Last week, local media, including FrontBurner, questioned whether residential construction in Dallas County was a necessary inclusion on the list of essential businesses allowed to operate under the shelter in place order. A clickbait headline in the Dallas Business Journal – “Construction Ban in Dallas County? It’s Being Considered”—created panic among the building and workforce communities about the future of building permits. So let’s cut to the chase. Dallas County is not shutting construction down in response to COVID-19. And never considered it.
This weekend Fred Perpall, CEO of Beck Group, spent four hours with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins to reassure a tsunami of concerned worker groups, builders, and contractors that construction was still on the essential list and that worker safety was a top county priority.
“Perpall and members of worker safety groups are advising the county on ways to keep our construction workers safe while they pull us out of the tornado damage and do the essential work of creating housing across the county,” Jenkins said Sunday. “Construction workers are our frontline heroes.”
I checked with a group of builders* to see what precautions they’ve taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to their employees, subcontractors, and clients. They didn’t wait for government action. In contrast to the federal mismanagement of the pandemic, the Dallas Builders Association, led by Phil Crone, established one of the most comprehensive playbooks for safe building in the country. It was a World War II -style effort: local builders jumped in with ideas, disseminated posters at job sites, and conducted training sessions for their project managers. They mobilized and executed their plans over a weekend.
“I knew when they canceled the NBA, we’d need to have new ways to build until things go back to ‘normal,’” Crone said. That was March 11. By March 17, the DBA had a web page with information about safety measures as well as details of its efforts for citywide implementation. (If you think it’s a hassle to disinfect your plastic take-out container, imagine orchestrating a build with dozens of vendors and laborers while implementing social distancing, hand washing, and scrubbing down surfaces.)
Meanwhile, if you are thinking of a build, here’s what you need to know:
- Vet your builder. (Obviously.) Builders and contractors are unlicensed in Texas. The good builders have subcontractors they’ve been working with for ages. On an emotional level, they are dedicated to their employees. On a practical level, skilled laborers are in high demand. Ask how they are practicing safe building.
- Forget in-home projects. Unless it is an emergency, good builders and tradespeople will not let their crews work in houses where people are living until COVID-19 is resolved. So you can call your plumber if your kitchen is flooding, or your electrician if your electricity blows. But you’ll have to replace your own light bulbs.
- If you are thinking of remodeling, renovation, or building new, now is the time to get into pre-construction mode. The whole process can be done remotely. “It’s actually a great time to be designing, planning, making selections, and tightening up budgets with builders, architects and designers. It’s easy but not ideal to race through the planning stage. Everyone is excited. Now the slower pace allows us to review multiple decisions with the client. This will eliminate the great majority of mistakes and change orders,” said Mark Danuser of Tatum Brown Homes.
- Good builders will only let one crew into the project at a time. When the window installers are there, the tile guys have to wait. This helps with social distancing and gives space for constant clean up between crews. Jeff Dworkin of JLD Custom Homes explained the impact: “Obviously, this slows the process down. Think about it. Every project has some 40 different sub-contracting crews and vendors working on the job. People have to be patient because we are only allowing one group at a time. But it’s the only safe way to go.”
- Rogue builders and fly-by-night contractors should be reported. If you see mobs of people working at a site, bumping into each other, say something. The builders I spoke to say they would welcome police departments stepping in. “We know our police have a ton on their plate, but we welcome any enforcement support, even verbal reminders, especially for less seasoned builders who are trying to cut corners,” Michael Munir of Sharif-Munir Homes said. “If a contractor wants to know best practices, the DBA has a whole tutorial online. There’s no excuse for laxity now.”
- Builders are doing everything they can off-site. Offices are closed to non-essential staff. Meetings with clients, designers, and architects have moved to Zoom, replacing face-to-face sessions. And, they say, it actually improves the communication flow.
- Builders are discouraging food trucks and are asking laborers to bring their lunches. “We have to keep them at the 6-foot distance. We want them safe and we will do what we must do to keep it that way,” Danuser said.
Granted, the builders I talked to are the gold standard. (Full disclosure: they were all D Home’s Best Builders, and they also led the effort to disseminate best practices to their peers in the current climate.) But to answer the question: Is it safe? The local building industry is as safe as it possibly could be, according to the county. In a matter of four days, they mobilized, drafted, and implemented all-new practices to keep their teams and their clients safe. I can think of a few Amazon warehouses that could learn from them.
*Michael Munir of Sharif-Munir Homes, Mark Clifton of Mark Clifton Homes, Jim Johnson of Jim Johnson Group, Jeff Dworkin of JLD Custom Homes, Mark Danuser of Tatum Brown Custom Homes, Tim Jackson of Tim Jackson Custom Homes, Michael Turner of Classic Urban Homes, James Cox of Hawkins-Welwood Homes, Rowdy Winter of Bob Thompson Homes and Phil Crone of the Dallas Builders Association.