Builders Innovate in Times of Crisis

On any account, COVID-19 has hit Australia’s builders hard.
A survey by Master Builders Australia found that 73 percent of construction contractors have experienced a decline in forward work orders – with average order books contracting by 40 percent. Operationally, builders need to do more with fewer workers on site and to adopt measures ranging from worker screening to cleaning of touchpoints and shared spaces to physical distancing of personnel.
Simultaneously, however, builders are adapting with new ways of working – often aided by technology. In a recent interview, Sourceable spoke with Evan Joyce, owner of Melbourne based home renovation and extension contractor EJ Construction Group, about how his firm has responded. On the same call, Tom Karemacher, APAC Vice President of multi-national construction project management software provider Procore, shared about how technology was helping.
Like others, Joyce has experienced challenges during the crisis. Early fears about a potential building sector lockdown presented uncertainty in project scheduling. Broader macroeconomic uncertainty has impacted the market for home renovations: three large projects which Joyce was ready to commence over the next six months have been put on hold. The need to respond to health and safety risks has necessitated new ways of working.
The firm has responded in two ways.
First, it has adopted new safety measures. To facilitate social distancing, no more than two workers and one subcontractor are on any given site at any one time (All up, Joyce has four employees plus himself and subcontractors). Joyce himself works remotely where possible. Common areas such as downstairs handrails are cleaned daily. Workers are conscious of hygiene and have been given greater supply of hygiene products. Joyce has made clear that workers who display symptoms need to remain at home.
Beyond that, the company has leveraged technology – in this case Procore – to better manage projects.
Prior to COVID-19, Joyce would visit each site daily. Now, many issues are resolved from the office.
“Say someone comes across an item of work and they are not sure exactly how to do it or what needs to be done,” Joyce explains.
“I can easily do a quick mark-up on Procore and say, ‘I’ve marked up the plan, I’ve highlighted the area you need to focus on’, or, ‘I have done a quick detail of exactly how we need it done’.
“They can bounce back with a couple of photos of what they have done. Again, I can mark up the photo and send it back to them and work can continue.”
Because of this, Joyce says the company has improved workflow as queries are resolved without employees needing to wait for him to arrive on site.
By enabling the creating of records, meanwhile, the software also facilitates the creation of a trail throughout the project about what decisions have been made and why these have been made.
To be maintain quality, Joyce still often visits sites after work is finished for the day and complete his own walkthrough. No technology, he says, can replace the value of maintaining a physical watch over projects.
Karemacher, meanwhile, says contractors throughout the industry have adopted several strategies to adapt to the new environment. To facilitate collaboration despite the need for remote working, many have taken up Procore and services such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. He says Procore integrates with both Zoom and Teams, which enables log trails to be created of meetings that are held and captures discussions that take place. Contractors are using its forms and inspection tools, meanwhile, to enable workers to complete coronavirus symptom checks and to develop checklists for site cleanliness. Last week, Procore also announced an intergration with GoToMeeting.
Speaking about Procore, he says the software helps in several ways. In terms of managing project risks and potential safety hazards, contractors are using daily logs and forms to track manpower and project progress. To maintain project visibility despite less frequent site visitations,  he says project managers are using images, reports and mark-ups, which have made the transition to working remotely relatively seamless.
Notwithstanding the challenges which restrictions have brought, meanwhile,  Karemacher also talks of areas of silver lining. Less traffic in CBDs has improved site access on larger commercial  projects. Technology take up has gained traction as contractors have needed to do more with less and to perform more tasks away from site. As stakeholders came together to keep the industry open and to keep workers safe, a sense of comradery has ensued.
Joyce agrees that there are positives. In his own firm’s case, doing more remotely has enabled a mature age apprentice to take on more responsibility – the individual in question having stepped up to the plate and exceeded expectations.
As well, he says the faster technology uptake has been welcome.
“I think the whole shift for construction into technology has always been one that would obviously be beneficial,” Joyce said.
“This has pushed us quicker in that direction.”