Building A Better Columbia

Building A Better Columbia
Commercial Construction And Design Pros Gather At The CEO Roundtable

These aren’t guys who think small. The men who attended the Winter 2014 CEO Roundtable represent major commercial construction and design firms in the Columbia area, and the projects they take on are transforming the aesthetic and economic landscape of the city.
The group sat down to a luncheon sponsored by The Callaway Bank and prepared by Chef Dennis Clay, executive chef of Inside Columbia’s Culinary Adventures. Gary Meyerpeter, Boone County market president for The Callaway Bank, welcomed the guests, then turned the discussion over to Inside Columbia’s CEO Publisher Fred Parry.
Parry started the conversation by asking the builders and architects to assess the current economic climate for their industry.
John States, co-owner of Little Dixie Construction, described his business as active. “We’re seeing a lot of work and we have a lot of bid activity coming in,” States said. “Fortunately for Little Dixie, we have work and our guys are busy.”
“Prior to 2008, probably everyone in this room would have bragged that Columbia was recession-proof,” said Brian Connell, president of Connell Architecture. But now, “I don’t think we’re bragging that we’re recession-proof. I think everyone here found a way to revisit their business model and survive. I think if we’re talking about where we are today in relation to the last five years, it’s fantastic. I think we’ve regained our composure. People are now starting to have the courage to come out and get started. We’ve seen a really good resurgence in the amount of work and the quality of work.”
Tony Grove of Grove Construction was optimistic. “We have plenty of work,” he said. “I hope it stays like this; we’ll see what this winter does. Material costs and such seem to be on the rise and we have some difficulty getting things right now, but I think that’s a sign that things are moving.”
Bill Oswald told the group that his company, Simon Oswald Architecture, stayed busy throughout the economic downturn. “The biggest driver is the University of Missouri,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I think a lot of us wouldn’t be in business today.”
“I have a feeling Columbia is on the cusp of really taking off with some things,” said Erik Miller, vice president of PW Architects. “The influx of students … is driving a lot of new student housing and that’s driving a lot of service industry. I think it’s going to continue to do so. Maybe it’s a new attitude with the SEC adjustment as well, but I feel really positive.”
One sector is lagging, according to Craig Simon of Simon Associates. “One of the areas we’ve depended upon heavily in the past is the industrial sector. I still see them as extremely cautious. They learned how to maintain their business at far reduced capacities or personnel. They’re not anxious to build back up and they’re going to do it very slowly.”

Make It Green
Parry broached the subject of building regulations in Columbia, and the roundtable participants were quick to comment on what has become a sore subject for them.
“We do a lot of zoning in a lot of different communities,” said Kurt Wallace of Wallace Architects. “Columbia is as difficult as it gets. And to get a property rezoned … one that almost didn’t happen was Landmark Hospital a few years ago, and in my opinion, there could be no more noncontroversial project than that. It has residents on oxygen and it employs a lot of people and yet it almost didn’t happen.”
“The zoning process is just arduous,” John Simon said.
“There are two aspects of regulation,” said Wayne Huebert, owner of Huebert Builders. “One is the processes and procedure of enforcing it, which is a whole conundrum of problems that we experience on the front end of projects. But the second thing — and the overriding issue — is that our communities, and it’s not just Columbia, are adopting a new code. The building codes started out as a safety mechanism; they were designed to make structures safe and inhabitable by people. We are now, with the adoption of the current code we have, starting to want to enforce energy requirements and things like that. They are bringing factors in that we either dealt with voluntarily or we chose to ignore. But it is changing everything and that isn’t just coming from Columbia because the IBC (International Building Code) master document is a national and, well, international group of documents.
“But we’ve never felt compelled to adopt 100 percent of the code. Is that correct?” Parry asked.
“Columbia has always had a review process and this time around, I think that the people that reviewed it made some recommendations and decisions,” Huebert said. “The City Council voted to not take either the majority of that into account or all of it into account.”
“So the building codes that were just approved by the council went into effect Oct. 1,” Parry said.
Miller said that while he understood the factors what went into the push for a stricter code, he didn’t believe the council and others involved understand the full impact of it. “What does it mean to the construction industry?” he asked. “What does it mean to you as a prospective client? Obviously, from a lifestyle perspective, the client is meant to benefit from this by using less energy. At the same time, the code makes buildings cost more in many instances.”
“We live in a community that is a college town and like a lot of college towns, we’re a forward-thinking type of community,” said Randy Coil of Coil Construction. “They are concerned about sustainability, urban sprawl, all sorts of things that are continuing to come up at the city council level. There are some segments in the city that are really anti-growth and anti-business almost and it makes it even more difficult for many of us that are trying to get through good, well-planned, even sustainable, storm-water efficient projects. There is a certain segment of folks who still think that’s a bad idea and to the point where we’re bad guys — contractors, builders, architects.”
John Simon added that even the best, most energy-efficient systems rely on the building’s users for their operation. “I can get 5 miles to the gallon with a Prius if I drive a certain way. Without the education to the owners of the building on how to operate it, most people don’t know how to operate a building efficiently.”
“People are getting greener buildings by default anyway,” Coil said. “Most of our materials that we buy today have already changed, whether it’s the insulation we use or the glass we buy or the paints that we use on the walls. People don’t realize that we’re using more and more environmentally green and friendly products all the time.”

