to get when it’s needed.

“We order materials long before we need them and then hope they arrive somewhere around the time we are ready to use them,” he explained. “It takes our office staff much more effort to make sure materials get here on time.”

 

Go with the Flow

When the pandemic first hit, air flow inside buildings suddenly became an essential consideration, especially in healthcare facilities. Sweitzer and the HVAC subcontractors who work with his company began to study how to design new systems and retrofit old ones to keep everyone safe.

Whether COVID-19 had existed or not, Martinelli knew she would have to replace the entire HVAC system in her building. Sweitzer and Mark Edwards from M&E Mechanical Contractors, the HVAC subcontractor for the project, installed a state-of-the-art negative-air system for all the operatories at Shire City Endo. Sweitzer explained it as a system that captures pathogens in the air which are immediately pulled out of the room by an exhaust fan before they can spread. In the past, operatories often had exhaust vents in the ceiling. The standard now is to locate these lower on the wall.

“Dentists and hygienists work in people’s mouths, the main path of respiration,” he said. “With lower vents, any pathogens are directed down to the floor instead of into the provider’s face.”

Dr. Anne Barnes

Dr. Anne Barnes says the 1960s-era space she took over in 2018 “just didn’t work” for today’s cutting-edge dentistry.

Martinelli appreciated that she had the opportunity to install a new HVAC system to deal with COVID and any other airborne maladies. At the same time, she saw her colleagues struggle to find answers on how to retrofit their offices to mitigate risks and improve air quality.

By purchasing this unit, it saved us from ripping out the ceiling and replacing the entire ventilation system. That would have been absolutely disruptive.”

Because Sweitzer and Edwards had been so helpful to her, Martinelli coordinated a Zoom call with the contractors and the Berkshire Dental Society, so dentists could get answers on how to manage air ventilation in their practices.

“Craig and Mark were great resources to the entire dental community, who had plenty of questions on how to keep their patients and staff safe,” she said.

Pat Sweitzer was on the Zoom call and credited Martinelli for organizing it. “The dentists had done lots of research, and we had done lots of research,” Pat said. “It was a time when everyone was learning how to contain COVID through different HVAC systems.”

Dr. Anne Barnes, who runs Berkshire Dental Arts, is one of the dentists who chose to retrofit her office with an air purifier that turns over the air in the entire room in three minutes. She said it does an excellent job, and while it’s a large piece of equipment in the corner of the room, it beats the alternative.

“In addition to knowing all the building codes that pertain to dental-treatment rooms, he also knows how to navigate the whole permitting process.”

“By purchasing this unit, it saved us from ripping out the ceiling and replacing the entire ventilation system,” she said. “That would have been absolutely disruptive.”

In 2018, Barnes established Berkshire Dental Arts after assuming Dr. Neil Pyser’s practice located on South Street in Pittsfield. The building was constructed in the 1960s by four dentists, and while it has changed hands several times over the years, the interior space was not much different from when it was first designed.

“What was here just didn’t work for me and wasn’t planned out for today’s dentistry,” Barnes said. As a captain in the U.S. Army Dental Corps, she had access to all the latest equipment, so while she knew what she wanted, the challenge was how to fit it in a predefined space.

At Martinelli’s recommendation, Barnes asked Sweitzer for help on how to make better use of the defined footprint of the building.

“Craig helped me troubleshoot and think about ways to convert the space we have into something more efficient,” she said. Her practice consists of four operatories, two used by Barnes, with hygienists working in the other two rooms.

She and her husband, Charles, who is also the practice manager, had a mental picture of how the operatories should look, but admitted they didn’t have the expertise on how to bring in new equipment without sacrificing elbow room.

“I wanted to make each room functional and comfortable to work in,” Barnes said. “Craig knows how much space you need around the chair and where to place all the plumbing and electrical hookups we use.”

She enjoys her redesigned office because she now has the equipment to do 90% of her lab work in house instead of sending it to an outside firm. For example, if a patient wanted to change the color of a crown, they would normally have to make an appointment two weeks after their visit while the crown goes to a lab. Because Barnes now has a ceramic oven in her office, the patient needs to wait just 15 minutes for the adjustment.

“A ceramic oven is a small piece of equipment,” she said, “but if you don’t have the counter space for it, you’re out of luck.”

Martinelli was also pleased with her office renovation, noting that she appreciated Sweitzer’s strong knowledge of dental-building infrastructure.

“In addition to knowing all the building codes that pertain to dental-treatment rooms, he also knows how to navigate the whole permitting process,” she said. “And he knew what needed to be done to check all the boxes at the end of the job.”

 

Tooth of the Matter

The knowledge the Sweitzers acquired to build dental offices has allowed his company to expand into other highly technical projects. From photovoltaic solar work to building clean rooms for high-tech companies, their business keeps expanding. Even with the new areas of focus, though, Craig still enjoys dental-office construction.

“Dentistry keeps changing, and there are always technical parts to it,” he said. “Besides, dental construction was my first love, and the complexity is still fun.”

Construction

Historic Renovation

An architectural rendering from Kuhn Riddle Architects

An architectural rendering from Kuhn Riddle Architects of the second-floor performing-arts and community space at Old Town Hall.

With the financial support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council Cultural Facilities Fund and the Easthampton Community Preservation Act, CitySpace is beginning the first phase of a multi-million-dollar project to restore Easthampton Old Town Hall, the majestic brick building centrally located in the city’s downtown, as a center for the arts.

The $511,000 first phase, a portion of the total $6.9 million restoration, will prepare the building’s air systems for energy-efficient use, add new HVAC systems, and upgrade the historic building’s electrical system. Phasing the project will provide system upgrades and prepare the building for its next phase: completing the renovation of a 3500-square-foot, 350-seat arts and entertainment venue equipped with theatrical lighting, sound and projection systems, flexible staging and seating, and full accessibility.

