They are taking this hospital project to heart

Sometimes, GBPCA contractors and the Local 12 members who work for them might think about the offices, condos, lab spaces, or other end uses that their hard work will make possible. Most of the time, however, the focus is on the day-to-day work at the job site. That’s not the case with the Hale Family Building, an 15-story clinical facility now under construction at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“Our team is taking this job to heart,” says Jim Bent, senior project executive for GBPCA contractor American Plumbing and Heating. The building will include a state-of-the-art clinical lab, a comprehensive heart center, a re-imagined neonatal intensive care unit, and a number of other features. As one of the most respected and renowned pediatric hospitals, families from the region, the country, and around the world entrust BCH with the care of their children. The plumbers are acutely aware of the challenging cases Children’s takes, the critically important work it does, and the young patients it serves.

The job is particularly meaningful for a Local 12 member whose child had a heart-lung transplant at BCH. In honor of the child, workers inscribed his name, Ethan, on one of the beams at the site.

“We know how the facility will be used. It’s not just another building,” Bent adds.

Spanning over 590,000 square feet and costing $1 billion to construct, the project is quite large. From a plumbing perspective, it is a particularly big and complex job. At its height, American had 80 workers on the job. “That’s an incredible amount,” says Bent. “We’ve never had that many people at one site before.”

“It’s the biggest job I’ve ever seen for plumbing,” adds Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent. “It is a massive medical gas system.”

At one point, American had 35 workers focused on medical gas alone. Among its highlights, the Hale building includes ten hybrid operating rooms, multiple pre-op exam rooms and recovery rooms, and a cardiac clinic with 21 exam rooms. The facility will also feature 96 private, inpatient rooms outfitted with medical gas.

All of the patient rooms in the Hale Family Building will be private.

It is a trend among hospitals to build single-bed instead of shared patient rooms. The configuration allows families to have more privacy, something they especially appreciate during difficult and often emotional hospital experiences. Even the neonatal intensive care unit will have 30 beds in private rooms instead of open bays.

It is unusual for hospitals to integrate patient rooms with operating rooms, exam rooms, and a host of other services in one building. The Hale will also include a radiology suite, pharmacy services, and a pathology lab. Children’s says that the building’s all-inclusive design will enable it to offer more efficient, enhanced care as well as foster clinical collaboration. Neither patients and their families nor Children’s caregivers will have to leave the Hale.

The job is unusual for American as well. While medical facilities are among its specialties, the contractor typically builds one type of feature at a time, such as patient rooms or hospital labs. But the multi-purpose Hale has the plumbers working on a variety of spaces at once. It calls on many different, specialized skills and requires a lot of coordination.

In honor of a Local 12 member’s son who was a patient at Boston Children’s Hospital, workers inscribed his name on a beam.

American started the pre-planning process in 2016, and on-site construction began in 2018. Just before the pandemic forced the temporary closure of the job in March, the crew had completed work on most of the storm, sanitary, and water lines that run through an existing hospital building. 

The site, which reopened in May, was able to ramp up quickly, because while the Hale building will be connected to existing buildings, it is isolated from them during the construction process. The trades’ workers, therefore, do not have to worry about social distancing issues with patients, families, employees, and others at the hospital. Also, the plumbers got to return to the project first, because they had the responsibility of installing hand-washing sinks for all of the trades per coronavirus safety guidelines for construction sites.

The Hale building is located on what had been a central courtyard at the campus. In order to gain access to the site, an old granite building on Shattuck Street was taken down. It will be rebuilt at the end of the project. The courtyard had been the location of the beloved Prouty Garden, and its removal has caused controversy. (See related article in this issue.)

Despite the COVID-related shutdown, the project is slated to be finished on time with a planned opening scheduled for the third quarter of 2021.

Atlantic Wharf is one of JMA’s signature projects.

