Two workers in construction industry on jobsite wearing masks and bumping elbows due to COVID concerns.

The pandemic had a drastic effect on both the commercial and residential construction industries in 2020. Over a million jobs were lost during the shelter-in-place orders and forced shutdowns of mid-2020, with about 600,000 people hired in June as projects resumed. In most areas, construction was considered an essential business, which allowed projects to continue, but only with the recommended COVID precautions in place. 

With more people vaccinated and infection rates dropping, we’re finally seeing hope for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic…along with skyrocketing construction demand (due to record-low interest rates coupled with substantial supply chain challenges). 

At the same time, COVID precautions are still in place for workers, while some changes made during the pandemic are being adapted to improve business methods in the future. Those adjustments go well beyond the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and more frequent handwashing, though.

Implementing Changes Throughout The Construction Industry

How did lockdowns, distancing restrictions, disinfection requirements and other mitigation efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 impact construction companies? How will the trends started by the pandemic affect the future of the industry?

Telecommuting as a Vital Part of Planning and Management

The construction industry is notoriously slow to adopt new technology, despite telecommuting being a logical adaptation with employees constantly on the move. Personnel and distance restrictions during the pandemic, though,  forced companies at all levels to embrace remote work. (There’s more to this shift than just adding Zoom calls to the construction worker’s arsenal. It’s adding a whole new tool set that allows collaboration across disciplines and construction activities.)

Building information modeling (BIM) allows everyone from owners to contractors to interact with and visualize projects before construction begins, while avoiding the need for individuals to be in close contact. The entire building is rendered as a 3D model and then viewed on a screen or in virtual reality. 

BIM combines efforts from multiple sources, creating a comprehensive view of the project. 

With a physical model, you can see what the exterior surface looks like. With BIM, you can peel back the layers, allowing you to see electrical, plumbing, HVAC and structural systems. This collaboration speeds up development, and it helps with clash detection and materials planning. It also lets clients see exactly what they’re getting before construction begins, reducing expensive mid-project changes.

Construction Processes See Increased Automation

Social distancing slowed projects by limiting the number of workers that could be on site. Instead of having subcontractors from multiple trades working together, jobs were split into units with two or three trades working at one time. These limits pushed companies to embrace automation, increasing the amount of work done without increasing the number of people on location.

Automation will take decades to be fully realized in the construction industry, and these new technologies won’t replace jobs outright. Instead, they’ll cut out the simple, repetitive tasks of the job, giving workers more time to concentrate on skilled labor. For example, portable roll forming machines are already on the market, making it possible to form gutters, roof panels and wall panels on-site, so that workers can simply install these pieces.

Reducing Close Contact and Improving Speed Through Modular and Off-Site Construction

Even though limiting people at a construction site is a major challenge, it’s relatively easy to set up modular construction for reduced contact. Instead of having multiple crews moving through the building, the building section moves through the factory. Each crew stays in the same place, so personnel limit contact with each other.

The benefits of modular construction extend beyond jobsite safety. Post-pandemic, this may be the best way to expand construction capacity as demand for new buildings and infrastructure projects skyrocket. This streamlined assembly process, combined with the ability to work 24 hours per day in all weather, means more work can be done with the available labor force.

Like automation, modular construction works as a supplement to on-site construction. For example, schools combine prefab classrooms with hallways, cafeterias and gyms built on-site. In the future, we will likely see more buildings take this approach, integrating prefab and custom-built construction. Restaurant kitchens, hotel rooms and offices will increasingly be built off-site.

Force Majeure Coverage Extends to Pandemics

Force majeure clauses in construction contracts cover liability in unforeseen circumstances, like natural disasters. But, is coronavirus covered by these clauses? That’s not always clear in contract language, which is a huge problem for companies recovering from the pandemic. In the future, contracts will have specific language protecting companies from liability during disease outbreaks.

COVID Guidelines Could Mean Safer Workplaces

Just as the pandemic forced contractors to embrace new technology, it also forced them to revise their safety precautions. Between fewer on-site workers and increased diligence surrounding social distancing, face coverings and sanitation, safety managers had to up their game. These managers had to contend with constantly shifting guidelines from public health officials and the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as we learned more about the virus.

These evolving changes in COVID guidelines are now centered on OSHA’s National Emphasis Program (NEP). This program targets areas based on risk assessment, including construction sites

NEP and its predecessors forced businesses to develop better safety training infrastructure to stay on top of regulations. Combine this with the trend toward a smaller on-site workforce, and you have better resources serving fewer people. (This isn’t just better for workers–It reduces liability, resulting in lower insurance prices, too.)

Changing Building Design to Reduce Coronavirus Outbreaks and Other Infections

In the past, there was a clear division between healthcare facilities and other construction projects, due to the level of environmental protection required to prevent the spread of diseases. In the wake of the pandemic, the same materials and methods used to stop the spread of infections in hospitals are now making their way into other public buildings. We’re starting to see three trends pushed by clients and new building regulations:

  • Airborne particle removal using high MERV-rated filters and UV light in HVAC systems
  • Increased use of automated doors, lights and other fixtures that reduce physical contact
  • Self-cleaning and self-disinfecting surfaces, including brass fixtures and titanium dioxide coatings

Have Your Next Construction Project Completed Safely and Efficiently

No matter what changes we see in the construction industry, it’s worth hiring quality contractors who get things done right the first time. 

If you’re looking for help on your next commercial construction project, visit The Builders Association. We represent over 150 reputable construction firms across eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, including general contractors and subcontractors covering over a dozen skilled trades. We make it easy to find reputable union contractors with the skills and experience you need to complete your project on time and within budget.