Design-Build Construction During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused worldwide chaos, economic devastation, human loss, and widespread suffering for millions of people around the world. In spite of these challenges, progress must continue on design-build projects. This is especially important for critical infrastructure such as water/wastewater systems, transportation networks, and building construction. Managing design-build projects during a pandemic presents unique challenges and valuable lessons have been learned in the past few months of the “new normal.”

The overarching principle of moving a project forward in a pandemic is flexibility. This can apply to using new technologies, creative staff scheduling, understanding different individual circumstances, modifying work procedures, and staying informed. In general, due to their collaborative nature, design-build projects provide greater flexibility than traditional design-bid-build projects and allow project teams to adapt to unexpected circumstances such as a pandemic.

As is the case with many business sectors, project management and coordination for design-build projects has seen a dramatic shift to the virtual world. Business meetings are now held on video conference platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or other technologies. It is not feasible to have in-person meetings in small conference rooms and airplane travel has been severely restricted. To be effective, video conferences must have a clear agenda, the meeting moderator must directly solicit input from participants as appropriate, and action item documentation is a must. If on-site meetings are required, such as daily toolbox talks and safety briefings, meetings can be held outdoors and with appropriate social distancing.

Restrictions on the size and location of group gatherings is an important tactic to reduce virus transmission. Construction work teams can be broken into separate groups, i.e., an A Team and B Team. These teams can have staggered days or hourly shifts on site. This reduces the chance of mass virus transmission and also reduces the risk of the entire workforce getting sick at the same time. If possible, reducing construction crew size can also help reduce risk. Design-build projects typically have more flexibility with staffing and often have teams with overlapping roles. Team members often wear many different hats and fill in for each other where necessary. This staff flexibility is especially useful when implementing staggered schedules, reduced staffing, and other personnel adjustments.

With respect to individual circumstances, it is vitally important for those in management roles to have empathy for people who have varying personal circumstances or struggles induced by the pandemic. Of utmost importance is consideration for staff that have a higher personal or familial risk of virus complications. The risk of serious virus impacts to older staff or those with pre-existing health conditions is significantly higher than for young and healthy staff. Staff should not be forced or coerced into situations where they are not comfortable. Another key issue is that everyone has different family circumstances that may impact their ability to meet their usual work responsibilities. For example, some staff may live with at-risk elderly relatives, parents with school-age children now have the additional responsibility of homeschooling, and those with small children are now working in a sea of chaos.

Construction phase work procedures require modification during a pandemic. Examples of additional PPE include disposable face masks, clear face shields, and disposable work gloves. Site hygiene tactics include hygienic training, hand washing procedures, hand sanitizer stations, body temperature checks, limitations on work in confined areas, and mandatory quarantine durations for anyone showing signs of illness. It is also critical to pay attention to local, state, and federal requirements for working during a pandemic. These requirements are constantly changing and vary considerably among states. Employees must be educated on the latest directives provided by government agencies to ensure that all fully understand requirements to protect themselves, their family, and their coworkers.

One of the advantages of a design-build team is that consensus building and communication is faster and easier. This is especially important during an evolving pandemic where requirements, tactics, and procedures can change on a daily basis.  Design-build teams typically have a head start on building a consensus for safety issues since a common health and safety plan is established at the beginning of a project. The site owner must also be included in all consensus building and clients must be informed of changing conditions, work restrictions, and the need for schedule relief. Some clients may have different tactics and PPE requirements than the construction team, either more or less stringent. It is advised to work closely with the owner to ensure that site procedures are in sync and acceptable to all parties.

Overall, nothing is easy during a pandemic, but the show must go on. With careful planning, flexibility, and understanding, critical design-build projects can continue, and society can move forward.

About Jim, Mitchell, PE, Design-Build Project Manager, AECOM

Jim Mitchell, PE, is a design-build project manager in AECOM’s Water Design-Build Group. He has over 11 years of water/wastewater experience on design-build projects.
Topics: AECOM, Design-Build.