Construction in Vermont rattled but not yet walloped by coronavirus

Construction in Vermont rattled but not quite walloped by coronavirus

ESSEX JUNCTION – Outside, and often thinly spread over a job site, construction crews are widely thought to be less vulnerable to the airborne coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

But an order Tuesday by Gov. Phil Scott that shuts down non-critical construction — coupled with a shutdown last week of all construction in Boston — has left Vermont builders reeling.

The governor’s order tentatively allows projects to resume April 15.

Some large construction projects in Chittenden County will face costly delays if the global coronavirus pandemic continues to intensify, says Benjamin Avery, vice president of development at South Burlington-based BlackRock Construction.

The worst part of it, Avery added, is that the virus’ ongoing impact remains unpredictable — compounding the industry’s tentative relationships with market swings and weather.

An eye on April 15
Three quiet weeks at construction sites (and at other places of business) might just tamp down the spread of COVID-19 according to Richard Wobby, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors/Vermont, an industry group.

At best, builders’ enforced hiatus might stabilize the pandemic and allow the remainder of the construction season to proceed uninterrupted, Wobby said Wednesday in an association video conference.

But more immediately, layoffs are likely to begin next week, he added; and the extent and direction of emergency spending by state and federal agencies remains unclear,

“This has been a whirlwind 24 hours,” Wobby concluded. “Things are changing day-to-day; hour-by-hour; minute-by-minute.”

(Spacing out: Attendees at a ground-breaking ceremony in Essex Junction maintain “social distancing” on March 19, 2020. BlackRock Construction’s commercial and residential project at Five Corners has slowed down somewhat due to concerns over the new coronovirus.)

High hopes in mid-March
“Social distancing” was in full swing among the dozen or so people who gathered last week for a groundbreaking at BlackRock’s new “Chittenden Crossing” retail-and-residential project in Essex Junction: They exchanged greetings and news while standing in a wide circle.

They lowered their guard — but only slightly — when they grabbed hardhats and shovels for a group picture amid freshly poured concrete.

Work on the new building’s foundation had been able to roar ahead until Wednesday, Avery said, but field operations dutifully ramped down to meet the new state order.

“We’re erring on the side of caution, as we’ve been asked to do,” he added.

(A crew from ECI (Engineers Construction) demolishes an old home near Five Corners in Essex Junction on March 19, 2020.)

Last week, within earshot of the BlackRock project, along another spoke of the Five Corners intersection, heavy equipment demolished the first of three buildings to make room for yet another apartment complex in the village.

Crew members closest to the dusty clouds wore masks; those that didn’t avoided bunching up.

Hurry up, slow down (repeat?)
Vermont health authorities might ease back on its prohibition on some construction work, Avery said. But he and other builders in the region eye several coronavirus-related vulnerabilities that could frustrate an already-short construction season:

  • Illness can disrupt carefully timed collaboration between subcontractors.
  • Cautious owner/investors can place a project on hold.
  • State or federal regulations might abruptly halt construction projects.
  • Prospective tenants might change their minds — or find themselves unable to pay deposits.

(Pitching an idea to the South Burlington Development Review Board: Joe Larkin (gesturing) describes on Jan. 7, 2020 a large project (including a hotel) he hopes to build on Shelburne Road.
He is joined by Skip McClellan (left), a senior technician at Colchester-based civil engineering firm Krebs & Lansing; and James Findlay-Shirras and Jeff Hodgson (far right) of Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture, headquartered in Burlington.)

At least one glitch has emerged on the radar for BlackRock’s Chittenden Crossing project, Avery said.

Bringing electricity service to the site — critical at the early stages of any building project — had been put on hold while Green Mountain Power re-directed its crews to services essential to operations that safeguard public health and safety.

“It’s reasonable to assume there will be a backlog when things get back on track,” Avery said. “We’ll have to come back and hit it at 110% to get it done on time.”

(Groundbreaking: Recently poured foundations are in place for the first building at “Chittenden Crossing,” a development at Five Corners in Essex Junction on March 19, 2020. A belated groundbreaking ceremony is underway in the distance, mostly following social-distancing protocols as a health precaution.)

As BlackRock’s big projects throttle back in mid-March, the company re-assigned tradespeople to speed the completion of custom homes, where thinly spread crews could reduce the chances of contagion.

“We’ll be moving pieces around on the chessboard,” Avery explained, “and I don’t think anyone’s going to complain if their houses get finished two weeks earlier.”

A May deadline?
Last week, 90 apartment units are on track to be completed by the end of April at Cambrian Rise on Burlington’s North Avenue.

On Wednesday, workers prepared to shut down by 5 p.m.

Construction workers at the former Roman Catholic property — about 75 of them on any given day — had been observing federal coronavirus safety guidelines by keeping “scattered and separated,” developer Eric Farrell said earlier in the month.

(Construction proceeds south of Liberty House (formerly the Catholic orphanage) at Cambrian Rise in Burlington on Feb. 22, 2020.)

The pressure to complete the project is mounting, he added: Renters had been counting on moving into their new homes by May.

Farrell’s administrative team, however, is accustomed to working in tight office quarters — and had already taken the work-from-home approach.

“I like meeting people face-to-face, but I guess it’s not essential,” he said. “We’re probably finding efficiencies in all this. Maybe it’ll reduce everyone’s carbon footprint.

“We’re going to learn new ways of doing things,” Farrell added, “because we have to.”

Likewise, Chris Snyder, president of Snyder Homes, said earlier in the month that many of his employees were working from home.

Before the state shutdown, crews at his developments-in-progress such as Kwiniaska (Shelburne) and Finney Crossing (Williston) had been hewing to state Health Department guidelines, Synder wrote Tuesday in an email.

“All of this could change tomorrow,” he said.

And it did.

Not an easy subject
The spread of the new coronavirus is particularly vexing to builders because its threat (unlike storm damage, or a delay in deliveries) is invisible,Associated General Contractors’ Richard Wobby told his colleagues Wednesday.

The certainty — for now — that April 15 remains a “post in the ground” for resuming work should give contractors time to advance other aspects of their trade like equipment maintenance, contracts, bidding and design work, Wobby advised.

He anticipates a steady stream of questions from builders and has set up a “COVID hotline” to handle them: (802) 229-9189.

Joe Larkin, chief financial officer at Burlington-based Larkin Hospitality, made no bones about the added challenges faced by his industry.

And, as with some other developers in Chittenden County, he makes room for optimism.

“I have confidence in human resiliency,” Larkin said. “We’re going to need it.”


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