The coronavirus pandemic could potentially shut down construction, with a catastrophic impact upon firms and workers, many of them self-employed. How can software firms help?
As just about every nation is affected by the global coronavirus pandemic, entire industry sectors are facing unprecedented shutdowns. Construction is no exception. In some instances, the shutdown has been enforced by national or local authorities, by clients, or by transport restrictions.
Construction shutting down?
In countries such as Italy and Spain, where people have been told to stay at home, site-based construction activities have effectively ceased; in the United States last week (16 March 2020), Boston closed down 97 construction sites across the city (ENR news article) even before movement restrictions were enforced. In London, non-essential work on the Crossrail infrastructure project was stopped on 19 March (Building news), while closures and service reductions on London Underground and Transport for London bus services were hampering workers’ ability to travel to offices and to sites. Numerous industry events and meetings have been either postponed, cancelled altogether or shifted online, and many industry organisations have closed their buildings and, where possible, encouraged staff to work from home.
From my home office window* in southeast London, however, I can see tower cranes still turning on construction sites in north Greenwich. Renovations on two houses in a nearby road are continuing, and scaffolding erected for roof repairs to my house was dismantled just this morning (social distancing, I chatted through the window to one of the scaffolders, telling him I normally work from home – he joked about having to do his work from home from next week!).
SME and self-employed impacts
As SME businesses, the scaffolder, the local builders, and, no doubt, the numerous trades working on the next phase of Greenwich’s Millennium Village have little choice but to continue working while they can. Many construction workers are also self-employed. When they stop working, they stop earning – with all the financial hardship and worry that follows. Understandably, some UK construction industry organisations are urging the UK Government to extend its wage support lifeline to the industry’s army of self-employed workers (see Construction Enquirer).
To avoid the financial impacts of a complete shutdown, some UK industry organisations (for example, Build UK and CECA) are saying sites should be kept open so long as safe working practices can be ensured. However, the site-based physical processes of construction, maintenance, repair and demolition are not always activities that can be managed while keeping safe. Mark Anthony’s This Week in Demolition newsletter quotes an impassioned plea from an Italian demolition contractor:
“Mark, use your pen to advise the demolition and construction market to SHUT DOWN IMMEDIATELY. Construction employees travel together, they work together, they have lunch together. It is impossible to wear a protective mask for eight hours if you’re doing a heavy activity.
Please Mark, help the industry to think in a clever way, The sector has to understand that business comes after the employees’ health and safety. Help the sector to take the right decision to SHUT DOWN before it’s too late…”
A freelance writer and journalist like me, Mark Anthony draws his living from the demolition and construction sector, and says: “the closure of the demolition sector will have a catastrophic impact. And, since I am self-employed, there will be no employee benefits to fall back upon. I, therefore, have very little choice but to keep calm and carry on. I am currently unable to visit sites and, by the time I am able, there is no guarantee that there will be any sites left to visit.”
(I spent part of yesterday writing a detailed email to the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, of which I am a Fellow, explaining why I felt the UK Government’s Coronavirus financial support measures failed to help freelancers and micro-business owners. The CIPR has joined forces with the PRCA to send a joint open letter to the Chancellor today pleading for better aid to support individuals whose incomes are and will be devastated by the pandemic. The Creative Industries Federation and the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) are campaigning for creation of a Temporary Income Protection Fund to ensure self-employed workers are not left behind.)
Impacts on AEC software businesses
Slowdowns and shutdowns of construction sites and the closures of the offices of the many organisations involved in planning, designing and managing projects will also have an impact on the technology businesses supplying hardware and software used in these projects, though the effects may take time to work through.
The pandemic has created huge uncertainty and clients will doubtless delay decisions about new projects, affecting every firm reliant on that pipeline of future work. And as ongoing projects are suspended or restricted to essential works only, many workers across the supply chain will be laid off and will no longer be using construction-oriented IT daily. Even in the best of times, the construction industry has historically under-invested in information technology (around a third of the pan-industry average) – often IT is regarded as an overhead not an investment – and some hard decisions will be made, perhaps postponing or delaying purchases, or terminating ongoing licenses and software subscriptions.
