There was an uneasy feeling in the air when Billy Norrell arrived in Las Vegas this past March for the annual Associated General Contractors of America national convention.
News of the rapidly spreading coronavirus dominated conversation among the attendees. Some companies, especially those with connections to China, had pulled out of the event. The ConExpo construction trade show, which was taking place in Vegas at the same time, ended a day earlier than scheduled.
“We saw the signs while we were there that this thing was a little different, and it was coming our way,” says Norrell, CEO of the Alabama chapter of AGC. “Then that next week, when we got back home, that’s when everything started to go sideways.”
From mid-March into early April, the construction industry in Alabama was like most of the country when it came to dealing with Covid-19 — concerned and confused. But once it became evident that the industry would be deemed an essential business that could continue operating even during a shutdown, the focus turned toward figuring out the best way to keep working safely and efficiently.
“Everything was changing daily, if not hourly,” says Alan Chandler, executive vice president at Birmingham-based Doster Construction. “We had to create a new way to work with new rules for everything. So having good communication was very important.”
The national AGC organization took the lead, surveying members as early as March 16 to gather data about supply chains, jobsite operations and any changes in regulations that could impact projects. On March 20, the AGC began holding a weekly webinar to provide updated information to local chapters.
“We’re in uncharted territory here, for AGC and the rest of the industry,” AGC spokesperson Brian Turmail said at the time. “Things are happening fast and furious.”
Similar information efforts were taking place in Alabama. Norrell says his office maintained close contact with national and state officials, receiving regular updates on the ever-changing guidelines for how to safely control and operate a construction site. That information was passed along to state AGC members, who in turn communicated with project supervisors.
“We formed an executive leadership team that included our corporate safety leader and vice president of HR, and they consistently monitored the CDC and WHO, and local and regional governments,” says Ralph Hargrove, president and CEO of Mobile-based Hargrove Engineers + Constructors. “Then I did live streams to the entire team where we’d bring them up to speed and give them all the facts.”
The entire situation was made even more difficult by the wide disparity of regulations from state to state and even between cities within the same state.
“Because we work in so many different places, it was pretty demanding to ensure that all the protocols we put in place were in compliance with CDC guidelines, as well as at the state and local level, which would sometimes layer other requirements on top of those,” says Will Watson, Alabama Division vice president at Birmingham-based Hoar Construction. “It was pretty complex for us to figure out exactly what we needed to do to ensure the safety of our personnel.”
Most of the steps construction companies have taken are the same as those for other industries and daily life in general — social distancing, staggered start times, smaller on-site meetings, virtual meetings whenever possible, more handwashing, face covering, tool disinfecting and periodic temperature checks for workers.
“We’ve been in a highly competitive learning mode,” Hargrove says. “Everybody has been exchanging data: subcontractors, clients, owners. Even competitors are talking about what each of us is doing. Everybody is learning and communicating, and that’s helping us pick back up and hopefully get where we want to be.”
Even with diligent safety protocols in place, there have been occasional positive tests at construction sites in the state, including at the renovation to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. But Norrell says, overall, he has been pleased with the way the industry is handling the crisis.
“An unintended consequence of all this is that personal health has become such a big issue on our projects,” Norrell says. “We’ve always preached individual safety on the jobsite, but this increased emphasis on the health perspective has been good. It’s allowed our jobsites to produce things for their employees that haven’t been there in the past, and the employees have really embraced it.”
Through it all, most construction projects in Alabama have continued as originally scheduled or with only slight delays. In fact, Norrell says road projects “moved smoother than ever” in April and May because auto traffic was significantly curtailed as so many people stayed at home.
Chandler says Doster had a few projects scheduled to start in June that were pushed to August and September, though the delays were due more to financial uncertainty among the developers than any safety issues. Likewise, Hargrove says his company had some projects put on hold, but most of those have started up again. And Watson says that while Hoar also dealt with a few project delays, “the lion’s share of our work has progressed unimpeded through all this.”
The companies also report that they have not had many issues involving subcontractors or, perhaps most importantly, the supply chain for materials.
“There are some products from overseas that have slowed down in deliverability, but for the most part we’ve been pretty fortunate that everybody has been able to get the materials that they need to keep rocking along,” Norrell says. “There are some specialty products out there that have been hung up because of delays in production, but a lot of that is coming back on line. So the delays that were being experienced in April and May are getting fixed now.”
The primary concern moving forward is whether new construction projects will be initiated in the midst of so much uncertainty. Jobs involving hospitality, retail and entertainment seem likely to be in less demand for the near future, though there could be an increase in health care, manufacturing, distribution and warehouse work.
Chandler says he is optimistic the industry will not experience a major slowdown in work, since so many construction projects are multi-year endeavors.
“People are thinking that this surely won’t still be a problem in two or three years, so they’re willing to go ahead and invest the time and effort and money in them now,” Chandler says.
Of course, one thing we have all learned in 2020 is just how quickly situations can change. But members of the state’s construction industry are hopeful that they have built a foundation that will withstand the pandemic.
“Everybody is trying to do their part in order to keep the work going,” Watson says. “Things were very fluid early on, but now everybody seems to have their arms around this. I’m not saying we’re comfortable with this new reality, but the industry as a whole is really starting to handle the challenge.”
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.