Look Who’s Talking – Keith Johnson, vice president of business development, CT Darnell Construction

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By Erica Shatzer

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, self-storage construction came to an abrupt halt in numerous states across the nation. In other states, development dramatically decelerated slowed down as a result of CDC guidelines and restrictions enacted by governing bodies. That down time likely enabled U.S. markets to absorb some of the surplus supply that came about in 2019 and 2018, but new projects that had been delayed are once again receiving certificates of occupancy and opening for business.

Still, similar to others in the self-storage industry, construction companies have had to alter their operations to remain in business and keep their employees safe. And they have faced their own unique set of challenges along the way.

Protecting Personnel
For CT Darnell Construction, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based construction company that offers full-service quality general contracting services across North America, safety has been the No.1 priority throughout the pandemic. “We have to take care of our employees and make sure they are safe,” says Keith Johnson, vice president of business development. To do so, the company implemented a wide range of safety protocols at the company’s headquarters as well as every single jobsite—despite the project’s location or the local mandates.

“Masks are required regardless of city or state guidelines,” says Johnson, noting that it is a company-wide policy for all employees. Though some tasks require special job-specific masks, CT Darnell ensured that masks were provided to everyone. Masks are also required inside the company’s headquarters.

The company is adhering to the six-foot social distancing requirement as well, but it has gone the extra mile in several ways. For starters, it has limited the number of site meetings and holds its safety talks outdoors. Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been used for meetings that cannot be held outdoors or in person. The meetings that must be conducted indoors and in person have a limited number of attendees.

On the various jobsites, foot-activated hand washing stations are set up for crew members, portable toilets are cleaned daily, and sanitizing wipes are provided for shared tools. Johnson adds that crew members are required to wipe down tools before and after each use to prevent the spread of germs. Additionally, all tool manuals were thoroughly reviewed as a safeguard so they could be cleaned properly without causing damage. 

While jobsite superintendents are responsible for reminding crew members of the importance of hand washing, social distancing (including avoiding carpooling), mask wearing, and the like during their daily on-site talks, CT Darnell ensured that crew members wouldn’t forget by displaying safety posters in both English and Spanish at each jobsite to serve as visual reminders.

In addition to those safety measures, as well as adhering to the cleaning procedures recommended by the CDC, CT Darnell requires daily temperature and health checks for crew members when they arrive to a jobsite.

Last but not least, CT Darnell has been diligent about ensuring that all jobsites are fully stocked with the items they need to maintain safe work environments, such as hand sanitizers, soaps, masks, and cleaning products. Superintendents also are given funds to purchase additional necessities if they would happen to run out of supplies.

Scheduling Issues
Obviously, CT Darnell spent a substantial amount of time and energy determining and applying its safety measures. It wasn’t an easy task, but it wasn’t the company’s most challenging problem during the pandemic.

According to Johnson, scheduling proved to be an ongoing concern in several ways. First of all, the number of crew members permitted on a jobsite at one time was reduced to prevent the potential spread of the virus. Plus, not all of the company’s crew members were available to work due to a lack of childcare and/or personal health concerns.

“Some were reluctant to go to work,” says Johnson. However, the company’s safety protocols seemed to put their minds at ease relatively fast. To limit possible exposure to COVID-19, staggered work schedules were established among its crews. 

Nevertheless, due to the nature of the construction business, CT Darnell had more than its own employees schedules to juggle. As mentioned previously, states and cities have different guidelines to follow. Some states labeled construction as a non-essential business, which required the company to put projects on hold—regardless of where they were in the building process. In other locales, they were permitted to work as long as the safety requirements were being met. However, there were mandatory quarantine periods for out-of-state workers.

Therefore, research about all the stipulations and mandates was required before crews could be sent to any jobsite. “Balancing guidelines was difficult,” he says, adding that alternate, in-state crews were used in some instances to avoid quarantine conditions. In other cases, crews did not show up to work.

However, Johnson states that the most cumbersome scheduling issue involved city officials. “Schedules were moved or delayed because of the pandemic,” he says. “There was a gap of a couple months due to the shutdown.”

With the closures of city offices, as well as the outsourcing of inspectors, getting on (or back on) the schedules of a city’s board has proven to be problematic. “Building inspections have delayed projects,” says Johnson. 

Thankfully, the company was already using Procore, a construction management software, prior to the pandemic. Though delays were unavoidable, the software enabled Ct Darnell to effectively reschedule inspections and stick to timetables as much as possible.

Plan Ahead
Although many of the problematic situations generated by the COVID-19 pandemic have subsided, Johnson has sound advice for anyone considering developing a new self-storage facility in the coming months: Plan ahead.

Similar to the shortages of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and face masks that the entire nation faced, Johnson warns that shipping delays are still occurring for overseas items, and manufacturers of building supplies may be trying to catch up with demand. For example, CT Darnell had to find alternatives for the lighting at a number of its projects.

While Johnson hasn’t noticed any huge spikes in costs for supplies, he suggests ordering supplies, such as lights, early on in the building process to limit delays and avoid possible price increases.

He also advises developers to “bring the team on early.” By having your team on board at the beginning, everyone has time to get on the same page and make appropriate adjustments to meet budgets as well as deadlines.

Indeed, in addition to the standard due diligence that is vehemently recommended before developing a new self-storage project, it may be astute to add local COVID-19 guidelines, as well as crew and product availability, to the lengthy development checklist.


Pandemic Designs
Though Johnson hasn’t come across any changes to facility designs as a result of the ongoing pandemic, such as wider hallways, larger offices, or additional entries/exits due to the extra costs, he states that developers and operators may want to consider updating their HVAC systems to improve the indoor air space. At the very least, air filters with a higher MERV rating could be used.

MERV ratings range from one to 20, with one being the lowest level of filtration and 20 being the highest. Filters that are MERV 17 through 20 are usually only found in operating rooms, cleanrooms, and nuclear power plants as they are more effective at trapping particles and impurities in the air. However, keep this in mind before switching to filters with a higher MERV rating: Using an air filter with a MERV rating higher than what your HVAC manufacturer recommends can impair its performance. Check your product manual first!

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