O'Connell Plumbing Local 12 support Afghan refugees Newburyport MA

Plumbers lend a hand to refugees

With a war raging, mass shootings, and other unrest, the world can often seem like an unsettling and unfriendly place. But amid the chaos and confusion, it’s heartening to find acts of kindness and compassion that demonstrate the basic decency to which most folks aspire. There are inspiring stories, even in dark circumstances, that can help restore one’s faith in people. This is one of those stories.

When the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, conflict and the threat of violence displaced even more Afghans from their long-suffering, war-torn country. Millions of them sought refuge in other places. A few Afghan families ended up in Newburyport. The community opened its doors and its hearts to welcome them. Local 12 and the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA) heeded the call and supported the efforts.

It was Hugh Kelleher, a longtime Newburyport resident, retired Local 12 member, and retired executive director of the GBPCA, who made the connection. He read about the refugees’ plight in the local newspaper and learned that the city’s religious leaders were seeking help and donations to provide shelter for the Afghans. When Kelleher saw that the temporary housing lacked some basic plumbing needs, that piqued his interest.

“Over the years, there have been many projects that Local 12 and the contractors have helped out on,” he says. “I thought this would be a very worthy project.”

Kelleher contacted John Marani, president of the GBPCA, and Tim Fandel, Local 12 business manager, seeking their assistance. Both were eager to help, and the organizations’ trustees decided to get involved. The two groups joined forces and funded a grant to underwrite the cost of labor and materials needed to perform the plumbing work at the living space provided by the Unitarian church, one of the city’s participating houses of worship.

As Rebecca Bryan, minister of the First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist Church, explains, its congregation is hosting a large Afghan family in Parish Hall, a building adjacent to the church. Typically used for Sunday school classes and social functions, the converted living space did not have a shower, nor a washer or dryer. Bryan, who serves as Newburyport’s chair of Interfaith Coalition of Clergy, reached out to Kelleher, who had helped do plumbing work at the temporary housing provided by the city’s Episcopalian church for another refugee family.

Kelleher brought in Kevin O’Connell, owner of O’Connell Plumbing and Heating in Salem, to look at the project. Together, they determined that a shower could be added to the existing bathroom; a closet could be converted into a second bathroom, with a toilet, shower, and sink; and a washer and dryer could be installed in the hall. They also realized that a larger hot water heater would be needed.

“Honest to God, they didn’t just help out,” the minister says about the plumbers. “What they did was remarkable. They just made it happen.”

When Norman Fine at supply house F.W. Webb heard about the project, he offered a hot water heater, gas piping, and all other plumbing materials at a greatly reduced cost. Thanks to the grant from the union and the GBPCA, the Local 12 members working for the Salem shop got paid for their work, but O’Connell did not add any profit to the job.

According to the contractor, an architect from the church volunteered to draw up plans for the project. That was indicative of the broad-based support that the community provided.

“We had to move some heavy supplies,” O’Connell says. “The next thing I knew, the Newburyport High School basketball team showed up to help.”

Over 100 people have been involved with the refugee family at the Unitarian church alone, Bryan estimates, helping them learn English, book medical appointments, and navigate services, among other things. Hairdressers, bike shop owners, and others in the city have stepped forward to do their part.

O’Connell can empathize with the refugees and understands the outpouring of support. “It’s terrible to be uprooted from your home, having to live someplace completely different and foreign,” he says. “It had to be extremely disorienting and frightening for them.”

Mohammed, one of the members of the family, had been a security guard at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. When the American security forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban moved in and took control of the city. They began going house to house to interrogate the residents and paid a visit to Mohammed.

“They knew that he had helped the U.S.,” Kelleher says. “The Taliban were not going to be fans of this guy.”

He and his family ran out the back door, escaped to the airport, and somehow got on a plane. Their journey took them to Qatar and then Germany, before landing in the U.S. and staying briefly at military facilities in Virginia and New Jersey. Eventually, the refugees made their way to Newburyport.

The family is enjoying the newly outfitted home in the church’s hall and is appreciative of the help they’ve received from the plumbers and others in the community. Likewise, Bryan says that she and the congregation are grateful for the plumbers’ support.

“I can’t say enough positive things,” she adds. 

