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Return to construction in Clark County requires workarounds amid safety restrictions

State's 'Phase 1' plan allows low-risk work to resume on existing projects

By Anthony Macuk, Columbian business reporter
Published: May 1, 2020, 6:00am
3 Photos
Above, a sign at the Vancouvercenter fourth-tower project site encourages workers to keep a safe distance between each other while working. Health safety signs are one of the new requirements for construction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Above, a sign at the Vancouvercenter fourth-tower project site encourages workers to keep a safe distance between each other while working. Health safety signs are one of the new requirements for construction during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Construction sites throughout Clark County have jumped back to life this week following Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to allow construction activity to resume with restrictions.

Inslee halted all nonemergency construction a month ago as part of his stay-at-home order aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19. The “Phase 1” plan now in effect allows builders to resume low-risk work on existing projects, subject to health safety restrictions such as personal protective equipment, or PPE, and a 6-foot separation between workers at all times.

According to multiple local builders and contractors, it’s possible to perform a wide range of construction work under those constraints, although limiting the number of people on-site has the potential to stretch out project timelines.

Some construction tasks naturally lend themselves to social distancing, said Kevin Tapani, vice president of Battle Ground-based Tapani Inc. Driving a bulldozer or excavator, for example, is a one-person job.

“It’s where the teams are working together that we’re really going to have to try to keep distance and PPE in place, and that’s going to be challenging,” he said.

One of the biggest hurdles, according to Tapani and other builders, will be figuring out how to move building materials around job sites, as well as moving and installing objects such as doors, slab countertops and appliances — jobs which are typically done by teams of two or more people.

“Carrying in heavy materials or items for installation, in many cases, cannot be realistically low-risk because it would violate social distance requirements,” Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Clark County, wrote in an email.

Still, multiple developers expressed confidence that new procedures could be developed for some of those tasks. Technical and logistical challenges are a big part of construction work to begin with, Tapani added.

“We’re problem solvers, so they’ll figure out ways to do it,” he said.

Residential construction

On residential construction projects, some of the biggest challenges will probably come in the early stages of a project such as preparing the site and creating the foundation, according to Tracy Doriot of Vancouver-based custom homebuilder Doriot Construction.

Once that’s out of the way, framing and installation of the walls and floors can be done fairly easily while adhering to social distancing, he said.

The Phase 1 rules allow work only on existing projects, and Doriot said all of his current projects are already at the framing stage — although they’re not completely free of issues.

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“The problem really surfaces again when you start setting windows,” he said. “In our projects we use a lot of wood windows, and they’re big and heavy.”

Smaller windows with vinyl frames are single-person jobs, but larger central windows are typically moved around and installed by multiple people. It may be possible to engineer single-person systems using devices like forklifts and air sleds, he said, but it’ll be new territory for the crews.

Another Clark County homebuilder, Patrick Ginn of Ginn Group, said he expected to be able to complete all current projects under the Phase 1 parameters, although he and Doriot both said the restrictions would slow things down.

“Construction time frames may be a bit slower,” he wrote in an email, “but fortunately, residential construction and development can be done safely as it is naturally low risk.”

Under normal conditions, a typical house project could easily have a dozen people working on it at a time, Doriot said, including contractors from multiple trades such as a roofer, a plumber and an electrician.

Under the new rules, his company will be limiting that to six or fewer people on site at a time, and only one trade per day.

Commercial construction

Chuck Green, senior project manager at the Vancouver office of engineering firm Otak, also described a set of early-stage challenges for contractors on larger commercial buildings, with site grading and dewatering work likely presenting the toughest obstacle.

Existing projects that are past that point will likely be able to continue, he said, although larger structures create new challenges for social distancing, particularly in unfinished tall buildings where a worker’s sneeze on an upper level could send droplets falling onto a lower level.

“That (6-foot) separation, especially in a downtown office building, they need to consider that in three dimensions,” he said.

Inspections have become more time-consuming, Green said, because several local jurisdictions have set guidelines that are tougher than the state rules. Clark County, for example, now requires 24 feet of separation for inspectors, with new homes and structures vacated during the process.

Transportation is another area where contractors will need to stay vigilant, Green said, to make sure that delivery drivers are wearing full protective gear when they come onto job sites, and that social distancing is observed while trucks are being unloaded.

Green, Doriot and Tapani all encouraged builders and contractors to be diligent about the new rules and to maintain regular communication with their employees and regional trade organizations.

“It all depends on our success,” Doriot said. “I keep telling that story. We all need to follow these guidelines and be successful. If we are, I think we can move forward.”

Phase 2

The implementation of Phase 1 has been widely cheered in the construction community, and most builders expressed confidence that existing projects would be able to be completed under the new guidelines, even if it has to be at a slower pace.

“At this point I have not heard that there’s anything that’s causing contractors to get to a point where they just can’t go any further,” Green said.

That point will come, however, if developers finish all their current projects before they’re allowed to start any new ones. Several developers pointed to the new projects restriction as the biggest lingering issue during Phase 1.

Phase 2 will likely address that topic, Scarpelli said, although the details aren’t finalized yet. And there’s currently no timeline for when Phase 2 might be implemented, because health officials want to wait to see whether the Phase 1 measures are able to keep the pandemic numbers down.

“If Phase 2 isn’t introduced in a timely fashion, we could see the industry coming to a halt once existing work is worked through,” Scarpelli said.

Columbian business reporter