Productivity, NZE, skilled labor shortages: Perfect storm or perfect opportunity?
Big challenges and opportunities lie ahead for residential construction
March 15, 2017 by John Bleasby
As we near the conclusion of the century’s second decade in 2020, it shouldn’t be hard for the residential construction industry to see changes coming down the road. Those contractors who wish to thrive and prosper in the years ahead should seriously consider the big moves that await, and start planning to take advantage.
Productivity problems in the construction industry
While many industries around the globe move ahead in terms of productivity, a recent McKinsey Global Institute report suggests that the construction industry is in a deep funk.
While manufacturing and retail industry have embraced and expanded various ways to automate and improve efficiency, McKinsey reports that, “in comparison, much of construction has evolved at a glacial pace. Globally, labor-productivity growth in construction has averaged only 1.0 per cent a year over the past two decades, compared with growth of 2.8 per cent for the total world economy and 3.6 per cent in the case of manufacturing. In a sample of countries analyzed, over the past ten years less than one-quarter of construction firms have matched the productivity growth achieved in the overall economies in which they work.”
Yet demand for housing across all sectors, from high-value custom homes to lower cost public housing, is destined to increase over the next several decades. “Despite huge potential for additional value added, and despite the fact that the challenges are well known and have been long discussed in the industry, progress has been limited,” the McKinsey report continues.
Why the lag in productivity despite the growth in demand? To a large degree it’s because most houses built today are put together more or less the way they were 50 years ago by builders and designers reluctant to commit to new materials and technologies. New ideas are, for the most part, restricted to specialized custom homes.
Skilled labor shortages are inevitable
In contrast to many industries expressing concerns about automation taking away jobs of the future, the construction continues to cry out for more skilled workers. Major initiatives are underway all over North America to engage young people in the trades and to increase the career lengths of those already employed by improved lifting and tool technologies. Nevertheless, the shortfall remains and is likely to stay that way as the current generation of skilled workers now aged 40-55 years reach retirement.
Net Zero Energy; Coming to a house near you!
As outlined in a Canadian Contractor post last October, the Canadian Federal government has ambitious goals for the reduction of greenhouse gasses (GHG) produced in Canada. By 2030 all new homes in Canada will be built to Net Zero Energy Ready (NZEr) standards, if the Liberal government has its way.
It is best not to be complacent about this. Like the code changes from the 1980’s that led to the R2000 standards, ZNE/ZNRr codes would have a significant impact on the industry. “When R2000 came out in the ‘80’s, it was a pretty radical notion,” recalls CHBA director of communications, David Foster. “It took a number of years for the industry to figure out how to do it in a practical, affordable and durable way.”
And there’s more. Canada’s national building codes may be changing even sooner, over the next five years in fact, to adapt to the effects of climate change. It has been reported, for example, that the National Research Council (NRC), the organization that sets “model codes” for building, energy, plumbing and fire, is working on updating building codes to reflect the impact of extreme weather such as storms, high winds, and flooding.
The perfect storm, or the perfect opportunity
Where one person sees obstacles, another will see opportunities. The question to be asked is, “What will it take for the residential construction industry to change its ways? Who will be the early adopters of techniques that combine high productivity, more efficient use of a limited skilled trades supply, and energy efficiency?”
For example, those clients seeking energy efficient custom homes can choose ICF and related products, but only if designers and builders are properly aware and trained in their application. These newer materials allow a building crew to take on tasks that previously required other specialized teams, thus reducing the required size and complexity of the workforce.
As for multi-dwelling developments, the trend of building the way it’s been done for the past half century continues largely unabated, that is to say, with no measurable gains in productivity, as the McKinsey report suggests, and with no tangible moves towards NZE either. Stick construction on top of a poured concrete foundation wall still dominates today’s development sites. The same number of workers is required as always, even in the face of a skilled labor shortage both now and in the future. That will have to change.
Buildings using manufactured products such as SIPs (Structured Insulated Panels) would seem to point the way for both custom and tract housing builders to embrace all three factors; productivity, skilled labour shortages, and NZE. The smart and successful builders of the next decade will be making those strategical moves now.
Regulations will rule the day
The good news is that there are builders, including some leading names in large scale development, willing to make changes to their designs, construction techniques and energy efficiency ahead of inevitable regulatory change. Sadly, it will likely take those new regulations and building codes to force similar improvements on the others reluctant to embrace change today.
What do you think? Will it take regulations like building codes to motivate the industry to change?
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