Builders fight the cold war

For rural builders, fighting the cold war goes beyond the frozen equipment and balky vehicles that accompany winter construction.
“It’s also a state of mind,” says Peter Drayer, co-owner of P.H. Drayer Company, a builder of horse barns and fencing based in Jefferson, Md. “I almost wish there was some way I could keep my employees from listening to the weather reports. When they hear about the wind chill factors, they start to get edgy.”
Getting trucks and equipment to start up in the morning can be a challenge, “but getting your people going can be a challenge too,” says Dennis Hoyt, president of Hoyt Construction Company, Three Rivers, Mich. When his winter work crews go out to construct post-frame and metal buildings, he points out, “Our people are bundled up with maybe 20 extra pounds of clothing, boots, and gloves. And then they have to clear off the snow from their building materials, which is time consuming, before they can even start work for the day.”
Along with the bulky clothes and cold temperatures, “it takes a different mindset for employees to come to work in the dark,” says president Sam Cottrell of Hos-Cot Builders, a firm in Hoosick, N.Y., that constructs commercial and agricultural post-frame buildings. In the shorter days of winter, he says, “You have to go to work in the dark and go home in the dark, and that has an effect on your workers. In fact, we start work an hour later in the winter, at 7 a.m., to deal with the problem.”
Even after taking human and capital assets into consideration, rural builders face wintertime decisions regarding the basics of how they conduct their businesses. Should payrolls be cut and workers laid off for the season? Can reduced productivity be made up? Should marketing and advertising be increased or decreased? Should the company accept certain types of projects and not others? Should the business even remain open at all?

Not losing your cool
Hos-Cot Builders covers a 65-mile territory that encompasses parts of upstate New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Winters are harsh with snow and freezing temperatures that begin by November and a spring thaw that does not arrive until late April. Temperatures range as low as 35 below zero, with an average winter temperature of about 25 degrees. “A big snow for us,” says Cottrell, “is about 2 feet.”
Cottrell supervises a crew of five workers that handles agricultural building projects, while his partner Stuart Hoskins leads a second five-man crew that does commercial construction. Contracts range from $30,000 to as much as $700,000.
“Most of our employees have been with us for a long time, about 20 to 25 years,” says Cottrell, “and so their experience is our best asset. We don’t want to lose them. If we laid them off, then they’d go work for someone else. So we’d have the extra expense and lost productivity of training new people, anyway, once spring came and we started hiring again.”
To maintain continuity in its workforce, Cottrell says, “We keep our crews on the payroll at full wages during the winter, even though their productivity goes down.” The decline, he says, is “probably by about 25 percent. That’s how much longer it takes us to construct a building in the winter as compared to other times of the year.”
One approach to minimizing the productivity challenge, Cottrell continues, is to obtain wintertime construction projects that can be performed indoors. “It’s nice if we can get an inside job for the winter season,” he says. “We were able to do that last winter, but that’s not always the case. So we just have to keep going, no matter what.”
Keeping going in cold weather requires some savvy. Hos-Cot Builders leaves most of its equipment overnight at the jobsite rather than taking it back to the home office. In turn, Cottrell points out, “that means we have to find a place to plug in overnight. Fortunately, for agricultural building projects we’re usually on a farm where there’s a power source.”
Diesel fuel for equipment and vehicles, Cottrell adds, must be thinned or additized for winter conditions. His company owns two crew-cab trucks and, he says, “On winter mornings you don’t just start them up and go down the road. You have to let them idle first.”
Success in wintertime construction, Cottrell says, “just simply takes a whole lot more coordination. If you want to get going in the morning, then you have to take care of your vehicles and equipment. You also have to arrange for snow removal if you even want access to your jobsite. And at the end of the day you have to cover your materials or you may not be able to find them the next morning.”
Hos-Cot Builders does not change its marketing or advertising in the winter. Cottrell says his 30-year-old company enjoys a regional reputation that brings jobs through customer referrals and simple word of mouth. “But we do have to be careful in the winter with projects that require a lot of concrete,” he notes. “You can’t pour concrete on top of frost and in cold temperatures you have to put additives in the concrete and use heaters so it can cure properly. In the winter we stay away from a job like building a bunk silo, which requires a lot of exterior concrete.”
To rural builders who may be new to the cold wars, Cottrell’s advice is simple. “To sum it all up,” he says, “I’d say that construction is an enjoyable business. But it’s just plain not as much fun in the wintertime.”