The living space is full of life, laughter, and good food, according to the minister. The family have made Newburyport their home. When one of the daughters graduated eighth grade, she was given an award for perseverance. “I could cry,” says Bryan, when sharing the accomplishment. “The whole city has embraced them, and they’ve embraced the city.”

The goal, eventually, is to help the family find permanent housing in the area. The organizations that have been helping all the Afghan families in Newburyport hope to create three properties that would be designated for refugees in perpetuity.

Maxim Hetmanchuk E.M. Duggan Ukraine benefit

E.M. Duggan steps up to aid Ukraine

It can be overwhelming and disheartening to hear the daily drumbeat of a crisis such as the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine. People can feel hopeless. Or, like the folks at E.M. Duggan, they can take action.

The GBPCA contractor organized a clothing drive and delivered the goods to the Christ of King Ukrainian Church in Jamaica Plain, which, in turn, shipped them to the war-torn country. Among the items collected were blankets and towels as well as clothes. With the support of Len Monfredo, the company’s principal, Duggan also had t-shirts imprinted with the message, “Glory to Ukraine,” imprinted in the country’s national colors. Ukrainian soldiers often share the phrase when greeting one another. The shirts were included in the donation.

Alex Motorny, Duggan’s safety manager, who was born and raised in Ukraine and still has family there, translated the phrase so that a local vendor could imprint it on the shirts. He also translated a letter, which in part states that the donated items should be thought of as a “hug from those around the world who care about you.” The letters were tucked into bags along with the shirts. Motorny said that he was moved to tears by the letter and by the actions of his colleagues.

“E.M. Duggan cares about their employees and about the people in Ukraine,” he says. “It’s very kind and generous of Len and the rest of the company to do such a great thing. I’m very touched.”

Because it can be difficult to track donated items amid a crisis and determine whether they reached their intended destination, the letter also included instructions asking recipients in the Ukraine to contact Duggan. Company members were thrilled when Maxim Hetmanchuk, a wounded Ukrainian soldier being treated in a hospital, sent a message indicating his appreciation for the donated items and kind wishes. He said that he cried when he read the letter. The soldier later sent a photo of himself wearing the specially designed shirt.

Hydrogen in our energy pipeline

With increasingly dire reports about the acceleration of climate change and its consequences, calls to address the existential issue have become more urgent. Per state law, Massachusetts has an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% from 1990 levels before 2030. The figure rises to a 75% reduction by 2040 and to 85% by 2050. Among the ways that Massachusetts could help hit the targets is by incorporating hydrogen into the energy mix.

The gas contains the highest energy content fuel by weight and only emits water vapor when burned, which makes tapping its potential appealing. Is hydrogen viable as an alternate fuel source? The jury is still out, and there are some hurdles to overcome. But it seems to hold a great deal of promise.

“As far as we’re concerned, we are for an all-of-the-above approach” when it comes to planning our energy future, says Wendell Hibdon, director of energy and infrastructure for the United Association, the parent organization of Local 12. “Let’s consider everything.” Everything, he says, should include hydrogen.

The gas has many potential uses, including fueling cars, trucks, and other vehicles, generating electricity, heating homes, and powering appliances. It’s those last two applications in which plumbers and gasfitters would get involved. PCA contractors and the Local 12 members they employ could play a significant role in bringing hydrogen to the state’s homes and businesses.

“The beauty of using hydrogen for heating and to operate appliances is that the piping infrastructure to deliver it already exists,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “It’s installed and maintained by plumbers and gasfitters.”

More than 50% of Massachusetts homeowners have natural gas piped into their houses. Approximately 60% of homes in the U.S. rely on gas heating. It’s not as simple as converting those systems to pure hydrogen, however.

Blending hydrogen and natural gas

While more research needs to be done, it appears that existing heating systems and appliances such as gas ranges and clothes dryers would likely have to be retrofitted or redesigned to accommodate 100% hydrogen. In its pure form, the gas can also cause embrittlement of cast iron pipes. Of the 21,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in Massachusetts, about 2,800 miles is made of cast iron. (The remaining infrastructure, which is made of steel and polyethylene plastic, is compatible with hydrogen.)

