During the early days of the pandemic, one of the most visible signs of the huge disruption it caused was not just the empty office blocks and deserted highstreets, but the oddly still and silent construction sites dotting our cities.
In the first weeks of lockdown, the activity in the UK construction sector alone dropped by around 13%, according to the UK Construction total activity index. And while activity has since recovered to a degree, it is still significantly lagging on 2019 figures.
This is an issue, because not only is construction a major employer but – at a time when concerns around inequalities are more acute than ever – it is a remarkably equitable one. Hiring from a range of backgrounds and operating right across countries, not just inside metropolitan hubs like London, Manchester or Birmingham. So getting it up and running again at full speed is vital.
But for all of the negative impacts on construction, the post-COVID-19 reset might also spell a longer-term opportunity for the industry to modernise. For one, it is hastening the introduction of new ways of working – breaking down organisational siloes; encouraging greater transparency; and enabling more effective approaches to business strategy and planning.
"Impacts of the coronavirus crisis might even prompt more profound changes in how we approach construction and think about the buildings themselves"
It will also accelerate the introduction of new and sophisticated digital technologies. The adoption of tools like digital twins and simulation can have a direct impact on the productivity of construction companies, improving design effectiveness and reducing rework time, thereby allowing teams on site to focus their time and resources in a far more effective manner.
Sophisticated modelling technology could have a particular impact on helping buildings better meet our climate goals. Through the greater use of BIM (Building Information Modelling) designers can be helped to conceptualise buildings in a huge range of ways, enabling them to make choices that lead to far more energy efficient and sustainable buildings.
The impacts of the coronavirus crisis might even prompt more profound changes in how we approach construction and think about the buildings themselves. For example, the limits on personal contact mandated by the pandemic have led, in some cases, to reimagining building practices – such as through the greater use of offsite construction.
Initially popular as affordable, easily deployed housing after the end of the second world war, modular constructions have been used as part of the coronavirus response not only for the construction of pop-up hospital facilities, but also as a method of erecting buildings with a minimum of interpersonal contact.
"The future could mean truly bright things for the construction sector."
Why community and collaboration are more crucial than ever
Underpinning this all throughout the year has been a renewed focus on cooperation. It’s a cliché, but we couldn’t get through this without each other. At Saint-Gobain that has meant working in close collaboration with our brands and suppliers, like Jewson, or Scotframe, and with our customers. And it has also meant talking with the government and figuring out what’s best for the sector going forward.
The future could mean truly bright things for the construction sector. A renewed focus on sustainability, a new emphasis on collaboration and the unleashed potential of digital technology could mean that as an industry we come back stronger and more dynamic than ever. One committed to building a truly sustainable world and making the world a better home.