By Ted McIntyre
“I remember one winter where we had a very tight schedule at a subdivision we were working at in Rockwood,” recalls Aldo Folino of Dorval Electric in Oakville. “It must have been -20C that day. You could see your breath when you talked, and ice formed in your nostrils every time you breathed through your nose. I had to run up and down the flight of stairs just to get my blood flowing. When nailing on the device boxes, my gloves would stick to the metal, and when I tried to strip the outer insulation of the wire it would chip like wood.”
It’s quite literally the cold, hard truth for tradesfolk contracted by Ontario’s new-home builders: Come winter, life tends to get a little more complicated, and a lot slower.
“A basic electrical rough-in of a standard-sized house will take one electrician and one apprentice approximately eight to 10 hours in the warmer months, but anywhere from 12-16 hours in the dead of winter,” says Folino. “It is very difficult to work with so many layers of clothing on. We try to wear thin knit gloves so that we can operate hand tools, but unfortunately they don’t do much to combat the the cold.”
“It probably takes 30% longer in terms of physical days,” says Pietro Bellai of Ottawa’s Bellai Brothers Construction, which forms, places and finishes concrete for high-rise and low-rise clients, including Minto, Claridge Homes, Tamarack, Ashcroft and Broccolini, to name a few. “From November to April, we typically lose one working day a week to weather-related issues. We charge a premium for a job because of extra time required, but sometimes we think it’s not enough. It’s even tough on heavy equipment—things move a lot slower before oils heat up and hydraulic leaks occur. And stone is frozen at the mining pits and you get clumps coming off your stone slinger—especially after a snowfall, where you’ll get snow and clumps of ice in the mix.”
“The job changes drastically come winter—especially preparation,” echoes Perry Fraser, owner and president of
P. Fraser Construction Ltd.,
who has been framing homes for 20 years. “Winter framing can take 20%-25% longer. On a normal single-family house, what would usually take 8-10 working days in the summer becomes 10-13 in the winter.
“There are a lot of days where we have to remove snow and ice until almost 11 a.m. before we can start cutting and nailing,” says Fraser, who now frames exclusively for Marz Homes. “We try to keep everything tarped if we know weather is coming, but a lot of times you have to take a sledgehammer to a big sheet of ice to get the wood apart. And, of course, the wood is harder to nail. You try to clean the snow off the tools as much as you can, but it really does wreck tools a lot quicker. Then the nail gun stops working. And we have to start using antifreeze in the lines of the pressure hoses.
“Your physical movement slows down, and there’s not much you can do about it,” Fraser continues. “You go from wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the summer to wearing five layers, including a hard outer shell and gloves, which slows down your ability to mark stuff and pull nails out.
“I don’t think the average customer appreciates the inefficiencies of winter work,” says Paul Machado, president and V.P. of Operations at NHC Roofing and Exteriors in Chat-ham. “Equipment runs less efficiently. Air compressors and nailers freeze up. But the human body also starts to shut down and you’re often focused on keeping yourself warm.”
Absenteeism also increases—both due to illness and hazardous road conditions, which further hampers the process. “There are also the unseen dangers associated with snow and ice,” says Fraser. “You don’t know what’s underneath. Just walking can be a hazard, with ruts left from machines and other stuff. You can suddenly drop down a few inches and twist a knee or ankle dropping as you’re walking along. Or you can slip. It takes so little to hurt yourself in the winter.”
But while it’s hard to beat Mother Nature, it’s impossible to fight the earth’s rotation, notes Fraser. “In winter, the problem is also daylight time. In summer, if you need to work a couple extra hours to finish a house, the sun shines until 9 p.m. In winter we finish at 4:30 in January. Sometimes my employees don’t understand why I’m pushing a little harder come spring and summer. I have to explain that they’re making their hourly wage over the course of the entire year. Our production goes down in the winter, and my profit drops significantly.”
No builder better appreciates the glacial pace that can be produced by a glacial climate than Starward Homes’ president Brandon Campbell. “I had a terrible experience building my own house in the winter,” Campbell relates. “My framer finished the first week of January of 2014, just as a large ice storm hit our area. My roofing contractor was shingling my house for over six weeks, a job that would have normally been done in one. I felt so bad for them trying to work under those conditions. I lost four months of construction due to frost heave that temporarily lifted some of the structure of my house. I couldn’t pour the basement or main floors to encase the radiant floors, and couldn’t do much else until that got done. I had heaters running in my house constantly, just trying to keep it from freezing any more than it already had, but there was no way to bring it up to temperature until Mother Nature cooperated in May. Of course, all of our homeowners’ houses were also behind schedule, and I had to send my trade partners to those houses first before worrying about mine, so I really lost six months of construction before I got back on track.”
And the Toughest winter trade is…
While every trade has its challenges, the most problematic has traditionally been those dealing with concrete, as embattled workers attempt to pour and cure it before it freezes. But technology has at least come to the aid of that industry in recent years. Although they include a surcharge, superplasticizers (also known as high-range water reducers) provide a flowability to concrete and have given trades an additional 45 minutes to an hour to manoeuvre. There’s also self-consolidating concrete, which can be poured in one corner and, like soup, will flow evenly all the way around up to eight feet.