“This is not a new project; it’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time. I consider it the single most important, impactful project this city has going forward for economic development … I’m excited that we are starting it,” Easthampton City Councilor Dan Rist said at a Community Preservation Act Committee meeting in November. The committee and Easthampton’s City Council unanimously voted to push forward $255,576 of reserved funding.

“This is not a new project; it’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time. I consider it the single most important, impactful project this city has going forward for economic development … I’m excited that we are starting it.”

CitySpace originally intended to build the $6.9 million project in one stage. However, this past summer, the organization explored the option of phasing the building project with the help of Kuhn Riddle Architects of Amherst, and found that dividing the scope of work was feasible. Other than the addition of an energy-recovery ventilator, the infrastructure improvements entirely reflect the established 2018 architectural plans created for the rehabilitation project.

In 2019, CitySpace was awarded $200,000 from the Massachusetts Cultural Council through its Cultural Facilities Fund in support of the restoration of the Old Town Hall. In collaboration with MassDevelopment, the Cultural Facilities Fund provides important funding for capital projects of creative spaces, “in recognition of their profound economic impact on communities across Massachusetts,” according to the council’s website. These funds will go toward this project located in Easthampton’s Main Street corridor, with an expected ripple effect to the region’s businesses.

“The incomparable support of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, MassDevelopment, the Easthampton Community Preservation Act Committee, and the generosity of our Western Massachusetts friends, neighbors, and businesses is why we are able to make these infrastructure improvements,” said Burns Maxey, president of the board of CitySpace. “This project will have extraordinary impacts on our economy while providing affordability and access to space for the arts and people in our region. I am so thrilled to see this project begin.”

The infrastructure improvements are expected to be completed by the end of 2022. Subsequently, with funding secured by the end of 2022 for phase 2, construction is planned to begin in 2023.

To date, more than $4 million in grants and contributions have been received for the $6.9 million project. Most recently, the Mabel Louise Riley Foundation awarded CitySpace $100,000 in support of the project’s second phase, creating the 350-seat space for performances, concerts, and community events. Besides seating, lighting, and sound, renovations also will include a new box office, elevator, and entryway. CitySpace is seeking further support for the project and has naming opportunities available.

“As we embark on this year, momentum is building to complete this campaign,” Maxey said. “The incredible support from the Mabel Louise Riley Foundation is a windfall for CitySpace and our upcoming plans for Old Town Hall. We are so very thankful.”

CitySpace is a nonprofit that serves to restore, preserve, and manage Easthampton Old Town Hall as a center for the arts. Old Town Hall was built in 1869.

Construction

In Search of Workers

 

Construction employment dipped by 5,000 jobs between December and January even though hourly pay rose at a record pace in the past year, according to an analysis by Associated General Contractors of America of government data released last week. Association officials said future job gains are at risk from several factors that are slowing projects.

“Contractors are struggling to fill positions as potential workers opt out of the labor market or choose other industries,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. “In addition, soaring materials costs and unpredictable delivery times are delaying projects and holding back employment gains.”

Simonson noted that average hourly earnings in the construction industry increased 5.1% from January 2021 to last month, the steepest 12-month increase in the 15-year history of the series. The industry average of $33.80 per hour exceeded the private-sector average by nearly 7%. However, competition for workers has intensified as other industries have hiked starting pay and offered working conditions that are not possible in construction, such as flexible hours or work from home.

Since January 2021, the industry has added 163,000 employees despite the decline last month. But the number of unemployed job seekers among former construction workers shrank by 229,000 over that time, indicating workers are leaving the workforce altogether or taking jobs in other sectors, Simonson added.

Ken Simonson

Ken Simonson

“Contractors are struggling to fill positions as potential workers opt out of the labor market or choose other industries.”

Construction employment totaled 7,523,000 last month, which was 101,000 (1.3%) fewer jobs than in the pre-pandemic peak month of February 2020. However, he noted, the totals mask large differences between residential and non-residential segments of the industry.

Non-residential construction firms — general building contractors, specialty trade contractors, and heavy and civil engineering construction firms — lost 9,000 employees in January. Non-residential employment remains 213,000 below the pre-pandemic peak set in February 2020. In contrast, employment in residential construction — comprising home-building and remodeling firms — edged up by 4,400 jobs in January and topped the February 2020 level by 112,000.

Association officials said the Construction Hiring and Business Outlook survey it released in January showed most contractors expect to add employees in 2022 but overwhelmingly find it difficult to find qualified workers.

“Construction firms are struggling to find workers to hire even as they are being forced to cope with rising materials prices and ongoing supply-chain disruptions,” said Stephen Sandherr, the association’s CEO.

Speaking of which, construction materials jumped nearly 20% in 2021 despite moderating in December, according to an an association analysis released last month. An association survey shows that contractors rate material costs as a top concern for 2022.

“Costs may not rise as steeply in 2022 as they did last year, but they are likely to remain volatile, with unpredictable prices and delivery dates for key materials.”

“Costs may not rise as steeply in 2022 as they did last year, but they are likely to remain volatile, with unpredictable prices and delivery dates for key materials,” Simonson said. “That volatility can be as hard to cope with as steadily rising prices and lead times.”

In the association’s 2022 Construction Hiring and Business Outlook Survey, material costs were listed as a top concern by 86% of contractors, more than any concern. Availability of materials and supply-chain disruptions were the second-most-frequent concern, listed by 77% of the more than 1,000 respondents.

The producer price index for inputs to new, non-residential construction — the prices charged by goods producers and service providers such as distributors and transportation firms — increased by 0.5% in December and 19.6% in 2021 as a whole. Those gains topped the rise in the index for new, non-residential construction — a measure of what contractors say they would charge to erect five types of non-residential buildings, Simonson noted. That index climbed by 0.3% for the month and 12.5% from a year earlier.

