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  • Jeff Barkun

Construction can get a lot cheaper and faster if developers are willing to take the leap

We all know it and love to hate it. The clanking of hammers, the shaking from pile driving, the screaming workers and noisy trucks. Yes, I am talking about construction sites. The thing is, they are really important if we want to have enough housing, office space, industrial space and really all the spaces we go to do things. That said, it is really expensive to build and the price has been climbing faster than ever over the last few years as we have seen a construction boom in the strong economy of the 2010's. This is wonderful and lots of people have been able to get access to beautiful new spaces like condos, apartments, offices and many others. The problem is, the price of all of it is out of control and it does not seem there has been any answer about how to change that.


This is, potentially, about to change in a big way. Keyword POTENTIALLY!!. Why do I emphasize this so strongly. Well let's just say developers and builders are not typically known for their innovative inclination. The problem, radical innovation is likely the only way to drastically reduce the cost of construction. The reason for this is relatively simple. Most of the cost of construction is labour, and the cost of labour always goes up, and frankly as it should so people can sustain and improve their standard of living. If we want to produce a building for a radically lower cost without reducing our unit labour cost, the only way to do this is to drastically reduce the number of labour hours it takes to build something. This is not a complicated statement. We are simply talking about labour productivity, and in the case of construction, there has been very little improvement of this in the construction industry in many decades.


So how do we achieve this you ask? Fortunately there are a host of new technologies currently available and in development that aim to drastically reduce the amount of labour required to build. This tech ranges from tasks like design, project management, assembly and installation of materials, site monitoring and reporting and many other aspects. In fact one of Canada's most renowned experts, Dr. Mohamed Al-Hussein, is also a graduate of the same University I went to, and I recently read an article about how his work can completely overhaul the process of building. I have to say I was very impressed.


The first benchmark we should look at is manufacturing. This sector has completely automated many things, the main reason why we can buy products like appliances and other widgets for a drastically lower real cost than previous generations. Can this be done for construction. Well it is definitely a lot harder, but we can at least overhaul some parts of the process. There has been quite a bit of news about modular construction, and I have to say, I am a big fan. Modular would allow us to build entire rooms, or even entire apartments and many other building units in a factory and then simply transport them to the construction site where the pieces are put together. On site, the modular unit slides in, or attaches in some other way and then on site works simply connect it to the various building systems like electrical, ventilation and plumbing. No exposure to weather, no exposed work at height, and a lot of this can be done by robots. In addition to reducing the amount of labour and cost to complete, it also dramatically reduces the amount of time is takes to build. According to some industry players, building time can be reduced between 30%-50%


If done well, it can also be visually indistinguishable from standard construction so we will not be ending up with a bunch of buildings that look like we glued trailers together.


There are also many other innovations surrounding structural methods like using steel, or wall paneling systems to replace drywall. Building this way becomes faster, less messy, less wasteful and more flexible. While it does typically require more detailed advanced planning, the host of new design tools being brought to market makes this less painful and potentially more fun.


I look forward to the day when all buildings are planned and built this way and we can reverse the endlessly escalating price trend so we can all enjoy beautiful new spaces and actually be able to afford them. If this topic interests you, feel free to reach out to discuss it further.

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