On-Site Magazine

Innovation conversation is heating up in Canadian construction

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June 22, 2016 by Jim Barnes

Inside light bulb

It’s no secret that Canada’s construction industry has been taking a beating for lagging in innovation. Major global studies have flagged the country as an innovation laggard, and the construction sector has been further singled out as underperforming even those weak national statistics.

In 2011, the Jenkins Report, presented to the Minister of State (Science and Technology), cited alarming weaknesses in Canadian R&D efforts and suggested ways to focus industry, institutional and government attention on innovation while simplifying access to resources for innovators.

Innovation deficit?

“That really started the conversation, a few years ago,” says Paul Verhesen, president and CEO, Clark Builders, Edmonton. “It’s a conversation that needs to be had.”

“When you look at the stats in terms of technology adoption in Canada, we rank 27th worldwide. That’s overall. The construction industry would probably rank lower against other countries,” says Pierre Boucher, president, Canadian Construction Innovations (CCI), Ottawa. “The intensity of R&D in this industry is very, very low. It’s 0.06 per cent [of R&D done in Canada],” he notes.

Some of the executives we interviewed for this article challenged the harsh criticism of the industry for lack of innovation, but all agreed that more could be done.

“We are not very good about talking about the innovations we have in this industry… We have not worked hard to capture or quantify innovation,” says David LeMay, president and CEO, Stuart Olson Inc., Calgary, Alta. “There has been a lot of innovation in incremental ways, whether it’s around safety, procedures, modularization or other things.”

Some contractors dismiss the need for more innovation. For some, it is skepticism about ROI and a lack of time, or even the notion that only the owners benefit from it.

However, powerful forces are pushing the industry toward innovation. “A number of things are converging: the owners’ drive to find more certainty, the asset-management trend, the globalization of construction and the harnessing of the Internet by all industries to innovate quicker,” says David Bowcott, senior vice-president and national director of Large/Strategic Accounts at AON Reed Stenhouse Inc., Toronto.

Verhesen challenges “the idea that innovation, research and development mean you have to spend millions of dollars to create something earthshaking. That’s not the case at all. It can be as simple as working on the things you do every day, from procurement to logistics to materials… It can be a better nail.”

Collaboration conundrum

Perhaps the need for cooperation is one of the biggest hurdles to boosting construction innovation nationally.

“If we are really going to be successful, if we really want to tap the R&D backing available from all levels of government, we as an industry are going to have to demonstrate that we’re willing to be collaborative. We have to make initiatives in the best interest of the industry,” says LeMay.

The days of trade secrecy seem to be winding down and few innovations stay secret for long, notes John Bockstael, president and CEO of Bockstael Construction Ltd., Winnipeg, and chair of CCI. He asks “Why would you fight that – especially if it was for safety?… More and more is being asked of us as an industry and there is a tightening of the labour markets.”

The new infrastructure funding proposed by the federal government means “they want to make sure that they are spending it wisely,” says Steve Cruickshank, CEO, Cruickshank Construction Ltd., Kingston, Ont. “They have a real incentive to see us do more innovative solutions, to extend the value of the taxpayer’s dollar.”

There is also an emerging global perspective. “The figures show that we are dramatically less productive than the US industry and other international industries,” says LeMay. “Investment is now global, not national… Whether someone decides to build a building here or in London, England, they are looking at the economics of those projects in their understanding of where to invest.”

“Canada is the fifth largest construction market in the world, and it is time we started to spend dollars appropriate to that,” says Bockstael. “If we can get better at what we are doing, the spending will probably increase in our country rather than in another country.”

Emerging enabler

It is not so much that Canadian contractors are failing to innovate. Rather, says Boucher, it is that “in most cases, it’s not systemic, it is not industry-wide.… Before CCI was established [in 2014], there was no real ecosystem to support R&D in construction.”

As a result, most innovations were not put to market, not implemented and not embraced by industry. “Often, industry was not even aware of it,” says Boucher. “People need to know what the other guy is doing… The idea is to share concepts that will benefit construction as a whole – innovations in safety, productivity, winter work,” he says.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, CCI was founded in 2014 with the support of the Canadian Construction Association.

“We are engaging industry to come together and propose projects,” Boucher says, whether proprietary or not. “We are made up of industry, we represent all stakeholders involved with construction – owners, engineers and contractors, along with manufacturers and suppliers.”

