Updated 4/14/2020: On the evening of April 13, 2020, the City of Austin extended the Stay Home – Work Safe order until May 8. This updated order includes residential and commercial construction as critical infrastructure and essential business, meaning they can continue to operate under the extended order. The order does add a new exhibit defining requirements for construction, which includes regulation that workers must wear masks and maintain social distancing (as do all Austin residents when in public) and that shifts must be staggered for sites with more than 10 active workers. Read the full list of requirements in the Austin Business Journal’s article Extended stay-at-home order requires face coverings, other precautions at construction sites. This could mean some delays for larger projects with more than 10 people needed on site.

Updated 4/3/2020: On the afternoon of April 2, 2020, the City of Austin announced that it will not prohibit residential or commercial construction. The newly released Supplemental Guidance document, which supersedes previous city guidance documents from March 24 and March 30, says “all construction work permitted in the Governor’s March 31, 2020 Executive Order (No. GA-14) is permitted.”

Originally Published 4/2/2020: With business conditions changing rapidly in light of the current COVID-19 emergency, the world of commercial construction has been upended, leaving construction crews and tenants alike confused about where their projects stand and if they are allowed to proceed in various jurisdictions. This has been especially true in Austin, Texas.

As a leading project management firm in Austin, Texas, we have spent the last several weeks fielding questions from tenants about what all of this means for their interior build-out projects. While we don’t have all the answers – the situation is ever evolving – we wanted to take a moment to share what we know as of right now.

The situation is still in flux, but the answer to this question largely depends on where your project is located. Various Central Texas municipalities, counties and even the State of Texas have issued varying (and sometimes conflicting) orders. 

In this article we will address the following questions we’ve been hearing from our clients:

  • What does the City of Austin’s Stay Home – Work Safe Order say about construction?
  • Does the Governor of Texas’ Executive Order GA-14 affect construction policy in Austin, Texas?
  • How is construction affected in Austin’s surrounding counties?
  • What do these orders mean for my office build-out?

We will update this page as new information is available and as the situation evolves. 

 

What does the City of Austin’s Stay Home – Work Safe Order say about construction?

The situation in the City of Austin and Travis County is complicated and has been rapidly evolving since the original orders were issued on March 24, 2020. 

In the City of Austin’s Stay Home, Work Safe Order issued by Austin Mayor Steve Adler which went into effect at 11:59 p.m. on March 24, 2020, construction is not listed as an “essential business.” 

Essential businesses are exempt from the restrictions placed by the order, so long as they follow the employer and employee health-safety recommendation outlined in the exhibits issued alongside the order. Essential businesses as outlined by the City of Austin include services such as essential city services, health services providers, financial institutions, etc. 

In the follow-up guidance released later in the day on March 24, 2020, the City of Austin clarified that projects deemed as “Critical Infrastructure” would be allowed to continue, but all other commercial and residential construction would be prohibited under the order. 

Next, a supplemental guidance document was issued on March 30, 2020 outlining an administrative process to make determinations regarding construction projects under the order.

Read the full order and official guidance documents:

Needless to say, these orders and supplemental guidance documents left the construction industry in Austin, Texas with a lot of questions.

 

Does the Governor of Texas’ Executive Order GA-14 affect construction policy in Austin, Texas?

On March 31, 2020, the Office of the Governor of Texas issued a new Executive Order, GA-14, declaring the Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) definition for “essential services” serving critical infrastructure as the statewide definition for “essential services.” He declared that any local orders in conflict with this definition of “essential services” are thereby superseded and void.  

To the extent that any county or local jurisdiction has any rule that’s inconsistent with this executive order, it is overwritten in this executive order. To the extent, for example, that religious services are permitted as specified in this executive order, they cannot be denied by a local ordinance or local order….To the extent that it is not overwritten by this executive order, local jurisdictions do still have the flexibility to impose standards they may consider to be more strict.”

Governor Greg Abbott, at a March 31 press conference discussing the order. 

Of note from the CISA definition underneath “Commercial Facilities” are “workers who support the supply chain of building materials from production through application/installation, including cabinetry, fixtures, doors, cement, hardware, plumbing, electrical, heating/cooling, refrigeration, appliances, paint/coatings” and “workers distributing, servicing, repairing, installing residential and commercial HVAC systems, boilers, furnaces and other heating, cooling, refrigeration, and ventilation equipment.”  

This new definition of essential services has been interpreted to encompass all residential construction and many commercial construction projects so long as the project supports an essential business  as defined by this expanded definition provided by the State of Texas and CISA. 

Read more on this topic from Shelly Masters with Cokinos | Young in her article Critical Infrastructure Construction in Austin Allowed Under Governor Abbott’s Latest Order.

Many construction industry law firms and consulting groups have interpreted this to mean that commercial construction can now proceed, and that the City of Austin and Travis County would not have any grounds to prevent anyone from doing so.

The City of Austin announced on Wednesday, April 1 that it would issue official guidance after reviewing the governor’s order. 

It’s real clear the governor’s order opens up residential construction and maybe all of commercial. We’ll issue another guidance if not tonight, then tomorrow.”

Mayor Adler told the Austin American Statesman on Wednesday

If the City interprets the order in the same way as most industry legal professionals, it should mean that office interior build-outs will be allowed to continue in Austin, Texas as they are in all other major Texas cities. 

 

How is construction affected in Austin’s surrounding counties?

Travis County 

At the same time that the City of Austin issued the Stay Home – Work Safe Order, Travis County issued County Judge Order No. 2020-5: Relating the Declaration regarding COVID-19. This order closely mirrored that of the City of Austin in regards to construction. 

However, Travis County has not issued the same follow-up guidance. Construction policies in Travis County largely remain in a grey area. The determination that is made in the City of Austin will likely dictate how construction is handled across the county as a whole.

Williamson, Hays and Caldwell County Orders

Williamson, Hays and Caldwell Counties have also issued their own versions of shelter-in-place orders, but these continue to allow residential and commercial construction. These orders are more in-line with other major Texas cities, like Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, which specifically list construction as an “essential business.” 

As a result, construction has not, to date, been impeded for projects within these counties. 

Hays and Caldwell Counties shelter-in-place orders: 


Read More in the Austin Business Journal: Hays, Caldwell counties adopt shelter-in-place; Construction still widely permitted

 

What do these orders mean for my office build-out?

For projects in Williamson, Hays and Caldwell Counties, your projects should not be affected. 

For projects in Austin and Travis Counties, this answer is less clear. Many construction projects have recommenced under this new expanded definition of expanded services. To understand the intricacies of your specific project, we highly recommend reaching out to your project manager to assess your specific situation. 

We will update this article once this guidance has been issued. 

While construction may be allowed to continue, there are other factors such as inspections and permitting that may be complicated by this situation and affect your project timeline. The continuation of these services vary city-by-city, so we recommend checking with your project manager to understand the situation for your specific project. 

As of publishing, the City of Austin permit application and review process will remain in place and continue operations (albeit remotely and via digital submissions) per normal

Here at AQUILA Commercial, our project management team is in constant communication with our architect, consultant, GC, vendor, and administrative partners to learn more about what this means for our clients and their projects. 

Please let us know if you have questions specific to your company’s business or project that we can help answer or provide our guidance with regard to. We’re here and happy to pick up the phone or set up a Zoom meeting to talk.  

It is our sincere hope that you stay safe, stay well and support Austin’s community as you are able during this time.

Visit AQUILA's COVID-19 Austin Real Estate Resource Center


Miles Whitten | AQUILA Project Management

Miles T Whitten

Miles brings a strong mix of program management and product development experience to the project management team at AQUILA.

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