Prices moderated for some construction materials in December but still ended the year with large gains, Simonson observed. The price index for steel-mill products rose 0.2% in December, its smallest rise in 15 months, but soared 127.2% over 12 months. The index for diesel fuel declined 5.3% for the month but increased 54.9% for the year. The index for aluminum mill shapes slid 4.9% in December but rose 29.8% over 12 months, while the index for copper and brass mill shapes fell 3.3% in December but rose 23.4% over the year.

Some prices accelerated in December. The index for plastic construction products climbed 1.3% for the month and 34.0% over 12 months. The index for lumber and plywood rose 12.7% for the month and 17.6% for the year.

Association officials said rising materials prices threaten to undermine what is otherwise a strong outlook for the construction industry in 2022. They urged the Biden administration to reconsider its plans to double tariffs on Canadian lumber and leave other trade barriers in place that artificially inflate the costs of key construction materials.

“Making lumber and other materials even more expensive will not tame inflation, boost supplies of affordable housing, or help the economy grow,” Sandherr said. “Instead, the administration should be removing tariffs and beating inflation.”

Construction Special Coverage

A Big Supply of Challenges

Christoper Burger, president of Inglewood Development

Christoper Burger, president of Inglewood Development, on site at a 12-unit apartment-complex project for the Holyoke Housing Authority.

How do you plan a construction project when you don’t know if all the supplies will be available, and even if all the workers will be ready to go — and stay healthy? Very carefully, said contractors who spoke with BusinessWest about the uncertainties of the construction trade these days. Demand and workflow are solid, they say — but the supply-chain and workforce challenges of the pandemic era continue to inject an element of frustration into many projects.

 

By Mark Morris

 

As the national economy continues to improve, local construction managers are telling BusinessWest they have plenty of work and a solid pipeline of projects for the immediate future.

That’s the good news.

The bad news, and there’s a good amount of it, comes in the form of a growing number of challenges, but especially supply-chain issues, inflation, and workforce matters, all of which are seeing varying degrees of improvement but nothing that is dramatic in nature.

Together, these factors make it difficult to make intelligent bids and do what every contractor wants to do — bring in a project on time and on budget.

“Everyone is tired of hearing about issues with the supply chain, but it’s a real thing,” said Christopher Burger, president of Inglewood Development in Longmeadow, noting that these issues stem from a variety of factors, everything from production challenges to problems getting materials shipped and then distributed to suppliers, to growing demand as the economy rebounds from the pandemic.

And they are prompting a wide array of colorful analogies — from hitting a moving target to shopping in a grocery store, COVID-style.

In addition to longer delays in securing needed materials, Burger said, even when materials are available, there are still glitches. As an example, an architectural roofing shingle manufacturer usually offers about a dozen colors of their product. After one of his customers made their selection, Berger had to tell the customer to pick another color from one of the three colors the company currently offers.

Trying to keep up with what’s available and what isn’t is like hitting a moving target, according to Carl Mercieri, vice president of South Hadley-based Marois Construction.

“Lumber is more available than it was six months ago, and while the price is still high, it’s leveled off for now,” he said. “On the other hand, rigid insulation is hard to get right now.”

Kevin Perrier, president of Five Star Building Corp. in Easthampton, said everyone in this sector is feeling the impact of COVID on finding available products. He compared purchasing construction materials to what shoppers are finding at the grocery store.

Kevin Perrier

“You walk in one day, and for some reason there is no pasta on the shelf; the next week, you go in, and maybe the cereal aisle is empty — it’s the same in this business.”

“You walk in one day, and for some reason there is no pasta on the shelf; the next week, you go in, and maybe the cereal aisle is empty — it’s the same in this business,” he said, noting that there is a similar hit-or-miss quality and inability to product availability that only increases the frustration level.

Indeed, Mercieri noted that, while lumber is available right now, that luxury (and, yes, it can be called that) may well be short lived. The recent protests among Canadian truckers over vaccine mandates may soon cause a shortage of lumber coming to the U.S. from Canada, he said.

After running his company for 22 years, Perrier said he could not have imagined the problems he has experienced with building materials over the past two years.

“There have always been long lead times for certain products, but generally most materials were readily available,” he explained. “This is a new experience, where lead times are no longer predictable, and some of the most common building materials are now delayed by weeks and months.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how several issues, most all of them COVID-related, are making this a good time, but also a very challenging time, for area contractors.

 

‘Lumber’ Curve

As he talked about supply-chain issues — and how the unavailability of needed materials is causing no end of frustration in his sector — Perrier noted that his crew had to install FRP interior wall paneling for a recent project. The adhesive used to secure the panels — easily available everywhere before the pandemic — was nowhere to be found when they needed it.

“We searched the whole country, multiple suppliers. We were told it would be 16 to 20 weeks before we could get the adhesive,” he said, with discernable exasperation in his voice.

Burger said products like overhead garage doors can have wait times of up to 14 months. Mercieri concurred, noting that his company was trying to finish a project for Yankee Candle, but the overhead doors caused a delay. “We had ordered the doors in May, and we just installed them in January.”

Carl Mercieri says hiring remains a challenge

Carl Mercieri says hiring remains a challenge, as few applicants have the experience the job requires.

A market environment of scarcity and price hikes also invites unethical practices. Perrier said he knows of subcontractors who have been approached by suppliers offering to reduce wait times if they are willing to pay more for the product. “If a product had a 40-week wait time, they could get it in 20 weeks if they were willing to pay 20% more for it.”

Situations like this beg the question, how does a contractor bid on a project and see it through completion with so many variables? The contractors who spoke with BusinessWest said they add in extra time for each job and keep a conversation going with their clients, most of whom are understanding of the times everyone is in and the challenges they present.

Open communication is key because it’s a given that timetables and prices will change during the project.

“When we need relief on the cost of material increases, we do what all good contractors do,” Mercieri said. “We open our books and show our client the original price from the vendor against the current price.”