He quietly builds signature projects and great relationships–SPOTLIGHT ON JOHN MORIARTY & ASSOCIATES

In a culture that is largely obsessed with self-promotion, the construction industry generally remains unassuming. But even among construction management firms, John Moriarty & Associates (JMA) is especially humble. 

Although it is responsible for building some of the biggest, most complex, and most noteworthy projects in the region and beyond, people outside of the industry may not be familiar with the company.

John Moriarity of JMA Boston
John Moriarity

“You’ll never see giant JMA banners at job sites,” notes Joe Valante, president of GBPCA contractor Valante Mechanical. His father first did work for JMA about 20 years ago and developed a great working relationship with its namesake founder and president, John Moriarty. To this day, many of Valante Mechanical’s largest projects are with JMA, and Joe has carried on the relationship with Moriarty. “His work speaks for itself. He prefers to be behind the scenes,” Valante adds.

But behind the scenes, Moriarty has made an indelible mark with marquee buildings such as 111 Huntington at the Prudential Center, the world headquarters of Novartis in Cambridge, and the 1.2-million-square-foot Atlantic Wharf high rise along Boston’s waterfront. And he’s done it by being fair, by focusing on quality, and by developing relationships based on goodwill and mutual trust.

He diverged from his original path

Although he always enjoyed working with his hands and even built a few kitchens to make some extra dollars while he was getting his undergraduate degree, there was never any grand plan for Moriarty to go into the construction business. Instead, he had set his sights on becoming a lawyer.

Another way that Moriarty helped pay his way through college was by becoming a union laborer and working during school breaks. The experience opened his eyes and introduced him to the building trades. Deciding he wanted to take a break from his education, Moriarty deferred applying to law school and went to work for Turner Construction instead.

“It was supposed to be for one year,” Moriarty says about his commitment to the large Boston company. “But I fell in love with the business.”

He started as a field engineer trainee. Putting together intricate deals, working alongside everyone from major bank presidents to union apprentices, and seeing projects go from ideas to architectural plans to humming construction sites to actual buildings all fascinated Moriarty. He quickly recognized and appreciated the importance that developing and maintaining relationships played in every aspect of the industry.

What was supposed to last one year turned into a 12-year tenure with Turner. Moriarty says that it was a great training ground, but he was itching to get out on his own. In 1985 he started JMA with “not a dime.” Luckily, he says, Boston Properties took a chance and hired his new firm to construct a major project. “Then we were off to the races.”

Partnership with labor and subcontractors

JMA quickly began establishing itself in the region. Among its more interesting and complex projects was a laboratory building for Millennium Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge. GBPCA contractor American Plumbing and Heating worked on the project for JMA. That led to buildings for other biomedical and pharmaceutical clients such as Takeda Pharmaceutical Company in Cambridge and Alkermes in Waltham.

“As the work became more complicated, it became obvious to me that I was the beneficiary of this fabulous workforce,” Moriarty says about the subcontractors and the union building trades workers they employ. “It’s really in partnership with them. I realized I could have the best plumbers and other trades. They can do anything.”

The workers are able to perform at such a high level because of the union, Moriarty contends. “We understand the Local 12 labor force. Most of the work we do requires their sophistication and the training they get. We’re never at a loss for qualified, competent labor even when we are busy as hell,” he says.

One of the reasons the building trades unions are able to maintain an exemplary labor force is because of their apprenticeship programs. According to Moriarty, unions and the subcontractors with which they work have a “miraculous relationship” with apprentices. “It’s an amazing thing,” he says in praise of the programs and the apprenticeship concept. “To this day it amazes me.”

Moriarty also understands it is more than just the training that distinguishes the organized building trades. “The reason it works is that the labor force has high paying jobs that come with excellent benefits, and the unions are extremely well run. The workers are highly motivated. It’s pretty terrific.”

Of course, it’s important for the unions and subcontractors to have general contractors like JMA developing projects and creating job opportunities. The system works because it is mutually beneficial for all parties. “We’ve always enjoyed a strong working relationship with John and JMA,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “We are proud to work with him, and we are grateful for the work he and his company provides for our members.”

