Construction Industry Seeks Solutions to COVID-19 Disruptions

Uncertainty is the dominant theme right now in the construction industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic this spring has fundamentally changed the way the business works – from supply chains to project schedules.

“Construction’s always interesting. There’s always a problem to solve,” said Joseph Hellenbrand, P.E., M.ASCE, engineer at Capital Project Management Inc., based near Philadelphia.

“This is like a next-level problem to solve, dealing with all these different issues that constantly shift day-in, day-out.”

Hellenbrand is joining fellow members on the ASCE Construction Institute Claim Avoidance and Resolution Committee, Dan Becker and David Ponte, to present a webinar that outlines the various pandemic-related changes facing the industry, while giving construction engineers the specific things they need to know so that they can continue working with minimal disruption.

“This is a once-in-a-century event, but I think the effects will last for a number of years,” Hellenbrand said.

The problems to solve are daunting.

For one, Becker said, there is an inconsistency within the industry, inherent to a pandemic that has spread inconsistently over the map.

“The state of Washington is doing one thing, the state of California is doing another thing, the state of Texas is doing something else – and it’s inconsistent depending on the industry you are in,” said Becker, M.ASCE, principal consultant at D. Becker Consulting LLC, in Bellevue, Washington. “I think that’s the biggest frustration everybody has, the lack of consistency.

“People don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing or how they’re supposed to be doing it. You almost have to just go with the flow and hope that tomorrow you can open up your project.”

Similarly, some projects were deemed essential throughout the spring, while others shut down. Some states differentiated by public and private sectors. Other states shut down nearly all construction for a time.

photo of construction crane
“People don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing or how they’re supposed to be doing it. You almost have to just go with the flow and hope that tomorrow you can open up your project,” Dan Becker said.

Many projects, particularly those near state borders, that rely on engineers from different states have not had access to full crews in more than two months. When crews have returned to work sites, most have to employ social distancing.

“Until the pandemic is resolved, whether that’s through a vaccine or whatever it takes, I think construction is going to have a quote-unquote new normal,” said Ponte, P.E., M.ASCE, managing director at Nautilus Consulting LLC in Boston.

“You can’t have two people working closely together unless they have an increased level of PPE. So that’s all going to affect the crews and their ability to work at a normal pace.”

And then there’s the question of contracts.

“If an owner’s putting out a contract now, how do you plan for a pandemic – especially now that you know that it’s very possible?” Hellenbrand said.

“Who is assuming that risk? I think contracts are going to be changing a lot in the next couple years.”

The most important thing, according to Hellenbrand, is communication.

“The contractor and the owner are going to have to figure out ways to resolve these issues,” Hellenbrand said. “They are going to have to be a little bit more flexible and communicate a lot more.”

The good news is that Hellenbrand has seen signs of just that: the industry recalibrating itself after a tumultuous spring, looking forward to a better summer.

“I’m hearing from clients that their project owners are being flexible,” Hellenbrand said. “They’re not digging their heels in. They’re trying to negotiate with the contractor for expenses that the contractor, according to the contract, should be liable for. They’re understanding what the situation is and trying to work with the contractor to get through this unprecedented event that’s affecting everybody.

“I’ve seen stories like that, where the owner and the contractor are working together for the good of the project. A lot more cooperation.

“And it’s helping everybody out to get through this together.”

Learn more about ASCE’s “Change and Claim Management Resulting From the COVID-19 Pandemic” webinar, noon to 1:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 9.

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