Hold Everything! How ‘Sheltering in Place’ is Remaking Project Delivery

by | April 21, 2020 6 Architecture, Ideas

Of all the changes that Shelter-in-Place orders have brought to our lives, I’m struck by what sounds have endured after emptying the city. With our cars parked at home, office buildings closed, and storefronts shuttered, it’s so quiet you can actually hear songbirds on San Francisco’s Market Street. 

And one air horn. 

Beginning on March 17, all non-essential businesses in the Bay Area were ordered closed, including construction sites, but somehow this air horn continues. That’s because the Bay Area’s Shelter-in-Place order expressly permits crews to push ahead on the construction of affordable housing.

And so the tower crane is still at work responding to the prompts of a good old-fashioned air horn — a call-and-response that goes on all day.

For SERA, the impacts have been uneven across our Portland and Oakland offices. Our clients currently span four states and many jurisdictions — each under varying Shelter-in-Place orders. But with increasing creativity, we are collaborating with consultants and contractors to serve our clients and advance projects safely. 

Our experience points to several positive outcomes from the tools and techniques that are proving useful as interim workarounds: 

1. Digital Permitting. For a project in permit review in Sunnyvale, Calif., one of our project teams was able to convince building officials to accept the city’s first-ever digital plancheck submission. This took some persistence, but all parties saw the value in keeping the review going even if it challenged established protocols.

2. Alternative Site Visits. There’s no substitute for walking a jobsite in person, but when travel is prohibited our teams have found creative ways to keep up with construction. A project team in Montana facilitated a site visit using a tablet computer and a walking Zoom meeting, while another made use of the contractor’s weekly photogrammetric scans of a tenant improvement to get a 360-degree view of the project. All of this was possible without having to enter the jobsite.

3. Staggered Workdays. Our contractor partners are looking at stretching jobsite hours and using staggered shift times in an effort to allow crews more space and distance to operate. This requires more oversight from the general contractor, but will provide a safer work environment for subcontractors that could be a pattern for reducing worksite hazards in the future.

4. Localized Supply Chains. Sourcing materials from across the country, or across the world, is more difficult than ever right now. We always prioritize regional product sources, but with even the most basic building materials out of reach, our project teams are looking harder than ever to find sources that don’t require interstate transport or don’t rely on components sourced from impacted areas.

When we get back to normal, not all of these workarounds will stick. But in a time when we’ve gotten much more comfortable with video conferencing, we’re also going to find value in the time savings and increased productivity that comes from these improvised, non-contact collaboration techniques. 


  1. Cristian Asher says |

    Nice post! As you say, none of us knows exactly what construction will look like in the future, but the new approaches you mention are positive steps, regardless. Let’s hope some of this sticks!

  2. Suzanne Blair says |

    Thanks Craig! It may have taken a global pandemic to make the final push, but seeing jurisdictions adapt to be able to provide permit comments will be an exceptionally valuable shift in our industry. Great job to the persuasive team and the flexible plans examiner…..fingers crossed that this leads to lasting change!

  3. Valerie Williams-Hurwitz says |

    It’s fascinating how agile and resilient we can be when presented with such unprecedented challenges. Well said, Craig!

  4. Elizabeth Bishop says |

    Those air horns really are loud, even before the lock down! Well written Craig.

  5. Martin Glastra van Loon says |

    Love the discrepancy between the digital tools used for virtual site visits and the good ol’ air horn. Didn’t even know that was a thing! Great piece Craig. Have you started on your Great Quarantine Novel yet? Perhaps you should.

  6. This is a nice post Craig. We are experiencing similar tools/challenges on our school projects in Oregon. Interesting times for sure!

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