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AEC and Pandemic: Response and Impact - September 2020 Update

On the left: Cleaners: a new crew on construction site (Source: iStock). On the right: An Example of physical distancing measures at Dolores Park, San Francisco (Courtesy of Natasa Mrazovic)

Research initiative

The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing considerable changes to AEC’s business-as- usual. The primary research objective is to monitor and analyze AEC stakeholders’ response to the pandemic and develop lessons-learned guidelines for a “new normal” afterwards. The research will not only  identify and analyze the quantified and qualified short- & long-term impacts and trends, and provide insights, but also build a shared platform to share information for CIFE members to more smoothly adjust to the new normal and be better prepared for future crises.

Categorization of the observed issues &  Trend analysis

Given our observation of countless project-specific challenges and the response of the industry, we grouped the issues into 12 overlapping topics. The categorization and the trends will be analyzed monthly and updated as the industry focus changes.

In September 2020 the impacts of the pandemic continue to be the most important discussion topics in the industry, although climate change and social justice are becoming more popular. The communication about the pandemic has “watered-down”; there are substantially less pandemic-only webinars and articles, but almost every publication mentions an aspect of the pandemic. The industry has been adept to adapt no matter continuously changing and increasing challenges. The intensity of the pandemic impacts remains on the same level as over the summer. We are all in a wait-and-see mode, still optimistic but cautious and wait for the vaccine rollout. September data shows the AEC industry rebounding globally, more than any other industry. The dilution of pandemic-focused publications signals the start of permanent change. Some COVID-19 induced changes will stay permanently, while some restrictions will be lifted once the global population is vaccinated. Many uncertainties remain, and the experts predict waves of economic disruptions throughout the next decade affecting AEC as well.  

Our September trend analysis is based on the selected 513 references (out of 561 analyzed September publications). The trends of the categories are provided in the table and the diagram below.

The categorization of the observed issues in September remained the same as in previous three months, including 12 categories and 22 subcategories.

Read more: Detailed trend analysis and monthly highlights

The highlights of each category observed in the latest published month (September) are provided in the blocks below. More information about a specific category from the latest and previous months can be found in the downloaded report(s) - the links are provided below.

1. (Advance) planning: short- & long-term strategies

  • Discussion about this category is at its lowest level since April and we don’t expect this topic ever to reach the number one position from June 2020; All three subcategories decreased their presence from the August levels.
  • Sustainability/ Green future – opportunity to address climate change is taking the lead among the three subcategories due to climate change disastrous events.
  • Now is the time to reenergize or reset organizations with resilience and trust continuing to be the most important words of 2020.

3. Procedures of shifting workflows

  • This category has taken the number one position for the fifth time in the past 6 months and we expect it to remain of the highest interest in the following months, due to challenges such as market conditions, issues with contracting and potential litigations.
  • Investors continue to play the wait-and-see game. All subcategories except Remote work (work from home - WFH) have been less discussed in September.
  • US companies expect a slowdown before the election and then a pace pickup no matter who wins. EU construction production is now at its 97% of the February level. Asia Pacific is fighting to recover from COVID-19, with China leading as it resumed construction on 90% of key projects.

4. Health and Safety (H&S)

  • H&S has been discussed 20% less in September than in August in line with the overall trend of communication decrease; we know more about the virus and wait for the vaccine and pandemic fatigue. The September discussion focused on symptoms, vaccine race, drugs, flu season, screening and testing strategies, masks, adequacy of specific COVID-19 response and measures, etc.
  • The U.S. contractors continue to report OSHA issuing citations to the companies failing to follow COVID-19 official guidelines.
  • Mental health crisis deepens; anxiety and depression due to quarantine, unemployment rates, and uncertainties in general.

5. Management of employees (in crisis)

  • The pandemic has placed the focus on employees wellbeing, their work-life balance, and many companies devising innovative solutions to accommodate employees’ needs.
  • A company is only as resilient as its people. Change management is one of the most effective methods to foster employee engagement, empathy, and compassion.
  • Suicide prevention in construction more important than ever given the overall mental health challenges.

6. Adoption of (new) technologies

  • Interest in this category has increased 10% from August as digitalization and automation continue to be the most important strategies for the successful future.
  • Of the 6 subcategories, two are experiencing interest increase; while remaining 4 subcategories are showing decline in published volume.
  • The focus in digital tech in AEC in September is on automation of data and processes, VDC, drone and robotics application, and continuing high interest in smart “healthy” buildings, AI, COVID-19 tech solutions, and related cybersecurity and privacy solutions.

7. Buildings & cities for a next normal

  • In September the volume of the discussion about this category dropped 44% in comparison to August.
  • The community continues to discuss future of the workplace and the office, and its repurpose post-COVID;  WFH offices; distribution center and warehouse design; justice, equity, diversity and inclusion; infrastructure projects and green future; educational post-COVID buildings; affordable housing; healthcare facilities that weathered COVID well; future of (healthy smart) cities; the digital technologies that can help return trust in spaces and places, etc.
  •  As expected, many architectural competitions for post-pandemic reality are published. Architects continue to envision and discuss memorials for coronavirus victims.

8. Silver lining

  • The number of talks about silver lining continues to decline in September, though industry is taking this crisis as business opportunity.
  • Seeing silver lining is one of the reassessment steps of the remained of 2020 for the construction firms.
  • Other silver lining examples during pandemic expressed in September include medical innovation, collaboration, real-time data, “tail risks”, stress testing, and balance, and greener future potential.

9. Future predictions

  • Discussion about future with predictions lessened approximately 60% in September.
  • With still more questions than answers, the community continues to discuss the future of working and living, flexibility of (human-centric) workplace, (repurposed) offices, (multidimensional) cities (and neighborhood systems), infrastructure, climate change consequences, future steps regarding community engagement, future better work-life balance, etc.

10. Official Strategies / Guidelines // Rules / Regulations

  • Discussion about this category decreased 54% in September. 
  • Previously mentioned the first-ever published WELL certification for buildings to address a post COVID-19 environment is showing successful application in buildings. In previous reports we highlighted RESET® and Fitwel certifications.
  • New building operation standards are required as the current guidelines are confusing and/or contradicting and unsustainable; in September the AEC community continues to urge action on healthier policy priorities in a more organized way.

11. Building operations

  • Interest in this category decreased 60% in September. Building operations continue to play crucial role in strategies to return occupants safely in workspaces and creating healthier buildings. The experts use HVAC, architectural, material, and technology recommendations.
  • Enhancement of HVAC systems include air quality (dilution) by increasing outdoor ventilation, disabled demand-controlled ventilation, extended hours of operation, etc.
  • The June discussion how “healthy buildings” term temporarily replaced the term “sustainable buildings” continues in September. Both topics should be addressed in parallel.

Monthly Reports (PDF)

The full reports with detailed analysis and systematization of the references can be downloaded below.

2020:   April       May       June       July       August       September       October       November       December      

2021:  January     February     March

References

The links to the subpages with systematized references are at the bottom of this page. The lists of references allow the reader "a deeper dive" into specific topics.

2020:  April       May       June       July       August       September       October       November       December     

2021:  January    February     March

Research Team

Lead Researcher: Natasa Mrazovic
Prinicipal Investigator: Martin Fischer
Website: Junwen Zheng, Marc Ramsey, Andrew Peterman
Comments or Questions: cife-aec-pandemic-research@stanford.edu