Labor shortage forces contractors to get creative


One of Owen-Ames-Kimball’s current projects is expansion of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. At front left is the new amphitheater concessions building. To the back right is the new 60,000-square-foot welcome center addition on the main facility. Courtesy Owen-Ames-Kimball

As the construction industry continues to evolve to meet the unwavering demand for new construction projects, there is one hindrance that has broadly affected the industry: a labor shortage in a growing demand for new properties.

According to the Architecture Billings Index, which surveys designers’ backlog quarterly to see if their workload is increasing or decreasing, there was a slight growth decline nationally in December to 52.1 compared to November’s 54.6.

Despite the decline nationally, Josh Szymanski, chief strategy officer for Grand Rapids-based Owen-Ames-Kimball, said the billings index showed there was a regional increase.

“The regional data from the Midwest indicates architects are still getting busier, 56.3 on Jan. 23 versus 55 in December,” he said. “A score of 50 equals no change from the previous month. The Midwest also remains the fastest-growing region for the last six months.”

With a booming industry and a dwindling labor force, Szymanski said the team at O-A-K has been spending a fair amount of time with clients setting and re-setting expectations regarding construction start date, length of a project and advising clients on when they should get out of a current lease and into their newly constructed space.

The struggle for quality labor has forced contractors to find a way to combat the lack of construction employees. Curt Mulder, president and co-owner of Wolverine Building Group, said depending on the project, contractors are turning to prefabrication, where construction materials are being customized at a manufacturing facility as opposed to at a construction site where workers do it themselves.

“The building structure, specifically wood structure, we are getting those materials precut, premanufactured and in many cases now prefabricated,” he said. “So, we will get an entire wall that is already prefabricated with all the correct openings installed in the right place and all the other guys on-site are doing is taking that wall panel and putting it in the right place and fastening it in place as opposed to them building the entire panel out on the job site, cutting different parts and pieces as needed.”

That is particularly useful to contractors who are tasked with constructing apartment buildings that are structured in relatively the same manner.

However, prefabrication has added a new element to building commercial businesses, which helps in a time when the industry has less of a labor force when compared to years past. The labor shortage and the ever-changing world of technology have allowed contractors to make impactful changes in the industry.

Jim Conner, senior vice president of business development at Triangle Associates in Grand Rapids, said building information modeling, or 3D modeling, is a new technology that is growing in popularity. It allows for prospective buildings to be drawn in three dimensions and details all the aspects of what a potential building will look like.

“They detail everything, all the way down to the thickness of the carpet to how wide the window shades are going to be, darn near every screw, if you will, to see what interferences there might be,” he said. “So, all the heating pipes and all the cooling pipes. Then they do what is called a clash detection. From there, they can see what is going to work and what is not going to work before they start building it to make it be more cost effective and more efficient.”

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