April 27, 2020 05:00 AM

To gain insight into Covid-19’s impact on construction and where the market is heading in light of the pandemic, Crain’s Content Studio spoke with Gavin Middleton, chief operating officer at Lehrer Cumming, which advises owners planning or engaged in large-scale construction projects, with a focus on new-building construction, major adaptive reuse, and complex developments. Middleton is a design and construction executive with 25 years’ experience in North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. His expertise is in managing mixed-use programs from inception to final delivery and closeout, with a focus on logistically complex projects.

Lehrer Cumming is a division of Cumming, a global management and cost consulting company. Its 120 team members work across five offices on behalf of clients undertaking more than $25 billion in construction in the academic, cultural, commercial, and residential sectors, as well as in healthcare, hospitality, retail, and infrastructure.

CRAIN’S: New York City was experiencing one of its largest building booms in a quarter-century before Covid-19. Where do you see building heading in the next year? What do you expect to see in the near term as the city reopens?

MIDDLETON: Before Covid-19, activity in New York—the largest and most dominant construction market in the United States, with an estimated value of $62.2 billion of new construction put in place—was starting to slow. We now find ourselves, however, in completely unchartered waters: Most of our industry is shut down, and we are focused on how to enable a resumption of work in a safe environment for all participants. We are seeing additional jobs qualifying as essential work, and so, in real time, our firm is working closely with owners and the construction community to create appropriate logistics, hygiene, and workforce protection plans. The construction industry is an agile one, an attribute that will serve us well as we focus on getting back to work.

CRAIN’S: What changes do you expect to see in the coming months as construction remobilizes? Do you anticipate changes to design because of social distancing parameters?

MIDDLETON: The new normal requires us to revisit all aspects of the daily work environment, including arrival, registration, vertical movement, delivery, handling of materials, breaks, and safe installation guidelines. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here: Each trade is affected very differently, depending on work practices, and all parties must approach challenges practically for work to advance meaningfully and safely.

CRAIN’S: Construction is a challenging proposition in a major metropolitan area, such as New York City, because of the high cost of doing business—even before accounting for the additional schedule, labor, and material complexities because of Covid-19. What best practices can you recommend to companies in the midst of projects?

MIDDLETON: Organization and communication are key. Yes, we are shut down, but we also have a city with many of the brightest minds in the nation within our agencies, construction firms, subcontractors, and consultant firms. All are now fully collaborating on this challenge. There is a natural and understandable wariness to resuming work in a pandemic. Our industry has a responsibility to communicate the extensive steps being taken to deliver the new normal of work in New York City and beyond.

CRAIN’S: How has your team navigated these uncharted waters, and what’s been learned?

MIDDLETON: We are leveraging our industry relationships. My job is to be in daily contact with construction, agency, and design leaders, soliciting their thoughts to help affirm and shape our plans for each project Lehrer Cumming manages for our clients. Trade-by-trade input from key subcontractors is greatly shaping our thinking as we learn the unique challenges certain tasks present. There are markets ahead of us in the cycle that we are monitoring and communicating with to learn about the measures they have taken, including what they are doing on job sites in China and several countries in Europe.

No playbook applies here. We are forging a new work environment, and I am confident we can overcome the challenges before us. It’s just the way we do business here in New York.

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