While many segments of the local economy have suffered from the COVID pandemic, the construction industry doesn’t appear to have been socially distanced from the dollar.
That is, as long as contractors can get building materials and workers.
The lack of construction materials has been a primary obstacle for building work since spring awakened COVID restrictions.
The construction industry is “pretty damn strong,” said Lance Walk, general manager of building material and hardware supplier rk Miles’ Stowe location.
Most years, when autumn turns to winter, work moves indoors but this year it appears there may be outdoor work all winter.
“There’s a lot of new starts here,” Walk said. In the past, new starts were not unheard of, but they were “sort of rare.”
Most years, builders have their foundations in by now, but this year foundations are still being poured. Walk was incredulous that so many contractors are still clearing property to put in foundations.
“It’s been a crazy year,” he said.
Tim Meehan of Tim Meehan Builders said the upswell in construction work in Vermont is because the state has been one of the best in the country at minimizing the spread of COVID infections.
“We’re the model state, so everybody wanted to come here and out get out of the cities. That surge alone created a huge amount of second home people who came in and occupied their places. All the Airbnbs that were out there renting were finding they wanted to make them more marketable,” Meehan said.
“So, yeah, there’s a lot of work.”
Seller’s market for home buyers
Meehan, a general contractor, said he’s heard from a real estate agent that for every home under contract there are four offers waiting in case the sale doesn’t go through.
He said, “so, yeah, it’s a seller’s market.”
Meehan said he has about an equal amount of renovation work and new construction work. He considers himself lucky to have a contract for a new house he’s been working on since June.
As far as the pandemic’s effect on the work site, in the spring when everything went into quarantine, much of the work was already outside so there wasn’t so much need to wear masks.
Both Meehan and Walk said the one speed bump in the construction traffic is getting materials.
The high demand has meant dwindling supplies, which has led to skyrocketing material costs, they both said.
Walk said a little bit of a slowdown would be a good thing for replenishing supply and bringing down costs.
“We are paying double what we paid for materials at this time last year,” he said.
Walk said he had heard of rk Miles suppliers who had to cut their production line from 75 to 35 employees because of COVID. “And with those 35, they’re trying to put out 10 times more than normal.”
When he ordered composite decking boards in August, Meehan was told it would take about six weeks. Many weeks later, he now doesn’t expect to see the decking until mid-December.
Windows that needed to be ordered four weeks before the pandemic now can take eight weeks to show up.
Pressure-treated lumber, tile and doorknobs are some of the materials that can slow a job down if a builder has ordered them with a normal lead time.
Fear of another shutdown
Meehan started a big renovation job in June that normally he would have finished at least a month and half ago. This year, it might be finished before Thanksgiving.
But he and the new homeowners went into this with their eyes wide open.
“Those folks knew there would be blips and slowdowns. I told them,” Meehan said. “Sure enough, that’s what happened. Everyone got busy and that stretched out the timeline.”
They’ve had to wait for subcontractors or for materials, just as he’d suspected.
Development in the area has been on the rise for several years since Vail Resorts purchased Stowe Mountain Resort, Meehan said. And COVID is another thing contributing to construction growth here.
The secret is out, he said. People like coming here because the area has great skiing, hiking and biking.
“The Aspenization of Stowe — it’s been happening for a while and just like the COVID thing, it set it off and gave it a whole other trajectory. It’s like firing the afterburners,” Meehan said.
Although business is good, there’s still a good deal of apprehension about the possibility the growing number of COVID infections could push Vermont back into quarantine and cause another lockdown of the building industry.
Donald Blake, owner of Donald P. Blake Jr. Inc., a general contractor in Morristown, said his greatest fear is another total shutdown, like the shutdown in late March.
On Friday, March 23, he said they got word they would have three days to close down all their job sites that weren’t classified as essential construction.
For around six weeks, Blake said all their work halted, but their expenses didn’t.
Once work started back, there’s been lots of it. The shutdown put them six weeks behind and they’ve been playing catch up since.
In the past week or so they’ve almost gotten back on schedule, but that is partly because they stopped taking on new work, Blake said.
For the time being, Blake said he had a quite a few jobs in the hopper. “If nothing happens to us or the economy, we’ve got good work through the next couple of years.”
As winter comes on, builders and subcontractors try to line up as many inside jobs as they can. But working in enclosed spaces increases concerns about COVID.
Steve Sisler, owner of Sisler Builders Inc. in Stowe, is working on a couple of foundations and hopes to have them closed in before winter gets too serious. He uses air purifiers and heat recovery ventilators on almost every job now.
These not only recycle indoor air with fresh outside air, they also contribute to energy efficiency by using a radiator-type system to recapture heat energy to warm up the fresh air, Sisler said.
John Steele of Steel Construction, Inc., said they are sealing off areas if they are working inside so other people who aren’t workers don’t interact with a crew.
Like everyone else, Steele said he has seen an incredible number of people coming from urban areas of the Northeast to Stowe, Morrisville, Waterbury and other nearby towns.
Although many people are buying new homes or moving into existing second homes, this doesn’t completely explain the explosion of construction work because it’s happening all over the state and the rest of the country, said Denis Bourbeau.
Besides being the owner of Bourbeau Custom Homes in Swanton, Bourbeau serves as executive officer of the Vermont Building and Remodelers Association. He’s also on the board of directors for the National Homebuilders Association.
Bourbeau was at a meeting of the national association just over two weeks ago where he heard the same story — lots of new construction and remodeling all around the country.
This year, the growth of home sales is higher than it’s been since the crash of 2008, Bourbeau said. “It’s anticipated to continue growing for the next 20 years.”
This is not the effect he thought COVID would have on the building industry.
“This is the absolute opposite of what I’d predicted. I thought people would be out of jobs,” said Bourbeau.
In his own business, he already has 80 percent of his 2021 building slots already under deposit.
Profits almost everywhere are constrained by material costs, long lead times and not enough workers.
Bourbeau said restrictions like social distancing and masking up on the job have not slowed down contractors. He has extended his building cycle so multiple subcontractors aren’t on the same job at the same time.
“We’re not comingling crews,” Bourbeau said. “Our trade by default was already socially distanced.”