Alewife Park in Cambridge

Life sciences fuel construction boom

Boston is known for many things, including its rich history, incredible sports legacy, clam chowder, wicked good accent, top-ranked universities, and the best hospitals in the U.S. It’s those last two categories–an embarrassment of riches–which help make our region the mecca for research, science, medicine, and innovation.

That has fueled a construction boom for the red-hot biotech and life science industry. Is it sustainable? The science would seem to indicate that there’s plenty of life left.

“We are incredibly fortunate to be here,” says David P. Manfredi, CEO and founding principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects. The firm has designed many buildings and campuses for research and development companies such as Novartis and Pfizer. “It’s no exaggeration to say there is no greater density of life science research anywhere in the world,” he adds.

The focal point is Kendall Square, which benefits from its proximity to MIT. Among the companies planting their flag in the Cambridge outpost are Moderna, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Biogen, and Thermo Fisher Scientific, to name a few. But construction of life science buildings has expanded to the Seaport, the Fenway, and elsewhere as developers and companies continue to invest mightily in the sector.

There is even a life science project being built in downtown Boston. Nan Fung Life Sciences Real Estate, a development company based in Hong Kong, is transforming One Winthrop Square into lab and research space. In addition to its location in the Financial District, what makes the project unique is that the five-story, 111,000-square-foot building was originally built in 1873.

Lots of plumbing

The big, sturdy structure, with its tall ceilings and open floor plans, is conducive to being repurposed for life science needs according to Paul Dionne, president of P.J. Dionne Company. The GBPCA contractor, which has been working on life science projects for most of its 30 years, is handling the plumbing for the One Winthrop Square transformation. 

One Winthrop Square construction site

“There is a lot of piping and mechanical systems in them,” Dionne explains, referring to gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and argon that typically serve multiple labs. The mechanical rooms for life science buildings are often very large and include reverse osmosis water systems, air compressors, vacuum pumps, nitrogen generators, and other systems. The buildings also typically require a lot of hot water and natural gas and have multiple drainage systems to accommodate the needs of research and tech companies.

“It’s great for us,” adds Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. Echoing Dionne’s assessment, he says that life science projects are technically complex and require lots of plumbing–considerably more than other types of jobs such as office buildings or residential complexes.

One Winthrop Square rendering

Among the many major life science projects now underway and keeping GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers busy is Cambridge Crossing, a vast, multi-use campus that will include three large lab buildings. Other projects under construction or in the pipeline include BioMed’s 1.3-million-square-foot innovation space at Assembly Square in Somerville, a number of projects in Watertown, and a project in the Alewife section of Cambridge.

There is much new construction. But as with One Winthrop Square, there are a number of existing buildings that are being redesigned for the in-demand life science market as well. 601 Congress Street in the Seaport, for example, had been John Hancock’s headquarters. Built in 2005, the office tower is being transformed into lab space. Its height won’t change, but the number of floors will. The repurposed building will have fewer stories, each of which will be taller to accommodate racks of piping, duct work, and other systems.

“To retrofit a standing building, the mechanicals are a little more challenging,” Dionne explains.

“Not every office building should be converted,” says Manfredi. “It’s a lot easier to convert while it’s still on paper than after it’s built,” the architect adds.

How long can the boom last?

Still, with so much demand, there is a tremendous incentive for developers to transform existing buildings. Investors and developers are also placing huge bets on new biotech projects.

“Right now, there doesn’t seem to be any end to the demand,” says Dionne. “It reminds me of a bubble. I sure hope it’s sustainable. In the long run, I think it is.”

There appears to be a general consensus around that optimistic outlook. “Science and technology are really the future for our regional economy,” attests John Cannistraro, Jr., president of Cannistraro. The GBPCA contractor has worked on many projects in the sector and has a number of jobs on the horizon as well. “There is tremendous pent-up demand for science,” he says.

According to Manfredi, there is a foundation for continued growth. “What do we as a society care most about right now?” he asks. “It’s probably health and wellness.” Therefore, it’s no surprise there is so much interest in the life science industry.

The architect warns, however, that research hubs in Silicon Valley, San Diego, Seattle, Houston, and elsewhere are nipping at our heels and eager to cash in on the biotech boom. “If we are not good stewards, they’ll find other places to go. But I think we have been good stewards.”

