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Podcast: Shutting Down and Gearing Up in Boston - Structure Tone
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Podcast: Shutting Down and Gearing Up in Boston

From shutting down jobsites across entire cities in some regions, to working through the crisis in others, the construction industry has been turned upside down by the global pandemic. As the project community continues to navigate this new normal of heightened safety standards and mandated social distancing, we’re virtually interviewing construction leaders from across our markets to find out how they’ve responded to the changing circumstances. On this episode, the first in our new COVID series, join Mike Ryan, SVP of Structure Tone Boston, to hear what it was like to be the first city in the US to shutdown all jobsites.


Shutting Down and Gearing Up in Boston Podcast Transcript

Narrator:

From mass shutdowns to job site safety concerns, the global pandemic has transformed construction as we know it. As the AEC community continues to navigate this unprecedented situation, we’re sitting down with construction leaders from around the globe to hear how they’re responding to these evolving circumstances. Welcome to STO Building Conversations, and episode 1 of the COVID-19 series.

Alison Smith:

I’m here with Mike Ryan, who’s senior vice president of Structure Tone Boston. Boston was one of the first cities or the first city in the U S to officially shut construction down. So, we’re going to talk today a little bit about what it was like to go first and what we’ve been learning through the process. So, Mike, what was that like? What was it like to be first, not only within our organization but in the country?

Mike Ryan

Again, like, like everybody else, this was all new to us. So I think, um, the first thing was the safety of our employees and the safety of our job sites. So the first thing we did was reach out to the landlords and let them know that we were shutting down the jobs, notifying our clients. With all the right documentation and then getting out to the job sites and doing complete walk-throughs with the clients to make sure that we’ve shut down valves, made the job safe, got all the trash removed, make sure that the building was left in a clean fashion so that, you know, for a long period of time and now we’re six weeks into this, we didn’t think it was going to be this long. We left it in a safe manner, and we documented that to our clients so that they feel comfortable about how their building was left. We’re fortunate we did not have any outside sites. They’re all owner-occupied buildings. So that made it a little easier. The buildings have stayed open during that period. Obviously, there’s no tenants in the building, but it was, it was pretty easy for us to do. Uh, it was good lessons learned, you know, for shutting down a job site, something we had really never done in that mass quantity before. So, um, we were given instruction by the mayor that we had a week to get shut, shutdown. And I think for the most part we were shut down in three days in the city of Boston. Cambridge did stay open for a couple of weeks after that.

Alison Smith:

And so what was the reaction, um, what were some of the challenges, I guess I should say before the shutdown was official in terms of how clients were they already having people working from home or our subs and you know, kind of the overall project community? How were folks feeling by the time the shutdown happened?

Mike Ryan:

Um, I think our clients send people home probably quicker than the construction community. Obviously, the construction community is a hands-on business. So, um, we probably were not as comfortable just shutting, shutting down and sending people home. But we kind of did it over a phase period of time. Immediately. We identified employees that could work from home very easily and we, we started that work from home process. We did have active sites still going in Cambridge. Uh, and obviously our New Hampshire office never shut down. So, you know, we had to keep staff in the office during that period of time. So, it was really a phased operation. The most important thing was getting the communication out to our clients and out to our staff that we were shutting down. But during that first initial few weeks, uh, myself and most of the other department heads were still coming to the office. Um, we obviously had a skeleton crew in there, but once we kind of got to the full shutdown, that’s when we really, you know, turn things down and people stopped going to the office on a consistent basis.

Alison Smith:

Up until that point, had the challenges of COVID-19 been affecting elements of the job, like supply chain or materials delivery and that kind of thing?

Mike Ryan:

Not really. I think it was still, um, you know, I think we were all kind of a little bit of just in, I don’t even want to use the word denial, but I don’t think any of us thought that it was really going to happen, uh, as quickly as in the shutdown was as abrupt as it was. So, uh, I don’t think we felt the supply chain just yet.

Alison Smith:

So how can you walk me through how you do shut down a site safely, you know, and how you work with the building itself. You know, the, the landlords and the owners and what they’re doing on their end versus the project side.

Mike Ryan:

Yeah. So, so we, uh, obviously create a list, uh, of all the important things to do. So, um, simple things like getting all the trash out of the job so that there’s no trash left on the job. Having all the trades organize their work areas and their supply areas. Um, cleaning the site, making sure the bathrooms are clean, making sure that all the valves are turned off and saved off. Um, making sure that stairway doors are closed, making sure electrical panels are locked off. Um, making sure there’s clear pathways. If, if there was ever an incident where the fire department came to the building that there was no, you know, blockage for them to get through the, through to the site, uh, to deal with, uh, an incident possibly from a fire. And then at the very end we take the building engineer, um, and walk him through it piece by piece tray, you know, whatever trade items we dealt with. And mostly they’re concerned with the mechanical systems, atrium, electric, plumbing and sprinkler to make sure that those areas are all safe off. Cause if there could be an incident, those would be the areas where you would have a problems. And then obviously trash and fire prevention are a big part of that. Also making sure that’s all been removed from the building and that this proper sign is left up to notify people that there’s nobody on site.