While access to materials can be unpredictable, stockpiling them when available isn’t a feasible option, according to Perrier, because that would require large amounts of storage space that most contractors simply don’t have. Also, a big investment in materials today might become a losing proposition once supply catches up with already-considerable demand and prices move even slightly downward.

“There have always been long lead times for certain products, but generally most materials were readily available. This is a new experience, where lead times are no longer predictable, and some of the most common building materials are now delayed by weeks and months.”

As general contractors, Burger, Mercieri, and Perrier all remarked they are fortunate to have a core group of longtime employees. Problems arise, they said, as new projects get scheduled and they want to add new people, because, here again, there is ample demand but inadequate supply.

“As many ads as we run looking for workers, we don’t get much response,” Mercieri said. “Out of the 50 or 60 applications we receive, maybe one person has the experience we’re looking for.”

Subcontractors who do the plumbing, electrical, and other work on a building project have their own labor shortages that become even more pronounced when COVID strikes. By working as a team, subcontractors can be vulnerable to the easily transmissible virus, and one worker with a positive test can force the whole group into COVID protocols, causing another delay to a project.

“We’ve had jobsites where the subcontractor had COVID issues among their workers,” Burger said. “Out of precaution, they can’t show up for 2 or 3 days, at best, so that certainly hurts your schedule.”

Despite all the challenges, the three contractors have an optimistic outlook for the rest of this year and into 2023. They all have a mix of public and private projects, with some jobs bringing real satisfaction. Mercieri’s company is wrapping up a renovation project for the Mullins Center at UMass, and Burger discussed a building expansion nearing completion for Jewish Family Services in Springfield.

A rendering of the apartment complex

A rendering of the apartment complex Kevin Perrier says will change the facade of downtown Easthampton.

“They’re expanding their facility to accommodate Afghan refugees who will be coming in,” Burger said. “That was a nice project to work on, and we’re glad to be part of it.”

As an Easthampton native whose business is located there, Perrier admitted he has a soft spot for his hometown. One recent project involved his company designing and building a 30-unit apartment complex in downtown Easthampton at the corner of Cottage and Adams streets.

“Anything we can do to improve downtown means a lot to me,” he said. “That building will change the façade for downtown Easthampton.”

When BusinessWest caught up with Burger, his crew was in the early stages of building a 12-unit apartment complex for the Holyoke Housing Authority on South East Street. He said working with familiar clients like the Housing Authority makes it easier to get jobs done during these uncertain times.

“Repeat business is great because we all understand each other,” he said, also pointing to upcoming projects for longtime client Hot Table restaurants. In addition to just opening one in West Hartford, he is excited about working on new Hot Table locations planned for Westfield and Chicopee.

The aviation industry makes up a big part of Perrier’s business, with Delta airlines as a significant client. He is pleased to see things start to improve for the airlines. “From the second quarter of this year into 2023, we will be doing a massive amount of work at Logan and other New England airports for Delta.”

He also appreciates working with clients who understand the current climate and are moving ahead with their projects despite supply and labor challenges.

 

Nailing It Down

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the current pricing, supply-chain, and workforce issues is the unpredictability surrounding them and an inability to project when or even if matters will improve, said those we spoke with.

In that respect, the construction industry is like every other business sector.

“Product shortages and price hikes are not unique to us or our industry,” Perrier said. “Most folks are experiencing them at the grocery store or just trying to find car parts.”

This shared pain doesn’t make the situation any more tolerable, said Perrier and others, adding that all they can really do is hope the economy continues to improve, the pandemic continues to recede, and the current ‘new norm’ will revert to a pre-pandemic norm.

In the meantime, life for contractors will continue to be like a trip to the grocery store. They just don’t know what will be on the shelves and when.

Construction Special Coverage

More Demand Than Supply

Keiter recently completed a 14,000-square-foot addition to VCA Inc. in Northampton.

Keiter recently completed a 14,000-square-foot addition to VCA Inc. in Northampton. (Photo by Leigh Chodos)

By now, the phrase ‘supply chain’ has become one of the economic buzzwords of our time, as global shortages and slowdowns of goods, not to mention staffing crunches, have impacted industries ranging from food service and retail to manufacturing and auto sales. The construction industry has been particularly vulnerable to those trends, which is especially unfortunate considering that most builders say the work is there — they just can’t tackle it all until these broader issues begin to stabilize. When they will is anyone’s guess.

 

Most people have heard about the challenges facing the construction industry these days, Scott Keiter said — workforce shortages and supply-chain issues foremost among them — but it’s helpful, he noted, to understand how they’re really part of one large issue.

“Part of the supply-chain issue is the workforce,” said the president of Keiter, the new name for his company, which now encompasses four divisions: commercial and industrial, residential, site work, and real estate. “But the pandemic affects people, and people are the ones who produce products. I think the demand is out there, but those other things out there are causing a little bit of a bog on the system. This is something I hear from others in construction as well.”

It’s what BusinessWest is hearing, too — that there’s plenty of demand for work, but no one is in a place to take on all they could were the workforce and supply outlooks more stable.

“Demand is a great thing,” Keiter added, “but if the supply chain is already compromised, those things can really put a strain on the system … and we have to work harder to achieve the same results.”

Carol Campbell agreed. “It’s been a year like no other,” the president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC) said. “I think I’ve said that before, but this time is very different.”

“Demand is a great thing. but if the supply chain is already compromised, those things can really put a strain on the system … and we have to work harder to achieve the same results.”

Indeed, “we are certainly affected by the labor force, or the lack thereof,” she went on. “So when you evaluate your sales or how busy you are, well, if we were at full complement, it would be a different story. We’re at reduced labor teams, so we are busy, but it’s hard to serve all our customers at the level we’re at right now.”

From a supply-chain perspective, CIC is a contractor based in the manufacturing world. “Where we have issues with the supply chain is, if we have a team scheduled to do a project, the installation may take a week or two, then, with 48-hours notice or less, we get a phone call saying the machine hasn’t even hit the dock.