It’s beyond time to get the lead out

No amount of lead in the blood is safe, according to public health officials. Children are especially vulnerable to the chemical’s ill effects. That’s why President Biden has proposed eliminating the country’s lead water pipes and has developed a $45 billion plan to replace lead service lines. Should Congress pass the legislation, what impact might it have here in Massachusetts?

State environmental officials estimate that there are about 220,000 buried lead pipes, representing approximately 8.3% of the service lines. The American Water Works Association estimated in 2016 that the state ranked eleventh in the nation for the number of lead service lines. In the Metro Boston area covered by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, there are about 13,000 lead lines remaining, representing about 2.5% of the region’s homes and buildings. The MWRA, along with the cities and towns it serves, has made a lot of progress over the years removing many of the lines.

Replacing lead pipes is a costly proposition. The offending pipe might only be in the street and/or run from the street under the front lawn of the property. Or it might extend all the way from the street into the house. About 5% of the region’s lead pipes are “goosenecks,” short pieces of lead that connect a galvanized service line to the main in the street. Trading out an entire service line, which usually spans about 30 to 50 feet, could cost $6,000 to $10,000, according to Stephen Estes-Smargiassi, the MWRA’s director of planning and sustainability. On average, the section on private property costs about $5,000 to replace.

The MWRA began a zero-interest program to loan cities and towns money for lead pipe removal. But the communities have to pay the money back. With federal funds, there would be no cost to the municipalities. And more significantly, there would be no cost to the homeowners and other ratepayers.

A few cities and towns, including Quincy, Chelsea, and Marlboro, cover the entire cost of replacing lead service lines. But most communities ask homeowners to foot the bill for the private portion of the line and offer a variety of programs. Newton, for example, provides homeowners a 10-year, 0%-interest loan. Boston performs the work, funds the first $4,000 for property owners, and offers them a loan for 60 months at 0% interest to cover the balance. Estes-Smargiassi, who lives in Jamaica Plain, had his lead service line replaced. Since the private section cost less than $2,000 it was free to him.

Most property owners, however, have to fork over some money to remove their lead service lines. That can present a significant obstacle. “It would be great to solve a health problem without causing a financial problem,” Estes-Smargiassi says. “If you can make it free to the homeowner, it’s much easier to get them to participate.” Passing Biden’s proposed plan would enable the state to remove the remaining lead service lines at a much faster pace, he adds.

There are a number of ways property owners can determine whether they have lead service lines. Many larger communities list the locations of lines on their Web sites. If the information is not available online, homeowners could contact their local city or town halls and ask whether they can provide the info. On its Web site, the MWRA shows property owners how they (or their plumbers) can determine whether they have a lead or copper service line by scratching the pipe with a key.

“It’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Local 12 Business Manager Tim Fandel says about the Biden administration’s ambitious lead pipe removal proposal. He points to the avoidable lead poisoning tragedy in Flint, Michigan as a dire warning sign and cites the importance of safe and clean drinking water. “It’s long overdue for us to take action,” he adds.

Cambridge Crossing project rendering

Positive outlook as pandemic winds down

The pandemic has affected virtually everybody and everything–including the construction industry. About one year after the viral outbreak turned the world on its head, vaccination rates are rapidly rising, infection levels are decreasing, and the goal of herd immunity is looming in the not-so-distant future.

With the pandemic hopefully on its last legs, there has been much talk about the “new normal,” a concession that there will be lingering, perhaps permanent after-effects. So, what might the regional construction industry look like post-COVID?

Temperature checks, social distancing, and most of the other health and safety protocols that construction sites have adopted will go away. But, according to Local 12 Business Manager Tim Fandel, it’s likely that the sanitizing stations will remain long after the threat of the virus has passed.

Soon after the outbreak shuttered many building projects, Local 12 plumbers were among the first to return to install hand-washing sinks with hot water hookups. At some larger sites, they also installed temporary, functioning toilets to replace porta potties.

“They’re easy to install, it’s a simple change, and they improve health,” Fandel says about the sinks and toilets. “General contractors realize the value of having them, and workers really appreciate them.”

Fandel also believes that the nurses that have become embedded at larger construction sites may remain permanent fixtures. Fostered by the pandemic, they could be part of an overall greater commitment to safety and health. John Cannistraro, Jr., president of GBPCA contractor J.C. Cannistraro, agrees.

