Growth, Technology and People, how change is happening in Construction

Change is a constant in any industry but over the past few years, there have been a lot of seismic shifts where the construction world is concerned. This has been focused on technology and working practices – such as looking for more sustainable materials or integrating greater digital processes – but also on people. Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen much more of an emphasis on employee mental health, as well as some obvious worker shortages opening up that are going to need attention in the coming years. These key areas show just how much change is happening in construction today.

The quest for more sustainable materials: recycled concrete

The construction sector generates around 150 million tonnes of waste annually and uses 295 million tonnes of virgin material every year. Finding ways to reuse and recycle waste so as to reduce the need for more virgin materials and make the industry more efficient has become a serious priority. Recycled concrete offers many positive choices – it can be re-used in a variety of different ways, for example in soil-cement or granular sub-bases, and concrete pieces from demolished buildings can be repurposed too, for example in gabion walls to protect shorelines. Plus, the process of making cement can also have benefits – the UK currently produces around 400,000 tonnes of waste tyres every year and these tyres are ideal kiln fuel for cement production. Using them removes tyres from other waste processes and burning them for cement has no adverse environmental impact.

Integrating 3D digital printing into construction

3D printing technology has come a long way over the past decade and now has many practical uses, including in a construction context. Here, it can be employed on a construction site, stacking up layers of material (such as concrete) to build structures. 3D printing can also be used in a factory context where it can print essential components for construction that can then later be taken on site. While the technology might take something of a leap of faith for those who haven’t used it before, the way that 3D printing works is actually very simple. A CAD or BIM programme will tell the printer what it needs to do to print and then the machine will start creating layers in accordance with this. The printer can work with any material that is liquid and will cool or dry to create a structure, whether that is cement or liquid metal. There are many different benefits to integrating 3D digital printing into construction projects including:

  • Minimising waste – the digital printer uses only the precise volume of materials required for construction.
  • Improving efficiency and outcomes – 3D printers can work 24/7 and don’t require breaks or make mistakes.
  • Making more space for creativity – the printer stacks layers one on top of the other, which creates a broad scope for creative and complex structures.

Tackling the change and challenges when it comes to people in construction

Today, there are two very clear challenges that the construction sector faces. One is skills gaps and the potential shortages of professionals due to economic and political influences. And the second is the need to ensure that employees who are in the system are being looked after where mental health is concerned.

  1. The spike in demand for people. Recent figures indicate that construction industry output is expected to return to 2019 levels by 2022. Some of the most up to date estimates forecast that this means 217,000 new workers will need to be recruited into the sector by 2025 just to meet demand. The growth in residential housing projects, as well as big initiatives such as HS2, are just two of the factors having an influence on this. Wood trades and interior fit-out is forecast to be the most in-demand profession in construction, followed by construction managers, electrical installation trades and office-based staff and IT professionals. Some sectors of construction are actually reducing demand, such as commercial and public sector construction that could be affected by government budget cuts. However, for most areas of the industry, finding ways to recruit new people and fill skills gaps is currently one of the biggest challenges businesses face.
  2. The need to prioritise mental health. Construction is an industry with many benefits but it is also one filled with pressure and where long hours and challenging tasks can be fairly standard. In the past, a failure to recognise the impact that this can have on the mental health of those within the industry has led to failures in support, as well as businesses facing high attrition rates from staff who have had enough. Prioritising mental health will look different for every organisation but these are some of the most common tools available:
  • Making clear commitments to a business culture that is positive about supporting mental health, such as signing the Building Mental Health Charter.
  • Ensuring that managers and leaders know how to talk about mental health problems and what to do if an issue comes up with an employee.
  • Providing staff with information so that they can reach out and get help if they feel like they need to, for example, internal mechanisms for help or external resources such as the Construction Industry Helpline.
  • Investing in mental health first aiders for the business. These people are trained and provide a focal point for anyone who feels like they need to reach out. It’s recommended that you train up to around 100 employees or subcontractors to be able to do this.
  • Raising awareness and letting people know they have options. Openly talking about mental health issues is a great place to start – this can communicate to anyone struggling that they are not alone and that there are steps they can take to get help.

Change in construction is happening on many levels today. From the tech shifts of integrating 3D printing to more of a focus on wellbeing and mental health, the industry is evolving in many different ways.

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