Affordable housing? High-tech infrastructure? An ocean’s worth of carbon footprint? When one thinks of the construction industry, a few broader aspects jump to the fore. Not only does it shape the world we live in, but it holds a mirror to the times, reflecting the aspirations and abilities of its people. As with any industry functioning on a large scale – both local and global – a myriad of factors dictate the scale and direction of each progressive step.
The construction industry is arguably the one that has been slowest to evolve, not to say that the technology and innovation are lacking, but that their adoption as standards has taken a very long time. While the quantification of sustainability is largely a question mark, the scale of the industry impact demands a step-up in organisation and quality control.
The significance of each building in composing the urban fabric is tied to the sentiments of the people and the state of the economy—two mutually dependent factors that make for a dynamic relationship. Here’s the background, in a nutshell, explaining the causality that shapes how the past, present and future of buildings materialize.
The construction industry is equally operational in all three economic sectors. The procurement of natural resources falls in the primary sector, manufacturing building components in the secondary and the tertiary sector includes the many consultation services it offers. While the process of construction officially begins at excavation, the preceding steps are taken in advance, requiring both time and capital. Recessions in the economy can often sink prices of properties.
The prices of building materials, equipment and labour are likely to follow the downward trend in such a scenario and balance the construction costs. Hence, the ability to absorb certain fluctuations in the economy makes the construction industry relatively steady on the overall front. The government policies can leverage the construction industry to stabilise employment in a volatile market by boosting labour creation during low-demand spells. Similarly, in times of market saturation, large-scale projects may be postponed to maintain the balance.
Building Codes and Byelaws
National and local governing bodies stipulate the confines within which the construction projects operate, with public safety and responsible development at their core. Various bodies of government work in synchrony to monitor the construction industry to evaluate and predict market trends. In India, the National Building Code published by the Bureau of Indian Standards outlines the construction and safety guidelines, while state-wise laws detail the local building codes. Other bodies also contribute to the functioning of the industry—like Ministries of Finance, Trade, Housing Urban or Rural Affairs. A RERA permit, for instance, is mandatory for commercial and residential projects of a certain scale.
In bringing the projects to fruition, miles of red tape and several permits need to be dealt with. The consultants and firms coordinate with bodies that oversee electricity, water, sanitation, etc. However, whether the bylaws mandated in the interest of the public and environment are followed is a matter of debate. The unethical practices and illegal construction activity are detrimental to the proprietors, society and the environment at the same time.
Demand & Demographics
The construction market is guided by demand-and-supply like any other industry, but several factors add to its complexity. The possibility of scarcity or over-saturation is common, and most metropolitan areas experience both scenarios. Since the materialization of the end product follows a very long course, it is difficult to accumulate it in advance and hence meet a sudden influx of demand.
The returns on property investment make it among the most favoured choices, largely driven by socio-psychological factors. A culturally ingrained inclination leads most new investors and homeowners to see real estate as a significant investment in their lives. While the value and demand work in the interest of the construction industry, the supply strategies fall short, especially in the purview of affordable housing.
The geography and the distribution of raw materials relative to the site of construction are major components of the logistical cost. Beginning at the source of extraction, the primary commodities undergo various processing steps before yielding the final products that are ready for application. Given the large scale of operations, the optimal use of resources to lend the best quality building materials at various price levels is crucial in making them affordable.
By capitalising on indigenous materials and construction techniques, the industry can reduce the embodied energy, contributing towards a sustainable built environment. In other words, the resources and energy spent on the transportation of goods can be conserved by incorporating context-sensitive alternatives in terms of design. While the economy may be able to deliver affordable goods of superior quality, the use of readily available resources benefits local industries and the environment alike.
The execution of the projects is dependent on manpower and their skill level plays a key role in the industry. The construction workforce involves unskilled, skilled and highly skilled labour at various levels wherein the manual and equipment-handling labour form the majority. Unfortunately, the demand-driven trade lends itself to project-based employment and job insecurity to complement the minimum wage careers.
Furthermore, even if stipulated safety measures are followed, accidents in the workplace aren’t uncommon. While local and national labour laws advocate for safe and ethical working conditions, their execution is largely left to the will of the employers and Unions.
Construction is a massive undertaking aided and accelerated by an arsenal of industrial machinery. The reliance on technology at each stage of site operations means that a skilled labour force is also required. Aside from the availability of both the equipment and workers, a key matter of relevance is the cost.
Developing nations often experience a scarcity of capital and an abundance of labour, making labour-intensive technology a logical choice for most small and mid-scale projects. In larger projects, the large initial capital can provide equipment-intensive technology, including on-site manufacturing and material-processing machinery.
On the other end of the spectrum, technologies like AI, machine learning, Cloud collaborations and smart buildings are leading the way into the future.
Education and Research
As one of the most primitive and oldest industries, the progress of construction technology has typically been in stride with the innovations in other sectors. Over the last few decades, however, the virtual world has branched away from the real world which has been long overdue for any large-scale changes in construction technology and building materials.
At the same time, professional degrees do not fully provide the technical education that the highly-skilled entry-level jobs require, and are often followed by extensive on-site training. Further, the interdisciplinary coordination essential for the smooth functioning of the project mandates a holistic understanding of the process.
The rigorous research behind developing new building technology is just as challenging as the efforts towards scaling up its adoption. The conventional set-up on the construction industry, with a large capital at stake, often shirks new and unconventional ideas, especially in developing economies where the scope of research and training is much smaller. Nations have also adopted building performance and material rating systems not only for quality control but to also educate consumers and service providers alike.
Each aspect has further complexity and the interconnected systems that make the economic backdrop benefit from a non compartmentalised workflow. As architects leading the pre-construction phase, the onus falls upon us to ensure that the buildings and infrastructure we design is well-informed, well-executed and well-balanced.