Central Penn business Journal reports, "Builders report a smooth transition as they return to work"

Posted on 6/1/2020 by in News

 

By: Paula Wolf
Contributing Writer, Central Penn Business Journal

Terre Hill contractor Phil Snader was about to begin a new job for a client when COVID- 19 brought the construction industry – and much of Pennsylvania’s economy – to a halt in mid-March. 

“I had the excavator lined up, all ready to roll,” said Snader, owner of Whitetail Homes.

The shutdown “threw some major rocks in the cogs,” he said. 

Snader said the business also includes his son Chad, and they managed to tide themselves over with odd jobs for family and friends. Then Gov. Tom Wolf gave construction the green light to resume May 1, under specific safety and health guidelines.

Now Snader and his son are back to building the addition Whitetail Homes was working on before the pandemic hit, he said.

Lancaster County contractors of varying sizes, like Snader, are ramping up activity, with a few glitches, such as a shortage of certain supplies. Some even report interest from new customers – a pleasant surprise they weren’t expecting in this economic climate. 

Karen Watkins, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Lancaster County, said what she’s been hearing most from members is that they’re just glad to be back to work. That’s the “big, exciting piece,” she said. One issue that’s come up is some municipalities remain closed, Watkins said, so they can’t do building inspections. 

There have also some concerns expressed about the safety protocol restrictions. One of these restrictions is that “residential construction projects may not permit more than four individuals on the job site at any time, not including individuals who require temporary access to the site and are not directly engaged in the construction activity,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.

Watkins said home builders would like to be on a par with commercial contractors – where the number of workers allowed depends on the size of the site – and that goal is being worked toward “through the proper channels.” 

What members want is a way to be safe and to work, she said.

Business ramping up 

Jordan Metzler, vice president of Metzler Home Builders, Lancaster, said activity was very brisk prior to the shutdown, and there was even a backlog. 

The business does custom single homes, residential developments, and remodeling projects. 

Metzler said none of the company’s 10 employees was laid off. Instead, their hours were reduced and they were able to work on smaller jobs, such as weatherproofing or emergency repairs. The business also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which helped. 

When the industry reopened, projects that were already in the pipeline resumed, Metzler said. “We’ve started one home” since the hiatus ended.

There have been leads and calls on new business as well, he said, which surprised him.  

Phil Snader also reported getting calls during the shutdown about potential jobs.

“I think (business will) bounce back,” he said, unless uncertainty causes lots of customers to pause. 

Rick Martin, president of Wheatland Custom Homes & Remodeling Inc., Ephrata, said he’s been doing remodeling and additions the last five or six years because there isn’t much housing construction business for smaller builders. 

“I decided not to beat my head against the wall,” he said, so he switched from building homes to doing jobs for people. 

He also is a project manager for Lancaster County Career & Technology Center, so he’s been putting the finishing touches on a student-built house in Mount Joy Township, which has sold. 

One difference he’s noticed since the pandemic? New trucks around, with signs of contractors he doesn’t recognize. 

“I used to know everybody,” Martin said. “Now I don’t.” 

Hess Home Builders, Lancaster, constructs single-family houses, but the majority of its business is now multifamily projects, said Randy Hess, president. It’s currently building apartments in Dover, York County.

After the shutdown, the company was up and running again May 1, he said. 

But getting to full speed is hampered right now because of supply shortages, Hess said.

Some manufacturers stopped production or scaled down, creating a bottleneck for certain supplies when activity resumed. 

“We’re still waiting for windows,” he said. 

There are also time constraints on subcontractors, Hess added, because everyone got back to work at once. “I told customers, ‘Don’t ask for a schedule.’ ” 

The week the industry closed down, Hess Home Builders was scheduled to dig out four new homes. Now, “unbelievably,” given the COVID-19-driven recession, the company is picking up additional customers as well, he said. 

During the hiatus, the business laid off 17 of its 21 employees, but with a Paycheck Protection Program loan, was able to pay them before the construction was cleared by the state to reopen, Hess said.

Now all 21 are back to work. 

Dutch Quality Inc.’s seven employees initially went on unemployment before the contractor received a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help with payroll, said Vice President Keith Petrisek.

The Lancaster company is a design build firm, with a main focus on remodeling and additions. “We occasionally do custom homes,” Petrisek said. 

When the construction shutdown was lifted, “we weren’t sure what we would find,” he said, with so much unknown. Some people understandably had concerns about moving forward with projects, Petrisek said, but about 90% of customers want to go ahead. Business “really hasn’t slowed down at all.” 

In-law quarters are a staple of Dutch Quality’s business – even more now with the worries about the coronavirus and nursing homes, Petrisek said. 

“Safety is our first concern” he said of the COVID-19 guidelines.

With safeguards in place at job sites, and workers following safe practices, “we can continue to stay open.”

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