No one can argue that the global COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy on many levels. From loss of life to long-term economic impact, this health crisis will be the source of bitter memories for years to come. However, it’s encouraging to recognize that some positive things have come out of our collective response to this difficult situation. Within the construction industry — historically notorious for being slow to change — COVID-19 has actually revealed an impressive level of resilience and adaptability under very challenging circumstances. Following are 10 positive trends we’re seeing in today’s construction industry that accelerated in response to the pandemic:
10 Positive Construction Trends to Come Out of COVID-19
1. Increased use of offsite prefabrication
Prefabrication and modularization have been increasing in popularity for many years because of the improved quality and efficiency they offer. But, the need for social distancing onsite and more controlled construction environments in 2020 led to a dramatic increase in our reliance on offsite construction options.
As noted by Brian Poage, a construction support manager, “CDC, OSHA, and social distancing requirements are preventing contractors from being able to throw manpower at a project, which is typically the solution if you fall behind schedule.” Naturally, increased use of prefabrication is a cost-effective means of making up lost time while maintaining safety standards.
These huge projects were all made in factories.
2. Using AI-based video analysis to keep jobsites safe
Those projects that were able to progress during the worst of the pandemic lockdowns had to figure out reliable means of maintaining strict safety standards under conditions few companies had ever considered. A relatively new technology — AI-powered automatic video surveillance — emerged as a surprisingly effective method for monitoring and enforcing these standards.
For example, Smartvid.io updated their image analysis software to identify whether workers were wearing face masks and gloves, and to monitor social distancing by measuring the distance between individuals and the size of groups on the jobsite. Based on tens of thousands of analyzed images, Josh Kanner, CEO of Smartvid.io, reports that jobsites in all regions of the U.S. “are at a pretty high level of COVID compliance and behavior.”
3. Using extended reality to help teams collaborate safely
Another example of an established trend that has accelerated dramatically in the past year is the use of mixed and augmented reality to allow socially-distanced or remote construction pros to work together more effectively.
Stefania Radopoulou, a product manager at Trimble, summed up the trend as follows: “With these extended reality solutions and a wifi connection in the field and back at the office, at home, or even a Starbucks, it is still possible to effectively collaborate, save time, and be productive on projects.”
4. Going paperless (finally?)
The concept of a paperless office has been thrown around for decades, although very few companies have actually accomplished that lofty goal. In the construction industry, the idea of a paperless project has been seen as even less attainable… until now.
Joe Polacek from design firm Stantec has seen a notable shift in possibilities since the pandemic hit: “As an urban planner, I’ve seen that drones, virtual reality, and online engagement have been increasingly part of project discussions over the last few years and have helped reduce use and waste of paper. More recently, with social distancing and working from home, I think we’ve hit a point where a lot of us can visualize working with far less paper use in our workflows.”
Randselva Bridge in Norway will be the world's longest bridge built entirely without paper, not even one single PDF. Read more about this project here.
5. A rise in the adaptive reuse of existing structures
While there has always been some interest in the refurbishment of older buildings for new use, the pandemic has created a huge surge in need because so many commercial tenants are finding that remote work is both feasible and attractive. As a result, many companies are either downsizing or eliminating their office spaces, leaving landlords with millions of square feet in need of repurposing.
In addition, many buildings will require retrofits to provide better protection from possible future health crises, including HVAC systems that can filter out viruses and floor plans that easily support social distancing.
Ira Singer of Mosaic Construction noted the change in mindset that accompanies this trend: “What you’re really describing is a design-build philosophy where we’re understanding the vision that the client has for the building, bringing good design, along with construction and constructability thinking, to understand budgeting.”
6. Increased focus on green building
While green building practices and materials have long been a growing trend in modern construction, the COVID-19 pandemic has once again accelerated its adoption. Primarily, we can see this in relation to indoor air quality and the way building design impacts the health of occupants.
As noted by Jeffrey Kozek, principle at Resolution Management Consultants, “In the COVID-19 context, that focus area is a natural fit for reducing potential paths of transmission. Verification of performance such as through the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program will take on an even more significant presence on the green building stage.”
7. Supply chain management based on data
One of the facts the pandemic quickly brought to light was how interdependent each link in the supply chain had become. While this isn’t a revelation in itself, as lockdowns and insolvency began affecting various suppliers, transporters, and contractors in different ways and at different times, the supply chain quickly became a chain reaction that led to delays and lost work, even in areas not yet under lockdown.
This highlighted a level of complacency around managing the supply chain, with most construction companies simply relying on the next link up the chain to do what they’ve always done. Active communication and collaboration were lacking, and when circumstances suddenly changed, firms weren’t ready to adapt.
Adam Sanford, a supply chain expert with the Southern Construction Framework in the UK notes the key lesson learned: “Moving to more intelligence-led supply chain management that embraces direct relationships and collaboration with subcontractors will bring massive benefits to construction projects.”
Trimble's vision for the supply chain of the future.
8. Ongoing “smart city” development
The development of so-called “smart cities” was largely viewed as a nice-to-have luxury, one you might expect to be quickly scrapped with so many municipalities in a cash crunch after a year of pandemic-related economic upheaval. But, the opposite has proved true in many cities.
For example, Singapore decided in June 2020 to boost its investment in business digitization by 30%. They cited the development of new tech tools to respond to COVID-19 as a main driver of their decision, with data analytics, AI, and public sensor technology at the forefront.
In the United Arab Emirates, cities invested heavily in AI-based systems and thermal cameras to help police enforce strict social distancing and travel restrictions when necessary. All of these tech-based infrastructure improvements will have valuable post-pandemic applications as well.
9. Stronger cybersecurity measures
As the construction industry relies more heavily on digital technology, the need for strong cybersecurity naturally increases. Over the past year, more office staff and subcontractors were working remotely than ever before, often on less-secure WiFi than available in the office setting. Additionally, the industry is seeing a lot of turnover right now, bringing with it a different set of cybersecurity concerns.
Based on a forecast published by Canalys, “The overall cybersecurity market value is expected to reach $60.2 billion in 2021, covering shipments of endpoint security, network security, web and email security, data security, vulnerability and security analytics and identity access management.” This represents an increase of between 6.6% and 10% across all cybersecurity technologies.
10. Accelerated adoption of digital connected construction
“Digital construction, smarter project management and better health and safety processes have always been progressing,” explained Autodesk’s Andy Cunningham, “COVID-19 just accelerated it.”
As noted in several of the other trends described above, one of the biggest revelations to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the vital importance of technology that allows for efficient, high-quality work to be done when we can’t necessarily get together and hash things out as we always have.
Construction companies that had already undergone significant digital transformation found it much easier to adapt to social distancing and remote work when it suddenly became a requirement. This applies both on the jobsite and off, since so much of the connected construction tech available facilitates near real-time communication and collaboration, and allows smaller teams to work more quickly and efficiently.
It only makes sense for construction companies to dive even further into digital transformation, not only to help ride out whatever remains of the COVID-19 situation, but also to set themselves up for a more prosperous future.
Unsure how to digitize more of your construction workflows and operations? Download the Guide to Going Constructible: How to Implement Digital Transformation in Construction.