Construction in 2020: Has it changed industry forever?

15 Dec 2020

Construction has faced one of its toughest years so far, so what has changed, what have we learned and what does 2021 hold?  

The construction industry has faced unprecedented challenges over the last 12 months. Still, as this year has shown, adversity creates the conditions for innovation and resilience to thrive.

The UK construction output reduced 35.7% in Q2 of 2020. In Q3, the sector recovered to around 90% of its pre-Covid output. Construction’s resilience, adaptability and resourcefulness allowed for this rebound.

Despite these challenges, many positive changes have come from 2020. From deeper collaboration, to improved digital and sustainable solutions, all are helping kickstart construction’s recovery and its building of a brighter future.


The road to recovery


In March 2020, as lockdown started, the future of construction was unclear. As a response, the Construction Leadership Forum (CLF), a collaboration between Construction Scotland, Scottish Government and industry-wide representation, published first a restart plan, then a recovery plan to outline this future and what it looked like.

An action plan was approved in September 2020. The roadmap will contribute positively towards construction’s future: it emphasises a focus on developing more local value including using indigenous and home-grown materials as well as investment into skills, workforce, digitalisation and building a resilient supply chain. It outlines immediate, short, medium and long-term goals to accelerate sustainable growth.

This recovery plan details the specific changes industry and Scottish Government will make in response to 2020. It shows the importance of Government’s collaboration with construction and the benefits of closer engagement, co-development of guidance and coordinated support.

The action plan outlines many of the shifts that were beginning to impact construction’s future regardless of Covid-19 – shifts that the last year has made even more urgent.


The digital fight against COVID-19


Greater adoption of digitalisation is key to improving construction productivity and efficiency and developing and sustaining a smart built environment. It has also become an important factor in tackling the impact of coronavirus. Many companies have innovated digitally to impact and improve people’s lives, whether at home, work or on-site.


In April 2020, CSIC launched i-Con, our response to the Covid crisis. The i-Con matchmaking platform attracted a multitude of solutions, many digital and many already used in other sectors, that would help construction return to work safely and build a resilient future.

We also curated the i-Con Knowledge Hub and the i-Con Online Learning Catalogue which all provide an abundance of useful information and online training and skills resources that can be accessed and undertaken remotely. Our i-Con Challenge Fund also saw the launch of our free online training programme Be Covid Smart, the trial of digital safe working technologies in our Innovation Factory, and the funding of the development of a remote building inspection tool with Scottish Building Standards using AI and VR. These will impact the way we design, build, train and inspect in the construction sector, and 2020 has accelerated their adoption.

Safety Tools & data

DataInnovation AI, an Edinburgh based tech firm, is developing a digital bio-safety tool for buildings. The Data Lab, and InnovateUK are supporting this along with CSIC. The digital tool uses multiple simulations to replicate a building’s spread of disease, which has wider applications than just coronavirus – it also has the potential to improve building biosafety more generally. Chess Digital – who CSIC helped to develop their Babelfish construction data translation tool for the housing association market – repurposed and deployed this solution to help the NHS gather information about Covid-19 in children.

Digital skills & events

To help increase knowledge, skills and digitalisation of the sector, we have moved our skills and events programmes successfully online. From these events, we’ve hosted 1,499 virtual attendees since April, reaching all corners of Scotland as well as audiences elsewhere in the UK and internationally. We are finalising a business plan around Digital Construction Skills for Scotland and are ready to roll-out a Digital Audit programme to industry together with Scottish Enterprise.

We have been inspired to see companies embrace new methods and innovate during this crisis both digitally and sustainably.


Sustainability’s continued importance

To many, the coronavirus pandemic has acted as a wake-up call to unsustainable practices. During a National Federation of Builders survey in 2020, 45% of main contractors said that Covid-19 has made them view a low carbon future as now being more important. The remaining 55% said it remains equally important. 

Countdown to COP26

To help raise awareness of the importance of achieving net zero carbon emissions, we took part in one of the largest Scottish sustainability events of the year: Scotland’s Countdown to COP26. The cross-industry collaborative event, hosted by Scotland’s 7 Innovation Centres, marked one year before Glasgow hosts the United Nations’ climate change conference COP26. With over 1500 attendees, the engagement and understanding of climate change issues has never been higher.

The event trended #6 on Twitter in the UK and #1 in Scotland. Of the 1,507 attendees, the built environment attracted 577 people during our first session, showing that the construction industry is already engaging hugely with sustainability.

Construction’s role

The built environment has a huge part to play in the journey to net zero. It contributes to around 40% of the UK’s emissions. This year we have seen new goals set by Government, new discussions brought to the table, and new attitudes from our partners and board members.

However, certain facts from these discussions remain clear. Sustainability can only be achieved if the industry:

  • Sees the benefits and need to become sustainable
  • Focuses on both embodied and operational carbon savings
  • Is confident and able to implement these changes

At CSIC we are trying to lead by example by placing sustainability the centre of our new transformation programme in 2021, encouraging greater uptake of offsite construction, local materials, and building a resilient supply chain that delivers high quality, low energy infrastructure projects efficiently.

The ‘Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan’ also launches this week. We contributed to its development and are likely to align our activity to this next year. It is being published by Skills Development Scotland and aligns with the Scottish Government's Climate Action Plan.

From this it is clear that the emerging importance of sustainability is one of 2020’s many important lessons to carry forward as we head into 2021.


The future of construction in 2021

Scotland’s construction output growth dropped an estimated 21% in 2020. Output growth is forecast to increase at 4.5% per annum for the next five years. The main drivers for this growth will be house building and infrastructure.

Still, construction’s output is not expected to meet pre-Covid levels by the end of 2025, according to CITB. This is a sobering reality and a reminder that the road to recovery will not be quick.

Yet we believe industry can take action to accelerate this recovery.

Stephen Good, CEO of CSIC, predicts 2021 will bring new challenges and opportunities. A post-Brexit Britain could bring on major labour market turbulence as we experience reduced access to a migrant workforce. It could also put pressure on supply chains. Importing timber may become significantly more expensive, so sourcing homegrown material becomes even more favourable than it was before. Our recent timber project, funded by Innovate UK, will manufacture the first Scottish-sourced cross laminated timber (CLT) and nail laminated timber (NLT) home, helping pave the way Scottish grown timber is used and showing the effectiveness of local resources.

As well as the shifts already outlined, adopting new strategies such as modern methods of construction (MMC) will become increasingly important. MMC holds the potential to rebuild output, meet the massive housing demand and make up for any loss in workforce seen from this year.

The policy landscape as it relates to construction and the built environment is changing fast to support change for the better. The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government for example includes several strands with innovation at their core:  

  • Covid recovery planning for the sector including jobs and training
  • Infrastructure investment
  • Energy efficiency and decarbonising heat in our existing building stock

By employing new innovative strategies, CSIC believes that construction can work towards a brighter future in 2021.


Going forward

The mantra of ‘modernise or die’ has never been more important than this year.

Accelerating the adoption of digital technology, more action around sustainability issues and a dedicated recovery plan all improve the outlook for the industry.

So, together, let’s build on this progress made in 2020 and keep creating a better future for construction in 2021.

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