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Can innovation cure what ails Canadian construction?

Peter Caulfield
Can innovation cure what ails Canadian construction?

Because disease – in all its different forms – is still on everyone’s mind the Journal of Commerce asked several western Canada construction leaders for their diagnosis of the industry, and whether technological innovation and innovative thinking might be good for what ails it.

“The main problem with the construction industry today is a lack of trust among the different players,” said Helen Goodland,  head of research and Innovation at Scius Advisory Inc. in Vancouver. “As a result, many costly and inefficient processes get baked in.”

Although partners on a project need access to the same accurate information at the same time, the industry hasn’t been investing in the latest communication technology.

“This leads to a lack of performance on all sides,” said Goodland. “Construction is a rickety structure that is showing its fragility now due to COVID-19.”

But the winds of change are starting to blow.

“Many people are beginning to at least acknowledge there’s a problem,” she said. “And some forward-thinking owners and contractors are changing the way they do things.” 

Construction is still a craft-based enterprise in Canada, says Goodland.

“But we can learn from other countries, such as China, where more building components are manufactured off-site and installed on-site,” she said.

Goodland says the impetus for the adoption of new technologies and the best innovative management practices will have to come from the public sector.

 

Construction needs to become more productive. Our processes are outdated,

— Clint Undseth

Construction Industry Consultant

 

“The government, which is often very progressive in its procurement policies, needs to lean on the construction industry to adopt modern building practices,” Goodland said. 

At the same time, says Rory Kulmala, CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association, although government encouragement of innovative technology and practices can be helpful, external events, such as COVID-19, can also be a fruitful source of innovative thinking.

“We don’t always need to look to the government for help with innovation, because we’re capable of doing it ourselves,” Kulmala said. “The industry responding to market incentives lets the market drive itself.”

Productivity, or the lack thereof, is on the mind of construction industry consultant Clint Undseth.

“Construction needs to become more productive,” said Undseth. “Our processes are outdated, people are not working together to the best of their ability, and, compared to other economic sectors, construction is lagging in the adoption of new technologies.

“But, before it takes on innovative technologies, it needs to modernize its construction and management processes.”

Undseth says the construction industry needs to come to terms with its mixed feelings about giving up some of its old ways of doing things and trying something new.

“Our industry wants to modernize but, at the same time,  it resists change,” said Undseth. “It could learn from other industries, such as automotive assembly and food production, which have figured out how to manage change successfully.”

Construction industry consultant Mark Taylor has compiled a long list of ways in which the construction industry needs to take better care of itself.

In addition to a shortage of skilled labour and a resistance to change, it includes:

  • Instead of collaboration and cooperation, the historic contractual win-lose set-up of the industry ensures conflict between the different players on a project;
  • Construction is extremely fragmented, with small companies of five employees or fewer making up most of the industry;
  • Unlike most other industries, construction has a reactive approach to quality, in which punch lists and deficiencies are considered normal; and
  • Again, distinct from other industries (such as the manufacture of consumer products), the prevalent assumption in construction is that costs will always go up. As a result, contractors are less likely to look at the cost of their inputs, especially labour, and work at decreasing them.

Taylor has some suggestions for easing some of the pain in construction’s maladies:

  • Because a major problem facing construction is the lack of a skilled workforce, use construction technology to not only improve information flow, but also to make the workforce more productive;
  • Take advantage of the efficiencies that are available from mass customization by creating designs that are practical to build and that are based on a kit of standardized parts;
  • Create an open library of best-practice models for all aspects of construction and encourage all industry players to contribute to and make use of it; and
  • Make it a requirement that trades training includes how to plan work properly.

“To get the industry moving in the right direction it will likely take some form of government intervention, because I don’t think construction will go there by itself,” said Taylor. “Finally, the power of local construction associations to harness collaboration between companies should be increased.”

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