Construction Executive: Breaking New Ground
September 14, 2015
According the National Institute of Building Sciences’ (NIBS) 2014 Consultative Council report, members of the construction industry worry most about three main issues: the workforce shortage, the changing climate, and aligning government and business to advance energy-efficient and high-performance buildings.
These issues require solutions, and the solutions likely will change the future of commercial and industrial buildings.
Increased Savings with Sustainability
Since LEED was introduced by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000, it has led to the rise of a variety of programs that reward owners and contractors for building sustainably. Now, these programs continue evolving and pushing the boundaries of building structures that are environmentally responsible and cost efficient not only to build, but also to maintain.
“Building owners are starting to realize that a high-performing building pays them back,” says Emma Stewart, head of sustainability solutions for Autodesk.
Because of that realization, pursuing a sustainable rating has become almost a standard in the industry and a common client expectation. “Every building we build today has some sort of green standard associated with it, such as LEED, ENERGY STAR or Enterprise Green Communities,” says Mike Schlegel, president of Bozzuto Construction Company, Greenbelt, Md. “It’s so normal that I can’t even note which is which anymore.”
However, LEED is rarely pursued in its intended way. “LEED often is pursued far too late in process, so there’s a premium paid to do LEED Gold,” Stewart says. “But if you do LEED Platinum from the earliest stage, it’s cheaper because you eliminate systems you don’t need. Instead, you can take advantage of passive heating and cooling, solar and proper orientation.”
The building’s orientation can have a huge impact on heating, cooling and lighting costs. “In the northern hemisphere, you want windows on the southern façade to get the most daylight for the highest percentage of the day,” Stewart says. For example, heating and cooling traditionally has been delegated to the engineer. By considering these systems earlier in the process, natural resources can be used instead.
In the 1970s, the costs of air conditioning decreased and artificial lighting was more accessible, so owners began requesting their floor plates be built like big blocks, Stewart says. That resulted in high energy bills to cover heating, air conditioning and fluorescent lighting. Now, floor plates are trending back to their pre-1970s designs of being shaped like the letters H and L. Though a larger footprint, these shapes allow for more window space and fresh air.
Owners of efficient buildings also are beginning to see unexpected savings. “Insurers are starting to offer more attractive rates for green buildings because they know they have a responsible owner,” Stewart says.
Now building owners are realizing that creating an overall better work environment also attracts a better workforce. “Millennials in particular want to work for people who are ethical. They will happily leave if that’s not the case, and employers are starting to take notice,” Stewart says. “So creating positive, healthier and high-performing work environments in terms of energy and water is good business.”
Changing Client Demands
Millennials are driving changes in more than just the office market. Bozzuto Construction Company has specialized in multifamily housing for 25 years. Traditionally, developments were located in the suburbs and acted as self-contained units. Today, 80 percent of its projects are mixed-use urban infills located in areas close to downtown amenities.
“Location has always been important in real estate, but now it’s more important than ever,” Schlegel says. “The neighborhood has become an amenity to the building.”
It’s also changing the structure of the developments. Instead of 1.5 to two parking spaces per unit, the new rule of thumb is .7 to .5 spaces because tenants are more concerned about being able to walk to neighborhood amenities. Unit sizes are about 150 square feet smaller—at an average of 850 square feet—than in the past. Tenants are more focused on community areas in the development rather than the space of their individual unit. Instead of racquetball courts being a selling point, residents are focused on e-labs with Wi-Fi, according to Schlegel.
The retail market also is trending away from suburban new builds and focusing on backfilling old buildings. Cuhaci and Peterson, an architecture, engineering and planning firm based in Orlando, Fla., has found a niche in retrofitting and remodeling vacant big box stores, such as old Kmart, Circuit City and Oice Depot buildings.
“Reusing these buildings gives our clients an opportunity to redevelop them, bring in new and exciting retailers, and present something special to the market besides a mostly empty building,” says Lonnie Peterson, chairman and cofounder of Cuhaci and Peterson.
Contractors and clients in the retail market also are keeping an eye on what could be a game-changing market trend: Internet sales. “It used to be a battle trying to figure out if Internet sales would take over bricks and sticks sales,” Peterson says. “Most retailers have combined efforts and are building stores to support Internet sales. Some retailers look at their store almost as a showroom where people can go and touch certain things before they buy them online.” It’s also leading to an increase in the construction of Internet sales fulfillment centers, particularly for home improvement stores and Amazon distribution centers.
While Cuhaci and Peterson specializes in office, industrial, senior living and medical office projects, it also focuses heavily on grocery stores and has about 1,500 grocery store projects under its belt. Peterson expects developers to begin focusing on places he calls “food deserts”—neighborhoods in which spendable income is lower, accessibility is limited and new development typically isn’t attracted.
“Food deserts are where people are doing their weekly grocery shopping at convenient stores or dollar stores,” Peterson says. “They are denied the convenience of having healthy farm-to-table food opportunities.” He believes there is enough population in those areas that they will become a bigger focus for retailers of all kinds, as well as city planners.
