This article is part of a series of conversations that Construction Dive reporters and editors are having with industry leaders about the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on their firms and their markets. To add your voice to the discussion, email us here.
Since the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S., a "safety first” mentality has never been more important for Philadelphia-based LOTT Restaurant Construction. Like their counterparts across the country, managers there are dealing with new jobsite requirements including staggered start and break times, managed social distancing, face masks and regular hand-washing.
For a construction firm that prides itself on its ability to fast-track projects, these new protocols have forced managers to seriously refine scheduling. No longer able to stack trades on a site, they have to rethink how to get the maximum effect from fewer people while maintaining the same quality and timeline results.
Here, Construction Dive talks with president Stacey Lott about how the pandemic has affected the firm, which has built restaurants in 15 states.
How has the coronavirus affected your firm so far?
The virus has had a significant effect on our business. Even though we had to temporarily lay off our employees off, we used the time to reorganize and refine our operations and connected everyone weekly to get feedback on ideas moving forward and assure them that we would get through this together as a team.
We had a few projects just starting and some are still on hold, but we used the time off as an opportunity to prepare our clients for all potential outcomes. We imagine it is a difficult time for all, but it seems most of our contracts are going to move forward.
While it should have been easy, finding the necessary tools has been a challenge. Masks and hand sanitizers are scarce, but no-touch thermometers have been completely elusive. Building materials have not been as scarce as PPE, but there were some delays in ordering long-lead items.
One thing is clear: No matter what state you work in, it won’t be business as usual as we get back to work.
How will you keep workers safe going forward?
On a jobsite, safety and cleaning measures have always been and will remain a priority, but we have had to alter our mobile field offices to include a few more items and communicative measures for superintendents. We are also taking everything a step further by instituting fines for subcontractors who don’t comply.
All subcontractors have always been required to clean up after their crew and for jobsite safety, but now there are added measures, such as wearing masks and performing temperature checks. We’ve instituted an amendment to our safety policy that must be signed by all subcontractors to strictly enforce the new protocols. Failure to follow the site guidelines will result in a fine — and all fines will be donated to restaurant worker relief funds.
How will you rethink your operations to stay on budget and on schedule despite social distancing and other new measures?
Scheduling has certainly proven to be a new challenge. We do have time restrictions in the city and can only have a limited amount of people (workers and visitors) on site. One of the more time-consuming tasks is checking everyone at the door for PPE and temperatures.
We are adapting by using technology to walk people through our projects and have done some creative scheduling to layer work. There are delays in shipping and longer lead times which lead to potential scheduling issues. If the schedule is off then the budget increases, so we will need to make sure the owners’ expectations and budgets are in line with reality, so schedules are maximized. It requires diligent planning and evaluation of the plan on a regular basis, constant communication and good documentation.
What are some of your ideas for helping your restaurant clients be successful in this new era?
One of our top priorities is to assure we build a sanitary establishment. We will continue to work within the guidelines set by the local health authorities. Before we turn over the restaurant, we give our owner instructions on cleaning and maintaining their equipment and we offer a one-year warranty on the work we managed.
We are not the visionaries, but we have been trying to research methods used in other types of construction and apply them to the restaurant world. For example, we have been looking at the specialty needs for hospitals to determine if air filtration or UV lighting can be utilized to sanitize the air and surfaces in the dining and kitchen areas without having to hire a deep cleaning crew every evening after service.
What are your biggest concerns as construction begins to reboot?
LOTT specializes in restaurant development and construction, from soup to nuts, and it is scary to think about the damage social distancing and isolation have done and will do to the restaurant business. But we remain hopeful that owners will be able to find viable ways to reassure the public it will be safe to dine out and enjoy time with friends and family again.
It is unfortunate that some establishments may not survive, but many will adapt, and we have some really creative ideas to help anyone with a vision to bring people together over food and drinks.
Nevertheless, construction is a stimulus to the economy, so when our economy gets back on track, construction is the indicator and people are going to want to celebrate. We get up early every day to build awesome spaces to achieve that. And no one will be happier than us to see that happen in the coming weeks.