Scott Keiter says the industry is busy

Scott Keiter says the industry is busy, but new challenges make it a different kind of busy than before.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare,” she went on. “I tip my hat to our schedulers, how they keep all the balls in the air and keep all the employees working and customers happy, with all the changes that happen on very quick notice.”

The supply crunch affects both availability and cost, said Craig Sweitzer, co-owner of Sweitzer Construction. “I just got off the phone with someone who needs 12 weeks lead for replacement windows. I’ve never heard of that before. And a lot of materials are unavailable, so we have to search for substitutes.”

Co-owner Pat Sweitzer said she was bidding a project, and a plumber advised her to order a certain piece of equipment needed for the job immediately. “So you ask yourself the question, ‘do we take a chance and order it and expect to get the job?’ These kinds of questions are coming up as well.”

These challenges tend to put contractors in a tough spot, stuck in the middle between customer demands and supply realities.

“Those are real concerns,” Craig said. “At first it sounded like a lot of people complaining, but it truly is an issue. Availability, the cost of materials and shipping, getting stuff shipped to sites … it’s all tricky.”

 

Links in the Chain

One aspect of the supply-chain issue is trucking, Campbell said, which has impacted her firm on two levels.

“It’s been a nightmare to hire drivers to join our team, then trying to get machines delivered to our facility or to our customer’s facility. They’ll say they’ll be there at noon and may show up at 4 o’clock. So it’s hard because you have to pass some of the cost off, but who’s at fault in all this? It’s a scheduling nightmare, a financial nightmare for customers and vendors. It’s been … quite an interesting year.”

She gave an example of a hard deadline of Dec. 31 to get a machine up and running on a customer’s plant floor. “We’re at the bottom of that chain. It has to come through customs — most are made outside the U.S. — then it has to be piped by the piper, the electrician does his work, then you bring the rigger in, all those dovetail together.”

Keiter said supply shortages and delays are causing some price escalation with materials.

“It’s really causing us to have to look ahead and think about how the disruption and supply chain will affect schedules, and then, of course, the ever-moving pricing with materials is a challenge for not only us as contractors, but for clients and their budgeting. It’s very difficult — the days of just showing up and going at it are gone. We’re having to really get ahead of procurement and also securing tradesman and subcontractors. The industry is busy, but it’s a lot different than it was before.”

Windows and kitchen cabinetry have been especially problematic when it comes to significant timeline increases, Keiter noted. “That said, anything special-order, anything that’s not run-of-the-mill, anything made to order, anything not on a shelf, those seem to be taking longer on average.”

The Construction Products Assoc. (CPA) recently downgraded its forecast for construction growth in 2022 from 6.3% to 4.8% amid what it called a “perfect storm” in the supply chain, Construction Manager magazine reported.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare. I tip my hat to our schedulers, how they keep all the balls in the air and keep all the employees working and customers happy, with all the changes that happen on very quick notice.”

The association warned that supply-chain constraints are now expected to hinder growth well into next year, citing a combination of talent shortages, product availability and cost inflation, driver shortages, the impact of energy-cost increases, and delays at ports as factors in that storm.

“The biggest impacts of the supply constraints are on the small construction firms,” CPA Economics Director Noble Francis said. “Large contractors and major house builders have a greater certainty of demand over the 12- to 18-month horizon and are better able to plan and purchase in advance as well as adjust to changing economic situations. Small firms, however, are more focused on flexibility and have less visibility over demand going forward. Plus, they have less ability and resource to plan and purchase in advance.”

But the workforce issues remain problematic as well.

Pat and Craig Sweitzer

Pat and Craig Sweitzer say supply-chain issues affect both availability and cost of materials, and, therefore, both project scheduling and budgeting.

“We were fortunate in that regard,” Keiter said. “We have a very strong, committed team of employees. However, you can see in the workforce in general, whether it’s vendors, subcontractors, or others, I think the pandemic has really shaken things up.”

It’s an issue that worries Campbell moving forward.

“I feel optimistic in our conversations with customers, and we’re booking into 2022, but I have great concerns about the labor force,” she told BusinessWest. “We pay well, and our benefits compare with a state or municipality. And we can’t attract a skilled workforce.

“We’ve always had issues hiring skilled labor just because, coming out of high school, it requires quite a few years of apprenticing. But nothing like we have right now. Over COVID, we had a few people age out, who said, ‘that’s what it took for me to hang it up’ — some people, quite honestly, I just didn’t expect. I understand why they retired, but I think COVID gave them that push.”

Craig Sweitzer said his firm has been navigating workforce issues well, although that did necessitate a lot of personal time to deal with COVID-related issues. “All in all, we survived intact.”

However, the industry’s worker crunch has made clearer the importance of keeping workers happy. “We’ve rolled quite a bit of our profits out of our pockets and put them to use to help our employees and subs. We stress that above and beyond profitability,” he said. “It’s easier to run a business when everybody’s on the same team, pushing in the same direction. So we’re happy to forgo a little profit to have that.”

Pat Sweitzer said she understands the strain workers in all industries have felt over the past two years.

“We have been really fortunate to have our employees and our subcontracting team with us for many, many years. In terms of our employees, they have had family obligations they had to meet during COVID, such as homeschooling and schools being closed down, kids at home. So we have accommodated their needs, and they have stayed with us through the whole year and a half, and we are really fortunate and glad that they have stayed with us all this time; they bring a level of knowledge and skill to our projects that really serve our company and our customers well.”

 

Optimism Ahead

As noted earlier, despite the industry-wide, often global challenges, area firms have stayed busy.

“For us, this year has been a really good year,” Pat said. “Part of that is thanks to Adaptas Solutions in Palmer, which is a manufacturer in the Palmer Industrial Park that had renovations of five high-tech buildings.

“We were building a clean room and upgrading their facilities,” she added. “It really sustained us and positioned them well as a company. It was a good, steady year for us.”