“It’s an extension of a trend to do less new development in green pastures and more urban redevelopment and reconfiguring of existing buildings,” Peterson says. “As the urban trend continues to grow, it will stretch into those untapped markets.”
Technology companies play a vital role in helping contractors, architects, engineers and clients fully understand how a building will function before the first hole is dug or the first nail is hammered. These companies are helping bridge the gaps among project stakeholders to improve project communication.
One of the biggest hurdles contractors face in the pre-planning process is enabling end users to understand how the finished space will function. “Not everyone is able to look at 2-D plans and understand what a building will look and feel like,” says Justin Schmidt, BIM manager for DPR Construction, Redwood City, Calif.
To facilitate understanding, contractors often use different forms of mockups based on the project’s needs and budget. These historically included electronic mockups to help visualize overall aesthetics and physical mockups to test the performance of certain assemblies.
Five years ago, DPR Construction started exploring virtual reality as another mockup method. Back then, virtual reality was expensive and typically required contractors to bring clients to the system’s location. However, virtual reality evolved quickly and now is much more affordable and portable, allowing it to be used on the jobsite, in meetings or wherever clients are located.
Being portable is a huge advantage for DPR Construction. It recently used virtual reality on an 85,000-square-foot hospital project at the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in Richmond, Va., where it is performing a phased renovation that includes 18 new operating rooms, an MRI suite, a pre- and post-operative care unit, an expanded waiting and reception area, and associated support spaces—all while the hospital remains open.
To gather crucial project feedback from key hospital employees and make use of the site’s limited space, DPR Construction brought the mockup directly to the hospital, where a DPR team member set up the virtual reality station in the break room. As surgeons, doctors, nurses and other staff took breaks, they were able to put on the headset and walk through the mockup using a handheld controller. The headset allowed them to better understand the design and where all equipment, lighting, outlets and other key components would be located.
Then, DPR Construction documented their feedback and incorporated it into the design before construction started. “Changes that are often seen in these types of projects can be avoided,” Schmidt says.
DPR Construction has used virtual reality on about 10 projects, but it is just dipping its toes into using the technology to its full capacity. Now DPR Construction is determining ways to implement it in the construction process, including exploring safety training scenarios and conducting means and methods analyses.
“There’s reality and virtual reality, and augmented reality falls in between,” Schmidt says. “As the name indicates, you’re augmenting the real world environment with additional virtual information.”
With augmented reality, contractors can use their mobile device to view BIM models in the field, giving them a clear comparison of what was designed in BIM to what was actually installed. They also can attach a virtual model to a 2-D paper so clients, architects and other project stakeholders can view the 3-D model on top of the paper drawing using their mobile device.
While Schmidt predicts augmented reality use to increase during the next few years, it currently can be tough to master and time-consuming to assemble, so DPR Construction has only used it on a few projects.
“DPR’s use of augmented reality has shown promise, but we really need to compile more data to prove its true return on investment. That will determine if it’s truly beneficial to use on a project,” Schmidt says.
With the price of drones decreasing, many contractors can incorporate at least one into their building process. They are a relatively easy way to take photos on a regular basis to track changes on the job. With enough photos, a drone can even provide a 3-D point cloud similar to laser scanning.
“Using photogrammetry, you can compare a bunch of photos with different views to create a 3-D model,” Schmidt says. “You’re taking thousands of photos from different angles, and you can use software to produce a model from those photos.”
Bozzuto Construction Company plans on using drones to film project progress. The footage will make punch lists easier and prevent the architect from having to spend hours staring at the building.
However, lying drones legally can be a complicated process that, at least for the time being, prevents many contractors from buying their own drone. The Federal Aviation Administration considers drones unmanned aircraft systems, which require certification to fly for commercial use. Currently, most contractors opt to hire a certified third-party operator.
The Shrinking Workforce
One of the most talked about aspects of the construction industry is the skilled trade worker gap. This is a pressing issue, as almost all contractors are struggling to find ways to adapt to the smaller pool of skilled workers. Many initiatives, such as NCCER’s Build Your Future campaign and Associated Builders and Contractors’ National Craft Championships, encourage young people to view the trades as a viable career options, but the job openings are not being filled.
“There are just not a lot of people in high school who want to be a mason or a carpenter,” Schlegel says.
In addition, some contractors are raising their education standards for new hires due to the new advances in technology—making it more difficult for workers to transition into the world of commercial construction. “Today, nearly all the new hires have college degrees, including field staff,” Schlegel says. “It’s becoming a requirement for office staff and for field staff because we’re all using the same systems and technology.”
Contractors such as Bozzuto Construction Company are exploring ways to work around the issue. One of these ways is prefabrication, which allows the company to take work to areas of the country where the unemployment rate and pool of available workers is higher.
“This will allow us to take work to a blue-colored skilled workforce and then ship the products to install where needed,” Schlegel says. “BIM allows off site work to be done; a higher percentage of off-site work can occur because you can be assured it will fit.”
While prefabrication is not economically viable for all contractors, Schlegel expects it to become more possible over time. “Generally speaking, it’s still less expensive to build onsite in our region. But as labor resources continue to shrink while the price increases, it will start becoming more economically feasible.”