Construction Recovery Will be Uneven Until Health Concerns are Resolved

Real Estate

SAN FRANCISCO—The first half of the year brought a torrent of unexpected challenges for the construction industry, particularly in private nonresidential construction. On a national level, nonresidential building starts fell 19% through the first five months of the year, according to Dodge Data and Analytics.

In some markets where construction shutdowns were ordered, work levels fell as much as 80% during the shutdown period. The most disruptive issues included construction shutdown orders, new procedures to enable physical distancing on jobsites, and delays of materials, fixtures and equipment, according to JLL’s H2 2020 Construction Outlook.

The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans were a necessary source of relief, with Small Business Administration data showing that more than $63 billion was provided to construction firms through June 12. Although critical for the survival of many small and midsized construction businesses, the PPP loans also illustrate how hard the industry was hit by the pandemic, as construction ranked third out of all industries in terms of highest total loan value provided.

Employment in construction also faced a major shock, with the largest one-month (April) unemployment increase ever recorded. The construction unemployment rate jumped above 16% that month, spread across all sectors and job types in the industry.

A quick bounce-back in employment was a positive development in May and June, with almost half of the jobs lost in the two prior months already recovered. While the labor situation was steadier by early July than during the initial impacts of the pandemic, it remained in much worse condition than at any point in the last seven years.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the construction industry was on a path of slow, steady growth across most sectors in 2020. Early cracks in that growth began to show in 2019, as private construction spending slowed for the first time since the last recession, but overall forecasts remained stable. The pandemic scrambled all expectations and forced a complete reset in forecasts.

“While some sort of adjustment was predicted prior to COVID, the catalyst of it all is COVID,” Julie Hyson, JLL west region project and construction management lead, tells GlobeSt.com. “The lagging indicators are due to COVID and there has been an increase in material/lumber pricing as well.”

The report indicates that nonresidential construction is expected to decline 10 to 15% in 2020. The decline will be the combined result of the disruption from shutdowns (construction in locations

with shutdowns temporarily dropped an average of 70%), along with decreased demand for new projects in some sectors heavily impacted by the pandemic, including retail, entertainment and office.

“In some ways, new baselines were set this year with the shifts in the market,” Hyson tells GlobeSt.com. “This will lead to optimism for growth from 2022 to 2024 remaining much higher than it was before the coronavirus recession. This is a normal progression based on past recoveries.”

One area that had a bounce during the pandemic was technology acceleration. This is leading to a permanent and industry-wide increase in the adoption of construction technology. Much like the rest of the economy, construction and the broader office-based portion of the AEC industry was forced into a remote work experiment this year, which tested existing technology systems. On jobsites, staffing

limits and distancing requirements expanded demand for cloud-based technology to ease sharing of plans and schedules. New health and safety requirements created a whole new class of problems for technology to solve, from health monitoring to contact tracing, and an already burgeoning construction tech industry saw a jump in immediate demand.

This immediate impact has been termed technology forcing or the move by firms to adopt technology because it is a necessity during this pandemic, rather than an optional investment in future efficiencies. Construction’s technology forcing will translate to a permanent increase in adoption as construction firms, forced to quickly push through the challenges of integration, will also benefit from the efficiencies of the new tools in the long term. Some of the sectors of construction tech expected to benefit the most will be digital collaboration tools, construction wearables and offsite construction methods, which all provide both immediate benefits in the coronavirus environment and consistent payoffs once the pandemic is resolved.

“These tools were previously a ‘nice to have’ and are now a must because teams are more geographically disbursed,” Hyson tells GlobeSt.com. “The question is how long of a period of adoption we will have, how long will it last or will it last at all? The technology that will lead and have staying power will be tools that leverage AI to capture data and real-time insights. Tech will do more to provide workplace strategies and systematic changes by looking inside buildings.”

An example of that technology is being used in the PRA Health Sciences’ new Bio Laboratory in Kansas City. The remote project team gets real-time virtual site walks of the project each week. This technology tracks progress over time while capturing as-built conditions.

Recovery in the construction industry will be uneven across sectors until the health concerns of the pandemic are resolved. Due to the lower baseline that will be set in 2020, JLL expects 2021 to bring growth in both construction volume and costs, although neither is likely to recapture 2019 highs. Looking ahead, JLL’s new forecast combines a range of possible scenarios broken into individual periods of the crisis and recovery.

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