COVID-19 is now undeniably an epoch. The pandemic has changed the way we see, feel and experience things. The act of touching is now seen as a dangerous medium for the virus to spread—the very act which makes us feel human. While different avenues are coping with the new reality through different strategies, one thing is for sure—the construction industry will not be the same.
Several construction giants have suggested pragmatic ways to assess and move forward towards a post-COVID 19 future, with KPMG India suggesting a melange of strategy-based methods. Citing measures such as relocating resources and prioritizing building typologies among others, the report outlines more practical ways of solving problems at hand—what can be done, immediately after the lockdown?
But the larger question remains, how do we make the construction industry resilient? The answer lies in a myriad of factors.
Addressing the problem at hand
The construction industry’s backbone, migrant laborers have borne the biggest brunt of the lot. The mass exodus of workers proves the delicate structure of the construction industry of India. Construction activities have been halted, and this has resulted in millions of workers being rendered jobless. Now, this can be interpreted in two ways – either as a symptom of a fragile ecosystem in the construction microcosm or the opportunity of going beyond human labor.
At the risk of sounding like an over-optimistic, privileged creative (I’ll take it, honestly) we can see this as a turning point for the AEC industry. The industry employs around 30 million people, creates assets worth over Rs. 200 billion in revenue and contributes to almost 5% of the country’s GDP. Clearly, it is a human labor intensive field, and a severe shortage of either element (projects or workers) creates a massive imbalance.
However, the reason why this is an opportunity for an overhaul is that the industry can benefit from certain emerging technologies in construction. And I’m not talking about the thriving prefab construction alone. Gone are the days when prefab was considered as a single miraculous solution to construction woes. It has been existing since the ancient times, with the Sweet Tracks (3705 BC) being the first assembled structure. In the modern era, the Crystal Palace is cited as a fine example of fabricated glass and steel construction. The human factor here does not significantly decrease, especially since humans are still heavily involved in the manufacturing and assembling of fabrication components.
Typology: What kind of space gets precedence over others?
The lockdown has brought a new understanding to how we perceive spaces of shelter. Homes are utilized now, more than ever. Real estate mogul Chintan Vasani, in Deccan Herald, says, “In the lockdown period and staying home for more than a month, they have understood the importance of owning a house and the safety it comes with.” However, the housing market in India has been seeing a steady dip in demand. Builders predict a decrease of as much as 25-33% in housing sales, owing to the largely unsold inventory (built but vacant houses) financial crisis and under which the middle class is reeling. Both predictions seem to contradict each other, but only time will tell what’s in store.
Sounds like something straight out of an Isaac Asimov novel, but this reality is much closer to us than we think.
Robotization in construction is not a 21st-century phenomenon. The 1980s earthquake in Japan devastated the construction sector, increasing the demand for buildings. The scarcity in manpower led to Japanese construction magnates to experiment with construction automation – a shot at bridging the gap between human labor and construction productivity. They weren’t that successful in implementing much of their research back then, but it was enough to spark an inextinguishable interest.
Since the 1980s, robots have been commonplace in civil works – from automated earth excavation bulldozers to wall paneling robots. And by 2025, the Japanese Federation of Construction Contractors estimated 1.28 million fewer construction workers, as compared to that in 2014. Imagine the levels of mitigating the spread of COVID-19. And that’s just Japan.
Building scientists and researchers in Europe are establishing a new world order through computational and automated fabrication. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich)’s Institute for Technology in Architecture produces some of the most groundbreaking prototypes for an entirely automated design-build system. The DFAB House is an example of human and robotic ingenuity and is an oft-cited example.
A synergy of construction techniques was deployed, including the Mesh Mould Technology, the Smart Slab printed from a 3D sand printer and robotic timber assemblies, among others.
Back home, we have Endless Robotics, a Hyderabad-based Indian startup who have innovated a painting bot for buildings. Painting as fast as 30 times the speed of a human painter, the robot, dubbed “WALT” can paint 60 sq. ft. per minute and works on heights ranging 8-14 ft.
There seems to be a robot for every activity too. On average, a traditional mason lays 300-500 bricks a day, but the Semi-Automated Mason, an innovation from a New York-based company can lay 3000 bricks a day! Clearly, the efficiency of robotization is evident. Many will critique its high cost – making and programming robots for precision tasks is a time-consuming and often expensive affair, but the long term benefits offset these seeming demerits.
The merit in the automation of high human-contact tasks will soon lead to a positive domino effect for sure. Many might argue that automation leads to widespread unemployment, but we can see the example of the IT sector – one of the largest creators of jobs in the world. Disruptive change is indeed painful, but it might also be the most effective way to build resilience.