In March of 2015, the New York Times discussed the increasing number of legal cases that followed the fevered pace of new construction and condominium conversions in the city. Substandard construction performed under aggressive schedules left many new homeowners with a substantial number of serious building defects. Five years later, a new issue could complicate an already suspect building boom: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the construction market.
As the early epicenter of pandemic cases, New York City and New York state moved to protect citizens and workers by minimizing exposures to the virus. In March of 2020, Governor Cuomo halted all non-essential work until the experts could monitor trajectories and develop a plan for minimizing the spread of the virus. As result, many construction and trades companies kept a majority of workers at home and dispatched skeletal crews to temporarily protect and secure projects at various stages of completion. With great confusion surrounding what qualified as essential work and a general reluctance by workers, inspectors, design professionals, and management to travel to job sites without proper protection, some construction sites sat idle for weeks.
All interested parties in construction feverishly worked to develop plans in response to changing government orders and guidelines to protect not just laborers or skilled trades, but professionals and owner’s representatives as well. From material warehouse workers, to truck drivers, to coffee and donut trucks, to port-a-john servicing—any business that was part of the construction world was now off their game.
Impact on existing projects
Inattention to comprehensively secure building projects could adversely affect any number of construction materials and systems. Materials installed or staged and awaiting installation were potentially exposed to rain, temperature swings, UV rays, and trauma from wind events. Storage specifications approved earlier in the process would be severely tested with no oversight. Without windows or curtain walls installed, framed buildings were left open for extended periods of time exposing the building to weather and allowing for major water intrusions to interiors. Partially completed roofs without fully flashed details would be susceptible to UV exposures and water infiltration.
To maintain completed portions of projects, it was also important to establish a schedule for periodic inspections of security measures. Returning to abandoned jobsites to fully investigate and report on the status of the materials and systems was a time consuming and expensive process, requiring new line items in schedules and change orders for extra protection. These unforeseen delays and additional costs do not fit neatly under normal insurance claims. Nervous investors could be inspired to skip these important steps and push for construction continuation in lieu of verification or, alternatively, a complete shutdown and temporary shelving of a project until the availability of more favorable funding.
Partial reopening in April and full reopening with safety precautions in June allowed workers to return to job sites to pick up where they left off. Even with increased personal protections, workers could not fully return to normal. Anecdotally, my own conversations with contractors during that time revealed an unforeseen difficulty in meeting construction schedules. One contractor confided to me in March: “My crews are afraid to get in the same car. I can’t get them to the site on time and that’s why we’re delayed”
In many cases, the original workers left the city for other parts of the country where work was available and the impact of the pandemic minimal. “All my guys have gone to North Carolina. It’s safer. They have work and family there,” stated another contractor in April. Another concern was lack of a continuum of knowledge and familiarity about a project’s history and status, as it would require additional time to bring workers up to speed when the city eventually reopened.
The post-pandemic future of construction
The economic impact of the pandemic could potentially result in significant ongoing challenges, including suspect building construction and loan defaults that leave projects unfinished until owners can secure government assistance or new investors.
Combine hastily organized measures to shore up loose ends with the economic urgencies to swiftly finish projects once the work ban was tentatively lifted, and the result is a city left with a new class of concerning building issues. This pandemic influenced interruption in construction could have long-lasting implications for building owners. Any new construction project started in Spring 2019 or later is a good candidate for monitoring for the unfortunate effects of the pandemic on the quality of the materials and methods.
To learn more about how CCA can help evaluate projects and get practical advice on how to reduce your risk and ensure your building envelop performs well, watch our webinar: Assessing and Restoring Complex Building Envelope Systems.