“Onsite safety has improved. It’s top of mind for everyone,” he says. 

Just as the pandemic has caused those in the construction industry to rethink health and safety measures, it has forced everyone, including owners, developers, general contractors, architects, and engineers, to step back, reevaluate everything they are doing, and perhaps consider different ways they might work together. Cannistraro thinks that people are now more open to new ideas.

“We’ve all experienced the horror of the pandemic,” he says. “Coming out of it, people are more willing to work as a team. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together.”

As an example, Cannistraro says that his company has been brought in during the pre-construction phase to help shape the architectural and structural design of a project. “It’s an opportunity to advance the industry by reemphasizing our professionalism and demonstrating that skilled labor has a role in reshaping the new economy,” he adds.

Owners and developers recalibrate

While those designing and building projects rethink how they will get the work done, the pandemic may have influenced what type of projects they will be constructing post-COVID. The demand for office buildings, for example, has cooled. With many office employees now working out of their homes, it’s likely that they will use a hybrid model and split their time between their home offices and their company offices when they do return to work.

The demand for luxury condos, another sector that has been fueling the red-hot construction market, has softened a bit as well. But many believe it may just be a momentary blip, as sales and interest have picked up recently. Regardless of the pandemic, the Boston area’s fundamentals remain sound. Higher education, healthcare, and research continue to drive the economy, and the housing supply is limited.

To that end, there is great demand for life science construction projects that is offsetting the reduced demand for new office buildings. And there is an insatiable demand for affordable housing. Fandel adds that bellwether projects in the pipeline, such as Cambridge Crossing, the tower at South Station, Suffolk Downs, and multiple projects in the Seaport, are moving forward and are indicative of the many opportunities that lie ahead. “I’m bullish on the industry and employment for our members,” he says.

Cannistraro is equally optimistic, noting that some of the recalibration in the types of projects getting greenlit may be due as much to the cyclical nature of the construction industry as to COVID. “We are busier than we’ve ever been as far as potential opportunities in a lot of different sectors.”

Brian Doherty Construction Stops COVID program

Industry takes proactive steps to stop COVID

The building trades in the region responded quickly and with serious purpose when the pandemic began to emerge in early 2020.

By mid-March of last year, nearly all construction sites shut down. Before the sites reopened in May, unions representing the trades and affiliated contractors, including Local 12 and the GBPCA, convened to hammer out a comprehensive safety and virus prevention plan. Safeguards they developed and implemented include screening procedures, staggered starts, personal protective equipment requirements, social distancing guidelines, and hand washing stations (which were installed by Local 12 plumbers).

In late December, with the pandemic still raging, the labor unions and their partner contractors took an aggressive step to further protect workers by rolling out Construction Stops COVID. In collaboration with Partners In Health and Harbor Health Services, as well as the cities of Boston and Cambridge, the initiative makes testing, tracing, and treatment available to union construction workers. It is also hoping to offer vaccine distribution. The innovative, proactive program sends a powerful message and demonstrates an abiding commitment to safety and prevention.

“We’re kicking off what we believe will be a national model within our industry and beyond,” said Brian Doherty, general agent for the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions. He made the remarks at an online event to launch Construction Stops COVID that included representatives of participating organizations. The goal of the program, according to Doherty, is “to keep workers and their families safe both on the job and at home.”

“This is an historic initiative and the first of its kind in the nation,” said Mayor Martin Walsh during a presentation at the kickoff event. The mayor took early, decisive action in March 2020 by closing down all construction sites in Boston. A strong advocate for Construction Stops COVID, he noted that it would play an important role in helping the city weather the pandemic and return on the path to normalcy. “We’re setting the highest safety standards in the nation,” Walsh said, adding that efforts such as this have helped Boston rank number one among U.S. cities to recover from the recession caused by the outbreak.

Doherty says that the mayor helped plant the seed for Construction Stops COVID by connecting the building trades with the global public health organization, Partners In Health. “We jumped at the chance. It’s been a great collaboration from the start.” PIH brings health care to the world’s most vulnerable communities, including Rwanda, Liberia, and Haiti. The initiative with the building trades represents the organization’s pilot program to help battle COVID-19 in the U.S.

