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From the editor… A fresh start post-coronavirus


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April 22, 2020 by David Kennedy

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy. For construction there may be something of a silver lining. PHOTO: Adobe Stock

In retrospect, the COVID-19 crisis — currently abrading everything from long-held job site protocols to our most basic personal freedoms — looks inevitable. But as late as early March, coronavirus was a supply chain hurdle, a curiosity on the other side of the world, a mild irritant that wouldn’t sting long. Even for those who apprehensively watched the Chinese economy grind to a temporary halt at the beginning of the year, the speed and magnitude of the fallout in Canada and the U.S., was difficult to foresee.

Catching us largely unprepared, the damage has been considerable. From an economic perspective and sadly, a human one, the tally will continue to accumulate in the coming weeks.

Construction will, of course, get through it. Whether the industry in Canada will be entirely intact though, depends on how quickly crews are able to get fully back to work, the evolving government response and the complicated legal fallout. Currently, the situation across the country runs the gamut — from a near-complete shutdown of non-vital work in Quebec, to relatively few constraints aside from additional job site safety measures in the Prairies.

No matter the exact outcome, the construction industry emerging from the crisis will be a different one than the one that entered it.

Job site sanitation, for instance, has rocketed to the top of priority lists as contractors look to ensure workers stay safe on-site. An overlooked issue for years, there’s no longer any leeway for a lax cleaning schedule or empty hand sanitizer dispensers. Post-COVID-19, the benchmarks for cleanliness will likely remain higher.

The crisis is also nearly certain to catalyze a number of industry transitions that have been building momentum for years.

Few situations could have better highlighted the advantages of new technology for improving connectivity on-site and between job sites and head offices. Construction management software capable of sharing essentials like project drawings eliminate the need for a physical nerve centre, which in this crisis, is a liability. At the same time, the ability to move non-essential staff off-site has been vital over the past few weeks to free up space for crews who need to be there. Once coronavirus is contained, these remote staff members will be able to return, but contractors will no doubt question if they need to. The industry continues to function despite the crisis, and some of the new communication tools being employed today will have staying power.

Already on the rise, modular construction can also expect a fresh wave of support. Unlike job sites where conditions are difficult to control, off-site manufacturing environments make it easier to control the flow of materials and personnel. Finished modules can be installed on-site with fewer workers, slimming down job site crews and simplifying operations.

The fallout from COVID-19 is also likely to drive a shift away from antiquated paper-based systems — procurement, permitting and inspections processes being a few examples. Jurisdictions that have not already fully embraced electronic bidding systems or made the switch to paperless building permitting have a tangible incentive to do so, benefitting all involved.

As in other segments of the economy, the crisis has laid bare some troublesome flaws within construction and its supply chain. Still, the industry will endure, as it always has, and emerge from the crisis better adapted to the modern world.

 


This column was first published in the April 2020 issue of On-Site. You can read the entire issue here.