PHOTO: Shonagh Rae

When the South braced for the recent historic winter storms in February, not many expected the mere inch of snow to turn into slick ice, shutting down cities like Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala. for days and creating mass traffic jams up and down the interstate.

It was a state of emergency, so much so that some employees from the Birmingham-based construction firm Brasfield & Gorrie were forced to camp out in their offices overnight given the state of the roads. But that was the least of their worries—even though its construction schedule throughout the area was filled with contingencies, the company still had a standstill in development.

“There are a lot of things going into a schedule based on historical information, with a certain number of weather days [allotted] per month,” says Roddy McCrory, Brasfield and Gorrie's regional vice president and division manager.

The winter storms weren’t anticipated, and were so severe that construction was nearly paralyzed for days.

“Projects with interior work on the critical path were not affected as severely,” he adds. “But [we] still dealt with logistical challenges, such as getting workers to the site, and slowed production due to the weather conditions.”

Brasfield & Gorrie plans on recouping those days lost by condensing schedules, and adding some overtime and Saturday work days to the blueprint. Still, because of their general anticipation of bad weather, they were able to keep things on schedule, long-term. And with special employee training and preparing job sites in the event of high winds, they ensured the safety of their workers and surrounding areas.

“Understand that your production level is going to be a lot slower than normal because of the conditions,” McCrory says. “And that’s assuming they can work.”

Labor is seemingly the easy fix—construction workers and schedules can be adapted to weather conditions. But issues such as dealing with freezing concrete and strengthening building frames to withstand high winds may become more important to developers in historically warmer climates that were caught off-guard this winter.

It helps that Brasfield & Gorrie does some work up north, so they weren’t completely unprepared for the bad weather. It has plenty of experience dealing with frozen work sites: After working on the Eastern Maine Medical center last year, the construction team had to use ground heaters and insulated blankets to thaw the ground prior to pouring concrete. Thankfully, the most recent storm wasn’t cold enough to freeze Brasfield & Gorrie job sites in the Southeast region.

“It certainly makes us aware,” McCrory says. “When you go through a period of time where you’ve had relatively mild winters for six or eight years, you kind of forget about what might happen if you have bad weather.”

Northern Cues
With the weather as enigmatic as it is, Mark Humphreys, CEO at Humphreys and Partners Architects, has no clear expectations for future southern winters and how it might affect design and construction.

“You never think a 100-year event is going to happen, but then it happens,” he says. “The weather seems to be very erratic.”

The Dallas-based firm experienced some local record-breaking low temperatures of 22 degrees this winter, despite the fact that temperatures have been rising for at least 20 years. Design-wise, there’s not much that the firm is doing to anticipate colder winters, but Humphreys has made note of potential lessons to be learned from this year.

One issue is making sure the roof load of a building is capable of handling heavy snow and ice. In some regions, the roofs are periodically cleared to prevent too much load. But during blizzards when no one can continuously clear the area, the snow and ice buildup can threaten passing pedestrians or cars.

“You want to shed snow and ice away from walkways,” he says. Some northern states use snow dams, although it would be unusual to bring something like that down South given the history of mild winters, he adds.

It’s smarter to design buildings up front so the water runoff isn’t near pedestrians. It also might be worth investing in more power generators and placing them in secure, elevated spots in buildings to combat power surges. And designers may want to rethink where they place plumbing: To prevent bursting pipes, it might help to relocate them away from external walls, similar to Northern construction styles, to prevent freezing.

“Down south you don’t really consider that,” Humphreys says. “But that might be a consideration going forward.”

-Linsey Isaacs is an assistant editor with Multifamily Executive magazine. Follow her on twitter @LinseyI  to continue this conversation.