A Spring of Surprises

Contractors, suppliers, and growers ply the busy season amid the pandemic.

By Jared Brey

Unable to perform some site visits, landscape architects are relying on updates from contractors. Image courtesy OLIN.

For Joseph Marando, the shutdown notice came at just the wrong moment. It was early spring, and Marando, of Frank Marando Landscape Inc., in Queens, New York, was contracted for a planting job in a New York City park. He’d been expecting the job to be canceled, as so much construction was put on pause while the coronavirus outbreak seized New York. But when indications seemed good that it would move forward, he went ahead and asked the Virginia-based nursery he was working with to dig out the oaks, cherry trees, and serviceberries he had ordered. The shutdown notice came the next day, while the truck was en route, and Marando couldn’t very well ask the driver to turn around. So he took the trees, their roots in burlap, and heeled them in at his own holding yard in College Point. Whenever the project gets the green light, he’ll have to reload the plants onto a truck and take them to the site, ballooning the costs for freight and labor.

“But this is what we’re dealing with,” Marando says. “I have no other choice.”

Around the country, stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines arrived at the height of the spring construction season for landscape architects. But the implications for their projects, and for the supply chains they rely on, varied greatly by region.In New York City, 75 percent of park projects were deemed nonessential and put on pause, according to the Department of Parks & Recreation. But another quarter were allowed to continue, either because they were categorized as essential infrastructure or because they could be finished as quickly as they could be safely shut down. Either by mandate or choice, some suppliers closed in Pennsylvania, causing a last-minute scramble for materials in Atlanta. Landscape architects were forced to tag trees virtually and prevented from monitoring construction sites in person, raising anxieties about quality control. Permitting stalled. But in some cities, such as Chicago, designers reported that construction was moving faster than usual. Some reported jobs coming in under budget as contractors lowered prices. And as of the end of April, says Charlie Hall, an economist in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University, the construction sector in Texas was “blowin’ and goin’.”

There’s no question that the medium-term indications for design and construction industries are grim. In March, architects saw the steepest-ever declines for design services based on the number of new project inquiries and new design contracts, particularly in the Northeast, according to the American Institute of Architects. The Associated Builders and Contractors Construction Confidence Index also recorded historic drops in April. Those declines portend a larger slowdown in the industries where landscape architects dwell. The longer-term economic trends are undetermined. And in the short haul, many firms reported that the majority of their projects were proceeding more or less on schedule, with some hiccups for social distancing guidelines and few disruptions in the material supply chains.

Andrew Lavallee, FASLA, a partner at SiteWorks LLC in New York, says that on the design side of the business, a handful of clients had stopped jobs because of uncertainty about the economy. But design work for funded jobs was pushing ahead even faster than normal. And even in New York, where much construction was stopped, clients were eager to get approvals in place by the time it’s allowed to proceed again, Lavallee says. At Site Design Group Ltd. in Chicago, managing principal Bradley McCauley, ASLA, reported that 12 or 13 projects were on hold—around 8 percent of the firm’s total workload at the moment and 3 percent of its projected revenue for the year. But partly because of more favorable construction pricing, the firm also picked up half a dozen new projects over the same period, McCauley says.

“I have seen clients, whether it’s private or public, just doing a general flinch,” McCauley told me in late April. “But at the same time, we’ve had two projects start construction—they just broke ground two weeks ago—and they’re actually flying through the construction because there’s less traffic downtown, there’s no worry about having to find parking, and it’s easier to get here.”

Work was shut down at most New York City parks projects, but construction continued at Pier 26 at Hudson River Park in Manhattan, designed by OLIN. Image courtesy OLIN.

The monitoring of sites presented new challenges. Contractors were moving ahead with construction of Pier 26 at Hudson River Park in Manhattan and sending photographs of the progress back to the designers at OLIN. It was no replacement for a site visit, says Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, the CEO and a partner at OLIN.

“The dilemma, just to speak quite frankly, is what contractor would ever photograph an inadequate situation?” Sanders says. “We’re unique because our work is all out of doors, so construction can proceed, but we do have that dilemma of the contractor picking and choosing what to send.”

Selecting trees remotely was challenging as well, Sanders says. It’s hard enough to spot the presence of certain insect pests in person and “almost impossible via photograph.” Tom Amoroso, ASLA, the managing principal at Andropogon in Philadelphia, says that where designers could tag trees by hand, they had to use their own vehicles to explore fields, rather than riding along with workers at the nurseries as they usually would, which required a whole new set of negotiations about what vehicles were allowed on sites. Designers also had to give up control over where tagged plants were placed on their sites, and on the orientation of the individual trees to the rest of the space.

