When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, social distancing and remote working became essential, and the construction industry was forced to adapt to a new way of doing things. Project delays and work stoppages were among the first effects. AIA’s Architectural Billings Index, an indicator of building activity, dropped sharply in March and April 2020, reflecting an immediate reaction to the pandemic. That index has risen steadily since and, by July 2020, it had recovered half of the drop.
By the end of 2020, the report showed more promising metrics regarding the number of inquiries received for architectural services, and most construction firms are largely back to work but under very different circumstances.
For years, industry leaders have been discussing declining construction productivity and the need for the industry as a whole to move away from aged practices and toward more productive digital processes.
DIGITAL WORK ENVIRONMENTS
The COVID-19 era has forced everyone to up their communications game; in construction, that has translated to increased online collaboration and a more tightly connected office and field. The need to work from home and to social distance onsite has driven new practices that will outlast the pandemic. For example, construction inspectors are conducting their inspections remotely via webcams and video meetings, and beyond online collaboration, contact tracing is becoming the new norm in worker safety.
The digitization of working processes and the innovation of whole new, smarter processes are helping companies work effectively in this new environment. Construction leaders are thinking more strategically about digital initiatives in terms of onsite productivity; visibility into and increased reliability of supply chains; collaboration and coordination across the entire project team; as well as the delivery of an improved experience for their clients.
Companies can capitalize on new opportunities by integrating technology and using detail-rich data that allows them to bid with confidence and connect all stakeholders to improve productivity, quality, transparency, safety and sustainability. Constructible data and true collaboration will ensure every person, phase and process work together seamlessly—optimizing the entire plan, concept, build and operation lifecycle.
PRE-FAB AND MODULAR CONSTRUCTION
The rising popularity of prefabrication and modular construction predates the COVID-19 era, but the tenets of those offsite methods have become even more attractive now. The same factory work environment that offers indoor weather conditions, safer access to heights and heavy material handling systems can also offer tighter contact tracing in the plant and more than just social distance between crews, but completely isolate crews as they work offsite.
Dodge Data & Analytics published a SmartMarket Report in February 2020, showing that 62% of U.S. contractors would utilize some single-trade prefabrication methods this year, and that number will increase to 75% of U.S. contractors in 2023. Contractors today say they couldn’t accelerate the prefabrication trend in 2020 owing to design and planning lead times, but the case for prefabrication is now even stronger, and a higher percentage expect to use it in the next three years.
Leading contractors are focused on a digital strategy to manage the prefabrication supply chain, and they see the growing offsite workforce as one way to mitigate the industry’s labor shortage.
The construction industry is making strides, not just in adopting new technologies, but also in redefining its approach to projects and workflows by connecting distributed workers in the firm and across the entire project team. Innovations in project management, collaboration, access control, BIM-to-field and site monitoring are the result of established and proven integrations of construction data for enhanced confidence and better team performance.
This sea-change toward digital construction is not only the right thing during the age of COVID-19, but is also overdue as a means to improve construction productivity, quality and safety. The tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic injected a need into the industry’s calculus, and digital construction leaders are meeting that need head-on.
As COVID-19 has so aptly demonstrated, there’s no way of knowing all the challenges the future will bring, but technological advances will be instrumental in setting construction businesses on solid ground for improved long-term resilience and profitability. Companies that are able to act quickly in transforming their workflows and adapting their cultures to embrace change will be best poised for success, both in the short-term and for decades to come.