How can major real estate projects get back on track post COVID-19?

COVID-19 has highlighted a vulnerability in construction with major real estate projects with complex programmes and large resource needs being hardest hit. Though as the construction industry looks to emerge from the crisis there is an opportunity to embed a more industrialised, standardised and digitally advanced approach to get projects back on track.

By Sharat Garkhel, Director and Rob Phelan, Project Director 

Data from March and April revealed the fastest downturn in the construction sector’s output for over a decade. In the initial lockdown period, the sector also saw a 65 percent decline in gross value added from the pre COVID-19 levels according to Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Reduced productivity and project delays

Data across the construction industry provides one lens to look through as we assess the impact of COVID-19 on major projects in the UK. To better understand what is happening on the ground we have drawn on our live project/commission data and engaged in one-to-ones with Tier one contractors. The information they have shared from their supply chain surveys covering over 20 trades has enabled us to capture performance metrics revealing falling outputs and severe schedule overruns – and the reasons behind these.

Current social distancing measures have reduced the number of operatives on-site resulting in output levels falling by an average 25 percent from pre-COVID levels. This means that an operative today would have to work 56 hours per week to produce the pre-COVID 40 hours per week normal productivity.

Active sites have had to contend with altered lead-in times for materials as manufacturers production rates have dropped. The market input from trade specialists has suggested a drop in output from 20 percent to 30 percent. Therefore, it’s not surprising that faced with this unprecedented disruption some major projects are reporting potential programme delays of three to six months.

To assess the impact of reduced productivity resulting from the new Standard Operating Practices and the longer lead-ins, we have taken a project with inherent challenges and built a case study of a 50 storey high rise tower at a critical construction stage. While every high rise project can present different challenges depending on its stage of construction and the varying complexity of logistics, our prototype model has shown a 17 percent increase in overall duration from the COVID-19 impact. View the case study (Excel spreadsheet)

Accelerating construction projects forward

Plotting a course out of COVID-19 will not be easy, but changing the way we deliver must be part of the solution. The current crisis should be seen as a catalyst towards a more industrialised, standardised and digitally advanced industry.

A range of solutions are needed, but we have focused on digitisation and industrialised construction as the main opportunity areas for positive change. This will help make up lost ground during COVID-19 and fundamentally improve how we build over the next decade.

Digital tools

With most construction projects facing such unprecedented disruption due to programme delays, great expectations are being placed on the use of digital technologies to accelerate project delivery.

Digital technologies can enable better collaboration, greater control of the value chain, and a shift toward more data-driven decision making.

The use of immersive technologies (such as 4D BIM and Reconstruct) for pre-construction reviews creates an engaging space for collaboration, and a better understanding of the project.

4D schedule simulation gives a view of the proposed construction sequence of both physical and virtual environments, providing confidence of project delivery, as well as a unique insight for planning and managing site logistics and safety.

Integrating new technologies into projects and programmes will minimise output loss and contribute to improved industry productivity in the longer term, and deliver high quality, zero carbon and sustainable outputs.

Despite these anticipated gains, the construction industry remains in the early stages of the adoption of newer technologies like 4D scheduling. To date, implementation has been fragmented due to heavy upfront investment costs, meaning there is not yet an industry exemplar demonstrating a clear use case.

Industrialised construction

Increasing resource/productivity pressures, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19, can be mitigated by applying Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) principles to produce constructible components, through the use of BIM.

An example would be to use DfMA for structure and cladding packages. This can provide significant productivity gains in addition to a 50 percent reduction in the size of the site install team for this element of works. An added benefit for congested sites is that the supplier could use the real-time status of these packages on site to optimise the timing of future deliveries.

We are currently working with a client to implement modular construction at one of the Wood Wharf buildings located in Canary Wharf, London. The building has 17 storeys of volumetric modular serviced apartments on top of a concrete transfer slab and tied back to concrete lift cores. The overall gain in project duration is anticipated to be in excess of ten percent.

Modular was the preferred method of construction here as it is a congested site and building the apartments modules in a factory would naturally reduce the number of site labour required. Further, the off-site quality control was deemed an advantage, meaning that on site finishing trades were significantly reduced.

Making change happen

To overcome adoption barriers and drive real momentum in the deployment of modular and digital technologies, clients and the wider construction industry must focus their energy around six priority areas:

  1. Standardising project delivery approach by building on digital foundations.
  2. Digital stewardship to drive the innovation imperative.
  3. Promoting the long-term benefits that include a reduction in 30 percent rework costs and a significant saving in lost time.
  4. Upskilling current teams around digital technology and the latest software.
  5. Setting goals via industry leadership boards for establishing implementation requirements within our contract documents.
  6. Engaging with the supply chain early to overcome industry challenges in collaboration.

Further resources

Please visit our COVID-19 response page for all of our resources relating to the impact of COVID-19 on the construction sector.

For further information contact:

Sharat Garkhel
Director