Necessity may be the mother of invention, but stress is the foreman provoking further innovation. In these stressful times, we’ve already seen a lot of pioneering techniques to safely keep construction sites active. In the months and years ahead, the pandemic will continue to leave its mark on the way we build the world around us.
In the larger Texas metros, the COVID-19 emergency has forced some projects to partially or fully suspend operations while others that were set to break ground have been pushed until next year, according to Matt Hoglund, central regional leader and management committee member with DPR Construction.
Though some of DPR’s clients have hit the pause button while they evaluate the economic impact of the pandemic on their business models, the vast majority of their projects have progressed forward. DPR instituted a number of safety protocols on active job sites that, in the end, caused minimal impacts and allowed work to forge ahead.
“Construction involves mitigating hazards under normal circumstances and COVID-19 prevention is now a new hazard taken into consideration in planning daily work, labor needs and PPE,” said Hoglund. “As a result, construction has proceeded consistently in most areas, with even some additional work being added by our healthcare teams as our customers seek their own solutions as a result of the pandemic.”
For example, DPR has been tasked with renovating Hilton Americas, the largest hotel in Houston. The second phase of the renovation was set to begin after a number of large conferences were canceled due to the pandemic. Not only did DPR have to start work on 600 guest rooms earlier than anticipated, they had to come up with a COVID-19 emergency response plan to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Among these steps, DPR instituted a rigorous screening process for workers entering the site, using a sophisticated QR Code system, electronic badging, temperature scans and color-coded wrist bands. They also sorted the 250 people coming to the site each day into four separate shifts and scheduled use of the freight elevators so that deliveries and debris removal didn’t create a bottleneck in the loading dock.
“We are very proud of the adjustments our teams have made and the discipline they’ve shown in adhering to new protocols,” Hoglund said, “including utilizing an internally developed national pre-screening app, required temperature checks and physical distancing.”
In Austin, Dallas, Houston and markets around the country, construction pipelines will before long find themselves filled with healthcare, life sciences and advanced technology projects. Even with this renewed focus, the pandemic has created serious economic disruption. According to Hoglund, however, this is a feature not a bug; the strain of the pandemic and it’s resulting recession will create more opportunities for innovative processes to gain a foothold on work sites.
“Ultimately, we know customers want predictability. They want to know ways we can limit disruptions with labor and the supply chain,” said Hoglund. “We believe in our self-perform craft to help there.”
More integrated and efficient use of virtual design and construction (VDC) and building information modeling (BIM), for example, can allow for more modular and other off-site work to bring a project to delivery faster. These technologies aren’t new but using them in novel ways can potentially change the industry for years to come, especially as the relatively nascent field of prefabricated construction begins to take off.
“We expect cost and schedule certainty to be an even higher priority for customers as the economy recovers,” said Hoglund. “As we continue to deal with COVID-19, prefab helps take some of the workers away from the site and allows more space for distancing.”
In addition to the Hilton Americas project, DPR has been involved with a number of high-profile builds around Texas. The 39-story Indeed Office Tower, for example, is set to deliver 683,000 square feet of retail and Class A office space to downtown Austin. Developed by Trammell Crow Company, the building is scheduled to deliver next spring.
Set to be the tallest office tower in Austin’s CBD, Indeed Office Tower will feature 3,000-square-foot floorplates and tenant amenities such as a fitness center, dedicated conference center and outdoor terraces. The adjacent, historic Claudia Taylor Johnson post office building will eventually be transformed into a food hall or urban market.
Another partnership with Trammell Crow in Austin is Block 185, a 35-story office building fronting the Colorado River in the city’s Green Water Redevelopment area. Designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, tech giant Google recently leased all 800,000 square feet of office space in the 1.5-million-square-foot development.
Regardless of the building type or scope—from smaller projects to skyline-defining towers—the future of construction will likely be defined by digitally fabricated, modular components. By using prefabrication, materials can be procured at optimal times and there is less waste, delivering more value. And in a world still reeling from the pandemic, off-site manufacturing also provides an easier approach to physical distancing and cleaning/sanitization that tomorrow’s construction firms will find appealing.
“Overall, we have been focused on technologies that improve efficiency in the way we deliver projects from early design through occupancy,” Hoglund said. “We expect those solutions will be an even higher priority coming out of the pandemic.”
In the end, the biggest benefit to the construction trade that technology provides is enhanced collaboration. Owners, developers, architects, contractors and subcontractors have continuously been drawn to those technologies that aid communication at every stage of a project. Having conducted integral project meetings during this crisis without being physically present, all of these stakeholders should be planning for the technological leaps coming in the years ahead.