Avoiding a construction freeze
Average winter snowfall in Hoyt Construction’s southwestern Michigan territory is between 100 and 120 inches per year. With Lake Michigan only an hour’s drive from the company’s home office, says Dennis Hoyt, “we’re right on the edge of lake-effect weather.” Temperatures can rise as high as 35 or even 40 degrees for extended periods, he adds, “then go down into the single digits or below zero for weeks at a time.”
Winters are similarly variable, Hoyt observes, as 2003-04 was relatively mild while 2001-02 brought near-record snowfalls. “But when it’s cold, it really feels cold,” he says. Unlike areas that experience “dry cold,” the moisture from Lake Michigan can bring a chill to Hoyt’s territory that makes temperatures feel even colder than the thermometer indicates. Last year’s first frost came in early October, with frost remaining in the ground through April.
Hoyt Construction performs mostly commercial projects that can range from small jobs of just $10,000 to buildings valued at more than $1 million. The company’s workforce typically consists of eight employees working in one or two crews. “Winter cuts our productivity in half,” Hoyt says, “but we simply accept low productivity in the winter as a cost of doing business. Since we have good people, we keep them on the payroll.”
Like Hos-Cot, Hoyt and his firm try to arrange indoor work that allows crews to get out of the weather and set up portable heaters for warmth. “If we have two or three projects that we’re working on simultaneously,” he says, “then we can do indoor work on a bad weather day and then outdoor work on a good day. With the temperature variations we get in our part of Michigan, that’s a help.”
Pouring concrete in the winter requires some caution, Hoyt says. Calcium can be added, he says, to speed the grind process and blankets then placed on top of poured concrete to ensure proper curing. Workers must check frame structures for ice build-up, then clear off the ice before putting on any sheeting. Metal buildings and roofs, he points out, tend to frost more quickly than nonmetallic materials.
At the end of the day Hoyt’s crews must cover their materials, return vehicles and small equipment to the home office to be stored indoors overnight, and plug in their large equipment at the jobsite. If a power source is not available, a generator must be brought.
“We’re a small business that’s been around for 25 years, and so we don’t do a lot of advertising in the winter or any other time of year,” says Hoyt. But he takes the attitude that, if winter slows down construction work, “that lets me spend more time in the office, where I can get busy trying to line up more projects for the spring.”
Hoyt has his own tested advice for rural builders in northern climes. “The basic equipment you need to survive the winter,” he advises, “is lots and lots of clothing, portable heaters, and a good pair of jumper cables!”

Making holiday wishes
Though Peter Drayer does business further south than Hoyt or Cottrell, his Maryland locale brings its own winter challenges. His office is near the city of Frederick, home to large numbers of commuters who work in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Yet the area still retains much of its rural character and the West Virginia state line is only a short drive away.
“Winter around here can bring some very cold temperatures and chill factors,” Drayer says, “and it can bring ice storms as well as snowstorms. And though the frost may thaw out of the ground sooner than further up north, that also means we have a time when the ground is really muddy.”
Being just below the Mason-Dixon Line also means winters can vary greatly from one year to the next. “We’ve had years with only 2 inches of snow,” he says, “and years where there’s been snow from Thanksgiving to Easter.”
Like other rural builders, P.H. Drayer Company experiences a 20 to 25 percent drop in productivity during the winter season. Crews lose their mental edge, gloves and heavy clothing must be worn, frozen soil must be dug, equipment doesn’t start, air compressors and generators must be brought, and items must be returned to the shop at night and then checked in the morning to ensure they run. Daily winter maintenance on a dozen vehicles — seven trucks, three forklifts, and two skid steer loaders — can be laborious and time-consuming.
P.H. Drayer Company builds horse barns and performs fencing projects that can range from $10,000 to more than $200,000 in value. Drayer employs about 10 workers and, “though we’ve had some winters where I’ve had to do some layoffs, we’re usually able to keep our employees on the payroll.”
Workers can sometimes be switched from doing carpentry to fencing, since the latter can be performed until mid-January and then resumed in March. By January, Drayer explains, frost reaches 6 to 8 inches in depth and prevents digging. Then by March, he continues, the muddy season is usually over and soil is firm enough to install fencing.
Another winter challenge, Drayer points out, has nothing to do with the weather. “It’s also the calendar,” he says. “People want time off during the holidays, then your Christmas credit card bills become due, it’s time to do your taxes, and you’re paying higher heating bills.”
Drayer works in a region that enjoys robust growth and has a large transient population, so he actively advertises for new business. “I find that I need to advertise more, not less, in the winter,” he says, “so that I can keep jobs coming in and ready to start when the spring building season arrives.”
Winter construction “can be discouraging and working outside in the cold can sometimes make you wonder if you’ve chosen the right profession,” Drayer admits. And his advice for winning the cold war? “I still think it would be a good idea if you could find some way for your crews to quit watching the Weather Channel,” he laughs.

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