Alison Smith:

And I would imagine, especially because Boston took such, um, quick and sort of stringent measures overall, not just in construction, that there weren’t really a lot of people in those buildings while you guys were going through that process.

Mike Ryan:

Yeah. They, the buildings were vacated pretty quickly, so that did make it a little easier. Um, you know, that is when people, I will say, you asked earlier about what was the impact. I think that was a little bit of impact where people were getting a little nervous about how close they should be to each other and you know, getting on elevators at that time, the advent of wearing a mass was not as prevalent as it is now. So, I think back then people were a little bit more cautious and the social distancing. So, I do think there was some, some struggles with that and people were a little concerned about that as we went through that process.

Alison Smith:

So what’s been happening then? You know, you guys, as you said, basically shut down all your sites within in three, four days. What have you been working on in those last six weeks?

Mike Ryan:

I’ve probably spent more time with my department heads than I ever have. Um, you know, mostly who go to meetings and phone calls really, you know, from chasing work and making sure we’re being competitive and we’re staying on top of what’s out there for opportunity and, and being aggressive and trying to win opportunity and then creating back to work plans both for the field and the office. Spent a lot of time on that. That’s a continuous thing. I’m chairing a committee with five or six other people in the office for our back to work committee. Um, and some of the things that we’ve come up with and talked about are all new to all of us. So, you know, we’re constantly asking ourselves the what ifs could happen and really trying to come up with plans to make sure that we’re doing the right thing to make the employees feel welcome back in the office to make sure that the subcontractors and our own people feel safe on site.

 

So that’s kind of our most important thing. Structure, tone as an organization has done a great job of keeping us connected corporately. There’s lots of webinars and opportunities for learning that I’ve taken advantage of. Reaching out to clients, design firms, owner reps, seeing where they are, the subcontractor community has specialties. I’ve stayed close to them. They, they really got an ear to the rail when it comes to hearing back from the government and what’s going on. And um, you know, everybody has their own connection. So you try to reach out to a wide web of people to get as much information as you can. Uh, it, it’s, it’s frustrating for all of us. People who like to go to work and deal with issues every day. We don’t have active projects, so that’s probably the toughest thing for us is that we just don’t have active projects going on to deal with.

 

So, it’s, it’s just staying on top and being prepared to go back to work. And I think we’re at a very, very good place. We had to make sure that we went out and got all the proper PPE, cleaning products, both for the field and the office. So, you know, there was supply chain issues with that. So that stuff is starting to come in now, which makes me feel a lot more confident that we’re ready to go back to the job sites and perform our job professionally and safely so that the employees, our employees, subcontractors, the owners, the clients, the tenants in the building all feel safe working in and around a structure, tone project.

Alison Smith:

Speaking of that, um, I know the mayor or the governor hasn’t really said a hard date on when construction will reopen. What are you hearing?

Mike Ryan:

So, a letter came out that is a little bit confusing. We’re essential work according to the state of Massachusetts and construction is part of that, but there’s definitions within that, um, that they’re going to start work, um, on the 18th and the 26th. So where were hoping that we may be part of the 26th date, but honestly, sitting here today, I don’t have a real good answer. The letter is a little confusing. We’ve reached out, um, to the city to, to get a little clarification on it, but that would be my hope that we’re back on the 26th or shortly thereafter. The, you know, the first week in June.

Alison Smith:

So, it’s funny that Boston was the first to shut down, but it’s looking like we’ll be one of the last to be open in that interim. You know, when you guys were first, um, were other words, some of our colleagues and other offices reaching out to you as it, you know, as it was looking like their cities were going to shut down, were they reaching out to you to talk about how you guys handled it?

Mike Ryan:

Yeah, we, we had shared all of our shutdown plans with all the other offices. Um, I mostly communicate with the regional offices, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and obviously Boston. So, we, you know, we passed on those plans. We’ve shared all of our shutdown plans, our back to office plans or back to work plans on the site. Uh, we’ve done a lot of sharing between those five offices over the past five or six weeks. I’m on a phone call twice a week, would that with all those staffs. So we’d share a lot of information. So it’s been very, very beneficial. I think one of the things that we try to do is we have our weekly call with our employees. We have the newsletter. So I think that was something that a lot of the others took advantage of. Again, trying to stay as connected as we can with the entire staff. I think, you know, our, our department has done a good job of staying in touch with their staff on a daily and weekly basis by dealing with the job issues and you know, keeping things moving as they can. But obviously from a leadership standpoint, Dave Kempton and myself want to make sure that the employees feel like they’re hearing from us and you know, they feel like they can reach out to us if they’ve got an issue or concern that they’d like us to address.

