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No one can predict precisely how the shutdowns and new way of living will impact the construction industry long term. Though business will never return to normal, it will continue, and construction will adapt.
By Jessica Porter
August 7, 2020
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The effects of COVID-19 on the global economy are far-reaching, and the construction industry is no exception. No one can predict precisely how the shutdowns and new way of living will impact the industry long term. Though business will never return to normal, it will continue, and construction will adapt.

The markets most likely to experience significant change include health care and office construction. Some markets, including hospitality, arena and convention centers, may never return to the construction levels contractors once experienced. The jury is still out on education and municipal construction, as the United States awaits guidelines on how to reopen public schools, and colleges and universities go virtual.

Some scheduled projects are being delayed, while others continue as normal. Some projects are continuing with major alterations to the plan, while some are being canceled altogether. The future of many markets will remain unknown until life returns to “normal,” which could occur a year or more from now—until a vaccine is created. The future is uncertain, but the forces that will shape it are coming into focus.

Here’s a breakdown of how a few top industry stakeholders expect coronavirus to impact the future of construction.

HEALTH CARE: HEPA UNITS, ISOLATION ROOMS AND FLEX SPACES

Contractors working in health care had to act quickly to respond to the potential need for increased hospital capacity to accommodate COVID-19 patients. TDIndustries, a construction and facilities services company headquartered in Dallas, was one of them.

“The immediate impact to us is with existing facilities, where the emphasis is on increasing the number of airborne infectious isolation (AII) rooms, which are negative pressure rooms for patients with airborne infectious diseases like Tuberculosis,” says Justin Bowker, vice president of engineering for TDIndustries. “The CDC has provided guidelines that encourage and at times require COVID-19 patients to be in these rooms, including during intubation. We’ve had clients across most of our geographies that needed to quickly modify systems to increase the capacity of AII rooms.”

TDIndustries’ projects increase exhaust flow rates to create more air changes and evacuate rooms more quickly, changing the pressure relationships for which the rooms were designed originally. The company also is installing equipment such as High-Efficiency Particulate Air units that clean the air—a challenge because the HEPA filters are in such short supply.

This way of thinking is in stark contrast to the industry’s response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “The thinking after 9/11 included a big emphasis on outdoor air systems, to shut off outdoor air and prevent contaminants from getting in,” Bowker says. “With COVID-19, it’s trying to determine how we can open up and get more outdoor air in.”

To improve indoor air quality, TDIndustries also is talking with health care clients about implementing technologies such as humidification and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation—which disinfect the air using ultraviolet light—as well as higher-quality filtration. To Bowker, these changes make sense long term, even if a vaccine for coronavirus is created and fear dissipates.

For projects coming down the pipeline, TDIndustries is expecting health care clients to require major renovations to create flexible patient rooms. Instead of designing rooms that serve one specialized purpose, future hospitals will include rooms that are flexible for many needs, including a range of air change possibilities. Bowker also expects building designs to change to alter patient flow and increase the ability to isolate patients with respiratory conditions.

Creating flexible spaces in health care facilities was a trend that began prior to the outbreak but is ramping up now. Many clients of Robins & Morton, a privately held construction firm headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, were requesting more flexible spaces—such as multi-use rooms instead of highly specialized patient rooms—into the design, according to President/COO Robin Savage.

Robins & Morton also foresees possible changes in building materials with health care clients, including using touchless lighting and temperature control, installing smart glass instead of curtains and switching to antimicrobial surface materials. The contractor also expects more respite spaces for workers, a change from the pre-coronavirus trend of removing or reducing the size of those spaces.

Though there are immediate alteration projects going full force, several future health care projects are being put on hold.

“For many health care systems, the current and future financial landscape is unclear. The stark reduction in revenue-generating elective procedures and economic uncertainty has decision-makers reevaluating their budgets,” Savage says. “Additionally, several are navigating staff furloughs to offset COVID-19 care costs while assessing the impact of government assistance. Although many projects currently in the planning stage provide critical upgrades, health care systems are faced with choosing between proceeding with construction or preserving capital.”

While future health care projects remain on hold for many contractors, projects in other industries, such as office construction, are ramping up.

OFFICES: SOCIAL DISTANCING, HUMAN TRAFFIC FLOW AND FREQUENT CLEANING

Fifty-seven percent of employers now allow employees to work remotely or offer flex time, and more than 60% of employed Americans reportedly worked from home in response to coronavirus, according to the latest Gallup Panel data.

But remote work is in stark contrast to how offices operated pre-coronavirus. “The drive of office buildings was to make them as close to the college dorm experience as possible, especially within the millennial world,” says John Onken, AIA, senior project architect for Perkins & Will.

“The whole model is: the best year of your life was when you were 20—when you were being fed, socialized regularly and had all your friends living around you. Companies try to recreate that to keep millennials well paid and working hard all day.”

But now that model is shifting. If there’s one thing coronavirus showed the business community, it’s that working remotely is much more possible than expected. “People who previously said ‘there’s no way we could work from home’ are realizing they can,” says Richard Jantz, executive managing director and Tri-State Lead of Project and Development Services for Cushman & Wakefield. “We’re expecting a 5% to 10% reduction of people in offices long term.”

Now, companies such as Perkins & Will—a global design practice—and Cushman & Wakefield—a commercial real estate services firm—are trying to determine the factors that will bring employees back into the office, instead of staying in the safety of their home office.

In the near future, before a vaccine is available, offices are expected to reopen with increased safety measures, including no communal food, drinks or sharing of unnecessary spaces. Businesses also will need to increase cleanliness.

“The cleanliness of a five-star hotel bathroom and a Greyhound bus bathroom may be the same, but the perception is different,” Onken says. “There will need to be casual cleaning staff walking around, with very high visibility.”

