Features - Business

Green Shoots for Construction Through Covid-19

Felix Neufeld is founder and CEO at Disperse, in this feature for UKCO, he writes about the Coronavirus pandemic, and what it means for the construction industry, and the green shoots coming through the pandemic.

Like most industries, construction was hard hit by the impact of Covid-19, with output collapsing by a record 40% at the height of the pandemic in April. Sites began to reopen under strict guidelines from the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), recommending ‘one metre plus’ distancing and limiting the number of workers on site. But with the added pressure of squeezed budgets and a shrinking pool of industry specialists, developers and contractors have faced enormous hurdles in maintaining project timelines. So, how have project teams managed to keep going under the circumstances, whilst mitigating productivity losses and keeping their operatives safe?

Technology played a vital role on building projects right across the country. From the use of BIM to erect London’s NHS Nightingale hospital in the ExCel conference centre in Docklands to wearable sensor technology that workers wear on site to enable social distancing, the digital ingenuity of construction firms has been incredible. Just as with cloud and sensor technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) has also proven its worth during the pandemic. And nowhere more so, than for the team at No 1 Grosvenor Square – the flagship London project of property developer, Lodha, in partnership with main contractor Mace – who integrated our AI-powered Building Productivity Management system to boost output, and limit delays in the safest way possible under new Covid-19 guidelines.

Intelligent project management

Disperse had already been in use at the No 1 Grosvenor Square site before the pandemic. The technology captures a project site visually using week-on-week 360° photography to create a layered digital twin of the project, meaning project teams could ‘visit’ the site virtually, ‘walking’ through every space with high quality resolution. The system’s AI capability, complemented by expert human QA, tracks progress and identifies anomalies, thus closing the critical information loop between actual and planned progress. This assists with the planning process and builds an indisputable, virtually navigable record of a site, accessible from anywhere.

Reopening No 1 Grosvenor Square

The team at No 1 Grosvenor Square used insights from the platform to guide and inform conversations with subcontractors about reopening the site safely following the nationwide lockdown in March. The team was also able to make changes to processes and get back to a remarkable rate of productivity against the odds.

“We calculate that we’ve recuperated eight to ten weeks of production that would have otherwise been totally lost,” said Liam Florey, Project Director at Lodha, “and we’ve managed to do it in a way that kept people safe. We earned the confidence of our operatives and management teams by making smarter decisions and having more meaningful conversations that were guided by technology.”

Within six weeks of Mace restarting production after a voluntary company-wide pause in late March, the Grosvenor Square site returned to roughly 70% capacity with around 400 people present – and has had no recorded outbreaks to date. “In light of how this project was able to bounce back and adapt to a totally unprecedented threat, we are now studying it more broadly within our organisation as a model for responsible operation,” said Chris Harrison, Project Director at Mace.

Consolidating data and streamlining the flow of information

In the early days of restarting production on site, this enhanced understanding of the project helped the team stay fully aligned and focused on production by creating one shared understanding of the project’s progress and material needs, thus eliminating any confusion between different stakeholders.

An ironic thing in our industry is how important reporting actually is for informing decisions and driving progress, because nobody gets into building out of a love for reporting. But the imperative to quickly and accurately understand the state of these complex projects suddenly became critical in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak, and we’re pleased to have supported Mace and Lodha through our insights-driven technology.

Enhancing the safety for workers on-site

No 1 Grosvenor Square posed unique challenges in its layout when it came to ensuring social distancing, but this was another area where technology proved its worth. “In the early days of reopening, the team at Disperse conducted twice-weekly scans of our site during peak hours and delivered a customised social distancing report that we used to uncover pinch points across the project,” says Harrison. “These findings were essential for enabling us to design revised site layouts to accommodate necessary changes like one-way traffic.”

The virtual project environment also meant that project teams could “visit” the site digitally rather than physically, and there was no disadvantage to remaining off site in terms of having a clear understanding of progress.

Paving the road to recovery

Running safe and productive sites was the ultimate goal for Mace and Lodha when restarting work on No 1 Grosvenor Square through lockdown. Thanks to advanced technology, the team was able to measurably improve operational agility and bounce back at a much faster rate than counterparts across the industry. The most important factor, however, was safeguarding workers’ health and the team managed to do this to a tee, with zero Covid-19 cases to date despite resuming work in April, when hospitalisations were at an all-time high.

Despite industry-wide setbacks from the global pandemic, No 1 Grosvenor Square can be held up as a beacon for achieving some of the fastest super-prime construction outputs in London without compromising on quality or safety, and their lessons learned can be applied across the industry. As winter approaches and a second wave of the pandemic starts to present itself, we expect we’ll hear more stories of innovative teams using technology to outsmart the virus and circumnavigate challenging situations.

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