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

“It’s been a nightmare to hire drivers to join our team, then trying to get machines delivered to our facility or to our customer’s facility. They’ll say they’ll be there at noon and may show up at 4 o’clock. So it’s hard because you have to pass some of the cost off, but who’s at fault in all this?”

The firm’s niches in medical and dental facilities continue top be strong as well, she added, and it’s starting to edge into an area with significant growth potential: cannabis.

“One thing I’m grateful about is that we have our bread and butter, our dental and medical work, and now that technical capability and knowledge we’ve developed in those industries is transferring over to the cannabis industry,” she told BusinessWest. “So we have a lot of work coming up, including projects that we hope will be coming through in the cannabis industry.”

Keiter is similarly pleased with his firm’s pipeline.

“We work with a lot of the institutions of higher learning, and those projects continue. We’re also working with a number of nonprofit organizations. We had a pretty good run in 2021. We built a number of new homes, got a lot of residential construction. All the various parts of our business are moving in the right direction.”

In other words, business is booming. That’s the big, positive takeaway amid all the industry concerns about workforce and supply — and how they are, in many ways, the same issue.

“It’s busy, and things are moving. Demand is there,” Keiter said. “We’re here and working hard, and we’re going to get through it. Everyone in construction is hopeful that we’ll start to work our way out of the pandemic and maybe stabilize a little bit.”

Craig Sweitzer agreed. “We’re bidding like mad, and I’m assuming there’s still a lot of optimism out there, so we can only hope to stay as busy as we’ve been. In spite of all the craziness, there does seem to be a lot of optimism out there.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Construction

Steady On

Thomas Crochiere

Thomas Crochiere at the Chicopee property he purchased, renovated, and tenanted up almost two decades ago.

 

Thomas Crochiere had a modest vision for his construction company a quarter-century ago — and, as it turned out, a successful one.

“Having worked for a company with up to 100 employees in the past, I knew I didn’t want to have a large company,” he told BusinessWest. “I was happy with a small company where I could know my employees very well and work with them and manage one or two projects at a time. I didn’t want to have a large plate of projects. So we’ve just continued in that direction for 26 years.”

Crochiere entered the construction world out of college and, as he said, worked for a large company that performed a lot of state and municipal work.

“I was working as a project manager for that company for about 10 years. But I got a little itchy; I wanted to become an owner. So my wife and I started this business back in 1995, and since I’d been doing mostly municipal and state work, and had pretty decent familiarity with that process, we stayed with commercial construction as our primary focus, and we have just picked away at jobs over the years.”

Tom Crochiere and Ann Collins-Crochiere launched Collins-Crochiere Construction Services Inc. in Palmer and rented shop space in Ludlow for a few years. Then, 18 years ago, they came across an eight-acre parcel on McKinstry Avenue in Chicopee, on which sat a large, long building in need of rehabilitation. They saw potential, not only as the company’s headquarters, but as a rental property for service businesses, under the name of Main Street Property Management.

“I was happy with a small company where I could know my employees very well and work with them and manage one or two projects at a time.”

“When we bought this, it was bankrupt, abandoned, contaminated, and pretty much in nasty shape,” he said of the property, which used to be the home of Jahn Foundry in Chicopee, the sister foundry to the Springfield site that suffered a fateful explosion in 1999. “When we bought this, we cleaned it environmentally and then started building it out for modern business space. It’s been hunky dory. But early on, it was a little sketchy.”

It has also helped him keep his employees busy during slow weeks. “We can always find something to improve here, whether it’s painting a hallway or doing some other repair that makes life better for the tenants. That’s been our filler.”

But the day-to-day business has been consistent over the past 26 years. “We have some busy years, some not-so-busy years, and our staffing ranges from around five to 10 employees. The high point was 10, but that was short-lived. It wasn’t as productive or effective as having four, five, or six.

“So we’ve stayed with that, and all of our work generally has been word of mouth,” Crochiere continued. “We don’t do a whole lot of marketing, and work just seems to come to the surface. When we’re finishing a job, someone else calls and has bought a building or is looking at a building or is planning a major renovation. That’s how work seems to fill our schedules. That’s how we got to this point. It’s worked out reasonably well.”

 

Work to Be Done

Crochiere noted several jobs from recent years to give an idea of the company’s work, including a renovation and addition to Ralph’s Blacksmith Shop in Northampton, similar work on a building purchased by Fire Detection Systems in Chicopee, and a renovation and upgrades to an older building purchased by Fire Service Group in Palmer. At Multicultural Community Services in Springfield, Collins-Crochiere tackled an office renovation two years ago and is currently working on a group home for the organization.

“A typical job is, somebody buys a building or is about to purchase a building, and they think they got a great deal on it, and then they invite me to do a walk-through, and I start to think about building codes, ADA codes, energy codes, and I inform my potential client that their budget is about a third of what it should be because the building codes require a certain amount of updating,” he explained.

“In a perfect world, property owners would have a contractor or architect or engineer walk through their building every five years just to give them insight into how far behind the 8-ball they are.”

“They look at me initially with ‘this isn’t part of my financial plan this year,’” he went on. “But we work through it. I work with local architects and engineers to do a full code review and come up with design requirements and upgrade requirements, and then we typically work with the owner to put together a team of subcontractors and suppliers to complete the project.”

In addition, Collins-Crochiere has been a subcontractor to some large electrical and mechanical contractors on state and federal jobs, Crochiere said. “We act as support; sometimes a large mechanical job requires two months of carpentry spread over six months. So we might be that supportive subcontractor to a larger mechanical contractor.”

Over the years, plenty of business has been of the repeat variety, he noted — maybe a former customer is growing and is buying a second or third building, or a first renovation was good for 10 years, and now they call looking for more upgrades or a new addition.

“That’s been nice. And our relationships in Western Mass. have been helpful. We often find that a new customer will call and say he’s spoken to two close friends, looking for a contractor, and our name comes up in both conversations. So he says, ‘I guess you’re someone I should talk to.’ That has led to a few jobs over the years.”

