Covid-19 imparts valuable lessons for construction

01 September 2020
What will the new normal look like for the UAE construction industry after the pandemic dies down and how can companies cope up with the change?

This article is extracted from the report 'UAE Construction After Covid-19'

When Covid-19 first arrived, its impact was quickly felt across the UAE and its construction industry. The initial reaction was centred around project viability – should we keep going? Most affected were speculative projects and those in the early stages of design, with many decisions made to postpone and reassess at a later date.

The government response was swift. The UAE is already well-known for adapting quickly to changing market conditions and the Covid-19 pandemic has been no different. Reflecting on the past four months, there are lessons here, both for the UAE construction industry as well as the wider economies that are looking to restart their construction sectors. 

Whether Covid-19 has been the catalyst for wider industry change in the UAE has yet to be answered. There is certainly a great deal of talk taking place, but actions taken beyond the pandemic will be the true barometer.  

Construction in the UAE has largely been considered a traditional industry. Yet, as a vital sector, construction sites were exempt from the restrictive measures put in place and the ability to continue site activities and deliver projects was the immediate focus of attention.

Tough questions

The pandemic has provided a spotlight on how we can maintain operations. It has also raised tough questions and challenged the status quo at all levels. Do we need everyone in the office or on site? Do we really need that report or indeed a face-to-face meeting? 

Covid-19 has forced us to review and change processes and practices that are no longer feasible in the current environment. Levels of physical interaction have been reduced, with teams turning to digital platforms to communicate and collaborate. 

To date, the biggest use of technology has been seen in how we maintain a collaborative approach to a project’s design stage. Teams are being far more interactive in a virtual environment and making better use of the tools that, for the most part, already existed.  

The wider drive to embrace digital in project delivery began before Covid-19. Future industry change will be driven not just by technology, but by behaviours. Is there sufficient confidence in a digital response to construction delivery as opposed to physical presence on a site, or is it merely a stakeholder management tool? As measures begin to relax, it remains to be seen whether clients will push for a return to the pre-Covid-19 ways of working.

Working off site

Movement restrictions and social distancing have challenged how we deliver site-based activities. Elements of offsite manufacturing (OSM) exist, although uptake in the UAE has been slow. This could bring into play further adoption of pre-fabricated components. It is an approach to construction that does already feature in the UAE, albeit currently outweighed by more traditional methods. 

The need to explore how we move materials and
equipment to and around sites will undoubtedly inform the direction of travel, considering the number of people on a site, along with the extent of interface needed between trades. This will undoubtedly vary across differing asset typologies. 

Improving safety

Overnight, the UAE construction industry had to figure out how to ‘coexist’ with Covid-19. Improving health and safety (H&S) has been a large focus for the industry in recent years, but now Covid-19 has widened the
focus on H&S in the ‘workplace’ beyond the physical safety of the building site and into the wider wellbeing of site operatives. 

Standards will need to be revisited, particularly in the absence of a vaccine. And while we have experienced examples of good progress already, an industry-wide change will be required to bring consistency in H&S and wellbeing standards.

Securing supply

As Covid-19 leaves its mark across the globe, the impact on the supply chain in the UAE has increased. With international materials becoming less readily accessible, attention has turned to local sourcing where possible, to allow projects to continue. 

This has been aided by the greater trend in recent years towards locally manufactured products and materials, and has certainly helped minimise the impact on ongoing projects in the current environment. 

It has also prompted a wider industry debate on business continuity measures needed to minimise project reliance on overseas materials. There is undoubtedly a commercial implication to such an approach, and the challenge will be in striking the optimal balance between risk and budget – a conversation that is just beginning.

Contractual provisions

Many construction contracts contained no provisions for a pandemic or remote working. In the past few months, clients, contractors and the wider supply chain have had to develop solutions that work for all parties and the project. Measures to demonstrate productivity – tracking on-site resource or remote working – have all been developed and implemented. It has been encouraging to see parties work collaboratively to overcome these challenges.

What is certain is that Covid-19 will change the industry’s future contractual arrangements. It is expected that many of the exceptional provisions that have been made will become standard conditions in contracts moving forward. 

Catalyst for change

The acid test still remains. When we can get back in the room, will we? Will the measures put in place over the past few months still apply or be rolled back? 

At present, there is lots of speculation about the post-Covid-19 environment. The conversation thus far is encouraging; how that translates into action remains to be seen. 

This report is produced under the MEED Mashreq Construction Partnership. To learn more about the report or the partnership, log on to: www.meedmashreqindustryinsight.com

About the author

Adam Ralph is the director (Dubai office) and head of real estate (Middle East) at Turner & Townsend 

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