As supply chain woes and material price spikes continue, at least two Wisconsin contractors say they are remaining nimble as they find ways to navigate the challenges.
According to a June 2021 survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, most contractors in the state saw steep increases in prices for steel, diesel fuel, lumber and pipe between 2020 and 2021.
With those conditions expected to continue this year, John Huggett, vice president and general manager at The Boldt Co. said the 135-year-old firm has found success working with clients, architects and subcontractors to develop proactive procurement plans – or pivot to alternative building approaches, like cast-in-place concrete or modular construction – in order to meet building expectations and construction deadlines.
The company started to encounter obstacles in getting key materials, like structural steel, metal decking and exterior glass components, to their job sites around mid-to-late 2020.
“It didn’t take a lot to disrupt the traditional lead times that we had come to rely on, and the way we manage projects needed to shift,” Huggett said.
For one project – a corporate headquarters in another state – Appleton-based Boldt was able to work with the client and the architect and engineers to move from a structural-steel building, which would have included hard-to-come-by metal decking, to a cast-in-place concrete building.
In another example, the company worked with Advocate Aurora Health to design a fully modular approach to its 16-bed addition at its Grafton medical center.
The approach shortened the construction timeline and labor costs on-site as it was almost entirely prefabricated off-site, minus things like the building foundation and underground plumbing.
“With modular construction you essentially break down a building into cubes, and then you design the interiors within that structural steel cube,” Huggett said. “You put it on a trailer. You ship it to the site. You crane it and put on foundations. You put the pieces together, then you put the enclosure on it, and you’re done. We did that project in Grafton, and we did a couple of others in Georgia and Maryland.”
Preplanning and purchasing
Since modular or cast-in-place construction isn’t something that will work for all projects, or even most, Boldt staff have mostly been working with clients, architects and engineers to exhaustively preplan projects, putting together procurement plans with an eye on any materials or equipment that could have longer lead times.
Before an engineer would be at the point of specifying the air handling unit or chiller that might be used in a project, staff will get on the phone to the vendor, for example, and see what actual equipment they have in stock, or can get on time, and then see if the engineers can design that section of the building using that piece of equipment.
“That is how we have needed to pivot and change our thinking,” Huggett said.
Preordering materials that have longer lead times or can experience price spikes has also been helpful, he said. But it’s something that requires buy-in from clients.
“I think clients that have a construction building program are starting to see that if I am going to put my project in the best position for success, I need to give my architectural and construction teams the tools to put my project on the best footing,” Huggett said. “In this economy, that is a scenario where you are providing the contractor with some flexibility to prepurchase materials and then be able to be paid for them. We have clients right now that we were able to have the conversation and put that in place.”
Preplanning has also been a big help for Brookfield-based Briohn Cos., which has made a name for itself by constructing industrial buildings.
The firm has 15 buildings that are currently in some form of construction and another 12 projects that are slated to start construction sometime later this year, said Nelson Williams, majority owner and chief executive officer of Briohn Building Corp. and Briohn Design Group.
“We are planning a lot further ahead than we used to,” Williams said. “Instead of ordering things two weeks ahead of when we might need them, we are ordering them two months ahead of time. We are just getting used to planning ahead for every piece of material that used to come quickly.”
Re-sequencing project steps is another approach Briohn has taken to meet construction deadlines. Putting in parking lots sooner is one example, Williams said.
The nimbleness and foresight that a lot of contractors are now employing is likely here to stay, said Huggett.
“I think we are entering a period where we need to be prepared to behave in a manner that is flexible and responsive to the market,” he said. “I think the game now is making sure there is sufficient inventory available to execute your construction project without interruption. Maintaining that flow is really important.”