When Summer ‘Vacation’ is Your Busy Season: The Life of Construction Engineers

Labor Day weekend around the United States brings with it the unofficial end of summer.

Beach vacations are in the rearview. Cookout grills are stowed away. School is back in session. It feels like the party’s over.

But for those in the construction industry, Labor Day weekend is a milestone of a different sort. Especially in the colder, northern parts of the country, the summer is their busy season. The coming winter wind is not a bitter chill but instead a chance to catch their breath.

“As an owner, the busy season is always great,” said Anne Bigane Wilson, P.E., CPC, M.ASCE, fourth-generation family owner of Bigane Paving Co., in Chicago. “But the wintertime is also nice. It gives us an opportunity to relax and retrench.”

The summer is prime time for construction. School’s out. Traffic lessens. The weather is warm. Not, however, an ideal season for vacation planning.

“Oh yeah, never,” said Saumil Maniar P.E., M.ASCE, an associate with PMA Consultants in Newark, New Jersey. “I can tell you with me, my team or friends and colleagues I have in the industry, I don’t think anyone takes vacation around the summer.

“There are two problems. One, if you’re away from the project, it affects the rest of the team. Everyone is scrambling to find out where that file is or ‘Was this submitted?’ or ‘Has this been approved?’ It adds up.”

“And secondly,” he added, laughing, “if you’re on vacation you will get phone calls. There’s always something that someone forgets to ask the day before you leave.”

Bigane Paving Co. has been busy this summer with work on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. PHOTO: Anne Bigane Wilson

Adapting and planning

For Wilson, who grew up in the brutal Chicago winters, this kind of schedule is a way of life.

“The summer gets really busy for us because people remember it’s going to snow. So it gets hectic as we try to work around that problem,” Wilson said. “We obviously do the best we can to manage our schedule around the weather. As we come toward Labor Day, we start to remind people how many days are left in the season.”

Guidelines for work during low temperatures begin to become more and more relevant as the autumn descends.

Some projects must be fast-tracked to completion, because the reality is that certain streets can’t simply remain closed through the winter. “It’s dangerous for snow plows,” Wilson said. Other projects, meanwhile, get put on ice (literally) until the spring.

“You start making engineering judgments in terms of what you can do to mitigate the problems that the lower temperatures might cause,” Wilson said. “So with asphalt, after Nov. 1, we use warm-mix additives. It helps to extend that temperature window so we can still get compaction on asphalt as it begins to cool off.”

In the New York City area, Maniar has been doing project controls work for various projects including an Airtrain, bus facility, and heavy rail project. He knows he needs to allow for extra resources to be ready in the springtime. He knows he needs to plan for more weekend work during the summer. He knows the seasonal ebbs and flows are a part of his yearly workflow.

“Our clients always want to keep patrons and drivers happy while still being able to finish projects on time,” Maniar said.

School projects, of course, are critically important during the summer – regardless of climate.

“It’s important that the classroom or gym or school building is in service so that when students come back in September they can use it,” Maniar said.

“School projects and projects that affect access to the schools, those schedules have milestones so that you finish a few weeks ahead of deadline. You definitely don’t plan construction to be happening when school is in session.”

Wonderful winters

Wilson has a reasonable attitude toward the Chicago weather: “I think it’s like everything else – every part of this country has different weather challenges that they face. If you’re in the desert, you’re dealing with extreme heat through most of the summer and even some of the spring, so I think businesses in those locations adapt their business model to match the weather that they’re faced with, because it’s not something any of us can control.”

What civil engineers can control is their work schedule. Certainly the paving construction business may slow down when it gets cold out, but that doesn’t mean Wilson’s team closes up shop.

“The winter gives us an opportunity to focus on the paperwork, so we can close out projects and have everybody’s attention on some of those parts of the construction industry that are not nearly as fun as the building but are just as vital,” Wilson said.

“It also gives us a chance to do a lot of the real deep equipment repairs that we need to do without taking something out of production. You don’t have that same pressure from operations to have all the equipment up and running. So we can do big overhauls or rebuilds in the winter time when that equipment’s not going out.”

And, hey, maybe – at long last – even a personal vacation.

“If you’re planning a week’s vacation or a nice little trip outside the country, it’s always Decembers, it’s almost always winter,” Maniar said.

“It’s OK. That means you get to go to warmer places in the winter!”

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