Alison Smith:

Now on the flip side, you know, particularly in that group, you mentioned those cities, Philadelphia went back to work May 1st, are you doing the same thing where you’re kind of monitoring with them how it’s going, what they did to prepare and all that?

Mike Ryan:

Yeah, I, we actually talked to Dermid Kelly yesterday and one of my biggest concerns is the temperature taking and how that went. He said he has a combination of his staff, superintendents taking temperature. In some cases, it is the building is taking the temperature. So I think that is probably the one thing that we’re all mostly concerned about is how that taken temperature down on a loading dock and how people getting in and out of the building, how people are using elevators. You know, everybody has a different way of accessing buildings. You know, if it’s a smaller building, most of the trades will probably want to walk up the floor. So things like that, that’s where we’re really picking his brain. And then if there’s an incident on site, I mean we’ve had a lot of lessons learned from what to do when something happens and there’s been an incident.

Alison Smith:

And similarly, as you did for the shutdown plans, it sounds like you guys are all kind of working from a playbook, so to speak of of a startup, like a checklist and protocols and that kind of thing.

Mike Ryan:

Yeah, we, um, corporate it had, did it corporate plan and then each office has done their own back to work for the job sites. And then even from the job sites, each job site is different. So every job site has its own back to work plan. And then we have our back to work plan for the office, which um, we did initially. It’s now it’s evolving based on what we’ve gotten from corporate. I just got one from the Connecticut office yesterday that is very well done. So, we’re going to use some pieces and parts from that in our plan. Um, so yeah, again, all of this has been a learning curve. Everybody has good ideas. So, we’re using good ideas wherever we can, no matter where they come from. Um, employees, other offices, clients, Kristin Poulin has done a great job reaching out to her connections in the CoreNet community, um, to find out what other corporations are doing, um, things that they’re bringing to the table, things that they’re doing for their employees. Um, so we really taken advantage of a lot of information from a lot of different places to develop our plans.

Alison Smith:

That kind of communication and sharing and lessons learned and all of that seems to be one of the benefits that’s sort of come out of this, that it’s, it’s been augmented a little from everything that you’re hearing like that. And from what you’re seeing yourself, what do you think will be some of the lasting impacts that this will have on construction or on commercial real estate as a whole?

Mike Ryan:

Well, I think that, um, just looking at some of the plans that we’re getting from the building owners, two things are going to change. Initially it’s going to become a little bit more expensive because things are going to take longer, especially during this period of time where there, you know, we’re still going through this. Um, there’s different spacing on the job sites. People are wearing masks; people were in gloves. So, construction is going to slow down a little bit. People are going to come to the building at different times. There’s going to be different shifts. There’s going to be more weekend work. One of the things that is interesting and when we come back into the cities, um, at least in Boston and from some of the clients that I’ve talked to, we’re going to come back to empty buildings. So that is going to be a little bit different.

Mike Ryan:

So that may make us able to work a little bit more efficiently. Um, because the noise issues and the dust issues that we deal with a fully occupied building may not be quite as strict at when we first come back. So I think everything is going to be phased. We’re phasing trades back on the job. It’s a learning curve. Um, you want to move slow, you want to make sure that people feel like they’re in a safe place. So, you know, I, I just think for an industry that is used to just pushing and, you know, wanting to get on the job and move things quickly, we’re all gonna have to be a little bit more cautious and take a step back and analyze each situation, each project differently and make sure that we’re compensating for this new covert world that we’re all going to be working in.

Alison Smith:

Are you ready to go back? I’m ready to go back to back.

Mike Ryan:

Yes, ready to not have so many video calls. Uh, you know, but I have, uh, I have got a lot of things done at home in the interim when I’m not meeting, so I can’t sit still, so I’m always doing something.

Alison Smith:

Yeah. Good. Okay. Is there anything else you think we should touch on that we haven’t talked about?

Mike Ryan:

Well, I think, uh, what I said on the call and all that, the past two calls to our employees, I think, and I would say this to the subcontract is even our clients. I think we all have to be patient and empathetic with each other. Uh, as we all get back to work and people are going to make mistakes, things are going to happen. We’re going to have incidents. And I think how we all deal with that in a professional safe manner. And again, we’re empathetic to everybody’s situation. Nobody gets covert on you know, intentionally, but there’s going to be incidents and it’s going to cause some stress. And I think how we react to that, uh, is the most important thing is, is, is as people and as a, as an organization and an industry.

Alison Smith:

We’ll see how it goes. I know you guys have really robust safety plans and procedures all in place, so yep. We’re ready to go.

Mike Ryan:

Just a, again, like I said earlier, we want to make sure we do it in a safe manner and all those involved feel like they’re working on a safe job site and structure tone.

Alison Smith:

Okay. Well we’ll check back with you in another six weeks and see if you’re back on site yet. Great. Thank you. Okay, thanks Mike. Take care.

Narrator:

Thanks for listening. For more episodes like this, you can find STO Building Conversations on Spotify, Apple podcasts, and the Structure Tone website.