One of the key ways Construction Stops COVID is helping workers stay healthy and safe is through a network of new, local mini-clinics its partners have strategically established near construction site hubs. The idea is to remove nearly all of the hassle and make it as easy as possible for workers to get testing, participate in tracing efforts, and access other resources. The clinics are located at Bunker Hill Community College, near the Black Falcon Terminal in the Seaport, and in Cambridge’s Kendall Square.

“Through this collaboration, we can deliver services at the point of need,” explained Claire Pierre, MD, chief medical officer for Harbor Health Services. The non-profit, public health agency is operating the clinical hubs. “We can remove the barriers of access, transportation, coordination, and everything else,” Pierre added.

Even as vaccination efforts ramp up, COVID testing will remain an important component in controlling and combating the virus. Until herd immunity is attained, it’s still possible for people to become infected, especially essential workers such as those in the construction trades.

“Testing is critical,” asserted Margaret Bordeaux, MD, MPH, research director at the Security and Global Health Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “We need to have easy, convenient workplace testing.” Bordeaux and her colleagues at the Harvard project were instrumental in recruiting the Construction Stops COVID partners.

“It’s a great idea,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, about Construction Stops COVID. He says that he visited one of the clinics and got a test. “The whole process took five minutes. It couldn’t have been any more efficient and convenient. The great thing is that it is specifically set up for our members and their families.”

PIH is coordinating the public health awareness component of the initiative. It is helping to get the word out about the ways that Local 12 members and others in the building trades can remain vigilant, adopt safe practices, and keep themselves, their families, and their communities healthy. General contractors John Moriarty & Associates, Suffolk, and Turner Construction are also part of the coalition that is supporting Construction Stops COVID.

Maintaining health and safety during a pandemic are important goals in and of themselves. But keeping the construction trades safe and on the job are important to the health of the region’s economy as well.

“We can show the rest of the world how not to just reopen the economy, but to put in the proper controls to give people comfort and safety for themselves and their loved ones,” said Joia Mukherjee, MD, PIH’s chief medical officer.

Construction Stops COVID also reinforces the point that we all have a shared responsibility, and that we all need to play a role in combating COVID.

“We really have to think very differently about what our health means to other people,” said Pierre.

Mayor Walsh joins Biden Cabinet

“It’s a little bittersweet,” says Brian Doherty, general agent for the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions, referring to the appointment of former Mayor Martin J. Walsh as labor secretary. “He’ll be great for the country, but he’s going to leave awfully big shoes to fill here in Boston.”

When Walsh was first elected mayor in 2013, Doherty succeeded him at the helm of the Building Trades Unions organization. Walsh was a state representative for 16 years as well. His legislative experience along with his role as chief executive of a major city will serve him well in his new Cabinet position. But Walsh’s bona fides as a union worker and leader make him uniquely qualified to be secretary of labor. He is the first union member in nearly 50 years to hold the position.

At age 21, Walsh followed in his father’s footsteps and became a member of Laborers Local Union 223 in Boston. He later served as president of the construction union, a position his uncle had previously held. Organized labor has been a constant throughout Walsh’s life and its cause has remained near and dear to his heart. As mayor, he demonstrated that he is a champion for working men and women. He remains committed to continuing the fight as secretary of labor.

“Working people, labor unions, and those fighting every day for their shot at the middle class are the backbone of our economy and of this country,” Walsh said on Twitter following the announcement of his nomination. “As secretary of labor, I’ll work just as hard for you as you do for your families and livelihoods. You have my word.”

In his post, Walsh will oversee federal labor laws that cover issues such as workers compensation, overtime, and workplace health and safety. For its announcement of Walsh’s nomination, the Biden administration stated that he “has the necessary experience, relationships, and the trust of the president to help workers recover from this historic economic downturn and usher in a new era of worker power.”

Among his accomplishments heading the city, Walsh obtained a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and secured an additional $15 million in funding to establish the Greater Boston Apprenticeship Initiative. That led to Building Pathways, a pre-apprenticeship program that helps women, people of color, and other under-served communities pursue careers in the construction trades. Local 12 participates in the program and has welcomed members who have graduated from it.