“The new ready-mix products with their additives have helped us out a lot, including mixes where you can pour up to -15C without heating enclosures. It’s one of the reasons we keep pouring in the winter,” says Bellai. “We’ve known about these products for 10-15 years, but I still talk to developers and general contractors all the time who have not yet been exposed to them.”
As for old technology, Doug Harkness, the general manager of Orangeville Precast Concrete Ltd., helps the masonry contractors it deals with by keeping sand stored indoors. “And we try to load trucks the night before and put them inside too so that materials are at least warm and dry to start the day.”
But who’s really got it the toughest? While Campbell doesn’t envy any winter trade, his pick would be roofers. “There is a lot of added risk to slipping on a plywood roof when there is ice on it, and it’s not easy to clear a high-pitched roof of all its ice and snow. And there is also nowhere to hide from the wind. I don’t envy those guys in the dead of winter, or even the dead of summer, for that matter.”
“The job is inherently dangerous to begin with, since you’re always working at least 10 feet above the ground,” says Machado. “There are jobs where we’re shovelling two or three feet of snow before we can start tearing off shingles. And beneath that you’ve typically got a half-inch of ice on top of the shingles, so we use a torch to melt the ice. And the shingles are frozen and more rigid, so they’re tougher to cut during an installation, meaning potential knife hazards since the guys are straining to cut shingles at -2C that they could almost tear with their hands at 25C. And because shingles are more brittle and less absorbent from a compression standpoint, the nail can blow right through it, so we have to dial back the nail guns. But we also add an extra nail; in the summer we have five nails per shingle, but six starting in late October to ensure retention to the roof deck prior to the shingle sealing. So changing that routine also slows things down.”
“Thankfully there have been no serious accidents to date,” Machado says. “Ironically, there are more summer mishaps, with guys cutting themselves or putting nails into knees or a foot. There can be a complacency in the summer, whereas I think in the winter the subconscious kicks in and says, ‘This isn’t safe to begin with, so now we need to take even more precautions.’”
While there is no complacency in the winter, there is a greater likelihood for worker errors, contend two tradesmen, under the condition of anonymity. “Inspectors can’t do every electrical connection in a home in the summer,” observes a Mississauga electrician. “But with all the stops and starts of winter, and different crews working at different times on the same housing project, those inconsistencies can increase, so inspectors I know must be really vigilant.”
“The danger factor increases, the conditions are more difficult and there is inevitably a higher percentage of errors, although we try to correct those errors as the job goes along,” adds a Niagara-area roofer.
One casualty of winter is unavoidable, Machado notes: lost items. “If roofers drop something, it either slips down into the trough, or onto the yard. And if the yard is covered in snow, it’s hard to find that tool—especially if it’s not retrieved right away. We had a customer who we’d worked for in late fall and early winter call us in the spring and say, ‘I found one of your pry bars.’”
Time is money
Winter expenses add up quickly for builders, notes Campbell, from renting heaters to premiums paid to masons for enclosing their work area in tarps to prevent mortar from freezing. “One of the biggest hidden costs is all the extra labour to continually move large cylinders of propane around the sites, cover exposed concrete and footings with straw or insulated blankets and keep access to all work areas clear of snow and ice for safety,” says Campbell. “In fact, we are not only responsible for clearing access to our homes under construction, but sometimes clearing municipal roads so that our new homeowners can access their houses, even though those homeowners are paying taxes.”
While condominium builders haven’t got the luxury of waiting out winters, given multi-year projects, home builders have decisions to make, says Campbell. “The hardest thing about winter construction is trying to guess what kind of winter it’s going to be four months beforehand. Every fall, builders are faced with the option to stop pouring foundations, ensure all houses are bundled up before winter and virtually stop production—at least the construction that is exposed to the elements. Builders that did that for the last two winters looked pretty smart, as those were some of the toughest in the past decade. The alternative is to keep putting basements in throughout the fall and sometimes even into January, which keeps everyone busy and helps create even-flow scheduling. And it’s often much easier to keep good trades on your site when you’ve kept them busy all winter, rather than competing with everyone else to get good trades in the busy spring market.”
Still, after absorbing the wrath of Old Man Winter in recent years, Starward learned some lessons, says Campbell. “We definitely planned less outdoor construction this winter—partly by design and partly because we are in between projects with serviced lots. But we made sure we were focused on the basics—things like having the ground around our houses cleaned up and sloped away from the houses in a better pre-grade to prevent water from ponding beside the foundations or building materials from being frozen in the ground.”
It’s not quite a case of frozen assets. The winter home building market will continue to evolve—even the ability of contractors to access up-to-the-minute weather information has marked a step forward in dealing with less-than-ideal conditions more efficiently.
How can things be further improved to facilitate winter construction? Organization, says Machado. “It’s a common theme in new-home construction—not being able to complete your job because another trade hasn’t completed theirs yet. But it’s way worse in the winter. The more builders can coordinate with their trades once the weather turns cold, the better.”
And bring a shovel.