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Innovation: The Key to the Post-Pandemic Construction Era

From where Peter Muench sits, it’s the imperfect storm. LeChase’s vice president of preconstruction says building-material shortages, skyrocketing prices, insufficient trucking capacity and labor availability are presenting unprecedented challenges for clients whose critical construction projects are on the line.

Peter Muench talks about innovation in post-pandemic construction

Peter Muench

These complex realities, however, are a unique opportunity for experienced, savvy commercial construction firms to innovate around the obstacles – and bring clients’ projects in on time and on budget, without compromising quality.

“If we listen to clients and make them part of the solution, there is no end to the possibilities,” says Muench. He says transformative lessons being leveraged today are positioning the construction industry to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic more resolute, resilient and responsive.

“We collaborate with our clients to make product substitutions that are more efficient and sustainable,” says Muench. For example, to work around the current plywood shortage, LeChase is integrating super-thin concrete decks on housing projects, which results in a better building long-term.

Most major construction projects underway or about to break ground were planned, budgeted and designed in the past two years, says Muench. Current conditions could lead to costly delays or even cancellation. Healthcare services, nursing homes, multi-family housing initiatives, college athletic facilities and other community and institutional priorities are at the forefront.

“One of our higher-education clients designed a project in 2019 that’s slated to be 12% over budget now, due to the convergence of product and labor shortages and cost escalations,” he says. “Under normal circumstances, a two-year-old cost projection would be reliable. But these are extraordinary times.”

To address the new realities, LeChase reimagined best practices. For example, instead of electricians and other tradespeople working on jobsites, the company, when possible, completes assemblies in warehouses and delivers finished units to the sites, ready to install.

This offsite fabrication “allows local employees to work in a controlled environment, at waist level instead of on ladders and in small spaces, enhancing safety while improving the final product,” says Muench. “It’s also less disruptive to our clients, as some need to conduct normal business during construction.” Bringing in units built off-site also reduces disruption to neighborhoods, and cuts on-site waste to local landfills by about 25%, he says.  Mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems, millwork assemblies, exterior walls and other elements are among those that can be assembled in advance in a warehouse, rather than on-site.

For some clients, modular construction is the best option. LeChase has developed partnerships with manufacturers in the United States and Canada, and works at factories to ensure quality control and product integrity. In a recently completed hotel in Middletown, all the bathrooms were fabricated off-site and installed in 30-minute cycles – allowing the project to save weeks. Local crews completed finishing work on-site.

“We need to be creative, especially in these times,” says Muench. “We have to be able to pivot for our clients. The bottom line is that we have to come in with a positive attitude and move forward. Each client’s job is personal to them. We really have to listen. They understand the world and appreciate our being honest about what they can and can’t afford to do.”

The numbers bear out the value of collaboration. More than 85% of LeChase clients are repeat customers. Each project is an opportunity to build trust with a client and establish long-term relationships. “We live in the communities we serve and value these partnerships,” Muench says.

The company expects that many techniques, practices and solutions developed during the pandemic will endure.

“We’ve demonstrated that by leveraging our experience, being innovative and maximizing our resources, we can continue to turn vision into reality for our clients,” Muench says.