A blend of hydrogen and conventional natural gas, however, has been shown to work with both the existing distribution piping system and end-user appliances. Hydrogen hybrid fuel is being used in Asia and Europe. For example, a hydrogen pilot project in Scotland, which has been in operation since last May, is being conducted by National Grid U.K.

The utility’s American counterpart, National Grid, announced a similar program in December for the Long Island town of Hempstead in New York. Dubbed the “HyGrid Project,” it is delivering hydrogen-blended gas to about 800 homes in the community. Hydrogen is also being used to fuel at least 10 municipal vehicles there.

“We believe that hydrogen can transform the energy industry, and we are on the forefront,” says Rudolph Wynter, president of National Grid New York. “This exciting project show that hydrogen blending can be used to decarbonize the existing networks.”

The ratio of hydrogen being used in the Hempstead program is currently 5%. According to the utility, it will slowly increase the amount of hydrogen in the blend with methane to 20% over a three-year period. Initial research indicates that residential appliances can operate without issue up to a 28% blend of hydrogen. The more hydrogen that is blended into the mix, the more carbon emissions can be reduced per unit of energy produced.

National Grid, which also operates in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, has stated that it wants to expand the use of the hybrid fuel and is considering other pilot programs. That is precisely what a recent UMass Lowell report calls for.

Study urges development of hydrogen policy in Mass.

In conjunction with Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), a multidisciplinary panel of experts convened by UMass Lowell studied the opportunities and challenges of developing a hydrogen-based economy in the state and throughout the Northeast. In a report published by the university’s Rist Institute for Sustainability & Energy in November, the organization concluded that hydrogen utilization could provide both economic benefits and help Massachusetts reach its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Some critics argue that hydrogen would prolong reliance on natural gas and that they would rather see gas pipeline networks phased out. In its place, they call for switching over to electric heat pumps and appliances. As the UMass Lowell report points out, however, such a large-scale conversion would be costly and would impose a burden on those least able to afford it. In contrast, by displacing natural gas with hydrogen, end users could keep their existing heating systems and appliances, and there would be no extra cost to them. The transition would be virtually seamless.

Also, making the switch to electricity for heating and appliances would place more of a demand on the state’s electrical grid, most of which relies on natural gas-fueled power plants. The state is years, and possibly decades away from generating enough electricity through offshore wind and other green sources to meet its needs.

“There’s a long haul to electrify every home in Massachusetts as well as to electrify every business,” says Bob Rio, a senior vice president at AIM. “We think there’s an opportunity here to use hydrogen to reduce greenhouse gases.”

The UA’s Hibdon agrees. “We can get started blending hydrogen with natural gas, and it will reduce carbon emissions right off the bat. To me, that’s a win-win.”

Another benefit to a pipeline system that would incorporate hydrogen, according to the UMass Lowell report, is that it would be more reliable in storms. Most heat pumps rely on above-ground power lines, which can be vulnerable during adverse weather conditions.

Although hydrogen is a common and readily available element, it can be challenging to produce it as a fuel source. Most hydrogen today is produced through a process known as steam methane reforming, or SMR, and is considered “grey.” The process itself yields carbon. “Blue” hydrogen couples SMR with carbon capture to reduce emissions, but that process is costly. The preferred color for hydrogen is “green,” which refers to hydrogen generated by using renewable power sources like wind or solar energy. “Green” hydrogen is being used on Long Island for the HyGrid Project.

The UMass Lowell study recommends that Massachusetts develop a comprehensive hydrogen policy that would integrate the use of hydrogen to reduce or eliminate carbon for heating homes and other buildings. It also calls for utilities to establish optional pilot programs that would blend hydrogen with natural gas. And it advocates for the creation of a renewable procurement standard for natural gas utilities and suppliers that would allow hydrogen to qualify for renewable energy credits in the state.

“We want to be involved and help make hydrogen a viable option,” says Hibdon. “We want to help lower carbon emissions.”

How do you get water to the middle of nowhere?

Local 12 volunteers build wash stations for Navajo Water Project

“People need water and sewerage,” says Rick Carter, Local 12’s training director. “Most people take running water and indoor plumbing for granted.” That is, until something fails. Then they realize the critical role that plumbers play. Some folks, however, don’t have ready access to life’s most basic needs. For example, one in three people live without a sink or a toilet–that’s 67 times more likely than other Americans–on the Navajo Nation, a vast swath of land that spans Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Plumbers are rising to the challenge.

