7 trends that will shape commercial construction in 2019

Is a trend really a trend if it repeats year after year? That's a valid concern in the commercial construction world. For a competitive and fragmented industry that happens to be resistant to some of the rapid evolution noted in others, participants and observers are continually seeing some of the same glacial movements take center stage.
For example, the skilled labor shortage that has roiled the country isn't going anywhere anytime soon, despite increased educational and outreach programs. Automation, drones and increasingly comprehensive technology solutions are infiltrating projects one jobsite at a time. Offsite building is becoming more and more prevalent to guard against safety hazards on a worksite and deliver projects faster, cheaper and more efficiently. Mitigating risk is still possibly the most important aspect of a successful job.
But for those trying to glean more information about what's around the corner to predicate ways it could affect the safety of their workers and the health of their bottom lines, it's important to pay more attention to the nuances of these big trends. Read on for the seven biggest factors to watch this year.
Modular construction heights increasing
The modular construction market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.9% from $112.4 billion today to $157 billion by 2023. And buildings constructed through offsite, prefabricated modular units are stacking increasingly taller.
Prescient, for example, topped its buildings out at five stories until 2015. Continual refinement of its technology, however, allows the company to now erect buildings up to 18 stories. Its average project square footage has similarly exploded, more than tripling from 60,000 square feet in 2015 to 200,000 square feet today.
Satyen Patel, Prescient’s executive chairman, told Construction Dive that the smaller buildings early in the company’s life demonstrated its capabilities, increased its market visibility and helped bolster clients’ trust to look to it for larger buildings.
“[Clients] understood the improved economics of our system and were confident in our approach,” said Patel. “Not only do larger buildings drive even more cost savings for our customers, but we prioritize larger buildings since Prescient also benefits from the economies of scale in larger projects.”
“The capability to build taller modular buildings has always existed,” Tom Hardiman, Modular Building Institute spokesperson and executive director, told Construction Dive via email. “We are seeing more because of owners’ willingness to utilize the process now. This willingness is being driven in part by a lack of skilled labor in the traditional construction sector, a lack of affordable housing, rising and unpredictable materials costs, and the constant pressure to deliver on time and on budget. Modular construction addresses many of these needs for the owner.”
Technology supplementing, not replacing, human workers
Rather than fear automation, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost encouraged attendees of Autodesk University 2017 to think about where automation can take the industry. This past November, he followed up in his keynote address, noting that automation will will give professionals the opportunity to create better and more meaningful work by taking away redundant and repetitive tasks.
“[Automation] increases the importance of our expertise and creativity,” Anagnost said.
But will automation take jobs away from construction workers? Although automation could displace up to 2.7 million construction workers by 2057, according to a report from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute, the study’s co-authors told Construction Dive that “as long as 100% of the task cannot be automated, there will still be a need for human labor.”
Construction Robotics’ semi-automated mason robot, for example, is designed to work alongside a human, as is its Material Unit Lift Enhancer. The company always starts by considering where someone is doing redundant work and could benefit from a machine taking the physical strain out of the work or increasing production speed.
Autodesk also shared its predictions about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning with Construction Dive, indicating that “AI and machine learning will be broadly applied in construction to reduce risk and improve project performance across the project lifecycle. "AI will also be applied to identify change risk and predict and prevent those changes earlier in the project lifecycle. In the year ahead, we will more regularly see AI and machine learning on the jobsite, and, as a result, more firms will realize its benefits to the construction workflow, saving companies time, money and, most importantly, increasing workers’ safety.”
Stephen Muck, chairman and CEO of Brayman Construction Corp., as well as co-founder and president of Advanced Construction Robotics, the firm behind Tybot the rebar-tying robot, said robotics could supplement construction in numerous ways, including extending workers' careers by allowing a robot to perform more physically demanding tasks. Muck also thinks that robots will become more common in construction because they can draw younger technically savvy people into the industry.
Design-build's popularity growing
“Design-build is no longer an ‘alternative’ delivery method,” Preston Haskell, founder of Haskell Construction and co-founder of the Design-Build Institute of America, told attendees of the association’s 25th anniversary event this year.
The method of contracting a single entity to both design and construct a project was a disruptive trend not long ago, but now, the “master builder” approach accounts for nearly half of all U.S. nonresidential spending.
All but three states have embraced design-build procurement and delivery for public projects and the last holdouts will surely soon follow, the group’s founders stressed at the event.
The popularity is based on results, they said: Costs are less than more traditional methods such as a design-bid-build due to its streamlined organization, timelines are reduced due to less back-and-forth remedial efforts in the design process and clients get the clearest contractual remedies.
Massive infrastructure-based public-private partnerships rely on the method to establish a single point of responsibility, but the continued streamlining of design-build’s efficiencies are allowing it to also be used on smaller and smaller projects as well, according to Larry Hurley, president of H2 Consultants. Design-build contracts are being used for transportation projects delivered for as low as $5 million in the same way they are for a commercial building project of that size, Hurley explained.
And it’s not just the institute touting optimism for the method’s future. FMI Corp. predicted that spending on design-build projects will ratchet up around 18% in the next three years, to around $324 billion.
Building lean cutting waste in all forms
The U.S. economy is still recovering from the Great Recession and likely approaching another lesser downturn in 2019 or 2020, by some analysts’ estimates. Under economic strains, it’s all the more important for the construction industry to clamp down on inefficiency and improve productivity levels, which are second to last among all U.S. sectors, according to a McKinsey & Co. report.