Of course, some hardware and software investments might be made to support employees working from home. Remote access to corporate networks might need to be enabled (in the US, one VPN provider, NordVPNteams, says VPN use has grown 66% since 11 March, while overall sales are up 600%). New hardware may need to be provided. Design or project management applications may need to be installed on employees’ own machines. New tools such as teleconferencing solutions might be need to support team working and collaboration (data gathered by Learnbonds.com indicates that downloads for video conferencing and online meetings platform Zoom increased by 1,270% in the month to 22 March). Cloud-based storage or more construction project-specific solutions might need to be implemented. On tech website BIM+, Nigel Davies from Evolve Consultancy, writing about getting BIM under remote control, mentions use of Autodesk BIM 360 or Bentley ProjectWise (other solutions are available, of course), and Richard Saxon (Coronavirus ‘wartime scenario’ will push the digital agenda like never before) says leaders’ efforts in stress-testing remote working arrangements are paving the way for others to follow faster.
How are AEC software vendors helping?
BIM+ (read Industry steps up to help firms with remote working amid coronavirus) has also started to look at how software providers might help an industry increasingly needing to manage its finances and support its growing number of people working from home. Firms highlighted include:
- Revizto (doubling the number of users on an existing licence at no cost)
- Autodesk (offering an Extended Access Program for several of its flagship cloud collaboration products, including BIM 360 Docs; extending contract payment terms – see also the Autodesk COVID-19 resource centre)
- Graphisoft (free emergency licences to help architects work remotely; free 60-day access to BIMcloud as a service – for ArchiCAD users)
- Evolve Consultancy (offering a major discount on all its online training courses)
London-based 3DRepo is hosting a free webinar at 10am GMT on 26 March (details) on collaborative BIM and delivering projects while working remotely.
Slightly further afield, in Australia (though web-based technologies are, of course, quickly adopted internationally), I have been sent news from WeBuild (previously Tenderfield – post), which offers a cloud-based platform offering modules for construction tendering/bidding, document collaboration, project and contract management, and quality and safety control. Looking to help small and mid-sized construction businesses during the COVID-19 crisis, new WeBuild subscribers can have six months free access to all products until 30 August 2020. Co-founder Jason Kamha said: “We realise that many construction businesses will be impacted by shutdowns and time away from the office/jobsite. As a result, SMB’s, who make up the majority of our industry, may need to re-think their digital strategies and implement collaborative technologies for greater project control.” He says the company has “updated our platform’s UI/UX design and added quite a few new features into the system including scheduling, submittals, iOS and Android applications and expanded our operations into Hong Kong and the US.”
Updates (26 March, 3 April 2020) – Vectorworks is offering free virtual training opportunities, and has amended some software license conditions to enable more working from home (see blog post).
Procore is providing current customers access to the Procore platform and customer support for their work on COVID-19 emergency relief construction projects at no additional cost – see news release.
In AECbytes, Lachmi Khemlani has provided a similar US perspective on coronavirus and AEC software.
(If other construction technology firms are contributing to industry efforts to mitigate COVID-19 impacts, please let me know.)
(* In his BIM+ article, Richard Saxon talks about using social media apps for virtual co-working. My window photo was shared in a Twitter thread #WFHwindows started by UK BIM Alliance deputy chair Casey Rutland.)
Important!No articles in Extranet Evolution are sponsored or paid for, though I have undertaken work (providing consultancy, writing content, producing white papers, public speaking, etc) for some of the companies discussed – always disclosed. The coronavirus pandemic is now having an impact on my business, and the UK Government’s refusal to support small limited companies deepens the impact. If you have a project that I can help with, please email me – firstname.lastname@example.org – or give me a call: +44 (0)7788 445920.