Q&A with Michael Haber, Managing Partner of W&W Glass: Building One Vanderbilt During a Pandemic

Continuing a series of articles about the performance of Institute contributing employers under pandemic conditions, Metals in Construction speaks with W&W Glass LLC managing partner Michael Haber. W&W Projects are often categorized as essential construction, but while the One Vanderbilt project discussed here didn’t strictly meet State Covid-19 guidelines for this designation, the Governor recognized that maintaining progress on the project and its rapid transit components was important to the vitality of the city. After gaining perspective on the pandemic’s impact on field operations and training, we knew it was important to learn how the pandemic was affecting pre-construction activities as well. Needless to say, both quality of work—and safety of the workforce—have characterized W&W’s performance over the past months. 

Setting the corner lite of One Vanderbilt

What were the biggest challenges of working on One Vanderbilt during the pandemic and how did you overcome them?

There were two: There were the outside forces which we couldn’t control which were the constant Covid positives from other trades on the contract. That was a very difficult situation to work around because you never knew what was going to happen on a day-to-day-basis. That was totally outside of our control. The second thing that we still couldn’t control that was closer to home was positive tests in our own forces. We were very lucky that we only had one or two Covid cases during the whole time working on One Vanderbilt. Our workers were very conscientious. One thing we’ve noticed is that a lot of the positives do not come from the job sites, they’re brought to the job sites from outside gatherings. We’re not seeing a tremendous amount of person-to-person transmission on site. 

How were work activities analyzed to reduce job hazards for workers? What controls are implemented to prevent or reduce risk of Covid-19 exposure?

At One Vanderbilt the main thing we had to do was to make sure that if our ironworkers felt any symptoms at all the most basic rule was to stay home. A lot of our workers would work through a seasonal cold, but at this particular time we said with any symptoms at all you need to stay home, it starts with that. That, along with the temperature checks, was the first line of defense. After that we were very big on PPE: face masks and shields. 

Beyond the first step of catching people coming through the gate, were there other ways you looked at delaying or staggering work activity?

The good thing about One Vanderbilt is that we were working on the podium, or the bottom 100 feet of the building, so we didn’t have to contend with elevators and hoists and lifts, but for the most part we tried to keep our work crews small to minimize person-to-person transmission. . We worked in teams of two. When we had to set large glass where we had ten to twenty workers there, we had to make sure everyone was checked in the morning and everyone had PPE. Thank God we were in an outside environment—we are a little luckier than some of the other trades in that respect.

Did the podium’s structural glass pose extra difficulties because you needed more workers per panel to set it?

The very very large glass we had at the podium we lifted mechanically via a crane and a very large suction cup, so we didn’t need to employ any more workers. We tried to keep the crew size as manageable as possible.

Any unusual circumstances involved during problem-solving on projects during the pandemic?

The good thing for us was, once we got under control with reporting and temperature checks, it didn’t really affect us on the One Vanderbilt project. We were very lucky.  

Setting glass fins at the podium level of the building

Coordination of the work in the field offices depends on in-person communication. How did you accomplish this safely?

That is, and still remains, one of the biggest challenges. In our industry we’re used to sitting at a table, rolling up our sleeves, and working through problems. When you have a Zoom or a Webex or a GoToMeeting and everyone is trying to figure out if their mic is on or if they’re on mute—that was one of the biggest challenges. But that’s how we had to do business and to this day we’re still working that way. Besides the field foreman meetings when you’re actually on the site doing the work, every other meeting is being held virtually. Physical meetings are held to the minimum of people who actually need to be there.

Will you be adopting any new practices (derived from meeting challenges over the past several months) even when we return to a non-pandemic environment? 

I don’t think so. The only thing I would say is that if we’re able to do things virtually and eliminate some of the travel involved in projects, that may be one takeaway from this pandemic. But our industry is a hands-on business, we really need to be there.

When you say eliminate travel you mean to view samples or view testing sites?

Correct, not only testing sites but visits to all the manufacturers. One thing we’ve learned is we can do virtual factory tours. We used to fly to factories and have large gatherings there. Now, the tour is basically being done by one of the manufacturers’ representatives, who typically has an iPhone and we have a Zoom (or similar) meeting while that person is walking around with his phone live. We’re able to all ask questions and he’s able to narrate what’s being produced. The factory tours and inspection tours are done virtually this way. That’s one thing we might take out of this pandemic and institute more because it’s a viable solution.

Facade testing was a combination of in-person and virtual attendance. The testing facilities themselves are limiting the number of people we can actually have present at the tests. They are also limiting the number of people we can actually have present inside the testing chamber, so the tests were not done virtually but the amount of people who were able to witness a test was reduced. 

The interior view from One Vanderbilt’s lobby, from which the MetLife building and Grand Central Terminal are visible.

How does that affect your ability to evaluate testing results?

It doesn’t, because they didn’t limit the number of people we were able to have there to actually build and execute the facade at the test lab. They just want to limit the number of spectators— consultants, owners reps, and architects were limited to about one per group. 

Are the majority of mockups built domestically or internationally?

Our mockups are built all over but the majority for One Vanderbilt were done in York, PA. 

When we have foreign suppliers and we do the mockups in America, the foreign suppliers typically fly their technicians to the mockups in the States to make sure everything is done according to the program. Unfortunately during the pandemic we could not have the foreign reps at the testing lab so those were done virtually—but that was a difficult process. 

Did you find you were experiencing delays that made you have to use a different material or glazing type?

The only delays were caused by the same Covid issues in a foreign manufacturer’s facility that you would have had in a domestic facility: Having to have workers shutting down manufacturing facilities because of Covid reasons. They were sporadic. 

 Is there anything else you’d like to share about how you have accomplished projects during this challenging time?

I would like to emphasize the participation and the care that our workforce took to make sure they kept themselves safe and everyone around them safe. That was the key thing. Our union workers, Local 580 in particular, took extraordinary care to follow the proper procedures and that is what allowed us to make One Vanderbilt successful, even in a pandemic.