A COVID-19 Outlook for Construction Firms

covid outlook for construction firms

It goes without saying that this is an intense time in the industry and the world right now. Most people working in construction—whether at a firm or on the field—are going through a transition. As we move into different phases of re-opening, how can workers stay safe and adapt to this new normal? Most importantly, what is the COVID-19 outlook for construction firms?

According to a recent survey that polled 2005 Associated General Contractors (AGC) members, over 60% of projects either had a hard stop or were put on hold indefinitely due to coronavirus. Additionally, 23% of firms have slowed down from supply chain issues, either from materials, equipment, or labor. In the U.S., where construction amounts to over 4% of our GDP, this is a massive impact.

“Few firms have survived unscathed from the pandemic amid widespread project delays and cancellations,” says Ken Simonson, the AGC’s chief economist.

A recent AGC webinar explored how firms are moving forward despite challenges. Construction and technology experts shared first-hand insights on how construction companies are innovating to move forward. Read some of the takeaways from the webinar, below.

Get Comfortable Working From Home

Many of us won’t be returning to the office anytime soon. “You may be working from home in a new environment that might not be exactly how you envisioned your workspace,” says Anna Lazar, Strategic Alliances & Partnerships with Autodesk Construction Solutions. So make sure you're comfortable. Get a good desk chair, and your feet should be firmly placed on the floor. Your keyboard should be easily within reach, with your forearms and wrists parallel to the floor. Your monitor should be just below eye level, so if you extend your arm out to touch it, your fingertips graze the screen.

We’re all familiar with “Zoom fatigue” by now. On calls for more than two hours a day? Get a headset. It’s also important to regularly assess your surroundings—light, temperature, and noise levels all contribute to a healthy work environment.

At O’Brien and Company, a design build firm specializing in hospitality, breweries, and wineries in the Pacific Northwest, the majority of their staff transitioned to work from home. Many employees had incorporated cloud-based technology into their workflows years ago and were set up for success, but those used to being in the field, such as project engineers and project managers, had a tougher transition. However, all of their regional offices are considered essential, which is unique to the construction industry. This mixed attendance makes safety a top priority for O’Brien. Bradley Cooley, Director of Design Build Technology, credits O’Brien’s HR Director and Safety Managers for working tirelessly to understand requirements and implement procedures to keep their people safe, whether at home, in an office, or on a jobsite.

Safety in Numbers

Hand-washing—it's everywhere. Josh Cheney, Senior Manager, Strategic Alliances at Autodesk Construction Cloud, says he’s noticed environmental fogging implemented on construction sites, in addition to stringent disinfecting protocols, to ensure a sanitary work environment.

Another way sites are staying safe beyond physical distancing, PPE, and the multitude of safety checklists is by implementing staggered shifts. “The fewer people on the jobsite, the better,” Cheney adds.

Bringing Cloud Technology on Site

To adapt to remote work culture, many companies are now adopting connective technologies. Cheney notes that he’s observed more virtual inspections via FaceTime, Zoom, or a more construction-specific application. HoloBuilder, OpenSpace, and StructionSite can help conduct inspections by capturing and documenting information, then democratizing that data across jobsites.

O’Brien’s team also takes advantage of 3D technologies that allow them to communicate design intent to the client ahead of time. Cooley says, “We do a lot of the research at the front end, then develop plans and models to allow our customers to visualize where specific components in their building are going to be.”

They then model out those components in a BIM model with Autodesk Revit and work on the Autodesk BIM 360 cloud to internally collaborate with their design team. This workflow allows them to easily share designs with clients, customers, and subcontractors.

Cooley says, “We find that providing this visualization allows people to make better decisions and associate those with construction costs, our estimates, and the packages we prepare for them.”

As people move into a post-COVID work reality, they need to be able to access assets via the cloud, whether that's from Autodesk Construction Cloud, PlanGrid, BIM 360, or document sharing apps. Tools like BuildingConnected can help teams find trade partners and manage bid processes online when they can't be near their whiteboard or Rolodex.

Virtual Collaboration

We all know how Zoom, Google Meet, and WebEx enable virtual collaboration and screensharing. Our creative team at The Wild also uses a tool called Miro to help facilitate group brainstorming in an online whiteboard format. Planning and scheduling systems such as BIM 360 can virtually support your planning process and get your team’s work plans into a digital format quickly

“A lot of our client-based meetings were face-to-face. When you change that to a remote environment, you need other tools to help you communicate,” says Cooley.

Teams are also using virtual reality tools like InsiteVR or The Wild. For those with access to virtual reality headsets, consider yourself lucky. Affordable hardware like the Oculus Quest went out of stock completely, and many employees left their headsets at their offices. Nick Lambert, Customer Success Manager at The Wild, shares, “Many customers have gone from using VR headsets to using our desktop offering. A lot of that is just due to access to a lack of access to headsets.” Luckily, supplies of VR headsets are starting to return to normal.

The Wild’s multi-platform solution has come in handy during the pandemic, allowing teams to enter virtual spaces on desktop or iOS (iPhone or iPad) and upload content. “By taking 3D models to the construction sites through augmented reality, you can still ‘be there’ and see what your design will look like at a one-to-one scale, while social distancing at the same time,” Lambert adds.

There has also been an increase in reality capture and virtual presence tools like 360 photography, laser scans, and drones. These create more visibility into what's going on at your jobsite without needing to be there in person. Software like OpenSpace and HoloBuilder can help everyone feel like they're on site, even from afar.

Onward and Upward

Lambert recently visited an empty construction site with a local architecture firm in Portland, Oregon. He says, “We were able to go to the site, line up the models and the iPads, and walk through an entire floor.” He then logged into The Wild on an Oculus Quest using his phone as an internet hotspot. “I could physically walk through the whole space, surrounded by the digital model itself,” he says. “I could see where everything was going to go, while others using iPads could see me both physically and digitally.” Together, they were able to virtually move furniture and cubicles, as well as view different lighting options.

Technology-led workflows like this paint a bright future for the construction industry, despite social shakeups in our work culture. “If there's one thing I love about the construction industry, its tremendous resiliency,” shares Cheney, “If you look back at the great financial crisis in 2008, our industry bounced back from that.” Cheney believes we will similarly bounce back from COVID-19’s impact. As more construction sites open up, adapting to new protocols will ensure that we can continue safely paving onward.

Learn more about integrations with Autodesk Construction Cloud here.

Clay Walsh