[Updated 5/1/2020] The incredible spread of COVID-19 has everyone re-thinking their daily activities. While our building company is in a strong financial position and can weather a slowdown, that is not necessarily the case for all of our trade partners. Facing the prospect of staying at home for an extended period of time is unsettling for them, to say the least. This has weighed heavily into our decision on how to proceed in these critical days. Because we are building new homes and don’t have to navigate our jobs with owners occupying the building, we are choosing to continue operations but with some significant changes in our workflow to allow effective social distancing to limit the spread of the virus. We are hopeful these strategies will help keep everyone safe … at least, until we are given a strict stay-at-home order (which is happening in some communities around the country), in which case we will have to revise our operations.
Technology Offers an Answer
This all started to get a lot more real for us this past week as the panic shopping and cancellations started to pile up. It made me start thinking about what we could do as a company to provide the best service possible for our clients and our trade partners. I have a background in engineering, have always liked technology, and am always trying to find new ways to modernize what we do. We have been a user of Buildertrend for nearly three years now, so the logistical portion of practicing some form of social distancing is relatively easy. We have a template schedule that has been pretty well refined by this point, and I can simply adjust that schedule (push it out), so fewer people overlap on site, and only trades that can work in different areas of the building would be on the job at the same time, or one trade would be on site at any one time.
Even though we are very heavily integrated into Buildertrend, everything obviously doesn’t happen according to schedule. What is making this work for us is a camera system we installed last year. The site cameras give me a concrete way to confirm what has been done, who is on site, and what needs to be done. I think one of the biggest advantages to this system is being able to see at any moment who is actually on site so I can know what is being done. I can look at the street camera, see the cars parked out front, and be able to let someone else know to hold off if the site isn’t actually ready for the next trade to go in yet.
This evolved naturally because we already were using the camera. In the fall of last year, we had a break-in at one of our jobsites where at least $25K+ worth of tools and materials were taken. The thieves had to either have a large trailer or use multiple Sprinter-sized vans, as the sheer volume of items taken was unbelievable. Just like my concern with the COVID-19 virus, this wasn’t a big impact on my company, as we were insured and didn’t technically own most of the items taken. Unfortunately, it was a huge impact on our trade partners, many of whom couldn’t even afford to purchase basic new tools without waiting for the insurance company to pay first.
Up until that point, I was hesitant to put cameras on the job simply because I didn’t think my trade partners would want them. No one necessarily likes to be watched and that wasn’t what I was looking to do. However, after that break-in, I had a number of them come to me and say they thought it would be a good idea.
The Camera System I Use
I decided to go with UniFi Protect (unifi-protect.ui.com). I am the type of person who does not like to pay for something over time or be locked into a subscription; I would prefer to simply buy it outright and be done. The UniFi system has no monthly fees and allows us to store all the video on site on our own equipment. The cameras are relatively cheap (around $75 each), work off POE (power over ethernet) so they only need a Cat5 cable, have great night vision, allow remote access, can be set up with motion alerts, and can be expanded to as many cameras as we want. The picture below shows the inside of the equipment box, which has a POE switch, the UniFi “Cloud Key” (this runs the camera controller and saves all the video), a wireless AP, and a cellular modem. I could find nothing like this on the market so I had to make my own setup, down to the weatherproof enclosure.
While this was initially just for security, I quickly realized there was a lot more capability in the system than just that purpose. Part of our being able to survive the recession and then thrive these past few years has been our lean company structure and ability to do more without adding manpower.
The camera system has evolved for our operation over the past year, as a realization of two separate goals (and is still a work in progress). I found the Modern Craftsman podcast early last year and liked the way they were able to create a marketing message out of collaboration and their unique process instead of just finished pictures and reviews. That resonated with me because we as a company are in a market that is nowhere near Boston or NYC price levels where you can differentiate on product alone. Most homes look relatively the same from IG/Facebook/Realtor pictures, which are what initially draw people to inquire about a new home. We don’t build an ordinary home and I wanted to find a way to show that. I started looking for something that could do whole-build time-lapse or video footage as a way to show our process. I purchased two time-lapse kits from CamDo systems (that’s what made the only IGTV video on our account) and hoped to find a way to use those as a jobsite monitoring system. They had the possibility of uploading pictures every so often, but the interface was clunky and required an expensive subscription.
Early Stages of the Pandemic
We are obviously very early in the stages of social distancing, but I plan to try and make sure we don’t have many trades on the job at the same time. From a personal perspective, I plan to visit either outside of normal hours or when I see no one else is on site.
I’ve been in contact with a number of our suppliers and trade partners. While they all assure me they will remain open in some capacity and have no plans to close, that is obviously subject to change at any moment in these circumstances. My plumber told me his supply house already took the salesmen off the road and they have to call-in orders. My personal opinion is that we will all have to shut down sooner than later. For that reason, I haven’t tried to “stock up” on building supplies or things we would need further out than normal. I think if we aren’t able to get an item, it will be because the state has ordered everything shut down and we won’t be able to work at all.
On a less extreme scale, we have several jobs that are at a phase of construction where they require inspections every couple of days. I just saw a post this evening from one of the Modern Craftsman guys saying that almost every city he worked in had suspended inspections, and that Boston ordered all construction sites closed. Our city announced they would have a decision this week as to how they would handle “non-essential” services, such as inspections, going forward. By the time others read this article, it is a certainty that many other cities will have halted all construction-related operations.
I’m still trying to determine the best way forward for client meetings. We typically try to do weekly meetings on site, simply because it’s easier to walk around talking and catch a potential problem when we are all in the same room. However, I have reached out and tried to put any of these non-essential meetings on hold for the next several weeks. The biggest issue comes with new clients – I have several meetings scheduled for this week, and hate to push an opportunity given the potential slowdown for the remainder of this year. While we are still relatively new to the social media space, most of our clients either follow us or find information from our pages and are aware of the stance we have taken.