Walsh was also instrumental in the push to increase the minimum wage to $15 in Massachusetts. And the city’s Office of Financial Empowerment, which was established under his watch, provides financial coaching for Boston’s low-wage workers and helps them improve their credit. Walsh’s “Imagine Boston 2030” creates a roadmap to provide new opportunities for working-class people in the city as well as the development of more affordable housing for its residents.

Affordable housing is part of Walsh’s larger plan to build 69,000 housing units by 2030. During his tenure, he also oversaw a tremendous wave of commercial construction in the Seaport, downtown, the Fenway area, and other parts of the city. The activity is transforming Boston and positioning it well for the future. It is also fueling one of the largest building booms the city has ever seen and has kept GBPCA contractors, Local 12 members, and the all of the trades exceptionally busy.

“Marty has long been a champion of the working class,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. But in his role heading the Building Trades Unions, Fandel says that Walsh gained a lot of insight about how good development can help labor. “As mayor, he’s been pro-development, but not at the expense of the worker. He’s been pro-worker, but not at the expense of development. Marty understands that balancing act.”

“He’s a consensus builder,” adds Doherty, who has worked with Walsh on many labor issues. “One of his greatest strengths is his ability to bring everybody to the table, make sure their voices are heard, and to help figure out how to develop solutions.”

As an example, Doherty points to the leadership Walsh has exhibited as the pandemic took hold in the city. He says the mayor gathered representatives from labor, universities, hospitals, community advocates, and others to hammer out ways to address the crisis. It was Walsh, Doherty says, who reached out to the public health organization, Partners In Health, and the Building Trades Unions and suggested that they work with one another to help reinforce health and safety measures for the construction industry. As a result, they developed the initiative, Construction Stops COVID. (See article elsewhere in this issue.)

Doherty is confident that Walsh will bring the same kind of forward thinking and can-do spirit to the Department of Labor. “He’s the perfect person for the job. He will make difficult, courageous decisions. Throughout his entire career, Marty Walsh has been guided by a profound commitment to pursuing policies, reform, and progress that help to advance the public good and the needs of working people.”

Natural gas ban rejected

In response to a bylaw passed by the town of Brookline seeking to ban the installation of gas and oil pipes in new and renovated buildings, Attorney General Maura Healey disapproved it because it is inconsistent with state law.

Her office said that the bylaw would undermine the state’s building and gas codes along with the authority of the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gasfitters. Essentially, the codes are standard across the state and don’t allow for the kind of exception that Brookline was seeking. Further, the bylaw would violate a law that gives the public uniform access to utility services.

The issue is of importance to the GBPCA and Local 12. “It’s in our name,” says Tim Fandel, the union’s business manager. “We are Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 12. It’s no small part of what we do.” Gasfitting provides a lot of work for the union’s members and its affiliated GBPCA contractors.

That doesn’t mean the organizations are opposed to combating climate change—quite the opposite. In fact, they believe that gas provides a cleaner, more realistic, and more affordable pathway to renewable energy than imposing an outright ban of it.

The Brookline bylaw would have required developers and homeowners to install heating and hot water systems as well as appliances that exclusively use electricity. Other communities, including Cambridge, Newton, Lexington, and Somerville have considered similar measures.

“While it’s well-intentioned, trying to implement a fossil fuel ban in 2020 without an existing renewable energy infrastructure is misguided,” says Andrew DeAngelo, director of public affairs for the GBPCA.

He explains that by putting more of a burden on the electrical grid now, utilities would need to burn more fossil fuels thereby releasing more carbon emissions and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. When demand spikes during the winter, Massachusetts relies on oil- and coal-fired facilities for up to 40% of its electricity. Ironically therefore, should a community ban gas pipes, heat that could have been supplied by cleaner, gas-fired heating systems in homes and businesses would instead be generated by burning coal and oil. “If cities and towns attack this with a broad blade, there would be unintended consequences,” DeAngelo says.

“It’s impractical, and in some ways, irresponsible, to abruptly ban gas now,” Fandel adds. “It doesn’t make sense.”

It also would place an undue financial burden on homeowners, businesses, and organizations. The cost to heat using electricity compared to gas is more—in most cases, considerably more. In fact, Massachusetts has the highest electricity rates in the lower 48 states.

According to the commercial real estate development association, NAIOP Massachusetts, it is more cost-effective to build projects using gas systems. The proposed Brookline bylaw and similar measures would therefore hike the construction costs of new buildings. “At this stage of technology, natural gas bans would block important affordable housing and economic development projects from advancing and would be extremely detrimental to the commonwealth’s economy,” the NAIOP says.

Banning gas and requiring electric appliances and heating systems would also reduce consumer choice. Many homeowners as well as restaurants prefer gas ranges, stoves, and grills to prepare food.

Along with chambers of commerce and other organizations, the GBPCA and Local 12 are members of the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy [massforenergy.org]. The group supports a responsible transition to a renewable energy future that ensures reliability and affordability, strengthens the state’s economy, and enhances Massachusetts’ position as a leader on climate change. It advocates for expanding our access to natural gas.

“We all share the same goal of having cleaner energy sources like wind and solar in the long term,” Fandel says. “I think natural gas acts as a bridge to get us there eventually.”

MA State Senator Patrick O’Connor at Local 12

This senator puts people above party

A Republican senator who supports unions? Sounds crazy, no? But Massachusetts State Senator Patrick O’Connor threads that needle with aplomb.

The defining events that helped shape the pragmatic, authentic politician and his convention-defying worldview include growing up in a union household. His mother, Terry, is a NICU nurse who belongs to the Massachusetts Nursing Association, and his father, Mike, is a Local 12 plumber.

“My parents instilled the value of hard work at a very early age. They also made sure I looked out for others,” O’Connor says. He believes that their union affiliations set an example and reinforced the lessons they taught him. “One thing unions bring to the table is a fundamental understanding that it is our responsibility to take care of our own. That’s something I take with me every day to Beacon Hill.”

MA State Senator Patrick O'Connor and his father, Michael

MA State Senator Patrick O’Connor (R) and his father, Michael.

O’Connor remembers that his father would get up very early to go to work and would sometimes be on call, working late into the night. Nonetheless, he says, it was evident that his dad loved being a plumber. O’Connor would occasionally help his father with projects around the house and enjoyed accompanying him to work. He considered becoming a plumber himself or pursuing another trade. But public service beckoned and was more of a calling.

Politics, O’Connor says, has always been a major topic in his family. His late grandmother, Virginia O’Connor, worked as a secretary for legendary U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill when he was a Massachusetts state representative. That gave her a front-row seat to the government’s inner workings and plenty of fodder for family discussions. His grandmother’s keen interest in politics got O’Connor intrigued in the topic.

At age 21, he entered the fray and was elected to Weymouth’s town council. He rose to serve as its president. In 2016, O’Connor won the Plymouth and Norfolk State Senate seat and was reelected this past November.

As a Republican, some of his positions hew to party lines. For example, O’Connor often votes to rein in what he considers excessive spending and taxation. Then again, he supports renewable energy and legislation benefiting low-income and marginalized families, issues that are typically associated more with Democrats.

“My policy positions are all over the map,” admits O’Connor, who describes himself as a moderate, centrist Republican with a very independent voice. His core belief, he says, is to make government work better for people. “We need people from both parties who are willing to come together, work hard, and provide solutions.”

MA State Senator Patrick O'Connor with Local 12 business agents

MA State Senator Patrick O’Connor with Local 12 business agents, Jim Vaughan (L) and Barry Keady (R).

Perhaps nowhere does the Republican diverge more from his colleagues than on labor issues. He has seen first-hand the difference that unions have made for his parents. “I’ve experienced it, and I believe in it. That helped me form an opinion early on that regardless of all other policy positions, I was always going to be staunchly pro-union,” O’Connor adds.

His stance sometimes elicits ribbing from the state’s Republican caucus. But, he believes, his advocacy for labor has also opened eyes among many legislators.

On the other hand, O’Connor’s labor voting record has earned praise from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. He was the only Republican to be endorsed in the last election by the state organization. In response to the endorsement, O’Connor said he “was proud–floored actually. It’s an affirmation of the work we’ve been doing. That put the exclamation point on our campaign.”

He says that Massachusetts has one of the strongest–if not the strongest–labor movements and construction markets in the country. O’Connor isn’t about to rest on any laurels, however. “There is still a lot more work to do to make labor even stronger,” he says.