The United Association (Local 12’s parent organization) organized the Wash Station Challenge over the summer. The goal was to construct 20 outdoor wash stations targeted for remote areas in Navajo Nation. As part of the UA effort, volunteers at Local 12’s training center built two of the units.

The UA first got involved with the Navajo Nation two years ago when it partnered with the International Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Foundation (IWSH) and the DigDeep organization’s Navajo Water Project to build a water tank, septic system, bathrooms, and more in New Mexico.

“It was like that show, ‘Restaurant Impossible,’ ” says Tom Bigley, director of plumbing services for the UA. “I called it ‘bathroom impossible.’ But we got it done. It was very rewarding.” Bigley serves on the board of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), and IWSH is the association’s public charity.

Last year, Plumbers Local 400 in Wisconsin helped develop and build a prototype wash station. Its success led to this year’s Wash Station Challenge. Amid the pandemic, the Navajo Nation has experienced some of the highest infection rates in the U.S. With running water scarce on the reservation, people have limited ability to wash their hands and help prevent the virus from spreading. The wash stations are intended to support and enable handwashing in local communities and remote households to help halt COVID’s spread and promote public health and hygiene awareness.

“When Harry Brett and Tim Fandel learned what we did, they offered to help with future projects,” Bigley says.

“We are honored to be asked to help and happy to do so,” says Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. He notes that the joint labor-management group that the union has with its affiliated contractors provided the funds for the project’s materials. “It was very generous of them,” Fandel says.

The stations, which are about five-and-a-half feet wide and deep, contain a 210-gallon water tank and a sink assembly with a drop-down steel mesh countertop on one of its sides. The tank is inside an insulated cabinet and includes a heating element to prevent the water from freezing during the winter. The mobile units sit on steel frames with large wheels.

“They look like chicken coops that are bound for the moon or like the Mars rovers,” says Bigley with a laugh.

A wash station in use at Navajo Nation.

The first step in assembling the stations was to build their frames, which involved welding aluminum stainless steel and carbon stainless steel. The training center’s welding instructor, Bobby Niles, and two apprentices in Local 12’s welding program came in Saturdays and some nights to work on the frame. Other instructors and apprentices handled the units’ shells, which included wooden doors. The stations were built in the training center’s new annex shop.

Some of the stations use electricity. The off-grid models that Local 12 built include solar panels. Training center instructor Johnny Tierney, who is a licensed electrician, wired them so they would be self-powered.

“There was a lot of cutting and fabrication to build the stations,” Carter says adding that they took from May to September to complete. “We have great instructors and apprentices who wanted to be involved and donated their time.”

Navajo Nation UA Wash Station Challenge Local 12 Boston
Left: Local 12 volunteers welded the frames for the wash stations. Right: One of Local 12’s stations under construction.

The training director says that several partners got involved with the project as well. For example, Ferguson Plumbing donated the sinks and the water tanks. Local 12 neighbor Gilbert & Becker, which is a roofing contractor, put metal skins on the exterior of the stations to make them weathertight. When the units were completed, the company also supplied a forklift to load them–all 1,100 lbs. of them–onto moving trucks for shipping.

Bound for the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Carter says that the location is “literally in the middle of nowhere.” Because there is no street address, the shipper had to use GPS coordinates. Once they arrived on site, DigDeep distributed and installed the washing stations. “Hopefully they will get years of use out of them,” Carter says.

“I think everyone’s aware that Native Americans have been treated unfairly,” says Bigley. “Our people like to work with their hands, and this is a way that we can help. It really resonates.” He adds that the UA will continue working with Navajo Nation, and that the next challenge will likely be bathroom units.

Whatever the project, Carter and Fandel say that Local 12 stands ready to help.

Turning off the PFAS tap forever

Plumbers help keep people and communities safe by providing access to clean drinking water. But what happens when a community’s water supply is compromised? That’s the predicament in which several Massachusetts cities and towns find themselves.

About a year ago, the state issued directives requiring public water systems to test for dangerous polyfluroalkyl chemicals, known as PFAS for short. 20 percent discovered levels that exceeded regulations. Some, such as Wayland, began distributing bottled water to households. Other affected communities include Natick, Randolph, and Wellesley.

