As COVID-19 cases in the US continued to climb earlier this year, construction firms in hot spots like New York City knew it was only a matter of time before jobsites were shut down. But for some contractors, that call came much earlier than others. On March 16th, Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area became the first regions to issue shelter-in-place orders and shut down construction activity—so what was it like to go first? Mike Ryan, SVP of Structure Tone Boston, and Michael Fraley, VP of field operations at BCCI Construction, discuss some of the challenges they faced.
What was it like to be in that first group of cities to shut down construction activity?
Fraley: The most significant challenge was the uncertainty of the situation. There was no best practice or frame of reference to guide our actions, policies, and procedures. In the beginning, state and local officials were not coordinated and often issued conflicting orders, which made the situation even more challenging to maneuver.
Ryan: Yes, this was all new to us. Our top priority was the safety of our employees and the safety of our jobsites.
How did you begin shutting down sites quickly but safely?
Ryan: We created site-specific checklists with key items to tick off before closing each jobsite—things like removing trash, organizing work and supply areas, shutting off any valves, and locking electrical panels. Before exiting, we did final walk-throughs with the building engineers to make sure each site’s systems were off.
Fraley: We assembled an internal team to develop our demobilization approach. The group discussed and combined different ideas to create a comprehensive plan with easy-to-follow checklists, which we shared with building management teams. In some cases, BCCI’s plans and checklists were even used to assist with the shutdown of non-BCCI project sites.
What were you able to work on during the shutdowns?
Ryan: From continuing to pursue work to creating back-to-work plans, we were very busy during the shutdown. I led Boston’s “Return-to-Work” committee, and we jumped right into drafting those plans. We were constantly asking ourselves the “what-ifs” and really trying to come up with measures that would make our employees feel welcome in the office and make sure subcontractors and our own people felt safe on-site.
Fraley: I agree, there was quite a lot to do during the shutdown. While our preconstruction and project management teams kept in touch with clients, our field staff was busy drafting demobilization checklists, master schedules, and three-week lookaheads to prepare for remobilization.
As other cities began ceasing construction activity, and as you began gearing up to return to jobsites, what lessons learned were you able to share?
Fraley: Being one of the first to cease construction and then remobilize, we’ve had the opportunity to share a number of lessons with other STO business units. We remobilized over 20 projects, which required precise scheduling to accommodate a large number of deliveries over a very limited timeframe. We pre-stocked items in our warehouse to facilitate the rapid reloading of the delivery trucks. The first deliveries began at 12:01am on the official reopening day and continued around the clock until each project was complete. This approach helped us get our projects back online quickly and was shared with the rest of STOBG.
Ryan: As other cities began to shut down, we shared our expertise, and vice versa. When Boston started getting ready to head back to the field and the workplace, we were able to leverage the experiences of our colleagues in different locations who had continued operating. I think one of the positives that has come out of this situation is we’ve really come together as an organization to help one another through each stage of this COVID-19 rollercoaster.
How do you see COVID-19 impacting our industry?
Fraley: Our teams have done an excellent job developing strategies to respond to the ever-changing governmental orders and public health recommendations. As we continue to move through this evolving situation, planning has never been more paramount, and we’re translating what we’ve learned so far into an overall BCCI business continuity and disaster recovery plan.
Ryan: Initially, construction is going to be slower to allow for extra spacing on jobsites, additional shifts, and staggered site entry and exit. However, some clients still haven’t returned to their buildings—meaning we can work more efficiently without the noise and dust restrictions of an occupied space. In the longer term, I think this situation has forced us to slow down. In construction, we’re constantly pushing forward to get the job done, but now we’re looking at each situation and project from a different perspective and I think that will lead to innovations down the road.
The pandemic affected construction projects across the globe—but maybe nowhere more significantly than the San Francisco Bay Area. In the US, the Bay Area had some of the most stringent restrictions, which impacted schedules, materials, and even clients’ design decisions.
That was certainly the case for Autodesk’s new downtown San Francisco office, built by BCCI Construction. The 117,000 sf project spans four floors with a three-story staircase that unites the open office spaces, meeting areas, break rooms, and special amenities across the workplace.
Two months into construction, the pandemic put the project on hold for roughly seven weeks. The Autodesk team took the opportunity to survey their employees, make adjustments to the design, and implement COVID-safe features such as plexiglass desk shields, contactless fixtures and devices, anti-bacterial film on high-touch devices, digital “community board” monitors to remind employees of protocols, and more. They also made the decision to lower the overall office capacity by 30 percent to support proper physical distancing in desk and collaboration areas.
“Some of those adjustments were minor, but some, like new furniture layouts, did impact things like electrical configurations,” says BCCI project manager Max Heath. “We had to pull together as a project team to work through decisions virtually while the jobsite was shut down.”
BCCI had conducted full 3D scans of the existing space before demolition, which helped not only remove potential conflicts and challenges in the initial phases of the work but also better manage those very kinds of adjustments. The team also used Autodesk’s best-inbreed, cloud-based project management system, BIM 360, for data management and collaboration, meaning all of the RFIs, submittals, construction documents, schedules, drawings, and other records were available to the project team during the shutdown and after for the full project duration.
“Tenant improvement projects rarely get that level of laser scanning since project schedules tend to be tight. We knew those scans would make the MEP coordination process more efficient, and our overall approach to the project with virtual design and construction tools proved critical to helping us get back and up and running effectively.”Max Heath, Project Manager, BCCI Construction
Pulling together to work through the continued COVID-related challenges—from staggered trade schedules to manufacturing delays—the project team was able to bring Autodesk’s collaborative vision to life. In addition to the pandemic-related adjustments, the new office includes a number of unique amenities for employees, from a music studio and game room to a gym and shower area.
Autodesk was also mindful of sustainability, incorporating electric scooter charging stations, compost options, and an abundance of plants and other natural elements. In the four corners of every floor, custom wooden “trees,” rise up from the floor and parallel the ceiling to provide an element of biophilia while light fixtures, suspended from the ceiling, hang between the tree “limbs.” All of these special features aim to reflect the concepts employees noted they valued most during the survey process.
“The pandemic will likely have a lasting impact on how offices will be designed and operated in the future. Autodesk saw the development of their offices at 300 Mission as an opportunity to explore these new possibilities and rethink its design to support the health and wellbeing of its employees for years to come.”Wendy Peterson, Project Executive, BCCI Construction