The year 2020 was a rollercoaster for everyone in the construction industry—but not all the lessons of the year were harsh. Many have found some positives that are likely to result in longer-term changes in 2021 and beyond.
Executive Director of the Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) James Cameron told JOBSITE ANZ there had been three main lessons from 2020 to take forwards into the new year.,
“Health and safety must always come first,” Cameron said. Secondly, businesses must be flexible and learn to adapt quickly. Also, the year showed “government and business can achieve great outcomes by working together.”
Health and Safety Beyond 2020
Maurice Hoban, GHD Regional Director in New Zealand and leader of the GHD Digital Asia Pacific business, noted in a blog post that the APAC industry was looking to integrate several COVID-19 response technology-enabled initiatives in the longer term.
These include the use of cameras or devices and associated software to detect and raise alerts about risks, oversee PPE use, monitor high-risk behaviours, and report on risk incidents. Tracking devices are useful both for onsite contact tracing and monitoring driver behaviour and enabling faster emergency response. A movement analytics tool can show how people move around to facilitate risk identification and safe site set up.
As part of Safe Work Month in November 2020, WorkSafe Victoria brought together experts from multiple sectors, including healthcare, insurance, WHS regulators, and the construction industry. Mental health was identified as an issue that has come to the forefront, and reducing its impact in the workplace must remain a priority.
The Real-Time Experiment
Engineers Australia held numerous roundtables in 2020 with CEOs of leading companies to explore the pandemic’s short-term impacts and potential long-term positives. A summary report of the roundtables – Business as Unusual – flagged some important legacies.
The rapid pivot to remote work and digitalisation was described as an “experiment in real time.” It tested the theory that remote work and virtual collaboration could be efficient, productive and sustainable. The report also noted that the “normalisation and embedding” of flexible working and shared childcare could lead to a future increase in women’s participation in engineering.
Other advantages included greater participation and engagement between CEOs and staff due to remote, online meetings. It also saw increased contribution by those who may not speak up in a face-to-face group meeting setting. Less travel meant more time for connecting while virtual processes made effective collaboration between design teams, government and unions more frequent and “frictionless.”
Engineers Australia also noted that many smaller Australian suppliers gained new opportunities as projects altered supply chains to reduce vulnerabilities associated with international shipping and international air freight.
Resilience is front of mind whether we’re talking about the digitalisation of the workplace or promoting natural disaster safety measures in construction.
In its annual International Construction Costs report entitled Rethinking Resilience, Arcadis noted that the Australian industry was placed in a “unique position” due to the twin impacts of the pandemic and nation-wide natural disasters. Together, they have “shifted our market position and strength,” the report stated.
It highlighted that resilience means companies should be looking to address the climate challenge.
“Decarbonization is an enormous undertaking, but as the global response to COVID-19 demonstrates, it is possible to take bold steps,” Andrew Beard, Global Head of Cost & Commercial Management – Arcadis, wrote.
“The impact of COVID-19 on public health is bringing a new understanding and awareness of the need to make our assets, cities and communities more resilient.”
At an individual building level, there’s the need to rethink how workplaces are designed to embed higher hygiene standards, according to a special report in AIRAH’s magazine, Ecolibrium. That includes catering for a continuation of flexible working arrangements to gain benefits including greater work-life balance and reduced transport congestion.
Ventilation of buildings is another essential issue, as pointed out by Bryon Price Strategic Development Director at A.G. Coombs. He believes there should be a greater emphasis on Indoor Environment Quality and its relationship to the quality of HVAC design, installation, commissioning and maintenance.
In its advice about COVID-19, AIRAH notes that the World Health Organisation recommends increasing air filtration as “high as possible” without compromising design airflow and avoiding recirculation of air within buildings. This requires systems that have high levels of outdoor air intake.
Collaboration and cooperation were essential to navigate the challenges of 2020. Master Builders Australia and the construction union, the CFMEU, worked together on two major aspects of the challenges—safety as well as economic stimulus to keep the industry afloat.
A joint media statement calling for government investment in social and affordable housing highlighted the role construction played in maintaining the economy during the pandemic and noted its ongoing importance for recovery.
“More than one million people are employed in the construction industry. It accounted for almost 10 per cent of Australia’s economic activity prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and as one of the few industries that has kept working, the importance of its ongoing sustainability to the economy cannot be overstated,” the statement says.
“Australia’s past offers powerful lessons on how to build our way out of the economic crisis. The post-Second World War housing construction boom in this country was driven by governments of the day realising the need for stable, affordable housing and being prepared to pay for it.”
“At the end of a year so clearly marked by the concept of distance, what I believe will stay with us most powerfully here at the Institute and across the profession is a greater connectedness than ever before,” Cambage said.