Covid-19 and construction: chaos and inevitable shifts

Covid-19 has dealt a severe blow to the construction and engineering sector where we are witnessing a downturn in activity, many companies at a standstill and the threat of adverse effects, even in the long term. A new structured order is emerging…

First, there is the picture of the moment and the uncertainty of the months ahead, where key players in the value chain, which is both globalised and made up of a fragile fabric of very small businesses, may be brought to a standstill. In France alone, at the beginning of May, it is estimated that at least 70% of construction sites were still shut down, while the majority of the rest were only partially up and running. The survival of many companies is at stake as delivery delays are set to reach unprecedented levels and supply difficulties are affecting the vast majority of companies. Similarly, the additional costs associated with a “Covid-friendly” recovery plan (e.g. sanitation equipment, increased transport costs, additional insurance cover, etc.) could rise to +20% in renovation or new build work. While other obstacles, whether financial or other, such as the refusal of private clients to reopen a site or the Prefecture to allow work to resume, continue to persist.

The call for sustainable sanitation practices 

Then there is the question of the “new normal” which is already taking shape. Because while some construction sites have reopened, and if the conditions for “business recovery” are under consideration despite significant financial challenges, the end of 2020 will look a lot different from the beginning of the year… What is the first reason for this new economic situation: sanitation precautions that are likely, at least in the short and medium term, to become the norm. The creation of best practice sanitation guides and recommendations is on the rise.

The materials sector, in particular, has adopted these, and by referring to them, companies have guidelines on which measures they are expected to implement. This goes even beyond any general measures aimed at minimising the risks of contamination. For example, updating the SRAD (DUER in French), a single risk assessment document after identifying all risk situations; informing and consulting the Social and Economic Committee (companies with more than 11 employees); implementing HR processes to manage people at risk, in-depth reorganisation of work (travel and gatherings to be avoided by prioritising rotation and remote work, managing situations where social distancing is not possible and where physical contact is both prolonged and close); creating a crisis unit or a Covid-19 contact person; and lastly, re-organising the signage system for areas and traffic, sanitation and catering facilities, the welcoming of external partners, the communication of information to staff, the provision of normal procedures in the event of incidents, etc.

This exhaustive list indeed also applies to the construction sector, where the OPPBTP guide (French agency for the Organisation for Prevention of Occupational Hazards in the Construction Industry), which is admittedly still subject to questioning by some unions, reminds us in particular of the logistical and organisational challenges of implementing sanitary precautions in the living quarters or portacabins of construction sites, and this is not going away any time soon, at least for the next few months.

A chaotic recovery in the short run

On the ground, what does recovery look like? We first need the recovery to happen. In the UK, the vagueness of industry guidelines has long prevailed, so by the end of April, every company in the industry, or almost every company, had published its own protocol to ensure a return to work would happen in optimal health and safety conditions. In the United States, some confusion is taking hold. In New York, the shutdown declared in the sector was the subject of exceptions issued on projects deemed essential, exceptions that become the norm over time, since they now concern, not without debate, nearly 5,000 projects, including residential renovations where there appears to be differences of opinion (in theory they are only authorised for work carried out alone)… and which are often, as in Boston’s case, stopped by the authorities. The much talked-about “guidelines”, meanwhile, are circulating and are likely to become widely used.

In France, in Toulouse, the example where a construction site with more than 300 homes, combining 15 companies that took the gamble to reopen at the end of April, demonstrates that nearly a month of preparation was required for reopening, to account for the time needed to submit the range of measures implemented to insurers and to the departments of the Ministry of Labour. These measures range from the “quarantine of individual cabinets spaced 5 meters apart” to the introduction of a daily brief on guidelines and, above all, to the tricky phasing of the various trades working together.

… and already, some inevitable transformations 

As we can see, these new sanitary practices implicitly call for better logistical management of the flows (of materials, workers, etc.) that run the job sites, and management that will increasingly go digital and get smarter to manage information architectures that tend to become more and more complex. Among the construction site shifts, those that futurists have been talking about for years and/or those that the pandemic has brought to light, is support through all sorts of digital platforms that not only make it possible to simplify and centralise certain procedures (e.g. management of purchasing expenses, supplier orders, calls for tender, scheduling, etc.) but also, at a time when mobility is impossible, to promote service continuity: in France, Ibat and its digital transformation solutions, which had been financed to the tune of €2.4 million at end-2019, are among the players on deck.

Without going so far as to talk about systemic transformations in building methods (Autodesk believes in more prefabricated and modular buildings, in particular for “emergency construction” in times of crisis), there is no doubt that the entire value chain will experience upheavals, some of which should be linked to the desire to relocate entire supply chains with a view to re-securing them – a movement that was still in its infancy before Covid-19 and which could be limited to diversifying its sources rather than reterritorialising them in due form.

Another transformation that was already in its infancy prior to this pandemic crisis, but which the crisis gives us a good opportunity to speed up, is finally the coming of the circular economy, in particular around the reuse of materials and resources from one site to another or the use of an online platform designed for second hand goods to offer the latter (Backacia or Cycle Up, just to mention the most well-known). With these emerging market places, this is one way to diversify its supply sources while reducing cost. This method also makes it possible to prioritise short channels, a less risky solution, following the example of other platforms, where waste materials can not only be reused but also recycled as new composite materials, such as the Lille-based Etnisi. At the time of the “new normal”, the fact remains that relevant stakeholders have many choices to make for the new profiles, which, tomorrow, will be the norm.

What do we do?

The VINCI Group created Leonard to tackle the challenges posed by the transformation of regions and lifestyles. Our goal is to unite a community of key stakeholders in order to build the city of the future together.