Current Edition >Last updated on Sunday, March 4, 2012, 11:29 am
Construction workers at the Health Professions Building at NWACC haven't lost many workdays to the winter weather.
by Paul Gatling
Chief meteorologist Garrett Lewis, who works for CBS affiliate KFSM-TV in Fort Smith, is an agreeable fellow even during the nastiest of weather patterns.
To some, that factor has only increased this winter. Above-normal temperatures for every month likely have contributed to below-normal snowfall amounts for Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley.
“When it’s sunny out, everybody loves the weather guy,” Lewis said recently, with a laugh. “And I’m not a big fan of snow, so I love it.”
Winter weather fans notwithstanding, Lewis isn’t the only one who prefers the warmer pattern. The mild winter is having an impact on outdoor-related businesses and industries, including construction, roofing and landscaping.
The warmer-than-usual temperatures have been welcomed with open — and occasionally short-sleeved — arms for those who work outdoors.
“It’d be hard to track it, but people are more productive,” said Rob Dodd, a senior project manager with Nabholz Construction Services in Rogers.
Dodd is overseeing one of the area’s larger construction projects, the $14.2-million Health Professions Building on the campus of Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville.
“The subcontractors are more productive when it’s not freezing cold,” Dodd said. “It helps the attitude of all the workers on the site. You’re able to get more production out of them in a mild climate rather than when it’s freezing cold.”
Preparing for that kind of day has been rare this winter. Fayetteville has had just three days — Dec. 6, Jan. 12 and Feb. 11 — when the recorded high temperature was 32 degrees or below this season.
Last winter, there were 12 combined days of below-freezing highs in January and February alone.
Fayetteville also set a record on Dec. 14 with a low of 53 degrees. The measurements come from Drake Field, an official climate site used by the National Weather Service when collecting data from Northwest Arkansas.
But besides productivity, the mild winter is having a bottom-line impact as well. The NWACC project is one example.
Without giving specific budget numbers, Dodd said Nabholz has spent only 2 percent of the money budgeted for temporary weather protection at the site, for items like portable heaters, fuel, tarps and ice melt
“By comparison,” Dodd said, “during the very cold winter last year, we spent close to $20,000 for weather protection on a project less than half the size of the NWACC project.”
Dan Skoff, chief meteorologist at NBC affiliate KNWA-TV in Fayetteville, said the lack of cold weather would have an impact going forward — an active severe weather season throughout the spring. He said the winter season is likely to conclude with continued above-average temperatures and without a significant snow event.
“We just haven’t had much of a winter at all,” he said.
Positives are Plentiful
Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, said the positives of a mild winter on the construction industry are plentiful.
“For the most part, I don’t think there are negatives in construction to having good weather,” he said.
The amount of pull-forward activity, or activity that ordinarily wouldn’t have taken place until spring that’s occurred in December and January, has been evident, he said. That fact is reflected in nationwide employment numbers
Construction employment in the United States is at its highest level since 2010, according to AGC data. It rose by 21,000 in January to a two-year high of 5.57 million, after an upwardly revised gain of 31,000 in December.
Those figures are likely a result to some degree of the widespread mild and dry weather across the country, according to an AGC report.
At the state level, Arkansas ranked 26th in construction employment change in year-over-year data, showing an increase of 300 workers (47,300-47,600) from December 2010 to December 2011.
The national unemployment rate for construction workers was 17.7 percent in January, compared to 22.5 percent in January 2011.
In terms of being able to do work, Simonson said extreme conditions would be less of a problem for homebuilders than for workers at larger commercial or industrial projects.
But, he added, “if you’re putting up a high-rise, it may be uncomfortable for workers, but you aren’t going to stop at the 12th floor just because it’s snowing or [there are] freezing temperatures.”
Sean Morris, who partners with ARC Walker Construction Co. in Centerton to build and sell homes throughout Northwest Arkansas, said 2012 has gotten off to a great start, fueled to some extent by the cooperative weather pattern.