Springfield Technical Community College

One of the company’s recent projects involved repairs to this building at Springfield Technical Community College.

Consistency has been king when it comes to the company’s core of subcontractors and suppliers as well, many of which have been the same for decades.

“It’s been an asset for our business to be able to rely on our relationships with these local subcontractors who bring extra expertise in each of the trades, whether it’s electrical, mechanical, or plumbing. That means fewer surprises. That’s one factor that’s helped us with our consistent delivery of jobs.”

Even at the Chicopee property, the company has done plenty of tenant buildouts and renovations over the years. Crochiere knows properties everywhere are crying out for upgrades, but business owners often don’t realize it.

“In a perfect world, property owners would have a contractor or architect or engineer walk through their building every five years just to give them insight into how far behind the 8-ball they are, because codes change, technology changes, things wear out,” he explained. “And yet, when someone goes to sell their building or someone buys a building or someone plans an upgrade, the owner is frequently shocked at how much they have to do and how expensive a project might be — they only wanted to do a conference room and a bathroom, and it turns out to be a whole lot more.

“After so many years in the business, we’ve come to expect it, but unlike getting your car inspected each year, no one inspects their own building each year. And it would be helpful, I think, for owners to do that,” he went on. “Even with efficiencies, there are some products out there that have a short payback time, but they’re never considered until someone considers a major renovation or is purchasing a building.”

 

New Normal

While, as Crochiere noted earlier, some years have been stronger than others, no one was prepared for the chaos of the early days of COVID-19, and its lingering economic effects.

“When COVID hit, we were here for probably four months during that initial shutdown period, where we have some essential businesses that manufacture products here, so it was nice to be able to do some things to support them and keep our employees busy,” he said.

That was especially fortuitous because the firm had an office renovation in the planning stages, and the client — another essential service — called and decided they didn’t want anyone working in the building for a few months.

While work eventually restarted for contractors during the pandemic, this past year has seen a global supply-chain crunch impact firms of all sizes, and that remains a serious concern (see story on page 15).

“It’s hour to hour — it’s no longer planning for the week, it’s ‘what happened last night? What product isn’t going to get to the job this week that was supposed to be delivered, and it’s now six weeks out?’ It throws a wrench into everything,” Crochiere said.

“But it’s a nationwide issue, and everyone’s aware of it, so customers have been understanding when I send them an e-mail indicating we’ve had a wrinkle in this week’s plan or this month’s plan,” he went on. “Fortunately, our subcontractors are looking forward and trying to purchase long-lead items as early as possible to try to avoid significant effects on jobs. It’s a weekly — no, it’s a daily inconvenience, but everyone is trying to work through it.”

Like other contractors BusinessWest spoke with for this issue, Crochiere said demand for work is plentiful, and once the global issues clear, the future seems bright.

“I think people will continue to want to improve their buildings and make capital improvements to facilitate the changing business environment. Manufacturing has changed a bit over the last two years, and certainly office usage has changed the way we use our spaces. So I expect there will be continued work in the pipeline as a result of people adjusting their business needs.”

The other hindrance to taking on that work is, of course, persistent workforce shortages in construction — an issue that long predates COVID.

“The labor shortage is certainly an issue,” he said. “It does affect us. It would be nice to find another experienced, capable carpenter or laborer or employee, but I’d say those that respond to ads aren’t really employable for the work we do. They either don’t have the skills, don’t have the experience, or they don’t have the driver’s license that’s necessary. The labor shortage is affecting all of our subcontractors and everyone we speak to.”

Crochiere is a believer in construction as a career, though, and would like to see more young people catch the same vision.

“Very few young people are showing interest in the physical labor, but one has to be not just physically capable, but smart — technology is changing in every trade, every business, so it’s a great opportunity for young people who are motivated and want to work, with their hands and with their brain. There’s a lot to learn, but the opportunities are limitless. The lifestyle is good, the income level is good, they’re physically active during the day … it could be a good thing.”

It certainly has been at Collins-Crochiere Construction Services, for 26 years and counting.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Construction

Continued Momentum

 

The engineering and construction industry has made a significant recovery from the 2020 recession, but it has also experienced multiple headwinds that are expected to persist. According to a report by Deloitte, 2022 should be another rewarding — but challenging — year, and the industry looks to be poised to capture growth opportunities.

The 2020 recession was among the shortest ever, but its impact continues to be observed across both the larger U.S. economy and the engineering and construction (E&C) industry.

In 2022, as we move into the second year of recovery, the industry has a big role in supporting the nation’s growth plan. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), with investments across healthcare, public safety, and other public infrastructure, is expected to bode well for E&C firms and is likely to accelerate recovery across the non-residential segment. The residential segment is expected to stay strong and exhibit similar activity as it did in 2021.

“The 2020 recession was among the shortest ever, but its impact continues to be observed across both the larger U.S. economy and the engineering and construction industry.”

The industry has increased its investments in digital, including through mergers and acquisitions (M&A), as it prepares to shift toward connected construction capabilities. These technologies can help E&C firms support initiatives such as smart cities, urban air mobility, and climate-change programs, while helping to enhance internal operational efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve margins. Thus, 2022 is likely to be an exciting year for the engineering and construction industry, and Deloitte’s annual outlook explores five key themes to watch closely.

 

1. Several factors position the industry for strong growth amid the headwinds. The industry responded very well during the pandemic and has come out strong in the recovery period. Total construction spending recovered and peaked at $1.57 trillion in July 2021, 12% higher than 2019 average levels. In a recent survey, 91% of E&C respondents characterize the business outlook for their industry as somewhat or very positive, 23% higher than last year. Driving this business confidence is the expected strong performance of the residential segment and growth from the non-residential segment due to the $1 trillion IIJA.

