Construction may be one of the first industries created by the human race, but an unprecedented wave of technological innovation means fundamental and profound change for the industry.
The construction industry, Graham Construction vice-president Kees Cusveller said, is one of the few professions left that has not changed substantially due to technological advances. Cusveller recently spoke at the Canadian Construction Association's (CCA) Vertical Building Forum in Mexico.
"You could take a bricklayer from 500 years ago and drop him on a current site and he'd probably survive. No other sector can say that," Cusveller said.
But Cusveller and others at the forum cautioned against becoming complacent.
"There's going to be a disruptor at some point," he said. "Taxi companies are a classic; they've been old and archaic for years, and Uber's eating their lunch. We are going to see driverless cars at some point. If I was a truck driver, I would be worried, because in five years I might be unemployed," Cusveller added.
The solution is to get ahead of change rather than follow it, he said.
"We don't want to be that taxi driver or truck driver. We want to be Uber, we want to be the automated vehicle. We want to be in the forefront, as opposed to the background," he said.
Vancouver Regional Construction Association president Fiona Famulak suggested the industry ally itself with academia and the technology industry.
"Local construction associations (LCAs) all have a role to play in creating those bridges and driving innovation in a number of different ways," she said.
In addition to heading up Bockstael Construction, John Bockstael is also Canadian Construction Innovations (CCInnovations) chair, an institute established with the help of the CCA to encourage innovation in the construction industry. He said CCInnovations can forge connections and encourage collaboration.
"Contractors fail on our own, at our own peril," he said. He also encouraged new methods of procurement that allow for a research element within funding and pointed to government projects as a good place to pursue such a model.
"The whole issue here is that we, as an industry, have to become more collaborative. Innovation starts closer to the ground, so encourage it within smaller companies," Bockstael said.
Francis Roy, the president of St Nicholas, Quebec based Gyptech Acoustique and a board member of the Association de la Construction du Quebec (Quebec Construction Association, ACQ) said the biggest challenge is to support smaller contractors because the mentality of these contractors is not to invest in research and development.
When asked by Cusveller what will happen to midsize companies, Roy replied "there will be no more midsize, you're either a big guy or small."
Roy reiterated the entire industry must be ready to adopt new technologies to stay competitive.
But the nature of the industry makes change difficult, PCL corporate vice-president Anibal Valente said.
"We're a complex industry and we don't control our destiny. I think the industry needs to appeal to the client, to let us take more risk, and in that respect the owners need to take more risk," Valente said.
"We're risk averse because there's drastic consequences when we don't succeed, so that risk has to be shared more equally. Until we change how we procure construction, we'll still have barriers to innovation," he added.
Regulatory restrictions were also cited as an impediment to change, including building codes restricting new wood technologies such as cross-laminated timber and midrise wood buildings.
Cusveller cited more advanced technologies as another challenge to regulations after the forum pointed to a Chinese project where a 3D printer created a seven storey building.
"How do building codes even apply to that situation?" Cusveller said.