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Shipping container classrooms and prefab bathrooms: The construction industry evolves amid COVID-19

Shrink-wrap coverings, prefab bathrooms and portable shipping containers — these are all part of the new normal as the construction industry adapts to safety protocols in a COVID-19 world.

Builders have faced a host of challenges, ranging from a slowdown in available supplies and labor to project cancellations.

The health crisis has also taken a big bite out of the industry’s employment base. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the nation’s construction sector added 158,000 jobs in June, but employment was still down by 472,000 jobs since February.

Moving forward, the industry is going to look different.

New materials, off-site production

Jim Madrid, executive vice president for the Southern California region of McCarthy Building Companies Inc., said construction firms are exploring the use of materials that can be cleaned more easily and don’t absorb bacteria and viruses.

Such materials will likely be installed in heavily trafficked areas, such as lobbies, corridors and restrooms.

“There are products which work like a shrink wrap that you can put on door handles that are anti-microbial and will last six months,” he said. “They kill germs on contact. That’s a relatively inexpensive retrofit.”

Construction workers wear masks as they walk along Holly Street from a construction site in Pasadena on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Madrid also anticipates an increase in off-site production of building components, such as bathrooms and panelized wall systems. That would help reduce the risk of workers being clumped closely together on a job site.

“It’s less expensive and you can do it in a more controlled environment,” he said. “Bathrooms could be prefabricated and then delivered and slid into place. There is also some out-of-the-box thinking in regard to school projects in Malibu. Shipping cargo containers are being retrofitted as classrooms. It’s very quick, and they are mobile if they need to be moved.”

Pre-fabricated walls

McCarthy is a division of McCarthy Holdings, which has nearly 5,000 employees with offices scattered throughout the U.S. The company is currently working on a three-story medical building in Hesperia for Kaiser Permanente that incorporates prefabricated interior and exterior walls.

Newport Beach-based Corporate Business Interiors made the prefab, modular interior wall panels for the second and third floors in Arizona and Canada. And Pleasanton-based ConXTech fabricated the structural steel in Hayward.

The prefab method will bring the project to completion two to three months earlier, said David Alford, McCarthy’s project director for the Kaiser building.

“Trades that are typically coordinated later in the process have had integrations with prefab components, which made it necessary to bring them to the design forefront earlier than expected,” he said.

McCarthy said it provides personal protective equipment for its workers and it has reduced the number of employees who can occupy construction lifts and elevators at any given time. Work schedules have likewise been staggered to reduce the number of employees on jobs sites.

Balconies, home offices

LaTerra Development, a Los Angeles-based builder with 3,000 apartment units under construction in Southern California, is already considering how projects will change as a result of COVID-19.

“A large portion of millennials are living in apartments with no private open space,” said Chris Tourtellotte, the company’s managing director. “There are no balconies in some of their units, so they can’t go outside to read a book or have a glass of wine. This is much more important than we think and we tend to take it for granted.”

Tourtellotte figures balconies will become a necessity in multi-family developments, as well as rooftop decks and outside fitness areas where residents can gather while still adhering to social distancing.

And floor plans, he said, will likely to be adjusted to better accommodate the multitudes of people who continue to work from home.

“I think we’ll see more units with one bedroom and an office area, as opposed to a traditional two-bedroom arrangement,” Tourtellotte said. “And they’ll be apartments with two bedrooms, plus an office area, instead of three bedrooms.”

Other apartments with multiple residents might have more bathrooms as well.

“I think we’ll see three-bedroom, three-bath units,” Tourtellotte said. “Right now it’s more appealing for people to have their own bathrooms. These are the kinds of changes we’ll be making as a result of COVID-19. But I’m a vaccine optimist. I don’t think these will be permanent changes.”

Source: Orange County Register

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