Looking into the two segments in more detail, residential activities continued to stay strong despite rising material prices and the spread of the coronavirus Delta variant. In contrast, non-residential segment spending growth remained weak for much of 2021. Spending across educational, office, transportation, healthcare, and commercial facilities observed the largest year-over-year decline in July 2021.

 

2. Supply-chain disruption and sourcing challenges will likely affect project delivery and margins. During the second half of 2020, the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of global supply chains. Supply issues were expected to stabilize moving into 2021 as both global production resumed and supplies normalized. However, pandemic-induced supply shortages persist, affecting key materials such as lumber, paint and coatings, aluminum, steel, and cement, among others.

The impact of this crisis is twofold. The first challenge is the lack of materials; per an Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) survey, 75% of E&C firms indicated project delays due to longer lead times or shortage of materials. Furthermore, 57% reported delivery delays, indicating that the industry has difficulty predicting when materials would arrive.

The second impact is sharply increased costs; during the first seven months of 2021, the prices of critical construction materials observed double-digit increases every month. Overall, supply-chain disruptions and volatility are expected to be among the biggest challenges in 2022, and the firms that can navigate through them will likely emerge as winners.

 

3. Connected construction will help the industry unlock new value streams. The industry landscape is rapidly evolving as engineering firms, contractors, and participants across the value chain realize the benefits of, and increasingly deploy, connected construction technologies. These technologies can help bring assets, people, processes, and job sites onto one platform, making everyone work smarter, reduce downtime, optimize asset utilization and efficiency, and gain greater visibility into operations.

At the core of connected construction are emerging technologies and the data and advanced analytics that these new capabilities can enable. As the industry moves toward connected construction, developing data, analytics, and user-based insights capabilities could be critical. In 2022, connected construction will likely be a catch-all for major digital investments to connect, integrate, and automate operations and bring the entire value chain onto a secure, intelligent infrastructure.

 

4. M&A will help build broad-based capabilities. In 2020, most E&C firms were focused on being risk-averse and conserving cash to maintain liquidity. However, 2021 provides a stark contrast, as transaction levels for the first nine months were already 152% higher than the full year 2020 and 10% higher than all activity in 2019. The U.S. E&C industry ramped up M&A activity, registering $16 billion in deal value, during the first eight months of 2021. At this pace, the industry is likely to exceed the $20 billion deal value mark by the end of the year.

E&C companies have also shown renewed interest in technology and telecom targets to gain faster access to new digital capabilities and solutions. Between August 2020 and August 2021, U.S. E&C firms acquired as many as 27 targets across the software, electronics, technology consulting and services, and motion-picture fields. A move in the right direction, this is further anticipated to pick up pace in 2022 as E&C firms work toward acquiring technologies to help develop a connected, integrated, and automated operations foundation.

 

5. Firms will continue to grapple with labor shortages as the workforce landscape evolves. Emerging from the pandemic, the biggest question on the minds of most E&C firms was how to restart work at job sites safely. Surprisingly, while the industry quickly implemented the required safety standards, it is still trying to overcome the challenge of attracting workers. The impact of not filling job openings can negatively affect E&C firms in more ways than one, including project delays and cancellations, projects being scaled back, inability to respond to market needs, losing project bids, and failing to innovate, among others.

Another factor compounding labor shortages is a lack of qualified candidates. This skills gap is partly driven by industry advances into integrating digital technologies with key workstreams to further enhance productivity, efficiency, and worker safety. As we move into 2022, adapting existing talent strategies and forming new talent-management and workforce-experience strategies could be critical to navigating workforce challenges.

Construction

Glass Half Full

The latest issue of the Civil Quarterly (CQ) from Dodge Data & Analytics reveals a dramatic increase in supply-chain challenges faced by civil contractors. However, contractors remain optimistic about the state of their industry in the near future despite adversity.

The report, based on a quarterly survey of civil contractors, engineers, and owners, shows that the vast majority of civil contractors (92%) have had projects impacted by fluctuations in the cost of construction materials in 2021. The latest report also found that 89% expressed concerns about cost increases for materials over the next six months, including prices for steel, piping, paving materials, lumber, and aggregates.

Despite these concerns, more than half (53%) expect to see increases in revenue, and nearly two-thirds (63%) expect to see their profit margins hold steady or grow in the next year. This is likely due to the fact that nearly three-quarters (71%) are highly optimistic about the volume of work they expect in the next year.

The report also features new data from the survey about cybersecurity and reality capture.

The current TCQ finds that civil construction project owners are more likely to consider a cyberattack possible or likely than civil contractors or engineers. Among civil contractors, only large firms frequently consider the risk of cyberattacks a likely possibility. In fact, nearly half (43%) of small contractors with revenues under $10 million believe such an attack is unlikely to hit their firms.

Not surprisingly, there is also a direct correlation between those who consider an attack more likely and the degree to which they are prepared for such an attack. For example, owners and large companies are far more likely to have documented cybersecurity policies, engage in cybersecurity training, and employ numerous other means of protecting themselves against cyberattacks, including having a mobile device plan, protecting IoT devices, or creating an incident-response playbook.

With the overall increase in cybersecurity attacks, the leading obstacle among contractors to widen investment in cybersecurity is that they do not think the level of risk for their companies warrants further investment.

On the topic of reality capture, the findings reveal there are a wide range of reality-capture tools employed on civil job sites. Use of drones, aerial mapping, and digital cameras are widespread, but a range of other tools are also emerging in use, including project-site webcams, laser scanners, and GPS rovers, among others.

Civil contractors who use these reality-capture tools are finding wide applications for the data they gather from them, with earthwork calculations, quality-control verification, and progress documentation being the most common. Not surprisingly, these numerous applications lead to some critical project benefits, with more than half of those who use these reality-capture tools reporting improved ability to track work progress, improved ability to manage schedules and budget, and improved quality on their projects.

Construction

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 Leigh Chodos)

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.”

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