The construction sector post-pandemic

8 July 2020

Construction work – specifically repair, maintenance and improvement (RMI) – is already being done on the ground to repurpose cities to make them more pedestrian, cycle, and social-distancing friendly

Joseph Kilroy

The construction industry accounts for about 6% of the economic output of the UK. Construction provides jobs for 2.3 million people, about 7.1% of the UK total, with hundreds of thousands more employed within other related businesses. More than three quarters of the UK’s stock of vital capital assets are the products of construction, totalling some £3,620 billion.

The COVID-19 crisis affords an opportunity to reassess our use of space, particularly in cities, where a new spatial hierarchy has emerged in light of the pandemic. The logic of continuing to devote large swathes of valuable urban space to offices filled with employees who can seemingly work remotely, has, almost overnight, been called into question. It also now seems unsustainable to continue to disproportionately accommodate space-hungry road traffic, while public spaces that facilitate social distancing become more and more important from a public health perspective.

The lockdown has led to tangible environmental  gains in terms of reduced carbon emissions and cleaner air in cities. The ways that we plan and envisage the built environment can preserve these benefits by encouraging a move away from car-dependent development, while facilitating sustainable transport infrastructure. Local authorities have led the way by reclaiming space for pedestrians and cyclists, as streets have been pedestrianised and pop up bike lanes have been created to accommodate the record numbers of new bikes on the road asthe 2020 ‘cycling boom’ continues.

Now that people have been given a glimpse of what it is like to live in towns and cities that prioritise sustainable transport infrastructure and public spaces, many will be reluctant to give up this lifestyle and to revert to less efficient uses of space and lower air quality when lockdown restrictions are lifted completely. The negative quality of life implications, for city dwellers in particular, of continuing to devote space to private cars and on-street parking have been evident for years. Now the issue has national, and even global implications, as if we continue to squeeze pedestrians and cyclists into small spaces by disproportionately devoting space to private cars, we are putting public health at immediate risk through COVID-19 transmission by undermining social distancing.

The Construction Sector

While this spatial evolution unfolds in towns and cities, the construction industry has taken its biggest hit since the last recession. However, there may also be opportunities for development in the sector, as it looks to modernise and equip itself to deliver the kinds of infrastructure that our new circumstances demand. The use of technology and advanced manufacturing, such as modular, off-site construction, will be part of this modernisation. Modular off-site buildings have the added benefit of being adaptable through their lifetime, meaning they can meet different needs as demands on the built environment change over time. This is particularly appealing now that demand for hotels, luxury student apartments, and co-living spaces dampens as a result of COVID-19, while the longstanding need for affordable housing in cities remains.  In a world where supply chains are under pressure and where activity is restricted due to on-site and travel restrictions, technology and advanced manufacturing provide tools that can be used to address the construction industry’s long-standing productivity problem, while also producing buildings that meet the changing needs of society.

As the restrictions are lifted, there are two important questions facing the construction sector. Firstly, how will sites operate? Secondly, what will the post-COVID-19 construction landscape look like and what will the project pipeline– that is to say, the sorts of projects that will come on stream – look like? In ordinary times, the construction industry is very safety conscious. It operates under strict health and safety conditions, and tends to effectively police itself through adherence to regulations and enforcement measures. Nevertheless, the restrictions on sites that have been introduced due to social distancing rules, have led to pockets of innovation, and some firms have embraced technology to compensate for the restricted numbers allowed on site. For example, 3D model viewers, that allow construction workers to undertake quality control of completed work through augmented reality, are being used on some sites, allowing work to resume without need for physical presence on site.

In terms of ongoing construction activities, most construction projects have been impacted by COVID-19. Government now has an important role to play in subduing volatility in the sector by introducing a clear pipeline of activity, which in the short term at least, is likely to involce small scale interventions to facilitate social distancing. The evolving infrastructure requirements of cities in particular will be a crucial part of this activity that will see construction re-emerge from the crisis.

Construction work – specifically repair, maintenance and improvement (RMI) – is already being done on the ground to repurpose cities to make them more pedestrian, cycle, and social-distancing friendly. In the immediate term there is a clear case for an infrastructure pipeline centred on this repurposing work. These socially valuable, labour intensive RMI projects have the dual benefit of providing a stable pipeline of work for the construction sector, and of creating a built environment fit for the future.

Policy Implications

Policy has a clear role to play in making these temporary repurposing works more permanent. The built environment, like climate, is the meeting place of many different policy areas, including: health, housing, transport, economy, finance, and social justice. The repurposing of cities can achieve gains in each of these areas and, as such, should be hugely appealing to policy makers. A policy commitment to seize on the momentum created by ad hoc changes to cities that have been introduced under the COVID-19 crisis, and to implement a programme to permanently repurpose public spaces, will leave a positive legacy for generations to come, while also providing a clear pipeline of work for the construction sector. This will clearly require a larger share of local authority budgets to be devoted to sustainable transport and working with the planning system.

Many local authorities are reimagining their local areas to make them more pedestrian- and cycle-friendly in preparation for the new social-distancing reality we will face when we emerge from the lockdown. The way we interact with towns and cities is changing, and – given an amenable policy environment – the construction sector is well-placed to facilitate this through the repurposing of spaces to allow for social distancing.