Canada’s construction sector took a COVID-19 hit then rebounded: survey

Journal of Commerce | Ian Harvey | November 25, 2020

The Canadian construction sector buckled in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Ontario hit hardest as activity dropped 57 per cent, according to a survey from Procore titled How We Build Now Canada.

British Columbia and Ontario dropped initially to 41 per cent below baseline in the first month of the pandemic, with Ontario slipping further in May to 57 per cent while B.C. shrugged it off with a mere seven per cent decline.

The bad news, however, was short lived.

By July, and in some cases sooner, activity had ramped up.

The good news was “nearly half of respondents (44 per cent) were able to remain as productive as they had been before COVID-19 hit, while only 26 per cent saw their productivity drop during the months of the pandemic. This in the face of a general drop in construction activity across the industry early in the pandemic,” the survey results read.

More noteworthy, says Jas Saraw, vice-president Canada at Procore, is 27 per cent of respondents say they gained productivity and activity. Technology played a key role in that recovery, he says, along with the sectors ability to adapt to changing parameters.

While the initial drop could be attributed to a general step back in line with every sector at the outset when information was scant, it didn’t take long for protocols to be put in place and sanitizer and face masks to join standard PPE such as hard hats and boots on sites.

“Initially the industry was on tenterhooks and tentative as to what it really meant,” he says, noting the confidence level rose as those protocols and PPE were put in place.

What’s going to be more interesting, he says, is how the sector operates moving forward post-COVID-19 and how the accelerated pace of technology take up is going to impact that.

“Construction has always been somewhat fragmented, through technology, people, geography, and now many have learned to communicate remotely,” he says, which is driving technology adoption. “The survey shows 83 per cent support platform-based technology solutions integrated into their eco-system.”

With more teams working remotely and discovering they can keep going with virtual communications via platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, it’s likely that trend will continue, meaning less travel, fewer face to face meetings and ultimately less time commuting to locations and fewer people on the site itself.

Still, one of the more shocking discoveries from the survey is that about one-third of construction companies don’t use purpose-built software on their projects and are still using spreadsheets and email to track progress.

That’s not altogether surprising when you drill into it, he says.

“The EllisDons and the PCLs are the extremely large companies (and who have already migrated to digital platforms) but the vast majority of companies are small and medium size who tend to run very lean in terms of their leadership tree and their organization and aren’t super complex, so historically are not over invested in technology,” he says. “However, we are seeing a shift there.”

The How We Build Now Canada survey is part of a series done around the world by Procore to ascertain the state of construction sectors in the 125 countries where they operate.

What’s emerging, Saraw says, is that technology is creating transparency for all stakeholders on projects, from the architect to the engineers to the site managers and, not least, the clients who can also leverage the common platforms to monitor developments.

With the advent of 5G networks, a game changer in the construction sector though it may be five years out, data will play a larger role in construction. So too will Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the role of data scientists in compiling apples-and-apples data anonymously from jobs around the globe to mine it for information and insights, which should yield efficiencies and cost savings.

“There is an appetite for it and the real issue is to look at it as a way to drive long-term benefits,” he says. “That’s where the conversation is changing with platform discussions. You can look at tenders you won and lost and you are able to go across all projects and start to get an analysis on decisions and types of jobs chased.”

Moreover, digital platforms can yield insight when 3D models are overlaid with 4D modelling of schedules and 5D data showing costs and monitoring overruns.

“All these things are converging into a single ultimate ecosystem which can be managed from pre-construction through to financial close, to operation and maintenance. It gives a lot more value.”