Climate change will stimulate a wave of construction automation and pre-fabrication.
The IPCC’s recently released AR6 Working Group I report makes it starkly clear that we’re heading for a hot future, one whose tendrils are already touching us and have been fuelling wildfires around the world during the past 18 months. Climate modelling predicts that we’ll see 50 degree Celsius / 122 degrees Fahrenheit in many cities around the world imminently, increasing in frequency during hot seasons.
A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists highlights the likelihood that millions of outdoor construction workers (amongst other industries) will lose workdays due to excessive heat (or worse still be compelled to put their lives at risk by continuing to work), costing economies billions of dollars in lost productivity and putting human health at risk.
How is the construction industry going to adapt?
Some adaptations are already in motion, and a heating climate will add fuel (sorry) to their growth.
Construction Practice Adaptations for a Heating Climate
- Smaller Buildings. A smaller building generally takes less time to construct, so that’s less risk-days on site. There are other carbon-related drivers that might support this too. It won’t be the solution but it has at least a bit part in the play.
- Less labour-intensive construction. A trend away from wet-works like concrete towards faster-to-construct buildings using timber and steel.
- Top-down construction. Get the roof up as fast as possible to create shade for the workers underneath. Not practical for some building types but already common in the housing sector.
- Night construction. Maximising work during cooler hours. Often challenging with night safety, noise and neighbours, but we’ll see a general shift towards night-time economies so this might be easier than we think today. This will trigger a raft of changes around night work legislation and pay rates, planning constraints and conditions of consent.
- Offsite Prefabrication. Modular construction in temperature-controlled factories, from components like service runs and bathrooms all the way up to entire modules of buildings. Minimises site-risk time, reduces wastage, improves quality control. Shifts labour away from site and away from the head contractor into the pre-fabricator. Already in play.
- Offsite robotic prefabrication. Same as above but with more robotics to cut, fabricate and assemble components in the factory. Think ‘robotic assembly line for buildings’. Already in play.
- On-site robotic construction. Robotics on site to fabricate building components. Already in play with slab construction, brick laying and 3D-printed buildings.
Combined with the imperative to de-carbonise and the trend away from carbon intensive materials like concrete and steel, I can see a trend towards the factory-controlled environment to produce high performance lightweight modular elements, assembled on site at night with minimal human labour, supported by the rapidly growing field of on-site construction robotics.
It seems that construction workers will have less hours no matter what.
If planned well and if innovation is supported, I can see some of these scenarios playing out as major successes in the transition to a clean and circular economy.
If you’re in a business that relies on the construction industry, how might these adaptations impact your own company? Adaptation may be vital if you want to avoid the impacts of a hotter construction site.