Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction industry has not quite gone from technology laggard to leader, but the pace of change has accelerated in a notoriously change-resistant sector.
Forced to adjust, the industry jammed 36 months of technology adoption into a single year, a report on construction technology by global commercial real estate services company JLL found.
The top construction companies, many of which were investing heavily in new technology before the pandemic, have led the way, with the capital to invest in their own research.
Yet while the industry’s largest players have an inherent advantage, smaller and mid-sized contractors are finding ways to keep up with the leaders.
Some of the greatest strides the construction sector has made over the past few years have not been in much-hyped areas such as robotics or artificial intelligence, however, but in the adoption of design and digital collaboration software.
And while not necessarily inexpensive, neither are these software platforms out of reach for countless hundreds of thousands of small- and mid-sized contractors across the US, which provide the bulk of the nation’s construction workforce.
In ranking construction technologies, JLL has upgraded digital work collaboration software platforms to the “foundational technology” category in its report, saying these tools have become “a near requirement during the pandemic.”
“One point we’re considering is whether every type of construction tech has benefited from the pandemic,” Henry D’Esposito, construction research lead at JLL, told Construction Dive. “I would say it’s clear that software has really benefited, whereas hardware is maybe more of a mixed bag.”
A collaboration revolution
The construction industry is undergoing a collaboration revolution, with the help of a myriad of new software for collaborative work platforms, and the pandemic dramatically sped up technology adoption in the construction industry.
While the top contractors were likely to have had some form of digital collaboration before the pandemic, smaller, local firms were less likely to have a system in place, the JLL report said.
In months after the pandemic erupted in the spring of 2020, however, that picture shifted dramatically, with roughly two-thirds of construction firms reporting they had adopted work-from-home policies, the JLL report said.
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For firms like Nauset Construction Corp., a contractor based in Boston’s suburbs, that transition was made possible by the decision to shift to a cloud-based digital collaboration software platform.
Benjamin Goldfarb, the firm’s vice president, said the company made a major technological step on the eve of the pandemic when it shifted from an in-house server to the cloud with the Microsoft 365 platform.
The move “really paid dividends” when COVID-19 triggered a national lockdown in the spring of 2020 and forced a transition to remote work, Goldfarb said.
Nauset was able to conduct meetings using Microsoft Teams, with all the notifications and emails necessary to set things up tied into the system.
Accessing files has become much easier as well now that they are stored in the cloud. Previously, to share large CAD files, Nauset would have to create a zipped transmittal package or pay to use another service.
The company has also contracted with EarthCam for security cameras, which can also be used to document key milestones in a project, such as the placement of rebar in a foundation or to provide a remote tour of a jobsite.
“I can be speaking to a prospective client and zoom around the whole project and show them on my laptop,” he said.
Vantage Builders, also based in the Boston suburbs, has taken a similar approach to construction technology adoption, with a focus on investing in software platforms to boost efficiency.
Vantage switched to Cosential, a cloud-based CRM and proposal generation software, to help its marketing team track leads and determine which relationships are the most productive, among other things, said Kelly MacLean, the company’s chief operating officer.
The platform, which Vantage adopted last year, allows its sales and marketing team to drill down on individual networking relationships and their respective return on investment.
Maybe the marketing team took the contact to an event or donated to their foundation, and it resulted in being invited to bid on three different projects, MacLean said.
The software has helped boost the “hit ratio” of proposals and bids yielding actual contracts to 57%, up from 46% previously.
“We can rank and grade our leads,” MacLean said. “It gives really good metrics in being able to run reports on clients and our hit ratio,” she said.
Vantage has also moved to the SmartBid platform to help manage its relationships with its subcontractors and field bids for work on particular jobs.
The new platform has given the company a better understanding of how busy or not particular contractors are and an ability to “spread the work around.”
“Some subcontractors are really busy right now,” with the platform able to identify “how many jobs a sub is on and how many bids they have submitted,” MacLean said.
Expensive hardware not as compelling
But that’s not the case, according to the JLL construction technology report, which notes that the pandemic had only a minor impact on the fortunes of more advanced (and far more expensive) technologies like 3D printing and robotics, with the potential for these technologies to make an immediate impact having receded amid the pandemic.
JLL now categorizes 3D printing, robotics and virtual reality as “secondary impact technologies” that it expects “to have a smaller impact over the next few years.”
JLL notes all “three of these tools are early in their development, and are not mature enough to have a large impact on construction for the next few years.”
That matches the view on the ground among contractors, Nauset’s Goldfarb said.
He was introduced to 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, seven years ago, when he was a student at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. It also happened to be the first and, to date, the last time he saw this rapidly evolving technology in action.
“I read an article about some contractors that are using them, but we haven’t run into it,” he said, noting the same is true for robotics.
Nauset is now exploring whether to start using drones to help collect visuals and data on projects, but the company isn’t in a particular hurry.
“It’s something we as a company have been eyeing and trying to get someone interested in getting the license to do that,” Goldfarb said.
For its part, Vantage is moving ahead with the use of drones—considered a “primary impact technology” by JLL—to help gather images and footage for its marketing.
Vantage is now discussing whether to hire a drone operator to fly through some of the sprawling cannabis facilities the company is working on.
The cultivation facilities are upwards of 80,000 to 160,000 square feet and spread out vertically, she noted.
“The goal is to be able to have a high-level overview of what we are building to provide marketing materials and to demonstrate the complexity of the work,” MacLean said.
Still, the smaller the contractor, the bigger the challenge it can be to keep up with the pace of technological change in construction, especially now that it is accelerating.
Vantage has some subcontractors who struggle using construction management software Procore, which the company requires them to use. Project administrators and management at Vantage “pick up the load for them.”
Vantage wants to retain good subcontractors, which are an increasingly precious commodity in today’s labor-starved market.
“Once they understand it’s required, they adapt,” MacLean said.
Bill Fountain, head of Gardner Construction in western Massachusetts, said his 16-member firm has become adept at using the various software platforms required on most jobsites, whether it’s Procore, Bluebeam, Primavera or Microsoft Project, to name a few.
Fountain has become frustrated, however, with the fragmented nature of the construction software market, with different tasks often requiring different platforms, such as accounting, scheduling and HR, he said.
There is no single platform that ties in all these different functions, he said.
Additionally, different general contractors and project owners will have their own favorite digital collaboration software and platforms they want their subcontractors to use.
“You could spend $100,000 on software,” Fountain said. “Construction is a kind of reactionary trade anyway, especially now. You are reacting to what the requirements are in any specific project. There is no standardization.”