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Could the Covid-19 disruption offer an opportunity to change principles, products and processes?

13 May 2020

Joseph Marner, ICE President’s Future Leader, reflects on the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the construction industry following ICE’s recent briefing for parliamentarians.

Could the Covid-19 disruption offer an opportunity to change principles, products and processes?
A construction site / construction workers adhering to social distancing rules. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone, everywhere, without exception. Whole industries have been shaken up. Social norms have been thrown out. Things we could so reliably depend on are no longer there.

The construction industry has not been exempt – and this was the focus of a recent online ICE policy briefing session for parliamentarians. Andy Mitchell, Co-Chair of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) briefed attendees and gave insights about the impact to date.

There are some considerable lessons that the construction industry could, and should, take away, as evidenced by the widespread chatter about a work-from-home revolution and a re-focus on staff wellbeing.

Leadership from the CLC

The focus of the CLC and industry since the end of March has been on dealing with the crisis in the moment. Andy Mitchell outlined the work of the CLC over the past six weeks which he says has been guided by daily calls with an advisory group of senior leaders from the UK’s leading firms.

The first pandemic-related output from the CLC was its guidance on safe site shutdown, which was followed by the safe site operating procedures. Both documents were welcomed across the board but have perhaps been most useful for SMEs with more limited resources or capabilities. The CLC has also provided guidance to firms on the government support schemes, and has been engaging with the Prime Minister and other government ministers to ensure the challenges facing the industry are addressed.

Looking to the future, the CLC is also considering what work may be necessary to carry the industry through the crisis. There is a desire to address the flaws in common financial and contractual models exposed by the pandemic – for example, contracts that restrict or delay cash-flow through the supply chain using retainers or other mechanisms. And, as the cost of reduced productivity on site looks likely to filter into tenders in the near future, there’s a cost-planning review on the horizon too.

Longer-term, and in the view of Andy Mitchell and the CLC, the industry should be considering a 12-month-plus timescale for a plan to “come back better”. But what would “better” mean for the construction industry?

Achieving past challenges

The challenges of improving safety, introducing modern methods of construction, and reaching net-zero carbon are not new for the industry. However, the pandemic has forced civil engineers and construction workers to adapt, demonstrating our ability to innovate.

Less personnel on sites generally means increased safety, as fewer people are in harm’s way. Pandemic control measures – specifically social distancing – are forcing sites to find ways of working with fewer people on-site. According to the CLC, this has resulted in new safer working practices being developed.

One way to operate sites with fewer people, crucially whilst maintaining output, is to adopt modern methods of construction: offsite manufacture in factory-style environments, with highly automated assembly on-site. Machines, not people, would do the manual tasks and operators could be safe, and socially distant. But this relies on industry infrastructure – the factories and machines – something that isn’t available this time around. If there’s one thing we wish we had before the pandemic hit, would it be offsite construction capability?

There’s also the question of sustainability and the net-zero carbon goal. The pandemic may have proven the benefit of reducing transport-related carbon, as we’ve all seen marked improvements in urban air quality and carbon emissions are forecast to fall significantly as a result of fewer journeys being made by air, rail and road.

At first glance there is not an equally dramatic equivalent for construction. However, we have proven we’re capable of turning things upside down in a matter of weeks. And, as supply chains slowly dry up amid the economic shutdown, we’re having to deal with constructing with fewer materials, which is itself a fundamental of sustainable construction. Whilst fewer materials being available presents many challenges, I would argue that adapting to these changes can help accelerate the industry’s move to more sustainable practices.

But could we go even further? The discussion at the briefing turned to how we might re-engineer the whole construction process entirely. What if the disruption gives us the opportunity to change the fundamental principles, products and processes that make the whole construction lifecycle more simplistic, and efficient?

Industry-Government relationship

When the question of “what can government do for industry” was posed at the briefing, the response was surprising. It\shouldn’t\be about “what government can do for construction” but “what can construction do for government”. In recent weeks,\we’ve\seen the Government give notable backing to the construction industry, with the apparent belief that construction will be key to economic recovery. So, moving forward, government should demand action in key areas such as carbon reduction and innovation in return, hold industry to account, and not accept a “return to normal”.

Seize the opportunities

When society is through the worst of the pandemic, we’ll have huge opportunities to capitalise on in the construction industry at least. One of Andy Mitchell’s first points was that the industry now has a new-found capability to communicate, coordinate and collaborate. I’d add we’ve also had insight into what widespread change looks like therefore we must take note of the important lessons we have learnt.

When the pandemic is over, it will not be okay to say “thank God we got through that” and accept a return to working in the same way as before. As civil engineers, whose purpose is to create a better society, that would be profoundly irresponsible. So, the only question that remains is - what do we do first?

In case you missed it...

Read more about ICE’s Covid-19 work, including our research into the new normal for infrastructure systems

  • Joseph Marner, President's Future Leader 2019-2020, ICE & Assistant Engineer, WSP