111 Huntington in the Prudential Center is another signature JMA project.

Cooperation and collaboration

Moriarty says that much has changed over the 47 years he has been in the industry, especially the incorporation of computers and digital processes. But the one thing that has remained constant is the need to nurture and sustain relationships. He says that people think that construction is a litigious business and that everyone is always fighting one another. While Moriarty allows that the business used to be more combative and that groups don’t always see eye to eye on everything, he’s proud of the fact that JMA has never gone to litigation in its 35-year history.

That’s probably largely due to his demeanor, attitude, and leadership. “His word is his bond,” attests Joe Clancy, president of American Plumbing and Heating, referring to Moriarty. “A handshake is all you need to know a deal has been made. That’s quite a rarity in today’s world.”

For his part, Moriarty says that project owners, contractors, subcontractors, and others involved in the construction of the kind of large-scale projects that is JMA’s specialty “should be enabling each other to be successful. Cooperation and collaboration is how you get the best possible result.”

JMA does not solicit multiple bids so it can award subcontracting jobs to the lowest bidders, according to Moriarty. Instead, he prefers to work with a handful of shops that have a proven quality history and in which he has confidence. Again, it’s about relationships.

“Besides being excellent subcontractors, I’d like to believe that we also think of each other as friends,” adds Moriarty.

In addition to its Boston-area headquarters in Winchester, the company has expanded to Connecticut, the DC area, and Florida. Among current JMA projects is One Congress, the stylish anchor building at Bulfinch Crossing in downtown Boston that will be the new headquarters for State Street Corp. Another signature project is Boston Landing along the Mass. Pike in Brighton, which includes New Balance’s headquarters and training facilities for the Celtics and the Bruins. Valante Mechanical has done much of the work on the multi-use campus.

Now 70, Moriarty says that he has had a good run and considers himself lucky. Not that he or his company are showing any signs of slowing down. After all, there are more signature buildings to be built and more relationships to be forged.

Local 12 Boston plumber with face mask during pandemic

Cautiously optimistic as industry copes with pandemic

When the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic began in March, Boston and other municipalities abruptly closed virtually all construction sites, along with a series of other preventative measures. Consequently, the unemployment rate for Local 12 members shot up to about 80%, and GBPCA contractors saw their revenues drop sharply.

As industry leaders gathered to discuss safety protocols in advance of restarting jobs in May, there was much angst about the impact on productivity and the general viability of projects. So, many months later, how are things going?

“I’m happy to report that we have over 95% employment among our members,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, adding that the rate is typical for this time of year. In other words, employment has more or less returned to pre-pandemic levels. “I’m pleasantly surprised,” Fandel adds. “After the depths of the initial shutdown, I wouldn’t have thought we would be where we are now.”

Contractors are also indicating that nearly all jobs have resumed, and that the industry in general has rebounded well. That’s not to say, however, that everything is exactly normal. COVID 19 has fundamentally changed many things and continues to present challenges.

Weathering a difficult storm

When projects such as Boynton Yards in Somerville and 325 Main Street in Cambridge halted in March, GBPCA contractor J.C. Higgins reduced the field work force of its plumbing division by about 80%.

“Those of us in the office went to a four-day work week to help reduce payroll,” says John Shaughnessy, VP of the contractor’s plumbing division and a 36-year veteran at the company. Among other mitigation strategies, some employees took early retirement. Through it all, J.C. Higgins was able to retain 90% of its office staff. 

“We lost the opportunity to generate much revenue during the three-month shutdown of the first coronavirus wave,” Shaughnessy says. “We are tightening everything where we can. We have been able to weather the shutdowns, but it has not been easy.”

On the bright side, things have gone well since work resumed in May under “new normal” conditions. Company officials were trying to anticipate what might happen when practices such as social distancing and tool washing were introduced at construction sites. 

