Beating the Elements

From torrential downpours to scorching heat to driving snowstorms, weather can be a showstopper for rural builders. The key to overcoming extreme weather, say experienced contractors, is striking a balance between keeping the crew safe and operating a profitable business.

With crews in nine states from Indiana to Alabama, Randall Kirts knows how challenging any type of weather can be for his employees. As president of Blitz Builders in Shelbyville, Ky., he supervises a company that has specialized in custom post-frame construction for more than 25 years. He affirms that snow and cold, particularly in the northernmost states of his territory, can have a big effect on his business.

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Equipment must be regularly maintained to ward off cold-weather problems before they start. “Then if the roads are passable and we can get to the site, we’ll try to work,” Kirts reports. To combat the cold, he encourages his crews to dress appropriately and get into the truck to warm up.

“But if temperatures get too low—typically below freezing—then, for safety reasons, we won’t keep the guys outdoors. And if we have a week of inclement weather, we give the crews the option to work on weekends.” Wind chill is another factor in the decision and, as Kirts points out, “If our building materials are covered with snow and ice, they can be a safety hazard to climb on.”

Kirts’s managerial savvy is another reason Blitz Builders succeeds despite the weather. While jobs up north are affected by cold weather, he notes, “We do a significant amount of work below the Ohio River in the winter to keep busy.” Yet if the workload is light and Kirts must reduce his workforce, he focuses on keeping his best crews busy.

Though harsh cold affects northern climes the most, Kirt says his northern and southern crews face a common challenge year-round. “Rain is more of a showstopper than most other things,” he relates. “Operating power equipment in the rain isn’t a good thing to do.”

As for high heat, Kirts encourages his crews to work smart. “I rely on the guys to use common sense and encourage them to start early, break around 1 to 2 p.m. for three to four hours and finish up in evening,” he says. “My advice is to take in plenty of liquids and protect yourself from the sun.”

Predicting the unpredictable
With mountains to the west and plains to the east, president Tim Andersen of National Barn Company’s Mountain Division faces an unpredictable mix of weather. Last winter at his office in Colorado Springs, he recalls, “We had record snowfall on the eastern side, but on the western side it wasn’t nearly as bad—just the opposite of what you’d normally think would happen.” Yet as a rule, being a lifelong Colorado resident lets him anticipate where storms are coming from and how they might affect his business.

Though many might think of snow as the rural builder’s biggest enemy, Andersen says, “We can have a change in temperature on any given day as much as 50 degrees.” With such a sizeable fluctuation, crews plan to perform different types of work at different times of day. “In the morning the ground will be frozen solid, but as the temperatures rise it will turn into sticky mud,” he relates. “Mud is much worse than snow. You can walk on snow, but with mud you get stuck.”

Of course, snow presents its own challenges. “After a snow, finding our materials on the jobsite can be like a mouse trying to find a pile of cheese,” Andersen says. “And I remember one project where we had to uncover the materials three times because it was covered in five feet of snow.” The solution? “Plan where to lay your materials so you know where to find them,” he advises, “and if the snow is still too deep, then dig yourself a trail and work through it.”

Part of Andersen’s strategy for dealing with winter weather is hiring crews who are familiar with working in frost and snow. “Our crews come from Colorado and Alaska, so they’re used to dealing with it,” he says.

In winter, workers must also grapple with limited daylight hours. “The sun doesn’t come up until 8:30 a.m. and it might be around 30 degrees below zero,” Andersen says. “Then around 3:15 p.m. the sun is gone again.

Finances can be affected by shorter work days and we have to plan accordingly. We know that projects are going to take longer during these conditions and factor in all the variables when we bid for a job.” In fact, Anderson adds, “Around here, you can count on a storm about every seven days.”

Time and temperature both factor into the available work time in a day. Remarkably, Andersen says, “If the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is shining, 15 degrees below zero can be quite comfortable.” Below that temperature, however, frostbite becomes a real concern. To counteract these conditions, he instructs crews to start later in the day, wear clothes designed for extreme cold, keep their hats on, and take frequent breaks. Andersen also encourages his employees to schedule interior work during the coldest parts of the day.

But keeping crews warm is only half the battle. “Chainsaws, nail guns and air compressors won’t work if it’s too cold,” Andersen adds. “You can protect them from the elements on a jobsite, but you can’t protect them from the cold. So we put them inside the truck and warm them back up, or stick them under the exhaust of the truck until the gas gets thin enough to go through.”

Too hot to handle?
But what if extreme heat is the problem? Carter Byrd, owner of Byrd Construction Company in Corinth, Miss., knows about sweltering heat. “I don’t hire anybody that can’t handle the heat,” he exclaims, “If they’re used to air conditioning, I’m not even going to consider bringing them on the jobsite.”

Handling sheet metal in high heat, Byrd adds, requires experience. “It’ll burn blisters on your fingers if you’re not careful,” he warns. “Once I took a thermometer to the material and it registered 140 degrees—the highest the thermometer would go!” Experienced workers also recognize the danger signs of heat exhaustion. “You need people who know what to look for, so that they don’t endanger themselves,” he explains.

To beat the heat, Byrd directs his crews to “wear loose-fitting and light-colored clothing, and not to take off their shirts. Wearing shirts breaks the heat, and their skin doesn’t burn as badly.” Employees are told to keep plenty of water. Gatorade is on the jobsite at all times. And Byrd does his part through smart scheduling. “We sometimes leave the outside walls off of a building to allow for a breeze,” he explains. “Fans help the conditions, too.”

Another battle faced by warm-weather crews is making sure that building materials are properly preserved. “We try to bring equipment and materials to the job only as we need it,” Byrd relates. “Lumber is especially prone to warping. So we make sure it’s stored in the shade and not baking in the sun.”

Though Byrd often gets a surge of jobs in the spring and fall, his years of experience have shown him that flexibility can keeps his crews busy no matter what the conditions. “The people I hire all bring different skills to the table,” he says. “I have everything from an electrician to a plumber, so that we can tackle different types of jobs. You have to adapt and do what you have to do to make it work.”

Common-sense solutions
Operating across a 700-mile radius from his office in Galatin, Tenn., general manager James Head of the National Barn Company’s Eastern Division concurs that heat is a factor in planning his jobs. “We encourage crews to start early and quit early,” he says. Lost time can be made up, he continues, by seeking the customer’s agreement to allow work every day of the week. And to protect materials from the heat, Head uses kiln-dried lumber and then bands it together to stop warping.

With such a large territory to cover, Head’s crews must also deal with winter snow and ice, which are particularly tough problems with metal buildings. To combat slips and falls, employees must sometimes knock off snow and ice from a structure before work can commence.

Head advises his crews to remember they can sweat in cold weather, as much as in heat, especially as they wear warm clothing with few openings to let in the air. “Keep yourself hydrated,” he warns employees, “and if you quit sweating, then quit working. But really, in all types of weather, the main thing is to use common sense.”

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