Even as the world cautiously steps toward pre-pandemic conditions, COVID-19 will stay in our minds long after the virus is under control. COVID-19 was an unparalleled reckoning that demanded innovation for business owners to survive and the construction industry stood out during this time for being exceedingly flexible, dealing with issues both directly and indirectly related to the pandemic. Construction companies faced unique challenges in balancing worker safety, supply short-falls and maintaining build deadlines through sporadic shut-downs. As build sites continue to drop precautions for workers, there are many pandemic-era changes to the construction industry that look as if they will live on as best practices in the future – sticking around either for workflow or financial benefits. This collection of modern practices are quickly becoming industry standards in the industry and may be essential pieces to swaying a client or winning a bid in the coming years.
Proliferation of Off-Site and Modular Construction
Facing a flurry of restrictions in the early days of the pandemic, build sites that were not wholly shut down were forced to work with a reduced crew. An effective means to keeping on-site workers socially distant and speed up builds with a lower on-site population is off-site construction. Off-site construction became a means of survival for companies like Entekra and FullStack Modular who emerged as industry leaders. Companies who adopted prefabrication during the pandemic are largely maintaining their partnerships because of lower build costs and the highly replicable nature of prefabs.
The 2020 Dodge report of Prefabrication and Modular Construction found that 90% of contractors surveyed considered prefab and modular construction to be key elements keeping builds on schedule, improving productivity, and maintaining higher quality compared to traditional build strategies. The report also notes that decreased cost, increased quality and expedited scheduling are the key reasons construction companies are turning to prefab and modular building alternatives.
Modular building also became an expected commodity during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As closed-off testing facilities and care pods became nationally demanded, several construction companies turned to modular buildings to keep up with demand to help build them out and then began to use them on other projects.
The pandemic exacerbated an existing trend toward modular buildings, as a 2019 McKinsey & Company report found that the modular construction industry could be worth as much as $130 billion in the United States and Europe by 2030. FullStack Modular in particular even turned focus from Brooklyn residential development to producing modular M.I.U. (mobile isolation units) during the pandemic.The COVID-19 pandemic and the increased need for modular buildings it resulted in expediting the popularity of the already booming modular market.
Virtual Tours, Remote Work and New Technologies Are Here to Stay
As meetings and lecture halls went virtual, so did build sites. State guidelines heavily restricted who was allowed on a build site during the COVID-19 pandemic. Clients, consultants and sometimes even building inspectors were barred from entering sites out of fear of viral spread. While virtual tours and remote work started as a necessity, construction workers adapted to COVID-19 restrictions and modernized the industry for the better.
COVID-19 is largely responsible for the construction industry’s quick adoption of cloud-based workspaces. Beyond Microsoft Teams and Google Drive, software targeted specifically to the construction industry like InEight, have become massively popular tools for organizing remote construction work. InEight found in a 2020 report that from February to July more than 250,000 users working on more than 2,100 projects were using InEight’s collaborative document software, growth the company noted was a massive spike compared to expected year-to-year growth.
New build site documentation technology like interactive floorplans and 360-degree cameras grew from industry novelties into indispensable tools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies like the San Francisco-based OpenSpace and Insta360 have made strides in the modernization of jobsite progress photos. The two companies collaborated on jobsite documentation photography technology allowing remote workers to combine a floor plan with 360-degree photos, allowing for a new level of immersion for clients and consultants. OpenSpace noted that from March 2020 to August 2020 the company tracked a 500% increase in active users of the interactive construction floor plan software. Compared to the alternative of on-site workers taking individual photos with mobile devices, interactive 360-degree photos are likely to become an industry standard.
Supply Chain Uncertainty Is Breeding Future Caution
Even as COVID-19 vaccines become common, the tidal waves of supply chain disruption are far from over. Market uncertainty can then cause speculation, leading to massive hikes and dips in materials costs which impact contractors and the construction industry at large. An industry analysis from the Associated General Contractors of America found that from March 2020 to April 2021, construction materials rose in price 12.9%, the highest recorded jump in the AGC’s time recording market trends. In the face of material insecurity with no end in sight, contractors have been forced to seek out multiple suppliers where they would regularly only need one. Industry trends have proven that the most effective means to stay ahead of supply shortages is to be flexible. Companies with supply lines that could easily switch between vendors are the most likely to stay competitive when facing future shortages.
Lumber prices have soared throughout 2021. April saw the per thousand feet board price raise to $1,200, marking a 250% price increase since the pandemic. While timber companies are enjoying a historic boom, contractors seeking out the material are likely to see more delays. Contractors are also suffering as larger construction sites pick up to pre-pandemic levels. In the balancing act of suppliers and builders, it is currently exceedingly difficult for contractors to maintain a constant flow of materials for a consistent price. While concrete and glass prices are steady today and lumber and steel are shooting up, the fluidity and rapidity of the international construction supply chain’s pricing changes could lead to the opposite tomorrow.
Market analysts note that during the early pandemic, most suppliers cut stock and slowed production. When the construction industry began a meteoric rise in the number of job sites and active projects toward the end of 2020 due to backlogs being restarted, suppliers were left scrambling to match demand.
While large construction companies with several job sites traditionally maintain multiple relationships with suppliers for materials, contractors and smaller companies are joining the practice because of the supply chain implosion and recession prompted in 2020. Single-source suppliers have long been the favorite of large construction companies and small contractors alike because of lower costs and ease of access that comes from a dedicated relationship.. Companies are now investing more time, labor, and effort into modernizing and often diversifying supply chains to reduce the risk of shutouts, as even the most reliable suppliers have been strapped for output during the past year. Construction companies are investing more into either establishing increasingly complex supply lines or hiring more staff to manage or act as consultants in their existing structures.
The Future of Construction
In the wake of unprecedented collapse and climbs, the construction industry has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic wiser and better prepared for the future of work. The construction industry was uniquely placed as the world shut down. Both on-site and remote construction workers are essential workers. Lessons learned from quick adaptation have become industry standard and pandemic-era problems have put the construction industry on an unexpectedly good path going into the post-pandemic world – supply chain issues and all.