COVID-19 causing major construction delays

by Neil Sharma on 18 Feb 2021

COVID-19 transmission among construction trades is riskier than most people might think, especially given how frequently their job sites change.

“Some projects in Toronto have had COVID cases, including one downtown called The Well at Front and Spadina,” said John Miolla, vice president of operations at Koler Builders. “Construction is a very transient industry, meaning that the crew that’s here today doing concrete finishing moves onto another site tomorrow, and the day after returns to this site. That transient labour force increases the probability of COVID transmission.”

Ideally, a trades crew would remain at the same site until the work is complete, but Miolla concedes that isn’t very realistic.

“You have to deal with it and try to mitigate it,” he said. “Of course, constantly coming into contact with different groups of people increases your risk. If we were all isolated, this would probably come to an end.”

Yaniv Geler, principal of Koler Builders, says the company takes sanitation protocols seriously—it has an on-site virus screener and regularly checks workers’ temperatures; it sanitizes all high-traffic areas, including door handles and handrails; and it has a large sanitation station— but while it hasn’t had any outbreaks, COVID-19 has created other setbacks.

“We have experienced some delays with respect to supplied goods,” said Geler. “For example, our fire alarm panels that were supposed to arrive in September didn’t arrive until December. Delays to the supply chain are something we see quite often these days.”

Supply chain issues, which have become commonplace, can be best understood as a chain reaction, says Scott McLellan, senior vice president of Plaza Corp. Social distancing protocols in production factories result in reduced output, and similar problems pertaining to delivery mean that materials don’t arrive as quickly as they normally would. Additionally, fewer dockworkers—again, because of social distancing protocols—mean that containers are stuck at their ports of origin because container backups.

Once materials arrive, social distancing at construction sites results in projects taking longer to build.

“The ripple effect is incredible in our industry because once materials arrive here in Toronto, we have other challenges stemming from social distancing and vertical transportation at our sites,” said McLellan. “At our Yorkville site, we used to get six kitchens up on a floor in one day, but now we only get two because there are fewer people allowed on hoists and in elevators. Fewer people working means there will be a huge impact on delivering the building.”

While delays are nothing new in the construction industry, the pandemic has taken them to new heights. McLellan noted that carrying a project requires a lot of money that the developer will have to pay back—hence why schedules are important to begin with—but things become really dicey when there’s a succession of delays.

“Even trades are pricing jobs knowing their timeline and knowing the number of staff they’re going to have, but when trades aren’t getting their material or they don’t have enough workers on site, it causes delays and eats away at their bottom lines,” said McLellan. “The problem for developers is, in most cases, they take out construction loans, but if they take longer to pay back, there are going to be penalties, interest compounded, and trades are going to have problems because they’re on schedules.”

Those delays eat away at profits, he added, and have the potential to affect consumers.

“When we go for a construction loan, we have to show some profit and show the bank some security,” said McLellan. “[When delays eat away at profits] the only way we can show we have a successful project is with prices going up. Maybe COVID goes away soon and that whole ripple effect becomes reversed.”

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