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East and West: Panel talks COVID impact on construction in Canada

Angela Gismondi
East and West: Panel talks COVID impact on construction in Canada

A tale of two worlds.

That’s how one panellist described the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has impacted the construction industry differently across the country.

“We feel like the sun is shining here on the West Coast and people are still living this in a big way on the East Coast,” said Allan Beron, president of Urban One Builders.

Beron was part of a panel of industry CEOs who spoke during a webinar entitled Leadership Perspectives from the Frontlines, which was moderated by Jas Saraw, VP Canada of Procore Technologies Inc., on May 21. Other speakers included Matthew Robinson, partner and vice-president of Pitt Meadows Plumbing and Darin Hughes, president at Scott Construction. The companies are B.C.-based, with some having operations in other parts of the country such as Alberta and Ontario.

Panellists agreed jobsites in B.C. in particular are operating as they did pre-COVID with some enhanced health and safety measures in place.

“At the beginning everyone was chirping that this is going to affect productivity so much and this is going to be catastrophic for our industry but in reality I don’t think it’s a massive difference,” explained Robinson.

“There are some inefficiencies that are there, but everybody should be washing their hands anyway. It is actually logical for people to walk up only one side of the stairs so you don’t hit each other with a two-by-four or a pipe. Some of this stuff is logical stuff that we haven’t been doing for years and we’re forced to do it now. I think we’re going to be doing it for years to come because let’s not kid ourselves this year it’s COVID-19, next year it will be something else.”

It’s the supply chain that has been an issue for a lot of construction companies.

“I’m still a bit concerned about some of the things I’m hearing out east with some of our suppliers, window suppliers, for example, that have been hit,” Beron said, adding some factories have had positive cases and have had to shut down.

“The products coming out of the U.S. or Quebec and Ontario have been more of a concern for us — doors and door hardware out of Quebec and windows out of Ontario, elevators out of the U.S. It’s been a mixed bag and constantly moving but I think the long-term outlook for supply and procurement is going to be interesting.”

Robinson said his company was concerned about getting products from China, but it’s the shipments coming from the U.S. that have been more of a challenge.

“We get products all over the world — Europe, China, the U.S. — the one thing we ended up waiting for is this tool in Seattle. We haven’t been able to get that tool for about two-and-a-half-months,” Robinson noted. “At first, we were all worried about China but our China order showed up. It’s been the orders that are right next door that are a problem.”

Hughes said it will be interesting to see how the global impacts of COVID-19 will affect the industry at home.

“What we see usually in our business, our problems come a little after the shock hits,” said Hughes. “Even though locally in B.C. we had a very low count and the overall pandemic has been moderate here, I’m waiting to see what happens in the next couple of months and how that will affect the pipeline of new work.

“The call is out to get assistance from the government side of things to keep these projects moving and keep pushing those things forward.”

A lot of Canadian construction firms were busy when the pandemic hit and many even continued working through the pandemic which means they may not qualify for stimulus funding or wage subsidies.

“It’s an interesting dilemma,” said Beron. “We are not the ones who are needing the stimulus in the short term but who knows if it will be there if we do need it a year from now.”

Hughes said the COVID-19 emergency has revealed some areas that need some immediate changes, such as senior care facilities.

“In the future they have really got to look at how do we build those things safely to protect the senior population,” he said. “I hope that’s what we see out of this, that we cut some of the regulations and things that have been really slowing things down over the years and really put our attention to what needs attention.”

“I think the interesting thing will be how the municipalities will react in terms of getting permits through quicker through this process,” added Beron. “I think there will be a fair amount pressure to push the projects forward.”


Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.

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