Construction powers through pandemic

Home builders, village adapt to keep redevelopment and remodels on track

Among the categories of essential workers exempted from Gov. JB Pritzker's shelter-in-place order last March were those in construction and building trades.

That was good news for Linda Ritter, owner of Hinsdale's Tiburon Homes. But would the market have an appetite for projects during a pandemic?

The answer was "Yes."

"We've actually found that our business has gotten even busier in the past 12 months," Ritter said.

That's due in part to a continued - and perhaps accelerated - migration of families from Chicago to the suburbs, she suggested, as the work-from-home model has taken root.

"We do have some clients that are leaving the city to start their next chapter," Ritter said,

Robb McGinnis, Hinsdale's director of community development, figured his department would see a COVID cratering of permit applications for new homes and renovations.

In fact, the village reported it issued 22 more permits in 2020 than in 2019 (see chart).

"There was certainly a lot of pent-up demand," McGinnis said. "A lot of homeowners seemed to feel, 'We're going to move forward with our project.' We didn't see much of a let-up."

With staffers often working from homes, applications have been submitted electronically or dropped in a bin outside village offices. To avoid physical contact on site, inspections are conducted virtually or with all of the construction workers waiting outside.

"Anybody that could work remotely worked remotely," McGinnis remarked. "We had to modify our routine get up to speed in a hurry. But we were able to meet our core service obligations in a way that was pretty seamless."

Remodeling activity also remained steady, according to village records. Ritter said during the Great Recession a decade ago, sellers struggled to find buyers and ended up renovating instead of relocating.

"We did more renovation than new construction then," she said.

The pandemic has been different.

"Now we actually are turning down renovation work simply because we're so busy with new construction work."

That follows a national trend, which has swelled demand for lumber, specialty metals, appliances and other items and sent prices soaring.

"Construction costs are at an all-time high," Ritter remarked. "In September, lumber was 60 percent more than it was at the same time in 2019."

Ritter said they try to provide ample lead time on material orders, because sometimes "what used to take three to four weeks to get has taken as much as two the three months."

With appreciation for in-home amenities at an all-time high, features like golf simulators, hot tubs, water filtration systems and outdoor kitchens and fire features are high on the wish list.

"We have seen a lot of people spending time in their homes, and they want to make their homes as comfortable as possible," she said. "I'd like to believe that people have found comfort and joy in their homes and buy new houses that allow them to have a full range of experiences and activities for their families."

That's reflected in the rise in village permits granted for "miscellaneous" projects, which include patios, irrigation and fences. McGinnis said he's not complaining about the workload.

"It's a good problem to have. I think we're in good shape right now and we're staffed appropriately," he said.

McGinnis admits virtual inspections are not his first choice because the potential of overlooking something is greater versus an in-person tour. But he predicted that such remote procedures are probably here to stay.

"It's a service that we've been able to provide," he said, encouraging thoroughness from those submitting electronic documents for quicker turnaround. "We're going to continue to do what we've got to do. How long we stay the course, as the skies start to clear, is anybody's guess."

Ritter praised the village for navigating through the challenging circumstances.

"They were good about informing us of what we can and can't do and have been very forthcoming," she said. "There really wasn't any downtime or uncertainty as to how (the process) was going to happen.

Both Ritter and McGinnis admit that a work site poses challenges when it comes to complying to COVID-19 protocols. Ritter said her crews wear masks and try to socially distance. Above all, she is thankful

"We were able to keep everyone working," she said, noting the large number of laborers the firm employs. "Their livelihood depends on their ability to work. Projects were not put on hold. We did not ever miss payroll, and we were pleased about that."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean