The Digital Disruption for Post-COVID Construction

“While sectors such as retail and manufacturing have reinvented themselves, construction seems stuck in a time warp,” states a 2018 report by McKinsey & Co. that echos the voice of the whole industry over the last few decades. “Construction lags significantly behind other sectors in its use of digital tools and is slow to adopt new materials, methods, and technology,” continues the pre-COVID report.

In fact, global labor-productivity growth in construction has averaged just 1% per year over the past 20-years, compared with 3.6% in the manufacturing sector and an average of 2.8% across the entire world economy. In certain markets, including the UK and Germany, construction productivity has actually declined compared to the 1990s, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data.

Like all industries, construction has been shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic and is now being forced to adapt in order to operate in a heightened health and safety environment focused on social distancing. This disruption is fundamentally impeding conventional construction approaches and forcing even the most traditional companies to look for modern solutions. Now, promising digital technologies that have been struggling to break established construction markets are emerging as saviors of post-COVID construction.

Last week, San Francisco-based remote construction solution provider OpenSpace raised an impressive $15.9 million in a Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures. The firm offers a tool that captures, uploads, and organizes photos taken on a walkthrough of a construction site to create a 360-degree “street view style” digital experience. The tool allows remote specialists to “digitally walkthrough” the site, adding their expertise to support the construction process without ever having to visit the site in person.

“Similar to how telehealth will improve accessibility by bringing the doctor to the patient,” Openspace CEO Jeevan Kalanithi told Zdnet, “rather than the other way around, we believe that ‘tele-building’ will soon take off to scale the expertise of our superintendents, project managers, inspectors, and foremen. If your captures of the site are high-quality, you can reduce the amount of in-person visits needed, saving time and money, as well as improving knowledge transfer.”

Remote-expert digital site visits are just a stepping stone on the way to a range of cloud construction platforms that offer comprehensive digital collaboration from design and construction and on to the full lifecycle of the building. Cloud construction offers unprecedented mobility and information sharing as well as access to the best-in-class AI-enabled computing through leading cloud services. These sensor-rich construction sites also raise the bar for the health and safety of workers while reliably supporting new social distancing measures.

Last week, California based software giant Autodesk announced the acquisition of construction project management software company Pype, who leverage AI and ML to automatically analyze and extract critical construction data such as project plans and specifications to be used throughout the project lifecycle. The acquisition is designed specifically to strengthen Autodesk’s Construction Cloud platform, allowing general contractors, subs, and owners to automate tasks such as submittals and closeouts to increase productivity and mitigate project risk.

“Too many critical construction workflows are still performed manually by project teams, leading to inefficiencies and exposing companies to increased risk such as schedule delays and cost overruns,” said Jim Lynch, vice president and general manager of Autodesk Construction Solutions at Autodesk. “While risk is inherent in the construction business, leveraging artificial intelligence to automate tedious yet consequential data and processes significantly reduce project risk associated with human error,” added Karuna Ammireddy, CTO, and co-founder of Pype.

“Combining Autodesk’s construction management technology with Pype’s AI-powered project management capabilities will certainly accelerate the ongoing transformation of our industry,” suggested John Jacobs, Chief Information Officer of JE Dunn construction, a long-term Autodesk and Pype customer. While Andrew Anagnost, CEO of Autodesk, boldly stated, “I could not be more optimistic about the future of the building industry,” within the official announcement.

The pre-COVID construction site was busy on a daily basis and intersected with “events” like box walks or client walkthroughs where various stakeholders or interested parties can experience and influence the development of the building in-person. In order to maintain progress under strict social distancing rules, post-COVID construction sites must work with skeleton crews guided by remote teams and sophisticated collaborative tools. The maturity and adaptability of current emerging-technologies have been a blessing for a construction industry hard-pressed for alternatives.

“An architect 3,000 miles away can look at the clearance between two walls and confirm that we’ve built the room to the right size,” said Peter Hau, VP at construction services company Swinerton. “Normally, we’d have an immense number of people on-site for big events like a box walk, where during the framing stage, we review the location of every single outlet or light switch prior to closing up the walls. But the level of precision you can get with these 3D scans alleviates the need to fly out here in person. These reviews can be conducted right from a desktop.”

Hau and his colleagues at Swinerton have seen the light from these tools as viable and even superior to in-person experiences in many ways. They now see this digital construction disruption outlasting the pandemic to create a new digital normal in the construction industry. “I don’t see this going away for us. Of course, there will still be face-to-face meetings, but I see the digital communication and the virtual walk-throughs replacing a large number of those,” Swinerton Executive VP Don Adair added in a BisNow article.

The essence of the COVID-19 disruption is a necessary decrease of person-to-person contact, so where human collaboration is required digital tools have become the only viable alternative — and there is no waiting out this never-ending crisis in the hope of returning to old ways. The stubborn construction industry may finally be embarking on wholesale digital transformation, and all it took was a global pandemic that threatens the survival of any construction company that doesn’t adapt.