Builders at our Core: Getting the Bay Area Back to Work

Construction work taking place on the UCSF Block 23A Neurosciences Research Building in San Francisco
Work was paused on the UCSF Block 23A Building in San Francisco when California's Bay Area announced a shelter-in-place order. Courtesy of Barry Fleisher

On March 16, officials in California’s Bay Area announced a Shelter-in-Place (SIP) order for six Bay Area counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. Many DPR Construction projects stopped work to abide by this order to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Safely winding down a project is one thing. Getting things back online with new protocols in the face of a pandemic is another. DPR’s Bay Area project teams quickly got to work on what they knew would be the next step: restarting these projects as safely as possible.

Teams were set up to formulate return to work plans, for both offices and jobsites, so projects could come back online with enhanced COVID-19 safety protocols. One such project that was paused due to the SIP order was the 283,000-sq.-ft. UCSF Block 23A Neurosciences Research Building in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood. The project is in an urban setting, in the middle of a city block, a stone’s throw away from the Chase Center and AT&T Park. DPR’s self-perform scopes include concrete, drywall, ceilings, firestopping and fire safing.

Jack Poindexter, who serves as project executive on the UCSF job, summed up the challenges. “This project is massive. It’s a complex project with a lot of workers on-site—well over 300 on a given day.” The team knew they needed to build a plan to return to work, but being able to do it safely and with a high degree of excellence was paramount in their minds. “Our goal was to protect their jobs, but we also had to protect their health, and treat a potential restart with a level of seriousness that we would treat any other high hazard activity on a construction site.”

Cones and signage are set up outside the UCSF Block 23A site to remind people of social distancing requirements.
A team of DPR employees met daily via virtual conferences to devise a get back to work plan that included advanced protocols aimed at safeguarding everyone on-site. Courtesy of DPR Construction

The final result was akin to a project procedures manual on a large job. The team, who met daily via virtual conferences, considered all possible angles: How to get people in. How to check that they’re healthy. How to get them into the building in the most efficient manner. How to move materials to and around the site. How to keep people safe in the field and in the trailer. What types of PPE would be required? What should working hours be? How to bring people back into the site while orienting them to new logistics and procedures. The team collected myriad ideas and came up with a final get back to work plan that UCSF not only approved but praised.

First and foremost was the question of how to spread people out for social distancing purposes. A team of DPR employees, including superintendents and craft team members who could advise on the practicalities of the field and come up with workable solutions, decided to spread workers out across shifts. The core crews were split into two shifts, while a third shift was added to handle material deliveries and some on-site work.

The next step was to stagger the start times of subcontractors, even within the same shift. With a pre-screening process, including temperature scans, in place to ensure that every person who enters the site is healthy, this cuts down on people queuing up for screening at the same time. And those who do wait in line for screening prior to entry stand at designated places on the pavement, helping them maintain a 6-foot distance from each other while waiting to enter the gate. The team even added a second gate, allowing two people to be screened at once at separate entry points. Those conducting temperature scans are protected in booths, behind plexiglass--not only on the construction site itself, but also in jobsite trailers.

Employees are given temperature scans at screening booths before entering work areas.
Booths were set up to screen people for COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the site, with screeners performing temperature scans behind plexiglass. Courtesy of DPR Construction

The team also changed logistics once inside the site, even down to the use of the stairs in the building. One staircase is designated for going up, while another is designated for those going down. This minimizes the number of people potentially passing each other in close contact. Teams also began working in designated zones of the building so that certain crews can be isolated from others. For Poindexter, DPR’s self-perform crews not only helped make this possible, but helped make it a success.

“When we shut down, we were right in the middle of drywall, and we have a tremendous amount of our drywall and ceiling folks on-site. What’s great is getting them back to work, but also, they’re our people. It’s so much easier to control the safety and performance of a project when you’ve got DPR personnel executing it. These protocols are new to everybody, so making sure we’re all doing them well is a whole new hurdle for us. Having more DPR personnel on-site is a really big benefit for us.”

Three craft team members work to complete the UCSF Block 23A Building.
DPR's planning team included superintendents and craft team members who advised on the practicalities of the field and came up with workable solutions for restarting work. Courtesy of Barry Fleisher

The UCSF Block 23A project was able to restart successfully due to the careful analysis, planning and execution of those plans by DPR employees and the cooperation of every subcontractor and the client, itself. But, the importance of the learning element is not lost on anyone. The crisis has given everyone the opportunity to become better planners, with a multitude of lessons learned from both planning and scheduling standpoints.

Said Poindexter: “We’ve learned a ton. We’ve focused on it in a way that folks at DPR always do. We rise to the occasion. Every time, we rally around these issues, solve the problems, learn from them, and are better in the future. That effort is well worth it. We will end up in a stronger position as better builders in the long run.”

UCSF Block 23A welcomed more than 300 people back to work the week of May 4. Safely.