What has COVID Taught Us?

It’s been over a year since I last went to my favorite brewery for a beer with friends, over a year since the phrase “social distancing” entered the lexicon, and over a year since I started viewing N-95 masks as a precious commodity. Before the pandemic, I’d never heard of a Zoom meeting. Now, I’m a sophisticated enough Zoom user to turn off the video feed in long meetings to avoid the embarrassment of nodding off.

The pandemic has touched most of us personally. Two acquaintances and my favorite singer died of COVID-19. I know several other people who’ve survived.

And yet my life hasn’t really changed much. I do miss the firm handshake, the affirmation of work delivered by another calloused hand grasping mine, but COVID hasn’t cost me a day of work. I still go home every day to my wife and my dogs. It did cancel our family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, but I’m not sure whether that should go in the plus or the minus column.

Work practices

A lot of good practices have been reinforced by COVID. Every day, the first thing I do after opening up the job is to set up an exhaust fan in a window. It’s just a cheap, 20-in. box fan from Walmart mounted in a plywood frame I screw to the window frame. The negative pressure created by the fan prevents construction dust from infiltrating into the parts of the house we aren’t gutting. And increasing ventilation is one of the approaches the CDC recommends to minimize the spread of COVID.

In the same vein, we spent some money on a 500 CFM air scrubber. The prime justification was additional dust control, but the HEPA filter isn’t a bad thing from a disease control perspective either. Plus, having a big blue box running throughout the day lets the client know we take protecting their home seriously.

The jobs I’m working on now both are architect-driven. In years past, meetings would have been onsite, meaning that half a dozen people would drive hundreds of miles cumulatively for an hour’s worth of conversation. Now, I rarely see anyone without a toolbelt or a CDL show up on my sites. We get it done with conference calls, email, and Zoom. I can walk around the site with my cell phone and show everyone progress and problems.

Sick days

Growing up, I hardly ever saw my parents take sick days. When my dad retired from his county job, he had over a year of terminal leave saved up from those unused sick days. I’ve spent most of my life with the same mindset, in fact sneering at people who took sick time when they weren’t knocking on death’s door.

Now, if our apprentice or a subcontractor sniffles or sneezes I want them to go the hell home. Immediately. As to myself, well, I haven’t had so much as cold in the past year. Maybe there’s something to these new protocols for distancing, ventilating, mask-wearing, and waving rather than shaking hands.

Demographic changes

Here’s the big unknown. I live about 70 miles north of Manhattan. Some people in my town have always made that commute every day. The few times I did drive or take the train to the city on weekdays made me question not only my own sanity, but theirs as well. The amount of life, as well as resources, wasted in commuting boggles the mind.

While there have always been a few commuters with permanent residences in my town, far more common are weekend houses. About a third of the housing is owned by people who reside primarily in one of New York’s five boroughs. The place has always gotten busy on summer weekends. With the pandemic, Brooklyn and Manhattan are ghost towns. New York license plates are nearly as common here as Connecticut ones, although that’s changing as part-time residents become full-time.

Many of these folks have discovered they can work from home in a quiet, rural environment. Zoom meetings have replaced board meetings. The Internet now slows down here on weekdays because of demand, something that never happened in the ten years I worked from home.

What’s that mean from a green view?

It’s good in that the number of cars driving into city centers every day has decreased. It’s bad in that the allure of urban living, which many believe to be inherently greener, seems to be fading. And it’s bad in that I have to share trails in local forests that I once thought of as my own.

Good or bad, the change has brought on a building boom around me. Remodeling, almost always including a home office, is in huge demand. While it’s a piecemeal approach, I take every opportunity to green up the work. If I open a wall, it gets air-sealed and properly insulated before I close it up. When I talk to the clients, I sneak in lessons on building science to help them understand their house. And who knows? That may spur further work that further improves the performance of their home.

I think, from a green view, COVID hasn’t been a bad thing.


Andy Engel builds, remodels, writes, and rides his bike in the Litchfield Hills of northwest Connnecticut and beyond. Image courtesy of the author.

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