Stop & Go: Balancing a COVID-19 related project during COVID-19

by Andrea Hardy

In the early chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shepley Bulfinch was approached by a plastics injection molding company to develop a space that would directly support the intense demand of their customers in the private sector for products that had already been in production for almost a decade. They were all just screaming, “More! More! More!” The company manufactures a plastic plate that includes a specific technology necessary for COVID testing, so there was a clear immediate need to design and build out a space to manufacture the plastic quickly and efficiently.  

The project was an 1,800 square foot renovation of existing storage rooms, office space, and warehouse into a clean room manufacturing space. The project included architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing scopes for the coordination of new mechanical equipment, and utilities being fed to manufacturing equipment.  

Fortunately, we were able to hit the ground running: Andrea Hardy, a Shepley Bulfinch architect, had worked on the original build-out of this space and was familiar with the client’s expectations, the building, and requirements of their ISO 8 manufacturing clean room. “This part was a very big deal to us and we were really put at ease knowing we could pick up where the original project had left off,” Vice President of Owner’s company. 

CHALLENGE 1: Creating a fair bid walk during COVID 

While awaiting city approvals for construction, we had to take a step back and re-bid the project, needing to develop bidding documents and suggesting contractors to the client. We were aggressively working to get bidding coordinated while construction was essentially on hold. 

How does one conduct a fair bid walk during COVID when only two visitors are allowed in the building at a time? We essentially hosted a private tour for each contractor, including some of their subcontractors. Each walk included documentation of all conversations, which resulted in a Q&A addendum provided to each contractor for their bids. This ensured that all contractors received the same information for their bids, enabling Owner and Architect to review competitive and complete bids.  

CHALLENGE 2: An aggressive schedule with delay times on materials and equipment 

During the bidding process, we challenged the contractors on schedule by listing a two-month duration from start of construction to substantial completion in the RFP. In our individual bid walks, with the Owner, Shepley Bulfinch, and Contractor Representative, we requested feedback on the project schedule. While the desire was to push hard, it was also critical to the Owner’s communication with their clients, that the timeline be realistic. From these discussions, the end team (after contractor selection) agreed on a 3-month construction schedule. This change in construction schedule was driven by equipment and material lead times. During bidding it was brought to the team’s attention that mechanical equipment had long lead times due to COVID. This is what ultimately led to the agreed upon and executed project schedule.  

This project was sensitive in nature and took place during one of the most trying and dynamic times in recent history.  The design and construction team was met with many challenges along the way, but worked diligently together to bring the client this unique space used to serve the community in its time of need. Ben Tully, Project Manager, Guthrie General, Inc. 

CHALLENGE 3:  A roller coaster of guidelines and precautions   

The volatility of the construction industry was intense at the tail end of 2020. With the ‘unknown’ of positive COVID tests plus lagging product lead and delivery times, flexibility had to be built into every-day tasks. (We couldn’t just ‘wait’ for things to work out.) There was an added layer of complexity surrounding the virus itself. For example -if any member of a subcontractor’s team contracted the virus, it had the potential take down the whole team or the job site, putting our staff at risk and possibly delaying the deadline.  

We were constantly aware of the threat and the rapidly changing guidelines. This led to, depending on the situation, a hybrid of communication and collaboration. The contractor was quick to react for getting folks who felt sick off the job site or replacing crews taken down by the virus. The Owner-Architect-Contractor (OAC) Team had varying company policies, which led to a hybrid approach for communication. When possible, we met out on site, but the team leaned on video conferencing, emails and phone calls for most communication.

CHALLENGE 4: Testing & balancing 

Collaboration continued down to the wire for the deadline to have their equipment up and running; and our last challenge came down to our mechanical testing and balancing. The team came together for a full-day workshop, brainstorming solutions to achieve the required air changes and room pressure with the combination of new and existing equipment. We ran into some surprises from existing conditions where roof top mechanical equipment was not the size stated in the existing drawings and non-insulated walls (i.e., air escaping the building).  

The full-day on site, which was a weekend day to highlight the urgency and dedication from the team, included reviewing the drawings, equipment, and sound boarding solutions. By the end of the day, we had a path forward and a hard deadline. At that point the team had days to clarify and implement the mechanical solution so that Owner could have equipment up and running by their deadline.  

Up and Running! 

The whole team came together through the entire project to help overcome the challenges highlighted. The team worked collaboratively throughout the project to overcome these obstacles and deliver a time sensitive project to the Owner. From the project, we adapted to company and CDC guidelines and found creative solutions to some decades long industry standards (example – bid walk) and heavily leaned on technology for communication and collaboration.  

Our COVID related project during COVID contained an assortment of ‘hurry-up…and wait’ moments. Our team took them in stride during these unusual times; and, at the end of the day, we were able to turn over the project to our client on time for them to meeting their production demands. We found new and unique ways to collaborate remotely as well as respectful ways to be out on site together to deliver a successful project in such unprecedented times.