“I want to say the weather has helped move things along,” he said. “But I don’t know that it’s the one thing that is making houses move.”
Morris has between 30 and 40 home starts in various levels of development, up 50 percent from this time last year.
The activity is in five subdivisions — two each in Fayetteville and Bentonville and one in Rogers.
“Obviously, the weather has helped us be able to work on the construction end,” he said. “This is the best beginning of the year we have seen in four years.”
The mild winter has helped one roofing company play catch-up. Foster Roofing Co. in Springdale was bombarded with work after a severe hailstorm last spring.
“That gave us a lot of business and this weather has helped us get caught up,” said Jimmy Hall, a vice president who has been with the company eight years. “We were months backlogged all through the summer, but the mild weather did us a favor.
“Usually it snows and gets cold and we lose almost a whole month every winter, but we didn’t have that this year. We’re just now kind of catching our breath from the summer and the fall.”
Hall said the company did some additional hiring after the hailstorm. All of those employed are still in use due to the mild weather.
“We’ve been able to keep everybody busy,” he said. “We’ve got guys on 15 or so roofs right now.”
Dodd said the NWACC project has a target completion date of Nov. 1. Right now, with the absence of days lost to weather, he said completion of the project by October is probable — and likely under budget.
“I would think that the weather would help us finish ahead of schedule,” he said. “I don’t know that I would say well ahead of schedule, but one thing I can tell you is that we do have several activities on the project that are well ahead of schedule. You’d have to think that the milder weather has helped. It’s not allowed for many down days.”
Dodd also commented on the weather’s positive impact on another notable Nabholz project in Northwest Arkansas, the $96 million Fayetteville High School renovation.
“That project has a lot of concrete masonry work on it, work that’s typically shut down for a good portion of the cold, winter months,” he said. “That is a very temperature-sensitive activity and they have been able to work almost every day this winter.”
Melting Profit Margins
While the mild winter has been a boon for some, it’s not been good news for landscapers.
Terry Delany is the owner of Groundserv in Fayetteville, which provides a full complement of exterior property maintenance services to about 100 commercial clients in Northwest Arkansas.
The company has year-round contracts with each of them, which obligates Groundserv to supply a year’s worth of service no matter the weather.
“Everything is greening up a whole lot faster,” said Delany, who started the business as Southeast Landscape Management Co. in 1996. “We’ve already got weeds popping out that we’ll have to go back and spot-spray. It’s just not supposed to be doing this yet. We set an average of 28 mowings per year and when you get locked into a contract, you can’t go back and charge extra because of the weather.”
Delany said the company would not lose money; it just won’t be as profitable a year as others.
“It’s not going to make us go upside down, but yeah, it does cut into the profitability,” he said. “And that’s just part of the deal. In landscape maintenance, that’s the game you play.”
Part of Delany’s business also depends on the snow and slush. The company offers snow removal, which has obviously seen a sharp decline this year.
Snowfall totals in Fayetteville generally run about 6.5 inches each year. This year, there’s been less than an inch.
Delany says the company’s revenue from snow and ice removal this year — about $3,000 — is about 1 percent of last year’s total.
Of course, last year’s record snowfall was an anomaly, just as this year’s near-absence of the white stuff is.
“But we still do anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 in snow and ice [removal] in a regular year,” he said.
Delany employs about 35 in season (April through November) but keeps a core staff of 15 year-round. Keeping them busy this winter has been a benefit, he said.
The company generally does quite a bit of installation work during the winter and Delany said it’s been nice to get those projects started and finished without being interrupted by winter weather.
“The projects we’ve been doing have been more profitable because we can start and finish faster because there’s no stop sign,” he said. “We’re about to start the installation for the new [Adventure] Subaru dealership being built by the interstate. It’s ahead of schedule because they’ve been able to work in this weather.”