Materials shortages in construction – catapulting a sustainability revolution?

Across the globe, the impact of Covid-19 on the construction sector continues to weigh heavy on the industry bringing forward new and evolving challenges in its wake. Social distancing measures, local lockdowns and rows over contracts began as early as March 2020 when the pandemic first hit. Now as our economies move to ease restrictions the industry is faced with managing the impact of material shortages across the supply chain.

For countries like the UK, the fallout from Brexit coupled with Covid-19 is impacting the sector, driving up prices for critical materials the country’s construction sector urgently needs to respond to the post lockdown demand. With a surge in construction activity and output in recent months across the UK, is the shortage a local issue or something that is hitting countries across the globe?

Post-pandemic bounce-backs: are they supercharging the issue?

Several countries are experiencing a post-pandemic bounce back in construction. The sector is addressing a backlog of orders, and revenue expectations along with a surge in construction confidence has meant pressure on material needs are increasing. According to the US Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index, construction material prices are increasing significantly causing additional pressures on existing project revenues. Lumber and steel, two primary building materials across the US, have seen prices increase anywhere between 20-25%. 

Most industry professionals cite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as the main factor in these price hikes. When local and national lockdowns began to come into effect in early 2020, many factories reduced their production output as demand lowered. Essential health and safety measures meant they were unable to operate at full capacity in order to protect their workers. The knock-on effect of this has badly impacted material supply chains and hampered hauliers who have struggled to move goods across the globe as transport and shipment delays came into play. Egypt’s Suez Canal blockage in March of this year lasted for six days and data from Lloyd’s List showed the stranded ship was holding up an estimated $9.6bn of trade along the waterway each day of the blockage. 

Build, build, build

But what does this mean for our governments who are pledging to build their way out of the economic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis? Demand for construction materials continue to increase as a result of new government-backed and much needed infrastructure, commercial and residential projects in many countries, yet crucial supplies have slowed, and prices are on the rise.

Although Brexit is impacting the UK more sharply, the global knock-on effect of changes to customs and tariffs rules are beginning to emerge. New paperwork needed for covering trade between the E.U. and U.K. has meant that both markets are experiencing delays when it comes to building materials being imported and exported as border officials deal with a new and complex landscape. And widespread global shortages for materials like steel and timber means that many construction companies will need to explore alternatives to the traditional materials they use. 

When it comes to construction, are we at a tipping point towards necessitating sustainable solutions for good? With a commercial need for alternative materials and new methods of construction, how can the construction industry capitalise on this opportunity? Also, what are the alternatives, and how can they be used as ammunition in the material shortages battle?

Modern methods of construction

Shortage of suitable available housing is a growing global issue that all governments are tackling. It is top of the agenda in the UK and Ireland, with the authorities setting ambitious targets when it comes to providing more affordable homes. But the shortage of materials being felt across the world is propelling the need to look at other methods of construction in order to help deliver these targets. Using technology to streamline the building process and implementing off-site manufacturing and assembly alongside alternative sustainable materials can serve to unlock productivity and drive better outcomes and in turn deliver quality housing.

Technology, such as a common data environment for shared project data, plays a vital role in delivering modern methods of construction projects on time. And further innovations in technology like 3D printing or Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) can be used to design and build prefab homes which offer safer and more efficient ways of working to this sector. This building system uses more innovative techniques and processes where structural components are manufactured in a workshop, transported to the final location and assembled there. These modular methods of construction improve project productivity, deliver construction outputs quicker, better manage the scarce resources and also improves safety on site. 

Autodesk’s Northern Europe sustainability report, Digital Sustainability: The Path to Net Zero for Design & Manufacturing and Architecture, Engineering, & Construction (AEC), found that many construction organisations are already seeing wide-ranging benefits from their sustainability efforts. 75% of respondents cited sustainability improved use of resources, for example by designing less material-intensive assets, or minimising errors and, as a result, waste. 

Alternative materials – the answer to our commercial and sustainability problems?

When it comes to exploring alternative materials, the need for more sustainable solutions in the construction lifecycle is something that may previously have been viewed as too costly or risky. But, with a shortage of traditional materials and a commercial incentive to speed up the exploration and use of alternative methods, sustainable solutions are becoming more attractive. Engineered timber is one of the most exciting opportunities in the industry right now, as it provides a carbon-negative construction material alternative to traditional steel and concrete. Bamboo has also been shown to provide a sustainable replacement for timber and steel scaffolding in some regions. 

The housebuilding sector was already experiencing a rise in demand for timber as a sustainable alternative, prior to Covid-19 hitting supplies. This coupled with the additional rise in price and growing demand for this product alone, reinforces the requirement for the industry to drive forward other feasible solutions. The University of Manchester, in partnership with Nationwide Engineering in the UK, have developed a graphene-enhanced ‘concretene’ which removes 30% of material. This innovative new building material was developed by adding small amounts of graphene so that significantly less concrete is needed to achieve the equivalent structural performance.

 Another example is the Concrete Sustainability Hub at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that is wholly focused on exploring the science behind concrete and infrastructure. Their research has provided recent advancements in using imaging technique to enable new pathways that reduce concrete’s carbon footprint.

Beyond concrete, salvage materials that reuse and recycle construction waste gives construction materials a second life and helps keep waste out of landfills. In some cases, purchasing recycled materials can also lower costs and improve the aesthetics and functionality of a building. 

It is unclear how the current global materials shortage will play out, but the challenge is helping to drive the move to greener, kinder and more sustainable practices which will benefit both the construction industry and the communities it builds.

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