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Building Concern

David Fontaine Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Build It…

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

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

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

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

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

Fran Beaulieu

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

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

Fontaine is doing his part.

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Garand

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Grind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

On the Horizon

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

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

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

Cutting-edge Robotics

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

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

Internet of Things

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

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

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

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

3D Model Videos

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

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

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

Exoskeletons

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

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

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

Autonomous Handling of Materials

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

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

This article first appeared in Digital Journal.

Construction Sections

Building Momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Star Building Corp

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

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

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

Branching Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help Wanted

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

A Matter of Resiliency

union-station-before

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

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

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

But ‘a bureaucrat’s delight?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— George O’Brien

Construction Sections

Happy Returns

President Joe Marois (left) and Vice President Carl Mercieri

President Joe Marois (left) and Vice President Carl Mercieri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These cupolas are being designed for a project in Amherst.

These cupolas are being designed for a project in Amherst.

The jobs are still coming, but a new obstacle looms, he said. “Now we’re being faced with a labor shortage, which is always a challenge. That’s the nature of construction — it’s never perfect. I don’t know to what extent the casino is affecting that, but basically, the labor pool for tradespeople is very small.”

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

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

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

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

Brave New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

Green Goals

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

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

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

Solar Panels of All Sizes

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

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

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

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

Home Energy Storage

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

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

Energy-management Systems

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

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

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

Passive Building Design

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

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

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

Sustainable Building Materials

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in Proud Green Building.

Construction Sections

Driving Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Construction Sections

In the Pipeline

Company principals Laurie and John Raymaakers

Company principals Laurie and John Raymaakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This culvert installation in Blandford

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Digs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What we’re not seeing,” Laurie said, “is qualified or experienced people to hire to grow with us. The need for skilled tradespeople is not going away, and it’s not just us — everyone we talk to within the industry says the same thing. And it’s a field where you can make a very good wage.”

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

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

General-contracting work, like this warehouse

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

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

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

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

Growing Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

On the Rise

Andy (left) and A.J. Crane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Ground Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Territory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Sections

Home Makers

An example of Laplante Construction’s work

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Company founder Ray Laplante (left) and President Bill Laplante

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

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

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

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

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

Estate of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down to Business

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]