Construction Bounces Back With New Tech, Methods and Materials

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February 17, 2021


Hamstrung by COVID-19, governments around the world are looking to kick-start their economies with big infrastructure investments — a policy shift that is pushing the construction industry into the spotlight.

The Canadian government, for example, recently unveiled a C$10 billion ($7.5 billion) infrastructure investment plan. Meanwhile, the European Union’s €750 billion ($907 billion) COVID-19 recovery fund focuses largely on green stimulus activities, including a massive project to renovate buildings and infrastructure. And in the U.S., the new administration has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan aimed at adding jobs while addressing climate change.

Meanwhile, demand has spiked for new data centers and warehouses to power our growing reliance on the internet to work, shop, learn and play. Plans for renewable energy facilities are also filling project pipelines — some on record-breaking scales.

The construction industry is gearing up for this increased level of investment and the new focus on resilience and environmental sustainability. As well as dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, construction is also moving quickly to catch up on advances in technology, methods and materials. All of which means construction companies are set to reap the benefits of greater worker safety and higher productivity and quality.

“The uncertainty around the pandemic hit the construction industry supply chain hard, but we’re seeing rebounding growth because of infrastructure and green investments globally,” says David Bowcott, global director – growth, innovation and insight in Aon’s Global Construction & Infrastructure Group. “Construction firms face new expectations around safety, resilience and risk reduction. More than ever, they’re adopting technology to help them rise to those challenges.”

In Depth

The construction industry has been widely considered a traditional one, slower to innovate. But changes in project demand, expectations around resilience and competition for talent are inspiring
the industry to move quickly to embrace digital solutions, new materials and new ways of working.

Building for Resilience

There’s been a philosophical shift in the approach to what happens once the last brick is set in place on a construction project.

“Firms are taking a more holistic view, considering the full life cycle of a project beyond just the construction phase,” says Donais Deetz, director, Construction and Energy at Aon. “There is growing pressure for firms, many times as part of a consortium, to invest more in the planning phase to reduce cost maintenance of a structure over the long term.”

Bowcott says governments have had an influence on that change as they’ve sought to reduce risk in their investments.

“When governments are going to spend money and do some major revamps, they want to make the assets less risky and more resilient,” he says. “They’re beginning to incentivize the use of technology to achieve that.”

Embedding technology in new structures can make them more resilient and provide such benefits as smarter transportation systems or increased energy efficiency. “From a protection standpoint, smart sensors and their data allow insurers to leverage real-time — not just historic — data to make informed predictions and decisions,” Bowcott says. ”We’re witnessing the beginning of underwriting from the edge within the insurance sector — or ’edge underwriting.’”

Changes in Materials and Demand

Construction materials are changing as well. Wood is back, this time under the name “massive” or “mass” timber. It has been used to build an 18-story building in Norway, and construction began in August 2020 on a 25-story mass timber apartment building in Milwaukee.

Laminating pieces of wood into large structural components can produce building materials that can perform better than steel or concrete with lower carbon emissions and less waste. It’s showing promise to better resist fire and withstand earthquakes, and requires lower labor costs. Though as demand grows, there are concerns about producing it sustainably, without damaging forest ecosystems.

Steel remains a top construction material for its strength even though it is still made by burning coal to melt down iron ore. But there’s increased interest in finding new, lower-carbon-emitting ways to produce the metal — for example, using electrons or hydrogen to replace coal.

Green infrastructure development as part of pandemic economic stimulus plans, such as the new U.S. infrastructure initiative, will also spur increased demand for industrial metals such as copper.

The pandemic — and the changes it has brought to the ways we live and work — will have an impact on the types of buildings being built, says Tariq Taherbhai, chief operating officer, Global Construction & Infrastructure Group at Aon. Coming out of the pandemic, we may well see more data centers and distribution facilities being built than new hotels and retail buildings, he says.

Newer, Safer Ways of Working

New materials and construction techniques enabled by technology are helping address on-site safety problems. It has been an especially challenging time, when physical proximity must be limited to reduce pandemic spread.

“Modular” or manufactured construction was on the rise before COVID-19, but the pandemic will likely lead to more of our cities’ buildings being built in a component fashion.

Manufactured construction involves building a structure in modules in a controlled setting and then transporting them to the construction site. “We’ve seen high-rise construction where 80 percent of the work can be done off-site,” says Bowcott. “When you get to the site, you’re putting the component parts together like Lego blocks.”

The technique is proving useful in building such structures as multifamily housing, data centers and even healthcare facilities made in response to the pandemic.

As manufactured construction becomes increasingly sophisticated, the technique is making greater use of technology tools like 3D modeling and building information management (BIM). BIM can track data throughout the project’s life cycle, increasing efficiency by facilitating scheduling, identifying potential problems before they occur, and tracking and improving quality by matching plans to actual construction.

A post-COVID benefit of such techniques: They reduce the risk of virus transmission. “When you’re in a manufacturing environment, it’s more controlled,” says Bowcott. “You’ve got ventilation. People can work in a more systematic way.”

Technology is enabling other safety improvements: Firms can use it to monitor whether workers are wearing proper safety equipment. Wearable tech can ensure proper social distance by gauging workers’ proximity to one another, warn workers if they’re moving into dangerous areas, identify where workers are on the job site and monitor fatigue or ergonomics to reduce risk of injury.

Artificial intelligence helps firms analyze work site images to identify potential risks. And robots and other autonomous machinery will enhance productivity and can take over tasks with highest injury risk, like drywalling.

Refreshing an Industry Image to Compete for Talent

The construction industry’s embrace of technology and greater focus on resilience hold potential benefits not just today but for the future, says Deetz.

“Construction and infrastructure firms are realizing that this is the time to innovate,” Deetz says. “Their future viability depends on their ability to come out of this pandemic able to adapt to or set the pace for change, especially around digitization.”

Beyond benefits of efficiency or ability to win business, embracing tech has become table stakes in the competition to attract talent.

Industry leaders have identified workforce risks as three of the top 10 facing the construction industry in Aon’s 2019 Global Risk Management Survey with “workforce shortage” ranked fourth, “failure to attract or retain top talent” seventh and “aging workforce and related health issues” ninth.

“To build the future workforce pipeline, some leaders in the construction industry are discussing how to market construction management and construction engineering careers to students as they enter college and universities,” says Deetz. “Adopting technology is one potential strategy to modernize the industry’s image and ensure it can compete for talent.”