Construction sites restart this month in a new environment

Ioannis Pashakis//May 26, 2020

Construction sites restart this month in a new environment

Ioannis Pashakis//May 26, 2020

Contractors practice social distancing as they work on the new Gardener Theater at the Lancaster County Day School in Manheim Township, Lancaster County. The theater, designed by Murray Associates Architects, is planned to be finished in Jan. 2021. PHOTO PROVIDED

The incoming Gardner Theater at Lancaster County Day School in Manheim Township, Lancaster County, was well into construction when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the state to put a hold on all non-essential construction sites.

Because the project was structurally unsound to leave as it was, contractors received a waiver from the county to work on the project until it was at a safe place to stop.

For the project’s designers, Harrisburg-based Murray Associates Architects, The Gardner Theater was one of few physical projects that continued into the quarantine.

Non-essential construction sites reopened across the state at the beginning of the month. The past two months had proven difficult for many companies in the industry, who either lost projects due to clients in struggling industries or were unable to provide maintenance services to businesses for fear of COVID-19 spread.

As an architectural firm, Murray Associates had plenty of work to stay busy as staff focused on continuing relationships with clients and designing projects, said Benedict Dubbs, the firm’s owner.

“We had several projects we were moving forward with on design and we had plenty of things to do on those projects,” Dubbs said, noting that his firm continued planning with contractors in anticipation for a reopening of construction sites.

Other companies, like Harrisburg-based heating contractor HB McClure, were more reliant on the go-ahead from the state to begin construction projects.

HB McClure and its 453 employees offer everything from heating, air conditioning and electrical services to homeowners and businesses across the midstate.

While the company did get the go ahead to continue work as an essential business, HB McClure’s leaders still found themselves furloughing 60% of the company’s staff until construction could begin again.

Adam Smith, vice president  of commercial service at HB McClure, said that the company was able to continue offering services on its heating and cooling systems to try to make up for the lost revenue from construction site closures, but many businesses were unwilling to allow staff into their buildings those in March and April.

“While we were considered an essential business, it was more of a challenge of having our customers, even ones that were open, to allow us into their facilities,” Smith said. “We had a backlog of over 100 customers that we would have offered routine preventative maintenance to that didn’t want us in their facilities due to COVID.”

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt in every industry and caused many clients to put a pause on their projects for the foreseeable future.

Murray Associates Architects, which works primarily with retail, higher education and preparatory schools, has already seen this with a number of clients that have yet to return to projects.

Dubbs said that both his clients in retail and in higher education are waiting for the dust to settle before jumping back into projects they planned earlier this year.

“Our clients are boutique stores and that scale of retail,” he said. “Those folks are scared to look because it’s a very different landscape than it was weeks ago.”

Colleges have a similar problem, said Dubbs, who noted that many construction sites on college campuses are on hold as the schools evaluate how their campuses could change as they focus more on online schooling.

HB McClure is getting its staff back to construction sites, but limitations on staff due to social distancing regulations could offer a significant impact on when projects are completed.

“We hear that some schedules won’t be pushed or won’t be moved but we aren’t deep into the move to fully understand the impact this will have on productivity,” Jim Saussaman, president of HB McClure said.

Changes in scheduling are par for the course for the staff at HB McClure, but one thing Saussaman said was difficult to plan for was the emotional toll for staff doing maintenance on heating and cooling systems in high-risk locations like hospitals.

While many clients have been good about warning the company about potential outbreaks at their facilities, Smith said the company needs to be sure its staff isn’t at risk.

“Some have notified us right away but some haven’t notified us as quickly as we would like that they had positive cases in their facilities,” he said. “We ask if there have been employees with symptoms that they have procedures in place.”