Keep It Local
Parry pointed out a number of local projects that are using architects and contractors from Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield — and even other states. “Are you guys just too expensive? Why is that happening?”
“Because on bid day, there are 20 bidders,” States said. “And the guy that misses the boat on the bid is the guy that’s doing it.”
“With a lot of the development downtown, those major projects, the developer is doing his own project,” Craig Simon said. “They’re going out and finding the lowest prices they can to get the work done and in some cases, they can’t even find the resources to get it done in town.”
“Another side of that is that you get an owner who is going to come in and build a very expensive project — a $30 million-plus range — and he has to spend half a million dollars to get it in front of the City Council and then to get it to go through that whole ordeal,” States said. “He doesn’t care if he brings in his own people at that point. He’s spent a lot of money he shouldn’t be spending to get a project going vertical. He’s fighting to get five votes when it ought to be a slam-dunk in any other community. At that point, they don’t care. They’re ready to get the project going and they’re going to do what’s easy for them.”

Clean It Up
With all the talk about the obstacles standing in the way of construction in Columbia, it was a welcome departure when the topic of redevelopment came up. Parry brought up the recent change that exempts properties less than 1 acre in size from some of the stormwater regulations that had stifled small projects in Columbia.
“With regard to redevelopment, it actually got better,” Coil said. “It was ridiculous before and now it is more proportionate than it used to be with some of the additions of parking lots and things. But I think with regard to new construction, it’s basically the same. We’re in a community that is very concerned with one specific creek here.”
“I think sometimes we forget about where those ordinances came from,” Miller said. “It’s not as though they were written by these entities, but the requirement for it came from DNR and the EPA. The changes that have been made did benefit and frankly, the people that are judging the ordinance and reviewing plans have gotten more used to it, too. I think there’s been a level of compromise that’s been positive. I do know the impact that it has on the new construction, dealing with stormwater specifically when we look at any downtown development. It is an important factor that we have to consider but I think there’s been some good adjustments.”
The health of Hinkson Creek is improving, according to Coil. “There have been several studies on the creek,” he said. “The last one I heard was it is now one of the cleaner streams in an urban setting anywhere in the state of Missouri.”

Wait For It
Parry turned to Jeff Herigon of Hercon Construction with a question about the cost of building materials. “What do you see happening in terms of lumber? Structure steel?”
“Well, as demand goes up, prices have gone up,” Herigon said. “Lead time on materials have gone up.”
Several local projects have been hung up recently as they wait for the arrival of structural steel.
“So much of it is the backlog, the detailing, the shop drawings, and labor comes into effect,” Herigon said. “There seems to be a shortage of labor to produce these materials. Nobody keeps anything in stock to speak of anymore. Just because there is a lot of thought about growth everywhere across the county, not just in Columbia, that doesn’t mean that somebody’s going to jump out there and start stocking a big pile of steel to ship all over the country.”
The shortage doesn’t just occur with steel. Craig Simon pointed out that other building components seem to have higher demand than supply right now. “Take light fixtures, for example,” he said. “If you want a specific light fixture, you may have to wait until [the manufacturer] gets another order from somewhere in the country to make them.”
“And it used to be, too, that if someone changed their mind, a restock wasn’t a big deal,” Miller said. “You try to restock anything now, from what I understand, and you’re stuck with it.”
“I seem to be getting the idea that there’s something coming,” Grove said. “There’s this essence that there’s a great shortage coming. Everybody’s got some scare tactics out there — get it while you can.”

Plan For The Future
As members of the group offered their parting thoughts, the topic of workforce came up.
“I read a great article a few months ago about aging and individuals as far as labor goes,” Grove said. “Today, they’d rather sit behind a computer. The city is growing and the demand for construction is growing and I don’t mind saying that I think the workforce is shrinking. Twenty or 30 years ago, people would get out of high school and go to a trade school and learn how to do something with their hands. There’s a serious lack of that.”
“We have no effective trade construction technology program [in Columbia],” Huebert said. “You have to go somewhere, way out-state Missouri, to get something that they will even look at certifying for the construction process. It’s a very sad thing. The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations put out a paper two years ago that said the median age of a construction worker in Missouri is 47 years old — 47 is pretty old to be packing around lumber.”
As the builders and designers at the table prepare for a busy 2014, they have a lot on their minds, including an aging workforce, materials shortages, and outside competition, but Wallace concluded that government regulation is the biggest threat to the industry.
“I was at a conference this weekend,” Wallace said, “and an economist spoke who was very high on the economy, very high on construction and everything that is going on, but he said that the biggest impediment is that there is no land to develop and when you go to develop land, you can’t get it developed. It’s all those outside forces, whether it’s zoning or sustainability requirements, all the way up. I think that’s the biggest challenge that we have. We need a city that helps you develop rather than stifling that.”