“Would it cost us 20% of a day’s productivity? More? We just didn’t know,” says Shaughnessy. As it turns out, J.C. Higgins has seen that the impact has not been as severe as anticipated. 

Local 12’s Fandel concurs. Workers quickly adopted safety precautions such as wearing facemasks and other PPE. And technology such as phone apps and QR codes were rapidly deployed to help streamline health screenings. “It’s become standardized,” Fandel says. “We incorporated new processes, made them part of our routine, and adapted.”

In-person instruction returns to training center

The pandemic has interrupted routines at Local 12’s training center. The school quickly pivoted to remote learning after it went into lockdown mode in the spring. Apprentices and instructors connected online via electronic classes. When the fall session began in the new academic year, however, the training center reopened, and the day school program reverted back to in-person classes, albeit with a number of adaptations.

Perhaps the most significant change has been the reduction of class sizes. To accommodate social distancing, most classes have about ten apprentices, or about one-third less students. Because the class sizes are smaller, the training center will be expanding its schedule and presenting more classes.

All work areas are regularly sanitized, and the classrooms themselves are disinfected daily. The center installed many hand sanitizer stations, increased the airflow of its HVAC system to improve ventilation, and closed its break room. Apprentices and instructors are required to wear masks at all times. If team projects require participants to be closer than six feet, they wear clear face shields in addition to masks.

The modifications are not insignificant, and the conditions are not ideal, according to Rick Carter, the training center’s director. For example, it can be difficult for instructors and students to understand each other when they talk with masks on. But he says that the overwhelming consensus is that in-person classes are considerably better than the alternative, adding that there is no substitute when you’re trying to teach somebody a trade.

“Most of our apprentices are visual, hands-on, tactile learners,” Carter notes. “You can’t do that virtually.”

To illustrate the point, he says that he presented the math for a project during a class, and one of the apprentices was having trouble understanding it conceptually. When they built the project together in the shop, however, it all came together. “She did a great job with it and immediately got it. We couldn’t have done that online,” Carter says.

Fandel says that he is hopeful that the center will be able to continue to offer in-person classes, but notes that much is dependent on conditions outside of the school’s control such as rising infection rates in the community.

With a wobbly general economy, the trustees that oversee the training center decided to reduce the size of the incoming class by about half to 30 apprentices. Should conditions warrant it, Fandel notes that the school could open its enrollment later.

Looking to the future

How might conditions evolve in the construction industry? In the near future, Shaughnessy and Fandel believe that the unprecedented boom times that have prevailed over the past few years will mostly continue. Not only have nearly all existing jobs resumed, but owners and developers of many major new projects that had been in the pipeline have indicated that they will be moving forward with their plans. These include the massive Suffolk Downs development and Mass General, which has a $1-billion, 1-million-square-foot expansion on tap.

Some sectors, however, are shaky. Shaughnessy says that the city’s previously red-hot condo market might be taking a bit of a hit in the near term, noting that a residential project in the Seaport switched to lab space (for which there is continued huge demand). And some spec jobs that developers were building without tenants in place have been put on hold. The dicey economy has dealt a blow to retail and restaurant projects as well.

But Fandel points to the many engines that undergird the Boston area’s resilient economy and support the construction industry, including its universities, hospitals, research and development, and biotech. “It’s a testament to the region,” he says.

Post-pandemic, Shaughnessy remains upbeat. “In a year or two, I expect that there will be many new projects that we will be bidding.” He adds that, in his opinion, office space will remain an important part of new construction. “Offices will not become obsolete,” Shaughnessy says. “I don’t think people will work from home forever. I believe we are very social and want to join together in workspaces.”

Regardless of what the future holds, Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association, says that contractors are up to the task. “The pandemic has presented a new type of challenge. There is still so much uncertainty as to how everything will shake out, but our contractors will remain nimble and continue to evolve.”

Shaughnessy says that he’s “cautiously optimistic. J.C. Higgins and the industry will persevere.”