Ask the Expert: Pandemic Trends

A look at new construction materials and techniques that have emerged in the age of COVID-19

March 15, 2022 Photo

The Expert:

TJ Cate, P.E., S.E., G.C., Director, 
Construction Practice, Rimkus 
Consulting Group

QUESTION: What new types of construction materials and techniques have we seen emerge in the construction industry since the onset of the pandemic, and what has been the motivation behind their emergence?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is that we’ve seen a large increase in requests for, and builders offering, antimicrobial lighting. While these light fixtures have been available for several years, they didn’t garner much attention until the pandemic. There are styles that look like normal recessed fixtures and provide the same LED lighting, but they can be switched to antimicrobial mode. It is more common to see these fixtures installed, especially in bathrooms and kitchens. Lighting manufacturers claim that they are effective at killing and preventing viruses (including SARS-CoV-2), bacteria, mold, and mildew. The heightened awareness of health and preventing the spread of disease has businesses and families alike looking for ways to protect the health of workers and loved ones. Antimicrobial lighting is an easy way to add a layer of protection, so it’s not surprising that we’ve seen a dramatic increase in its use.

Material shortages and supply chain issues have forced contractors to look for new products and materials. For example, I know a custom home contractor that could not obtain enough oriented strand board (OSB) sheathing for a project. However, his supplier did have access to plenty of a newer type sheathing with built-in water-resistive barrier (WRB). So, the contractor took the plunge and used the new sheathing for the first time. He had to take the time to educate his framing crew on the proper installation techniques, including taping and rolling seams in the sheathing. He admitted to struggling to get the installation correct for the first couple of days, but after everyone caught on to the new methods, it went smoothly. He believes that, overall, the integrated WRB sheathing worked just as well as his traditional method of installing a separate WRB over top of the sheathing.

We can’t talk about the pandemic without recognizing the huge leaps forward in online communication and digital collaboration. The construction industry, like other industries, was forced to rapidly develop and implement methods for remote work and employ digital tools as part of the construction process. While digital construction has been growing steadily for years, the pandemic greatly increased the adoption rate of digital construction tools. Most architects and engineers were already working in building information modeling (BIM) prior to the pandemic, as were most large, sophisticated construction firms. The pandemic brought out new, widespread use of other digital tools.

Contractors began using 3D scans throughout construction to document progress, track changes, and resolve conflicts. Field conditions could be captured instantly and sent to the entire team: owner, architects, engineers, subcontractors, etc. to quickly integrate the as-built conditions into the BIM model and collaborate to solve problems without having everyone on site. The pandemic made it commonplace to find a superintendent strapping a 360-degree camera to his hard hat. By simply walking the job site with the camera, he could instantly capture a detailed layout of the entire site. That data could then be used to clarify requests for information, create punch lists, and communicate site conditions to subcontractors.

Government entities and building departments quickly implemented digital plan-review processes and digital permitting. Some building departments even developed methods that allowed for virtual building inspections to reduce the need for inspectors to be on-site. Even small simple construction projects quickly adopted the use of Facetime, Zoom, and other digital tools for communication between the on-site workers and the rest of the team. Weekly coordination and construction administration meetings, tailgate safety training, toolbox talks, and owner walkthroughs all adopted some form of digital tool.

Q: As these new materials and techniques become more common, what are the risk management and/or regulatory concerns?

A: One of the biggest risks with new construction materials is the learning curve. New materials can’t always be installed using the same methods and techniques that tradesmen are used to. For example, earlier we talked about a contractor using a new type of sheathing with an integrated WRB. With traditional standard sheathing the installation was a straightforward nail-and-go process.  But, with the integrated WRB system, the nailing along the panel edges must be more precise to prevent damage to the WRB at the edges. Once the sheathing is nailed in place, all the seams have to be covered with a specific tape that is compatible with the sheathing. Tape joints and intersections require particular attention to ensure the tape overlaps the proper distance. Then the tape must be pressed and rolled to obtain the proper adhesion to the sheathing.

If a contractor doesn’t take the time to ensure that everyone is familiar with the installation instructions and methods that must be used to install the new material then there is a risk of that material not performing as intended, presenting a risk of future damage to the building. Furthermore, failing to install a product according to the manufacturer’s instructions typically voids the manufacturer warranty, leaving the contractor on his own should a problem or claim arise relating to the product.

Whenever new materials or techniques are introduced to construction, it falls on the design professionals and builders to educate the building departments and inspectors about them.  Early communication with the building department is essential. That leaves plenty of time to work through any concerns they may have without the risk of delaying the project, or worse, having them not approve the materials after they are already installed. 

The adoption and use of digital tools has moved contractors into unfamiliar territory in the IT industry. Data integrity and cyber-security are not topics that the construction industry has given much consideration. Most mainstream construction management software helps with data integrity and preservation by utilizing cloud-based storage. But, it only works if there are policies, procedures, and training in place. 

The biggest risk would be having critical project documents and records stored only on a laptop in the construction trailer or on a single hard drive back at the main office. Training of construction workers to avoid spear-fishing and other cyber threats is lagging far behind the adoption and implementation of digital construction. A single ransom-ware attack could be devastating to a construction project.

The good news is that the traditional risk management and job-hazard analysis techniques that the construction industry is good at can be applied to digital risks: Identify, analyze, prioritize, mitigate, monitor.

Q: Have these new materials and techniques altered the construction claims landscape at all yet? If so, how? If not, what impacts might we see in the near future?

A: While we haven’t seen an appreciable increase in construction claims relating to new materials and techniques yet, we do anticipate that it is coming. Inevitably there will be claims from new materials that weren’t installed properly or didn’t perform as expected. For example, I am assisting with a claim involving use of the new coextruded polyethylene composite pressure pipe for HVAC line sets. These types of claims often require more effort and resources as claims professionals, must learn enough about the new products to be able to administer the claim. Consultants and experts, likewise, must educate themselves and stay on top of new construction methods and materials. 

Also coming to the construction claims realm will be issues associated with digital construction. BIM with 4-D and 5-D modeling (construction schedule and cost included with the structural model) is becoming increasingly prevalent. Three-hundred-sixty-degree cameras, laser scanning, and other forms of data collection and contemporaneous digital collaboration are fantastic tools for the construction industry, but we have yet to fully understand the risks and potential losses associated with their use. The quick adoption of some these tools over the past couple of years may have outpaced insurance coverage. I anticipate that in the coming years claims associated with digital construction will test policies to see if current coverage is sufficient, and new coverage for these types of issues will be implemented in the construction practice.

About The Authors
Phil Gusman

Phil Gusman is CLM's director of content.

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