A turning point in construction delivery: defining the new normal

3 min read

We can’t let the unfolding pandemic pass without using it as a further catalyst to accelerate the transformation of how we deliver buildings and infrastructure. The human and economic costs of the current crisis are too devastating for us to carry on with the same way of doing things.

Coronavirus and its impact on the economy have exposed the vulnerabilities of the construction delivery model in the UK. The industry must use this once in a lifetime opportunity - of destructive shock - to ‘modernise or die’.

This is construction’s chance to define a ‘new normal’ in a way that helps the country’s recovery from the crisis, producing a safer and more effective construction industry.

Matt Gough, Mace’s Director of Innovation, explains how we are changing the way we deliver buildings in response to the global pandemic.

From construction to production  

Following changing Government guidelines in response to coronavirus, we’ve seen construction companies temporarily closing their sites, migrant workers heading home to families and increasing uncertainty of materials supply due to borders closing. This has exposed the fragility of the industry’s traditional delivery model in plain sight. Quite simply, the complex system of construction doesn’t cope at all with shocks of this scale.  

Now more than ever, we see the impetus to move from ‘construction to production’, industrialising all parts of the construction process and manufacturing as many components of a building as possible off-site before assembling on-site.

Standardisation can help us gain control over what we build, especially during a severe disruption like the current pandemic. Redirecting our workforce to increase production of standardised components in a controlled factory environment provides the ability to meet Government guidelines to improve health and safety and reduce contagion while continuing to create vital infrastructure.

Digitisation of the entire construction process is part of this transformation – it’s now or never. A digital, platform-based approach to designing and manufacturing buildings can support construction in assembling a product at a much higher and consistent quality. It allows us to collaborate far more efficiently across all disciplines. It creates greater transparency, and therefore control.

From development, planning and design and all the way to delivery on sites, we need to operate digitally. We’ve already seen during this crisis that planning consultations have been able to go ahead online. We have to trust the technology and systems at our disposal – this would have not been possible a decade ago, but we are lucky enough to rely on tech today to make this digital transition. Data on sequencing, stock, logistics and resourcing is allowing us to keep projects moving effectively.

Yet we still have a long way to go in digitising construction on sites, and we must use this inflection point to accelerate adoption. Those who were already digitising projects have been better equipped to respond to the crisis. Digitisation gives us better access to all the data about a project, carrying out site activities such as approvals and valuations from home, and helping us make the right decision at the right time.

Fragmented supply chains - there’s a better way

The crisis has also exposed fragmented supply chains in construction. A complete closing of borders and quarantining the workforce in many countries could still bring many projects to a standstill even once we return to work.

Vertical integration of our supply chain can go a long way in addressing our preparedness as an industry to a crisis. If we act now to increase transparency and integration over our supply chain, it can help us optimise our production capacity and adapt to future disruptions. Supply chains of the future have to be tech enabled, helping us to better estimate our inventories without having to halt production at any stage.

This is construction’s final frontier: we’ve already demonstrated through the COVID-19 crisis that we can collaborate, innovate and deliver at pace, best evidenced with the inspiring work on the Nightingale hospitals.

But we can do more. This unprecedented shock provides an equally unprecedented opportunity for change. We can see that for our business, and also the system in which we work, the option of reverting to ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option. The climate emergency had already lit the touch paper for innovation across the sector at a pace and rate of adoption way beyond what we’ve experienced to date.

Now we face a very different future. It’s time to change how we deliver. Or face irrelevance. A construction sector transformation now cannot just assist economic recovery but help create a stronger society for the future. The time to change is now.