“We are quite sensitive to the government’s agenda on innovation in areas where the government knows that we need to do better, and where the construction industry can be a key stakeholder,” he adds.

Success will breed success, says Bowcott. “When the government actually sees the link between increased productivity and the innovations that have been developed, they will put more and more money in. That is what happened with the forestry sector.”

Real-world innovation

There is little doubt that Canada’s construction industry needs to invest more in R&D, but, it also needs to do a better job of sharing its successes too. Here are a few examples of how top construction firms are innovating already.

Bockstael: Bockstael notes that the conventional methods of technical innovation for construction contractors tend to be inefficient. “They say, ‘That looks like a good idea!’ and then they try it out in real time.”

About 20 years ago Bockstael experimented with the use of embedding hoses carrying hot glycol in concrete to keep it warm in winter. “We did it by guess and by golly. We blundered ahead and tried it in real time on a project,” says Bockstael. They almost ruined a slab.

Today, that process has been commercialized by a heating company. “Even today, they can’t tell you what temperature to set the dial at for all the various configurations of concrete work,” says Bockstael. It would be much simpler to do the tests in a lab and develop data that can be provided to contractors.

Clark Builders: It’s easy to pay lip service to innovation. “As a contractor, we write cheques to universities to promote innovation, research and development,” says Verhesen. “Writing the cheque is the easiest part of this conversation. The dedication of your people, their commitment to follow through and having permission to make mistakes is the biggest challenge. That’s a cultural conversation.”

Verhesen says that lean construction is a major focal point for his company’s innovation efforts. “The continuous improvement in lean construction practices is actually an innovative process,” he says, and it touches every part of the company’s operations.

This focus on efficiency planning and quality “comes from our history. We have built across the North in every community,” says Verhesen. “That culture of planning really drives innovation, really drives lean. In the far north, if you need a saw blade, there’s no place to buy one,” says Verhesen.

Growth in innovation will be generational, says Verhesen. “The next generation is starting to see that innovation and research is a good thing. It can be a competitive advantage, it can be pretty exciting to develop new systems and processes.”

PCL: PCL is constantly innovating in productivity, says Dave Filipchuk, deputy CEO, PCL family of companies, Edmonton. “That’s an area where Canada sometimes gets a black eye.”

The firm has a dedicated operations support group. “One of their key responsibilities is to marshal and lead innovation activities,” says Filipchuk. In some cases, they have directed activities, with an individual in charge. “Sometimes, it is just working with data from the jobsite, trying to determine the best way to disseminate it throughout the organization.”

One example of a specific outcome was delivering tools and materials much more deliberately to the work face. “We would set up containers off-site, containing everything that was specific to a job, and bring it to the work face when needed,” he says. As a result, travel time is reduced and people don’t waste time on the jobsite looking for tools.

“Modularization and containering are proving how you can take labour hours off site and keep them in the yard,” says Filipchuk.

Stuart Olson: “To build a building that anticipates and facilitates the future requirements of its occupants is critical,” says LeMay. That’s the reasoning behind the company’s Centre for Building Performance.”

The centre is fully staffed and equipped to show and demonstrate to the building owner the value of various approaches, collaborative construction, preconstruction, innovative methods to reduce environmental impact – every way that we can enhance its performance,” says LeMay.

The firm is also innovating in HR. “Necessity is driving us to do some things around HR that are much different than they were in the 1970s and 1980s,” says LeMay. “The Stuart Olson Alumni Program sees retired workers brought back part-time to fill staffing gaps and help to advise the current generation of staff,” to the benefit of all parties.

Cruikshank: Innovation generally comes from young people, says Cruikshank. “Young people are attracted to companies prepared to embrace new ideas. To bring new workers into our industry, we absolutely have to be out there, trying our hand at new things. And they want to come, as long as we make it attractive to them by being receptive.”

“I’m always looking for things that will improve our costs. There are innovative ways of reducing your energy consumption,” he notes as an example. “There are new government initiatives out there and they want to see energy reduction, reducing our footprint in the carbon tax… That is something we will be going after.”

A new spirit of cooperation is emerging in a very traditional industry. The next generation will be the innovation generation, more cooperative. The good news is that starting from a low baseline, the potential for early gains must be immense. 

Jim Barnes is a contributing editor to On-Site. Send comments to editor @on-sitemag.com

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