By any measure, 2020 was a year for the construction industry like no other. According to Deloitte, the year started off strong, with construction adding over $900 billion to the US economy in Q1 2020 alone, its highest level since the 2008 Great Recession. Then, the pandemic hit.
The industry shed over a million jobs between February and April, of which 600,000 returned in the summer. Deloitte estimates the industry lost nearly $61 billion in GDP because of Covid-19 impacts and saw its ranks reduced from 7.64 million workers to approximately 6.5 million. Taken together, this represents the erasure of two years of GDP gains and four years of job gains, according to Deloitte.
Fortunately, with the lessons of the 2008 Great Recession still fresh in the minds of many industry professionals, the damage to construction firms may have been somewhat contained. Other segments, such as hospitality, retail, and air travel, have been faring much worse. Many companies who had made investments in new technologies before the pandemic were also able to quickly see the value. Others have begun technology initiatives that may not have been on the radar before the crisis, and the adoption rate of numerous technologies has grown faster than usual.
“Employers can no longer conduct business the same way as they did in the past. Especially now, they need to be flexible and in many instances, creative, as they think of new ways to perform certain tasks that they have performed in the same way for many years in the past,” Michael Rubin, chair of Goldberg Segalla’s national OSHA and Worksite Safety practice group told Construction Dive.
The pandemic changed everything, and in construction, it will have a lasting effect on its relationship with technology.
Digital Collaboration and Remote Work Technologies
Due to new restrictions on meeting sizes and the number of personnel allowed on a job site at the same time, companies had no choice but to adapt to ensure continuity of work. This involved incorporating video conferencing software and tools into workflows to ensure key players could remotely monitor the progress of multiple projects.
Digital collaboration tools like Building Information Modeling (BIM) and 4D and 5D simulations have also gotten a big boost during the pandemic. This way, project principals could remain in sync and ensure any midstream project changes were handled appropriately and in a timely manner.
Support staff, such as back-office employees and billing and accounting departments, are better able to do their jobs from home. That’s a good thing, though. A Future Forum by Slack research, published by Fortune, showed nearly one-third of U.S. knowledge and skilled office workers don’t ever wish to return to the office. Underpinning these methods intended to keep workers safe while ensuring work continues apace is technology.
“What I am excited about is technology as an enabler. It has enabled us to collaborate and innovate with our people internally and also with our customers. We happen to be a slow-adopting sector of new technologies, and I think that COVID-19 is going to help accelerate that,” Chris Griffin, CEO of USG Corporation told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a recent study.
Offsite and Modular Construction
Restrictions on the capacity of job sites are also creating an opportunity for offsite construction. This streamlined, assembly line-like process allows to create entire sections of buildings in an offsite facility and later transport them to the project site to be put in place. Building under these conditions requires fewer workers than conventional construction methods is often faster and more cost effective.
“It reduces the amount of time you’re in the field, and keeping the labor force in a controlled environment is good from a health standpoint, too,” Joseph Natarelli, National Construction Leader for Marcum LLP, told Construction Dive. “So maybe now you have a job that went from six months to nine months and maybe this can shave that to eight months while you’re also promoting social distancing, too.”
Increased reliance on offsite construction will also help companies continue to work at peak efficiency in spite of the persisting skilled labor shortage, which will remain a concern even when the pandemic is in our rear-view.
Shifting Priorities in Hospital Construction
As of this writing, Covid-19 continues to push many hospitals and health centers to maximum capacity, forcing many to reconfigure their layouts to accommodate for the influx of highly infectious patients. This has caused these organizations to rethink hospital design, which the construction industry will have a major role in bringing to fruition.
Infrastructure upgrades, such as new HVAC systems that are capable of killing airborne virus particles, are likely to be among the most immediate changes. Arranging hospital units to properly isolate potentially infected patients from the main parts of the facility is likely to be another priority, as many patients deferred routine or elective surgical procedures during the pandemic out of fear of contracting Covid-19 at a hospital.
“Building new HVAC systems and improving the medical gas infrastructure may not have a significant return on investment at first blush, but will be factors patients start to measure when deciding where to have treatments done. It will likely become the norm for a patient to ask about the surgeon as well as HVAC systems, and maybe not in that order,” Richard Simone, CEO and President of Central Consulting & Contracting, wrote in HC+O News.
The pandemic may also help popularize the modularization of hospitals. Thus, hospitals would have more flexibility in how different sections are arranged in an emergency. These solutions include movable walls to create new temporary spaces to triage patients and set up additional beds.
“Emergency preparedness, surge planning, and implementation of new regulatory requirements will impact all healthcare facilities,” Hamilton Espinosa, a national healthcare leader for DPR Construction recently said in the company blog. “Collaborative design and construction solutions are more important than ever, and this will require collective action by our industry.”
Construction’s New Normal
With vaccines already being administered, there are hopes that we may be approaching the end of the pandemic. Even so, a crisis of this magnitude will have ripple effects, the extent of which we may not know for years to come. From a construction standpoint, the pandemic has forced an industry-wide reexamination of processes and methods, including technology’s role in the industry post-Covid.