The group of chemicals share a carbon-fluorine bond that is among the strongest known to humans. That makes them especially effective for items designed to be non-stick or water- and stain-resistant. These include non-stick cookware, rain jackets, dental floss, and ski wax. The strong chemical bond also makes PFAS extremely persistent in the environment, hence their nickname: “forever chemicals.” They are often found in drinking water and groundwater.

“They are very difficult to get rid of once they are created,” says Kyla Bennett, Ph.D., science policy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in Boston. PFAS have been linked with health issues ranging from cancer, developmental delays for children, and immune problems. They have been shown to affect wildlife as well as humans. “We have to turn off the PFAS tap, literally and figuratively, to stop them from affecting us,” adds Bennett.

U.S. manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to stop making the two most common PFAS chemicals. They are among the six that Massachusetts is targeting. The problem is that the country continues to import and use products that contain the chemicals. And there are more than 9,000 variations that fall under the PFAS umbrella. When states such as Massachusetts identify some that are problematic, manufacturers develop a slightly different formulation. “It’s a never-ending game of whack-a-mole,” Bennett says. “It’s an untenable situation. They are ubiquitous.” Instead, regulators are starting to think about targeting PFAS as a class and banning them altogether.

What can communities and individuals do? Bennett’s hometown of Easton first gave residents $75 rebates to purchase home filters that are certified to remove PFAS. Now, the DPW has installed a small system where residents can fill up jugs and containers with filtered water. The town is talking about building a high-tech filtration system for the entire water supply. Its $10 million price tag makes it a costly consideration for a small community, however.

As is the case in other communities, Easton is also blending the water it pumps from the town’s seven wells, three of which are contaminated. That dilutes the PFAS and brings it under 20 parts per trillion, the level the state has established as the cutoff. Bennett says many scientists think the limit is too high and should be closer to 0.1 parts per trillion.

In addition to regulating the amount of PFAS in drinking water, lawmakers are trying to target the source of the chemicals. There are bills in the state legislature that would ban PFAS in certain products. Other states, including Vermont, have imposed such bans. One of the items that contains the chemicals is pipe thread seal tape, a plumbing staple. Bennett says that plumbers should be looking for alternatives that don’t have PFAS.

Drinking water isn’t the only concern. In addition to ingesting the chemicals, people can also inhale them when they are aerosolized and absorb them through the skin (when showering, for example).

Massachusetts is one of the leaders tackling the PFAS issue in the country. But the chemicals are so pervasive, the federal government should ideally be involved. To date, the EPA has not imposed any regulations. That may be changing, however.

In July the U.S. House passed the PFAS Action Act, which would require the EPA to set a federal standard for the chemicals in drinking water. The legislation is making its way through Congress.

“The writing is on the wall. Eventually PFAS will be banned,” Bennett says. “We have to keep ourselves safe until we get there.”

Local 12 Plumbers Boston training center

Training center back to “normal”

As with nearly everything, the pandemic wreaked havoc with Local 12’s training center. But, after coping with major interruptions and modifications the past two academic years, apprentice classes and other programs at the center have returned, more or less, to regular operations.

The only major concession to the ongoing threat of COVID-19 is that students, instructors, and visitors must wear facemasks in the facility while they are in classrooms. Night classes for journeyman training, which had been temporarily cancelled, have resumed.

“We are trying to get back to normal,” says Rick Carter, the training center’s director. “But I think we are all still in COVID shock. Some people are having a hard time rebooting and returning to normalcy.”

When the pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, the training center switched to remote learning. For classes that emphasize hands-on instruction and participation, the model proved to be difficult. Carter says it was not conducive to the kind of high-quality training for which the center is known.

In fall 2020, in-person classes returned. To maximize social distancing, however, the class sizes were reduced to about ten apprentices. That meant the center had to expand its schedule and present more classes to accommodate everyone. Many hand sanitizer stations were installed, the HVAC system was upgraded to improve ventilation, and other modifications were made. It was not ideal, but it was significantly better than conducting virtual classes.

This academic year, the center is back to pre-COVID-sized classes and a regular schedule. Carter says that it’s good to put most of the pandemic-era modifications in the rearview mirror. “Hopefully we never have to go back to that.”

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.