Given the influence of Tip O’Neill, an outspoken liberal Democrat, how is it that O’Connor chose to become a Republican? It was the 2000 presidential campaign of self-described maverick, Senator John McCain, which attracted him and sent him down the GOP path. O’Connor believes that many of the ideals that he admired in McCain remain intact in the state’s Republican party. He contends, however, that the national GOP has strayed from those beliefs.

Echoing a sentiment that is the hallmark of President Biden, O’Connor says that that there is often too much divisiveness among Republicans and Democrats and calls for more unity. “Generally speaking, we are all Massachusetts residents, all Americans, all human beings. We need to treat each other better.”

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.”

MWRA is tracking COVID-19 in wastewater

The coronavirus pandemic has presented many challenges. It has been difficult, for example, to accurately track the presence of COVID-19 as well as to predict and prevent outbreaks in communities.

Given current clinical screening processes, it is costly and impractical to conduct large-scale testing of individuals on a regular basis. Compounding the problem, many people who contract the virus are asymptomatic and therefore remain undetected if they have not been tested. They are nevertheless capable of infecting others and causing outbreaks.

If only there was some relatively simple, cost-effective way to identify rising infection levels in an area before the virus has a chance to spread. It turns out there is: by analyzing wastewater.

Researchers have discovered that before they show symptoms, infected people shed the virus in their stool. Scientists in the Netherlands first reported that they were able to detect the genetic signal of the virus in wastewater samples. Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics was the first in the United States to trace COVID-19 by using wastewater samples from the Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston.

Subsequently, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) awarded a $200,000 contract to Biobot in June to conduct a pilot study of wastewater at Deer Island. The study’s data, which is collected three times a week, serves as an early warning system for Eastern Massachusetts. It can predict infection upticks, transmission rates, and other trends one to two weeks ahead of more traditional clinical diagnoses. The MWRA makes the study’s data available on its website: mwra.com/biobot/biobotdata.htm.

Wastewater from Boston and 42 other communities flows through Deer Island where it is treated and then discharged through a 9.5-mile, 24-foot-diameter outfall tunnel under the harbor and into Massachusetts Bay. The plant’s 130-foot-tall, egg-shaped anaerobic digesters, which treat sludge and scum that is extracted from sewage, are a distinctive and prominent sight in Boston Harbor.

The MWRA was formed in 1985 in response to federal environmental regulations and a court order to address the wastewater that was polluting Boston Harbor. To comply, the agency rebuilt the Deer Island facility, and GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers played an important role in constructing the massive project. It is one of the largest wastewater plants in the world.

According to Mike Perrotta, estimator and project manager at GBPCA contractor Harding and Smith, the Biobot study is not able to trace virus rates at a city or town level. But it is able to track the virus coming from a cluster of communities in Boston and north of the city and another cluster of communities south of the city. That’s because influent arrives at the plant from two regional pumping stations: Nut Island in Quincy to the south and the Chelsea Creek Headworks in Chelsea to the north.

“I find it amazing that it’s possible to pinpoint levels of COVID based on wastewater,” Perrotta says.

Harding and Smith, which specializes in providing process piping for the waste and water treatment industry, has worked extensively at the Deer Island plant and is currently working on a project at the Chelsea Creek Headworks.

Biobot is now partnering with 43 states and provinces in North America and 182 local agencies to test wastewater for COVID-19 using samples from 360 wastewater facilities. The company told the Boston Globe that “wastewater offers the opportunity to provide near real-time trend data to evaluate the impact of policy making, early warning for second waves, and the opportunity to mass-test the U.S. population on a regular basis at a fraction of the cost of clinical testing.”

The MWRA’s pilot program with Biobot extends through the end of 2020. The agency says that at the conclusion of the period, it will likely develop a long-term testing program that will continue into 2021 and beyond if the pandemic has not abated.

Local 12 Boston Plumbers member with mask

Industry adapts to the new normal

“This is a unique and challenging time,” says Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA), referring to the conditions that the coronavirus pandemic has imposed on the construction industry. “Our contractors have had to put on new hats. Now they are not just construction and business experts, but also contagious disease and medical health specialists.”

Welcome to the new normal. Once GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers processed and dealt with the initial shutdown of most projects on which they had been working and other immediate effects of the pandemic in mid-March, they then had to figure out how to cope with the longer-term fallout. Like everybody else, they are anxious for a vaccine or treatment to emerge so the virus is no longer a threat. Until then, it’s not exactly business as usual.