“There’s quite a bit of customization, of really understanding what the plant material is and the circumstances of the site,” says José Almiñana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon. “All of that is going out the window right now in a very short period of time, so it’s a big learning curve.”

In one case, Amoroso says, supply disruptions had challenging design implications. At a large school project in Atlanta that needs to be complete by summer’s end, the firm had specified pavers from a Pennsylvania supplier that was temporarily shut down at the end of March and throughout April. The contractors found new pavers from a local supplier, but the workflow became “very much the tail wagging the dog,” forcing the site design to match up to the material, rather than the other way around.

The Whitacre Greer brick plant in Alliance, Ohio, was shut down toward the end of March. Image courtesy William Sundquist.

Pine Hall Brick shut down one of its plants in Fairmount, Georgia, because of the number of workers who stayed home over fears of infection, says the company’s vice president and chief operating officer, Walt Steele. But it kept three other plants running. Whitacre Greer, a brickmaker in Alliance, Ohio, shut down its whole operation toward the end of March. It was a hard call to make, because sales had been trending up for the year, says William Sundquist, a regional sales manager. It’s best for production to keep the kilns running at a consistent temperature. But whenever the shutdown ends, Sundquist says, the company could start shipping immediately, though it would take about a week to fire up the kiln and start filling new orders.

“You might as well just say it’s a 10-month revenue year,” he says.

Landscape Forms, a site furnishing company based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, sent a few shipments that couldn’t be delivered by the time they arrived at sites in Boston and New York, says the company’s CEO, Margie Simmons. The company was seeing demand stronger than that of the previous year until the middle of April, and new contracts began to decline at the end of the month, she says. But acquiring raw materials hadn’t been much of a challenge. Iron Age Designs, which makes grates for trees, trenches, and catch basins in Burien, Washington, had to make a few workflow adjustments to comply with social distancing, says the company’s president, Mark Armstrong. Demand was down from projects based around big gatherings, such as stadiums and amusement parks, but production hadn’t been substantially disrupted.

Landscape architects had to cede some control over tree tagging and plant placement during the crisis. Image courtesy Andropogon Associates.

“All I want to do is keep the wheels on, and I think that’s the way everybody feels,” Armstrong says. “It’s not the time to be jacking prices up, and I feel like that’s kind of the case up and down the supply chain. Everybody just wants to be able to go to work the next day for now.”

Simmons and Armstrong both acknowledged that their industry is a lagging indicator of the broader construction and development economy. During the last recession, Landscape Forms saw a substantial revenue drop in 2009, but largely recovered in 2010, Simmons says. Iron Age was founded in 2005 and still small when the recession hit, yet managed to grow throughout the whole downturn, Armstrong says. There’s no telling what any coming downturn would mean, but so far, “the biggest disruption has been working from home, and it’s not that big of one.”

For suppliers of plants, in the short term, says Charlie Hall, the Texas A&M economist, there will probably be more shakeout in the growing industry. The total number of growers is still down 16 percent from where it was going into the last recession, he says, though much of that productive capacity was consolidated rather than lost altogether. The sudden drop in demand and loss of growers caused a shortage of midsized plants years later (see “Sold Out,” LAM, June 2013).

“You can’t just flip the switch on overnight, particularly for tree growers,” Hall says. “They took it on the chin because they had to sell trees at a dramatically reduced price during the Great Recession. Those growers that had the fire sale first got the cash, and the others just had to eat it.”

Nancy Buley, Honorary ASLA, the communications director at J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., a wholesale tree grower in Boring, Oregon, says the stay-at-home orders started during the company’s peak shipping week, when it sends out more than a million trees. There were some delays, but “surprisingly few order cancellations.” The growers that the company sells to mostly wanted their products sooner, knowing that missing a planting season would create a production gap down the line, Buley says. Some nurseries were likely to lose trees that were already dug out and ready to ship if they didn’t have space to store them, she says.

The total number of plant growers has shrunk since the last recession. But wholesalers know they have to think long term. Image courtesy J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.

“If the economy doesn’t pick up this fall or into the spring, you’ll see lower prices on finished trees in the smaller sizes,” the 1.5- to 2.5-inch-caliper trees, Buley says. “An upside for buyers: Over the next few years, landscape architects will enjoy better availability of larger caliper trees [three to four inches]. Growers who have the space and the financial footing to keep their trees in the fields for another two or three years will do so, rather than sell their two- to three-inch-caliper trees in a soft market. That is a likely outcome of today’s extreme slowdown of the economy.”

But more so than many other businesses, tree growers have to think beyond short-term economic cycles, because their products take so long to mature. “We are all doing our best to keep calm and plant trees,” Buley says.

Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia. Reach him at jaredbrey@gmail.com.

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