Will the COVID tech boom last?

The industry saw three years of tech growth in nine months during the pandemic. What happens next?

A year and a half ago, Justin Bride, owner of Denver’s Ascent Contracting, was spending a lot of time talking to his clients, often touring their homes to see what needed to be done or providing estimates and updates on projects. “Clients like to interact face to face, walk you through their house,” he said. “That’s a big part of what we do.”

But when COVID-19 hit, face-to-face conversations—and the potentially disease-spreading aerosols they involve—became a lot more fraught. Like many other businesses, Bride and his team turned to Zoom. Apps were downloaded, most client meetings and intrateam check-ins moved online, and everyone adjusted to the change.

As restrictions lift and the state emerges from the pandemic, though, Bride doesn’t see Zoom falling by the wayside. His company plans to continue using it for internal calls and client meetings, especially with prospects, whenever it makes sense.

“It’s more time efficient,” he said. “It removes that ability to get sidelined and keeps everyone on task. Plus, it cuts out drive time—and in Denver, that’s no small thing.”

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With vaccination rates rising and life returning to something like normal, it seems like everyone is taking a hard look at the changes they made during the pandemic and deciding what’s worth keeping. Should we throw these masks out? Keep that bottle of hand sanitizer in the car? Do we even like sourdough? Colorado’s building industry is doing the same thing when it comes to its use of technology.

During the pandemic, builders turned to everything from drones for site surveys to health check apps for onsite employees. Many adopted cloud-based project management and collaboration tools, and, of course, Zoom. A JLL study found that, due to the pandemic, three years of construction technology growth and adoption had been compressed into nine months, outstripping even the most optimistic pre-COVID forecasts. That’s huge for an industry that, according to a 2017 McKinsey study, is one of the least digitized in the world.

Will the changes last? Will the growth in tech adoption continue?

Renovation accelerating tech adoption

Marine Sargsyan, senior economist at Houzz, is hopeful. Over the last year, Houzz Pro, a marketing and business management platform for builders and other professionals, saw 10-fold and four-fold increases in the use of its remote collaboration and transaction tools, respectively. Even as we move out of the pandemic, tech adoption will likely continue to grow, thanks to a swell in demand for home renovation projects, Sargsyan said.

“The pandemic accelerated the adoption of online tools,” she said. “As renovation project demand continues to surge, businesses are turning to software to help them better manage both the influx of new project inquiries and the resulting projects, which will likely continue in the future.”

Houzz saw a nearly 60% increase in U.S. project leads to home professionals in June 2020. Its recent Houzz & Home Study found that renovation activity will continue this year, with 56% of homeowners planning to renovate in 2021, the highest share since 2017, when 52% of homeowners were looking to remodel.

No slowdown in home demand

Demand for new housing is also on the rise, especially in Colorado. A recent report from the Common Sense Institute found that Colorado will need 54,190 new housing units every year for the next five years in order to recover from its current deficit of housing and to keep pace with population gains. Currently, however, the state is only building a little over half of what it needs.

Technology could help close that gap a little faster. At Ascent, Bride and his team are using building information modeling (BIM) software to move projects along more efficiently. Before 3D modeling, measurements for a component like a structural beam would have to be specified and verified in the field. With BIM, the team can verify and share measurements as well as make adjustments digitally. A process that used to span several weeks, requiring coordination of multiple parties and onsite visits, can now happen nearly instantaneously, Bride said. “It speeds up the time and efficiency of ordering products,” he said. “On our side, that’s a huge savings and a huge benefit.”

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The JLL study found that BIM and CAD technologies as well as digital collaboration tools saw the biggest boost in growth during the pandemic. Scanning tools also saw a surge in popularity. Combining laser-based tools with visualization software, scanning technology can replicate the experience of being on site, reducing or eliminating the need for in-person meetings and walkthroughs. This was especially beneficial when social distancing was necessary, but the study found scanning could continue to play a critical role in increasing efficiencies going forward, connecting team members and clients even when they’re separated geographically.

Labor still below pre-pandemic shortage

Of course, most technologies need people to operate them, and the building industry is dealing with a years-long labor shortage, worsened by the pandemic. When COVID lockdowns began, the construction sector lost more than 1 million workers, according to the Labor Department. The industry has regained nearly 80% of its workforce since then, but it’s still down 238,000 workers from pre-pandemic levels, as of June. On top of that, the construction industry will need to hire 430,000 workers this year and 1 million more over the next two years just to keep up with expected demand, according to an analysis from Associated Builders and Contractors.

Denver nonprofit Colorado Homebuilding Academy is trying to address the industry’s labor shortage as well as its technology hurdles by educating the next generation of builders. The school provides training and employment resources to high school students and job switchers interested in a career in construction. However, the pandemic halted the school’s in-person classes for a few months, just as shutdown-related layoffs in other industries were driving increased interest in its programs.

“Everybody had time on their hands, and we were still getting requests for instruction,” said Damon DiFabio, the academy’s director.

The academy quickly shifted to virtual training, which it had never offered before, and condensed the hands-on component of its coursework into a several-day outdoor, masked bootcamp. For the electrical class, students simply picked up a box of tools and equipment, and completed the course entirely online.

“The technology was a huge learning curve for everybody at first—even just setting up an invite, trying to negotiate the mute button, all of that,” DiFabio said. “But we definitely learned that we could still do almost everything. We pivoted really well and made it happen.”

That unplanned pivot has the academy thinking about how online schooling could expand their reach in the future. While the school is now back to in-person classes, virtual options could be a permanent offering down the road, DiFabio said, especially if demand for skilled labor remains high.

[Related: 4 new challenges for builders post-COVID]

“We’ve learned that we can provide training for people all over the country at once,” DiFabio said. “There are no real boundaries to the people we can educate. We have all these other options and potential course models in our back pocket now.”

The school also works to make sure its students are up to speed on the construction technologies they’ll be using in the workforce. Its construction management program includes training on project management and other software programs. Brian Dare, Colorado Homebuilding Academy’s recruiter, said the school’s younger students are especially quick to pick up on and use technology in the field—and he thinks that bodes well for the industry.

“Of course, there are trade professionals out there who are still using flip phones,” Dare said. “As we see younger generations starting to fill in, though, we see them much less hesitant about technology. There’s a higher comfort level and an openness, and that’s definitely going to help how we move forward in the industry.”

Ascent’s Bride agrees. At 40, he’s young enough to have grown up with a computer or a smartphone almost always nearby. As much as the pandemic helped move technology adoption along in the short term, he sees long-term generational shifts bringing a larger acceptance of new technologies to the field. But he also thinks anything that makes the job easier will be embraced in time.

“Construction is always going to be a physical industry, and there are always going to be tech gimmicks that don’t take off,” Bride said. “But the advances that are important for the field get picked up really quickly and used. A lot of these advances are just the way the entire industrialized world is trending, and construction is eager to keep up.”

Corey Dahl is a freelance writer based in the Denver area.

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