A building trades group convened to help prepare for the reopening of construction sites that had been closed in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville (where the bulk of the region’s major projects are based). Among the participants were general contractors, plumbing and other subcontractor reps, and business agents. They met via conference calls, videoconferencing, and other remote means to talk about issues such as safety and hygiene protocols. Discussions centered on CDC and OSHA guidelines and recommendations.

Taking temperatures, staggering starts, and other modifications

Sites began reopening in May, and most have since resumed. So what do they look like? The details vary slightly from project to project, but they typically include a core group of updates and changes. Most of them mirror the kinds of safeguards that can be found at many places where people now gather. These include:

  • Screening procedure – People admitted onto construction sites have to confirm that they do not have a fever by having their temperatures taken. They also have to answer a series of self-identifying questions indicating that they are symptom-free and have not been exposed to anyone with the virus.
  • Staggered starts – Workers from different trades arrive at job sites at different assigned times in the morning so as not to overwhelm the screening process and to prevent large groups from having to congregate in one place.
  • Personal protective equipment – Everyone has to wear a facemask, which sometimes has to be an N95 mask, as well as work gloves. In some cases, face shields are also specified.
  • Social distancing – Where possible, workers are required to remain six feet apart from others. For high-rise jobs, only five people are allowed in service elevators, including the operators, and they are asked to face away from one another.

It may sound like a lot, but those on the ground say that workers at job sites have gotten into a routine and have been able to carry on with their work without too much interruption.

“It’s different, no doubt, but we can adapt,” Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent, says. He notes that when he started, workers at construction sites didn’t always wear hardhats or safety glasses. With regulations and guidelines now universal, nobody gives donning items like that a second thought. “The masks we have to wear are just another piece of PPE,” adds Keady. “It’s a matter of safety. With COVID-19, we have to be aware of the conditions and deal with them to the best of our training.”

One thing that is different is the size of crews. To accommodate social distancing, there are often limits on the number of workers that can be together on a floor or in a space at any one time. According to Paul Dionne, president of GBPCA contractor P.J. Dionne Company, project timelines are longer because there are less people doing the work. While almost 100% of the jobs that the contractor had been working on have resumed, Dionne says he has less people in the field.

There is also the extra cost of conducting business. Contractors say that they often have to pay a premium for items such as N95 masks and disinfectant wipes that are in high demand and short supply. There is also the time and energy they have to spend sourcing the items.

There is a new normal at Local 12’s training center as well. With physical classes cancelled, the instructors have shifted to remote learning. The apprentices and teachers have adapted, but the situation is not ideal, says Rick Carter, the center’s director.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s unconventional for us,” Carter says. Much of the curriculum is developed around practical, hands-on instruction presented in a shop setting. Lessons like that do not translate well when presented online.

With the fall session slated to resume in September, Carter is hopeful that at least some of the classes can be held in person. “We don’t want to do remote unless it’s absolutely necessary,” the director says. The training center will keep an eye on how state guidelines progress for getting back in the classroom. It is possible that the session may be a hybrid of in-person and remote classes.

What might the future hold?

The pandemic has not only presented immediate health and safety concerns. It has also wreaked havoc with the economy and may lead to lasting changes that could have an impact on the region’s construction industry. After many years of unprecedented growth and expansion, there could be a pullback on new projects–or not.

“Medium-term, I don’t expect much to change,” says Ed Strickland, president of William M. Collins Company. “All of our contractors have a pretty good backlog of work. Longer-term, the impact remains to be seen.”

Dionne is bullish on the future. “I’m an optimist. I see things bouncing back,” he says. There has been speculation that with so many people working remotely as a result of the pandemic, the practice may become more ingrained and the demand for office space may decrease. Dionne isn’t so sure. “I think people want to be in social environments. Yes, people can work from home. But I don’t think we’re wired to work there for the rest of our careers.” Office towers and mixed-use projects that include office space have been driving much of the construction boom in the Boston area.

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, is optimistic as well. “On the residential side, we see a significant lineup of projects and every indication that there will be more to come,” he says. “Talking with our contractors, they are bidding on plenty of new projects.”