CONSTRUCTION CALLS A SNOW DAY
As Portland awoke on Jan. 11, 2017, to 12 inches of snow, a great hush had fallen over the city. Not just from the absence of freeway traffic, but the silencing or earth moving machines, beeping trucks, churning cement mixers and the hollering of construction workers.
The construction sites were silent. At 1411 N.W. Quimby Street a site has been cleared for a new six-story apartment building with 135 units. However, there wasn't even a security guard visibly protecting the earthmovers and giant foundation drill. For three weeks since the former trailer hitch warehouse was knocked down, bulldozers and backhoes have toiled in mud — sometimes three feet deep — as the winter rains made leveling the site difficult, but not impossible. Even when the soil froze, they kept on working.
But snow shut the work down.
Kitty corner from that, it was the same tale at 1420 N.W. 14th Avenue, where SERA Architects has designed a nine-story mixed-use building with 290 apartments for Millcreek to open later this year. Even though there was plenty of inside work to be done (a truckload of peach-colored insulation had arrived the day before) no one showed up for work Wednesday, and only one person the next day was removing snow.
Two blocks east at 1150 N.W. Quimby St. the pile driver for Block 20, at where a 21-story condo tower will be built, was silent. Snow covered the concrete and steel foundations being built by Andersen Construction.
A few blocks south at another Andersen site there was a similar silence. Only the wind whistled around the exposed steel work of Block 136 at 1241 N.W. Johnson St. on the site of the old Pacific Northwest College of Art. Here two buildings are going up: one five-story office building fronting Northwest 13th Avenue, and one 15-story building facing Northwest 12th Avenue with 208 residential units.
Construction projects live and die by their schedules. Or rather, their budgets survive or get bloated. Time is money, and if one part of the process gets delayed — dewatering, a foundation pour, the arrival of a tower crane — the cumulative effects can be more than the cost of a few extra days. It's a supply chain as sure as sneaker manufacturing or making gadgets.
"Not only does a single snow day cause safety issues like it does for all of us in gaining access to our job locations, the effects can actually last quite a bit longer and become issues prior to the actual snow days," said Eric Bolken, a project manager at the DLG Group.
"For construction that is not in the dry already, the sites need to contend with things like freezing standing water in places as well as well as slippery conditions for installers of elements like roofing. In many cases, manufacturers' recommendations also have limits for temperature ranges required for applications."
Project managers have to play catch up. "[That] can be difficult. Depending on the delivery method and contract structure for the project, this may cause additional costs for overtime and weekend work in order to recover the time that is lost. I am currently working on some K12 projects and they do not have the potential luxury of extending schedules given the school year is going to start again next fall and the building needs to be ready to go when that time comes."
Certain days missed that cause more trouble. "Working on school projects, the big focus is getting in the dry so the interior work can progress at the same time as final exterior applications. Any critical path items that keep you from getting to that point are the most concerning."
"Some weather delays like snow and freezing temperature not only affect the specific site but also limits subs from producing the materials. For instance, precast concrete panels for walls cannot be poured in colder temperatures, concrete cannot be mixed and delivered to sites and asphalt suppliers cannot run their plants."
And what about rain? "Rain can cause just as many issues as snow in some cases for installation of different products such as sealants or exterior wall insulation which cannot be wet while installing is in progress."
With 14 inches of snow on the ground in Portland, architect Amy E. Vohs, Senior Associate also at the DLR Group, was multitasking to stay on top of a project of multiple Orchard Supply Hardware stores in south Florida, where snow days are a quaint abstraction.
"For the last several Fridays, we've had snow days (in Portland) and had to work from home to get drawings and meetings taken care of," Vohs told the Business Tribune. On Jan. 11, even UPS and their printing companies were shut down. "So we are emailing all of our documents to an office in Orlando for printing." Vohs was hopeful of flying out of PDX to Orlando the next day (Thursday) to sign and seal drawings then walk them into the Jurisdiction for permit.
Vohs says in Florida they are, however, well used to hurricane weather. It had pushed their construction schedule more than a week.
"Jurisdictions were closed, sites were prepped then cleared of workers. As soon as the storm passes, the contractor had to go back out, clean up the site from debris, repair any damage and then get back to work."
Since they already depend on online meetings to get their work done, a few snow days have not been that big a challenge to Vohs and her DLR colleagues.
They Zoom for meetings, Newforma for submittal and RFI reviews and Plangrid for document control on sites.
Back to work, for some
On Thursday, the day after the snowstorm, the ground was still icy but traffic was moving on side roads. Some crews in northwest Portland were back at work. Greg, who did not want to give his last name and who drives a cement truck for Gresham Transfer, was blasting cement powder down a hose to a tank where it will be to set shoring columns. He said the snow caused cancellation of a job at Swan Island on Wednesday, as well as at Northwest 14th Avenue.
Staff working for the earthworks company showed up Wednesday. However with no cement, they couldn't work so they went home. One said he nosed his truck through 18 inches of snow near Ridgefield, Washington, to get there. Another had arrived in his Prius just fine.
In the site office of Alliance, the builder, Cooper Denson, a field superintendent, explained it.
"What stops us is trucks won't roll. Cement trucks won't drive so we can't work. The batch plan (concrete delivery) controls our ability to work. "
"A lot of companies will defer to the school district for closures. It's just an easy way to determine whether the roads are safe. But that's just localized you go outside of Portland and they do it differently."
Denson said he called his subcontractor, who wanted to work, but in the end they couldn't because the cement didn't show up.
"I love it," he says of the snow. Denson comes from Anchorage Alaska, and though he has lived here for 19 years, he still thinks construction crews could do more when it snows. "I guess if it happened (a foot of snow) in LA it would shut them down," he joked. But he sees contractors in other states, like Minnesota, simply plan better. "They winterize and they get ready for it. In our area that's not really necessary because of the duration, but in eastern Oregon you have to keep working."
The only other shut down hazard they know of in Portland is freezing rain.
His colleague Scott Howell, assistant superintendent is a Canadian who has been here a year. "It has to be minus 30, minus 40 and four or five feet of snow before we shut down in Canada," he told the Business Tribune. "And if it's icy, you scrape it off."
Denson says they'll have to add another day to the schedule. "Yesterday was our first lost day. But it's still loss." As for make up time or overtime, "That's ultimately up to the client."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
Subscribe to our E-News
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)