Contractors are increasingly looking to lean principles, which, along with automation, helped grow manufacturing’s global labor productivity by 3.6% annually over the past two decades compared with construction’s unimpressive 1% productivity growth, McKinsey found.
The philosophy is centered on eliminating waste in all the (sometimes unexpected) forms it can take for construction companies, from excess materials delivered to a project site to overlapping tasks in a workflow. Through early planning and frequent conversations with stakeholders, as well as a variety of lean tools and strategies, contractors can identify and eliminate efficiencies that might otherwise slip under the radar.
Incorporating prefabricated materials and setting up just-in-time deliveries that align with project schedules are some approaches companies using lean building take to trim oversupply and over processing and to begin to make up for a chronic undersupply of skilled labor.
In a McGraw Hill Construction survey of such companies, 84% reported higher quality projects since transitioning from traditional methods, 80% saw greater customer satisfaction, 77% experienced greater productivity and 77% improved jobsite safety. With such proponents as AECOM, Skanska USA, McCarthy Building Cos., Hoar Construction and offsite-centric Katerra, the method is sure to broaden its appeal for small- and mid-size contractors in the coming year.
More drones taking flight
In the not-so-distant past, aerial photos of jobsites were taken from airplanes for a hefty fee. Since drones came onto the scene as an alternative, they’ve rapidly advanced to the point that contractors can access swaths of data with relatively affordable off-the-shelf models or third-party services.
Commercial drone use in construction surged 239% year over year, the fastest growth of any sector, according to a May report from DroneDeploy. And as use of the technology expands, so do its use cases. No longer just tools for capturing photos from above, drones and accompanying software are equipped with mapping, volumetrics analysis, thermal heat imaging and other capabilities, with more likely to come.
Contractors depend on a steady stream of data to adapt their project plans and best target budget and timeline goals. Drone technology can help by gathering and analyzing information that human workers either couldn’t collect or wouldn’t notice. When linked to certain software programs, drones can measure the amount of dirt in a pile and give the contractor an idea of how many truckloads are needed, for example, or identify heat loss from a building so leaks can be addressed before rework is needed.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is slowly but surely breaking down barriers to commercial drone use, allowing more construction companies to explore their options for using the technology or even developing in-house capabilities. Part 107 rules, introduced in 2016, simplified requirements for pilot certification, among other provisions.
This year, the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) opened up 99% of U.S. airspace to drones and reduced flight approval times from about 90 days to just seconds. Rules for operating drones beyond line of sight, currently illegal for commercial users, seems to be the next deregulation on the docket as more drones take to the skies.
Private firms leading high-speed rail projects
Ground high-speed transportation has had a slow go of it in the U.S., but a few privately financed projects have the potential to lead the way in 2019, particularly because public funding for these projects is limited.
Up until a few years ago, the $77 billion Northern-to-Southern California bullet train, over budget, behind schedule and possibly approaching boondoggle status, was the only U.S. high-speed transit project making any substantial progress. Using federal and state funding, it continues to be the subject of heavy regulator scrutiny.
Enter the private sector. One of the benefits of using private investors is that developers are able to use the best technology for the project, even if that means sourcing it and the accompanying equipment from a foreign country like Japan, a no-no when taking federal funds. That’s what Texas Central Partners plans on doing for its $12 billion to $15 billion Dallas-to-Houston bullet train, which should start construction in the next year.
Rail company Brightline is also bringing private money to a proposed high-speed rail system between the Central Florida cities of Tampa and Orlando. The company already operates a South Florida line that it plans to extend to Orlando and recently received permission from the state to start negotiating leases for land along the Interstate 4 corridor for the Tampa-to-Orlando segment.
And while the hyperloop, first conceived of by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, has yet to get beyond tests and big plans by the likes of Virgin Hyperloop and a few other companies, a hybrid is in the offing in Chicago, courtesy of Musk's The Boring Company. The city has hired the firm to design, build, finance and operate and express transit system between downtown and O'Hare International Airport, a chance for Musk to show off his 130 mph underground “skate” system” that will whisk passengers and their vehicles to their destinations.
Gen Z growing up
Millennials will be ages 23 to 38 in 2019, which means that companies are coming to the end of the road with strategies to attract this cohort to careers in construction.
The new focus for market researchers, recruiters and forecasters is Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010 and ranging from ages 9 to 22. They are graduating high school by the millions each year, and — lucky for companies that are short on skilled workers and seeing baby boomers retire — the construction industry may appeal to them on many levels.
While millennials were raised in the “boom” times of the 1990s, Gen Z grew up in the aftermath of economic crashes in 2000 and 2008. They watched their entrepreneurial Generation X parents weather recession and are spooked by millennials’ average $42,000 in debt. Gen Z’s top concern is drowning in college loans, according to a study in GenZ@Work, with 75% responding that there are other alternatives for getting a good education.
Based on what we know about this generation, construction companies would do well to attract Gen Zers with earn-as-you-learn programs and a clear path to career advancement. According to a recent Barna study, 66% of Gen Zers want to start a career before they turn 30 compared with only 51% of millennials. The industry would do even better to make the case for not just a career, but career success at a young age, and even the opportunity to own a small business.
Fluent digital natives, Gen Z may be able to help construction firms innovate technologically more than their millennial predecessors could. Skanska USA, for example, is readying its research and development budget for the ideas these young people will bring, according to VP of Innovation Stacy Scopano. A Gen Z high schooler “can just download a free [CAD] kit, 3D-print it and expect the world to operate differently,” he said at a recent conference. “And we’ve got to fund it.”