Cushman & Wakefield has been developing a plan to advise its clients on how to reopen safely. The 6 Feet Office is a concept that includes clear direction to maintain social distancing and help employees feel confident returning to work. The six rules include the following components.

  • Be welcome at work, but always act responsibly.
  • Stick to the rules; follow the signs.
  • Stay safe at six feet away from each other.
  • Walk the office clockwise, always and everywhere.
  • Enter and leave meeting rooms as indicated.
  • Replace your desk pad daily and leave a clean desk.

The goal is to manage face-to-face contact and prevent the spread of germs. Each employee grabs a desk pad at the beginning of every day and disposes of it at the end to keep work surfaces clean. “The real innovation in this is managing where you touch and how that touch is transferred to spread the virus,” Jantz says. “It’s manageable and easy, and people will elect to do it.”

For future office design, Onken expects layouts to be a mixed version of an open and closed floor plan. “We might go back to a hybrid, where we have these open offices but drift back to more partitions and personal space,” he says. “If you want to be communal in a conference room, you might be able to do that, but you’ll be able to self-isolate within an open plan.”

“There’s also a lot of talk about hoteling or shift-working in offices,” Onken says. “I think there are a lot of people who will resist that change. People will have the feeling of being too close to others on that desk. There will still be a need for the personal desk so employees can self-isolate inside.”

In terms of specialty construction, one area that may lead to increased renovation in office buildings is HVAC systems. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers released a guidance saying office buildings should use MERV 13 or 14 filtration systems. However, those systems need stronger fans to move the air due to the increased filtration density, according to Jantz. Many buildings will need to upgrade systems to comply with those standards.

Jantz also is receiving increased requests from clients aiming to disable middle sinks to create increased separation in bathrooms, but he doesn’t expect those types of requests to be permanent in future office design.

Contractors working in all markets, but particularly office construction, should be prepared for increased questions from clients and tenants. “Contractors will have to do a better, more-transparent job that people can audit,” Onken says. “When moving into a new building, the tenant will have more specific questions about things like the HVAC system.”

INFRASTRUCTURE: INTERNET IS ESSENTIAL

Prior to COVID-19, the industry generally considered critical infrastructure to be roads and bridges. The pandemic showed what critical infrastructure means in 2020: internet access.

When schools shut down, many children in rural areas were unable to access online learning. Some facilities got creative by allowing parents to drive their children to the parking lot to complete work using the school’s internet.

Increased access to broadband—and increased internet capacity where broadband already exists—means more data centers will be needed across the country, as well as more manufacturing facilities.

“Industrial construction and manufacturing have been exploding, partially due to the online requirement and marketplace for stockpiling food and deliveries from companies like Amazon,” Jantz says. “There’s a large increase in demand for data centers of all sizes because there’s so much internet traffic.”

Bowker expects an uptick in the manufacturing sector because more people will want to purchase products—from building materials to household items—from American manufacturers.

EDUCATION AND RETAIL: BIG SHIFTS AHEAD

It seems as though the way the world functions in education and retail facilities may be forever changed. Why attend a class in person, risking exposure, when a student can receive the education virtually? Why shop in a store when it’s easy to buy items online and have them delivered in just a few hours or days?

Retail construction was already declining, experiencing an approximate 15% reduction, according to Onken. He expects that trend to continue, but not for retail to disappear altogether. “Retail will still be off as everyone does online shopping, but not all stores will turn into a huge Costco with masks. People will still want to go back to boutique stores.”

Despite the move toward virtual learning, Savage expects higher education to be one of the most in-demand markets for Robins & Morton over the next few years, in addition to health care. Many facilities have experienced lower operating costs due to more online learning and fewer people on campus, and they’ve been ramping up recruitment efforts.

“This will give institutions more flexible spending in the future and the opportunity to evaluate necessary campus upgrades,” Savage says. “Facility renovations and new program-specific buildings could serve as a tipping point for highly recruited students that may find themselves on the fence.”

However, many higher education facilities were forced to reimburse students who had to leave early due to coronavirus, and some people in the industry, like Dan Wildes, senior vice president of Sheridan Construction, a Maine-based commercial construction company, wonder how that will affect financing for future projects. For education and many other markets, only time will tell whether construction will rebound.

MODULAR AND PREFABRICATION: A CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT

Many contractors are expecting an increase in prefabrication as a way to keep employees safe from COVID-19.

“The pandemic is accelerating some trends, and one I hope will continue is prefabrication, which is the movement of labor off the jobsite and into factories,” Bowker says. “There are numerous well-documented benefits to prefab, including higher safety and quality—the factory environment is made efficient fabrication.”

TDIndustries already is thinking outside the box with prefabrication. It’s currently working with several customers to create rapidly deployable container solutions that are negative-pressure isolation rooms. The containers could be deployed when and wherever needed—during the next pandemic or natural disaster—and stored when unnecessary. When constructing the containers, TDIndustries’ employees would be kept safe in a manufacturing facility, where there’s access to running water and increased cleanliness.

Sheridan Construction has a steel fabrication facility where employees create materials such as handrails and mezzanines. “The more we can do in a controlled environment, versus in the field where it’s difficult to have hand-sanitizing stations, the better. For example, we have more overhead cranes in the facility, so we don’t need two people carrying materials,” Wildes says. “I think it will be thought of more often for the simple fact of the increased ability for social distancing and control of the environment.”

The immediate panic of the coronavirus’ impact on daily life may be dwindling, but the unknowns of the U.S. economy are here to stay. No one can predict with certainty what will happen in the construction industry as the economy gears back up. But with increased communication, proper planning, and staying informed about changing guidelines and regulations, contractors can position themselves for success in the next few months and years.

by Jessica Porter

Jessica Porter is a New-York based freelance writer and contributing editor to CE This Week.

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