Adapting community engineering work to COVID construction challenges

It’s certainly a conundrum.

The COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted the importance of fundamental community infrastructure and made it increasingly difficult (if not downright dangerous) to construct and update that very infrastructure.

Avery Bang, A.M.ASCE, familiar to many ASCE members as one of the featured engineers in the film Dream Big: Engineering Our World, is navigating that COVID catch-22 in her work as president and CEO of international community engineering nonprofit Bridges to Prosperity.

During a recent ASCE Plot Points podcast episode, Bang discussed how B2P adapted to the COVID construction environment and continued to help rural communities around the world.

Read below or listen to the complete interview.

Civil Engineering Source: So how has COVID-19 changed your world?

Avery Bang: Where do I start? Like most people around the world, COVID has definitely been a doozy. … The Dream Big film followed us building a bridge in Haiti. That was a really good window into the life and world of Avery Bang for maybe a good decade leading into [the film]. Airplanes were a big part of my existence. Living and sleeping in tents and figuring out ingenious ways to build these rural footbridges was kind of my M.O.

And then all of a sudden, like a brick wall, flights stopped, construction stopped, the global economy made it increasingly challenging to be a nonprofit. Not to mention thinking about all the concerns that all of us have – that our families are safe and that our friends and colleagues continue to be healthy.

So it’s been an interesting run, but thankfully, Bridges to Prosperity has come out the other side, at least through this initial health crisis, and we’re able to continue construction. We’ve been able to lean very heavily on our corporate partners to help us through a very difficult time in this organization’s history, and we are back at work. … So it’s not all bad.

This is pretty regularly something that our industry and our professionals are uniquely skilled and equipped to react to. COVID is certainly one example, but I think our industry has always been able to lean into hard times and make the most of it. And I think our organization and our staff are no different.

Source: How have you been able to keep your processes safe?

Bang: Yeah, it’s a really important question to ask any leader in the construction industry right now. When you build a business on getting people – oftentimes in close proximity – to come together and coordinate and build something great, being asked to do physical distancing and to ensure their health and safety with different changes in PPE, it’s no small feat.

Alluding back to our partnerships, [it helped] being able to go to the likes of WSP and say, “Hey, how are you designing safe construction sites right now?” and talk to our friends and partners at Kiewit and say, “How are you building safely right now?”

We actually spent six weeks in a total build-freeze, building out new processes and protocols. …  We were really concerned about how we can make sure that these community members that we are trying so hard to provide with a better life, that we don’t inadvertently make it more complicated, or, worse yet, introduce COVID into their community. So we take this very seriously. …

Once you come into our construction zone through the yellow [caution] tape, you’ve been thermally scanned, you’ve been signed in, you’ve gone through COVID-safe practices every single day.

If we’re doing excavation, we used to have 15 people in there shoveling away; now we have three. … We’ve always had personal protective equipment, but now we have a whole supply chain making sure that once you’re in that construction site, you’re rotating out your own PPE at suggested times. …

Source: It’s interesting, because when you talk about it, it sounds like these are things that you’ve been planning for years and years. But I know this is an incredibly quick pivot. How have you been able to adapt so quickly?

Bang: Whew, I don’t know if it’s felt that quick. Time stands still. But I think the industry as a whole – as engineers, we are really the ones who are being asked to design and build the infrastructure for the other 99 percent of the population that are not in our field.

So I think there’s a long history of having to be agile and quick-moving, whether it’s folks working for the Army Corps coming in after a disaster, or engineers for FEMA or private-sector companies that are coming in and bidding work 24 hours after you have a flood event.

This is pretty regularly something that our industry and our professionals are uniquely skilled and equipped to react to. COVID is certainly one example, but I think our industry has always been able to lean into hard times and make the most of it. And I think our organization and our staff are no different.

Source: Is the pandemic fundamentally changing the way your organization is strategizing about what things to do or what things are needed in the communities you’re serving?

Bang: I think COVID is a pretty big – I don’t want to say mountain – but it’s a pretty big rock, bigger than a pebble, in our river. And I think the reality of it is that infrastructure is needed now more than ever.

Infrastructure development, as here in the States, will always play a key role in helping rural communities get back on their feet. Whether you’re thinking about how Eisenhower invested in the interstate system or even how the Romans invested heavily in both transport and water infrastructure, it’s really the backbone of economic development. It’s all the more necessary when you have rural and often impoverished communities that, frankly, lose the most during times of global crises. …

Again, we’re really fortunate that the industry has been so agile and adaptive, because a lot of our partners have pivoted quickly with us. Instead of saying, “Times are hard, we can’t afford to support charitable works,” they’re saying, “This is needed now more than ever.”

How they’re helping us now is less “boots on the ground” and more “How can you help us design a new simple-span structure? How can you improve our procurement process and protocol and our whole program behind international procurement and local logistics? How can you help us think more about inventory management?”

Having our partners pivot with us, we see that as being very beneficial, selfishly to us as a nonprofit, but also really deeply to the communities that are needing to be connected.

Listen to Avery Bang on the ASCE Plot Points podcast.

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