The people building new homes and working to maintain existing homes represent “one of the few engines of our economy today,” said Miles Conway, the executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association. But there is now “a huge responsibility to work safe,” he added.
“Quite frankly, it is perilous to be going out onto job sites. We have to be pros at social distancing and we have zero margin for error when it comes to abiding by enhanced safety.”
Just what that means was the whole point of an education break all builders were urged to take on April 16. On that day, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association [SFAHBA] asked member contractors and all residential construction companies to halt work for at least 10 minutes to tell their workers about measures to protect themselves and others from coronavirus.
“From NAHB, we’ve been getting a lot of resources on more careful tracking of everything on a jobsite,” Conway said. “This kind of calls on this new personal sense of responsibility that we’re all being called upon, as citizens or as guest workers, to be more aware of. We’re all trying to be much more aware of where we are and who we’re interacting with. It’s like, oh my goodness, I’m in the presence of a different person other than my wife and kid.”
At sfahba.com, builders can download and print clear, 10-point posters, in English and Spanish, outlining COVID-19 Basic Infection Prevention Measures for posting at jobsites. First on the list: “Stay home if you are sick. DO NOT WORK.”
Several of the others are the same everyone is doing, including washing hands frequently, covering sneezes, minimizing ride-sharing, and practicing social distancing.
That last one is, however, difficult to always follow at building sites. Don’t people often have to team up closer than six feet in order to lift something? “The key,” Conway said, “is to be aware — self-aware and aware for your co-workers — and when, say, two guys need to pair up to lift or operate a piece of machinery, have that personal protective equipment and wear it properly.”
Similarly problematic is the directive to avoid sharing tools. “Some tools, usually the heavier machinery, you do have to share, but that tool or machine can be disinfected,” said Conway, who is not a contractor but ran construction crews with the Youth Conservation Corps in the past. “There’s always some piece of heavy machinery that everybody’s counting on, and everybody interacts with that tool at some point.
“There is a new normal of how we behave around one other,” he said. “We have to be really conscious of everything here in this moment, and it’s working in New Mexico, I think. Everybody’s so hungry to get out of this thing and perhaps that’s directly reflected in our behavior.”
It’s all about flattening the curve. “Flatten it, like a tortilla. New Mexico can do this.”
In the third week of April —two months after the Centers for Disease Control began advocating social distancing and more than a month since the first Santa Fe County case of coronavirus — Conway said most of Santa Fe’s builders were still working. “There are smaller crews, but folks are really putting their nose to the grindstone and getting the work done.”
One of those is custom-home builder John Reeder, Reeder Company. In an interview on April 7, he said he was busy “at the moment, but I’m not sure how long I will be.”
Reeder Company was expecting to finish a home project by month’s end. It had also undertaken an affordable-housing development off of Airport Road but it required a rezoning and the hearing had been postponed because of a temporary ban on gatherings (including by municipal bodies).
“We also have to ask ourselves, do we want to keep spending money on a development project, even if it’s affordable?” Reeder said. “Is there going to be anybody to buy those units when it’s done?” On the other hand, he had already made the investment in the land and in planning and engingeering studies, so it’s pretty difficult to just pull out.
Regarding jobsite sanitation, he said everyone on the crew was trying to maintain distance, but admitted that’s sometimes impossible. “You might need two guys to lift something, for example. But we’re wearing masks and so far everybody’s okay.”
There are at least two overall issues facing Reeder and other builders: trying to keep the virus at bay and trying to keep their companies going. The “Great Lockdown” caused by the closures of hundreds of businesses and other COVID controls is economically reminiscent of the 2007-2009 recession. During those years, when the stock market, and the appetite for new houses, dipped dramatically, most of Santa Fe’s high-end homebuilders stayed alive by doing remodel work.
“That’s very true,” Reeder said. “Even wealthy people with a lot of money get nervous when they see investments declining in value. They tend to put projects on hold. We did turn to doing a lot of remodeling during the recession. It was just getting good for us again in the last couple of years and I’m wondering if we could be heading into another recession and another few years of really having to scrape by.
“Today at this moment we’re okay. We’re probably fine for another month, but beyond that we’re wondering what’s on the horizon.”
Shane Woods, owner with his brother Rob of the award-winning Woods Design Builders, said in early April that the company had a few jobs under way. “We do, and thankfully they’re all still moving forward. One client, from California, did put a temporary on hold, but I think we’ll be back on by tomorrow. My feeling is, wouldn’t you much rather be out in Santa Fe versus San Francisco?”
The dramatic hotspots where most COVID-19 deaths have occurred were in dense, urban areas. It can take up to two weeks after someone is infected before s/he gets sick enough to seek the help of a doctor. During those 14 days, how many others did the person contact? The virus spreads least quickly, if at all, in open, more rural regions.
“This year will be rough for everyone, but Rob and I think it’s going to be a boon for us because of the people who want to live in a place like Santa Fe,” Shane Woods said. He then stressed, “We’re taking this very seriously. We’re following the governor’s orders.”
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered New Mexico’s public schools to close, and most state employees to work from home, beginning on March 16. Three days later, restaurants were reduced to filling takeout orders. On March 24, only businesses deemed “essential” could remain open. Homebuilding was one of those, but Woods said he and his brother began allowing only five people working on the inside of a house at the same time.
“Also, we upgraded all of our porta-potties to have sanitation faucets. We’re most likely going to make it mandatory to wear masks. A lot of guys are already wearing masks.”
The company was doing a weekly Zoom (conference call) with its employees, and cautious thrift was one of the bullet points. “That’s kind of our motto, that we have to go back to that 2008-2009 mindset where we can’t just spend freely because we dont know how long this is going to last,” Woods said. “That’s scary for everybody, the unknown.”
Also in that first week of April, Kevin Skelly, K.M. Skelly, Inc., told Home, “We are working, thankfully.” He was engaged in a whole-house remodel and a fairly large residential addition. About the coronavirus environment, he said, “This is a total readjustment to how you’ve done things in the past, and I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same.
“We’re respecting social distancing and minimizing subs on a project, which isn’t too terribly difficult. We don’t allow more than one or two disciplines, and also limit the number of guys they can have on a project. We have a tile crew on and we’re keeping them down to two guys and we kind of let them have the whole house. Fortunately, we’ve got clients who are pretty understanding.”
Everything takes longer with those jobsite controls in place. Skelly was appreciative of the guidance and resources available from the local and national builder associations. He posted the CDC recommendations, in Spanish and English, in mid-March. And he handed them out to his employees and subcontractors, and made sure they read them.
In the new reality, workers wear masks and gloves. Common spots are wiped down with sanitizing solutions. All of that takes time. It’s a new element challenging the same old budget and deadlines.
“The other thing is it’s like a ballgame in one regard,” Skelly said. “The lumber yard’s closing at 2:30. Well, I need lumber on a project at 8 o’clock in the morning, which isn’t going to happen, which means I’m going to have to go over there at 7 a.m. and haul it myself.”
Then he heard that the Buckman Road Recycling and Transfer Station would be closing down. “It’s impacting the whole operation, and now we have to adjust. It’s like being in a boxing match, getting ready for the next punch.
“We are doing remodels as well as new construction, whatever’s out there. We’re tracking several project but nothing’s happening. Everybody’s kind of frozen.”