By Luke Carothers
2020 has been a year of change, and that has been especially true for the AEC industry. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many construction sites across the country were forced to shut down. As the industry rises back to its feet, Civil+Structural Engineer asked industry-expert Michelle Meisels, Engineering and Construction Practice Leader at Deloitte, about what the construction industry should look forward to in the second half of 2020 and beyond.
C+S: What has been the biggest effect of the pandemic on the growth of the construction market?
MM: The major challenges arising due to the crisis include an increase in project delays/projects being put on hold, difficulty obtaining permits for projects, stalled construction, rise in project cancellations, anticipated increase in claims and litigation, and difficulty in procuring materials and equipment to maintain project schedules.
- Supply chain disruptions: With international suppliers and logistics companies shutting down operations in an attempt to contain the outbreak, contractors are experiencing difficulties with their material supply chain. Although some suppliers have begun to resume operations, they are doing so largely with reduced workforces and prioritizing a backlog of orders built up since January
- Labor shortages: Lockdowns, travel bans and restricted movement of people amid the pandemic has led to a shortage of skilled labor. Many construction companies, site owners, and contractors have implemented travel bans for employees or travel restrictions on those workers originating from high-risk states in the U.S. It is inevitable that the progression of some projects will be impeded by a shortage of skilled labor.
- Claims due to delays and cost overruns: Despite the unforeseen nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, contractors could still be contractually responsible for delays or cost overruns on their current projects. It is expected that both contractors and owners will be carefully reviewing contracts to identify where contractual rights and duties exist under the conditions caused by the virus’ spread. In some cases, opportunistic claims may be made, but the impacts of COVID-19, particularly regarding supply chain disruptions, are sufficiently broad and many claims will be valid.
C+S: What new technologies have emerged or developed as a result of needing to facilitate digital contact?
MM: Keeping construction projects moving during the pandemic is requiring a complete rethinking of jobsite processes, and new technologies are emerging to help. With mandatory federal government guidelines in place, construction companies are required to manage, monitor, and report social distancing practices to keep jobsites open and workers safe and healthy. Below are key areas companies are focusing on to ensure health of workforce and maintaining stricter safety norms remains a priority:
- New/advanced technologies. For e.g., a leading national construction company has deployed a custom-designed wearable IoT tag to remind workers to maintain social distancing and provide contact-tracing information for jobsites.
- Some contractors are using social distancing automation, which includes automatic detection and notification to workers of crowding with patterned vibration and visual message if a cluster of people are too close.
- Virtually and remotely monitoring on-site workers to ensure they are complying with the safety standards, such as, maintaining social distancing and personal hygiene, frequently disinfecting, wearing PPE etc.
- Construction companies are gradually increasing the use of cloud technology as well as digital collaboration tools to ensure construction sites are connected, which makes remote management and collaboration easier. IoT is enabling intelligent asset management including inventory management and equipment monitoring and repair.
- Many construction companies are gradually moving towards modularization and prefabrication of components to offset/mitigate the impact of the pandemic. As the pandemic continues to disrupt construction activity, contractors are focusing on adding module assembly yards—strategically located sites for fabrication and assembling building elements that can then be transferred to a construction site for rapid assembly.
- In addition to reducing labor costs, modularization is driving improvements in quality and shortening project schedules, which will be critical during the pandemic as schedules delays are likely to increase significantly.
- Digital building twins, 5D BIM, and AR/VR technologies are also supporting in seamless planning and designing of construction projects without being physically present at job sites, mitigating the disruption in construction. These technologies will reduce costs incurred during project planning and speed up development timeline.
C+S: What role will unmanned systems play in the construction market over the course of the next year?
MM: Drones and other unmanned systems are being increasingly used in the construction industry to help make it more efficient, more affordable, and safer. A few examples of how unmanned systems can be leveraged by the construction sector:
- Construction companies are leveraging robots and autonomous rovers to reduce the need for humans to conduct site inspections and to automate repetitive tasks like bricklaying. This addresses the challenge of reduced labor at construction sites amidst the lockdown.
- The pandemic is pushing construction companies to increasingly use drones for remote surveillance and inspection of construction projects. This is likely to reduce the disruption in construction activity caused by the pandemic.
- Drones are playing a major role in covering large areas in a short time with digital images used for remote surveillance and inspection of construction projects. Riverwards Group, a large real estate development company, is using drones for project inspection, inventory management, and damage recording for claims.
- Industrial manufacturers can leverage drones to disinfect construction sites and buildings. Moreover, using drones for indoor inspection with the help of artificial intelligence is helping construction companies to monitor quality, inventory levels, and movement of people and raw materials.
This interview was conducted in June, 2020.
Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.