July 20, 2024

Skills gaps and green construction innovations are creating new challenges around quality control

Despite the advancements in technology, many in the UK construction industry are still using outdated, paper-based systems. Add rising inflation and material shortages to the mix, and the pressure to expedite projects without compromising quality is immense. Here André Gunter Head of Pre-sales and Consulting, Idox plc, discusses the impact of these outdated practices and how modern solutions could save the industry millions.

The construction industry is currently navigating a complex landscape marked by significant skills shortages and the advent of green construction innovations and initiatives. Recent evidence highlights this perfect storm of post-COVID talent migration, ageing populations and accelerating demand all contributing to a critical construction skills shortfall. These widespread labour shortages, particularly evident across Europe and North America, place skills gaps among the top five risks to engineering and construction. At the same time, the drive for sustainable infrastructure introduces new defect risks and heightened quality control requirements. The combination of new challenges and a lack of human skills to manage them could lead to increased rework or remediation costs and potentially compromise the integrity of our built environment.

New quality control risks and skills shortfalls

Research projects a shortfall of two million construction workers across Europe alone by 2030 while North America is already experiencing a shortage of over 500,000 construction workers. A shortage of skills amidst rising construction demand means a risk of more errors being made or overlooked, and this is contributing to rising rework costs.

At the same time, the introduction of novel green construction methods and materials is introducing new potential risk scenarios and quality control challenges to construction. For example, the shift from steel and concrete to carbon-efficient mass timber will require the implementation and rigorous enforcement of proper construction practices to mitigate hazards from wind to fire.  Novel green construction techniques or materials introduced without the requisite human skills could cause repetitive losses where undetected errors are repeated across several teams. Even worse, the rise of modular construction methods could see the same defects rapidly reproduced across multiple prefabricated parts before the fault is even found.  Cumulatively, this means a rising risk of hidden defects being introduced and reproduced across the built environment.

Archaic quality control methods

Despite the risks, many companies still use archaic issues management systems from clipboards to Excel spreadsheets splintered among different teams. Some rely on poorly targeted, time-consuming manual inspections or paper-based systems to flag faults. These paper-based snagging processes obscure visibility of risks and result in 10% more unresolved defects. Archaic construction processes also hinder efforts to recruit and retain a new tech-savvy generation of workers, exacerbating skills shortages.

Poor practices flourish in the dark and the lack of transparency around building quality is masking rising risks from sustainable new construction methods and materials such as timber. Amidst rising construction errors, rework now accounts for 11% of construction costs across Europe at a time when supply chain and skills costs are soaring.

Quality control oversights are even affecting the climate resilience of buildings. For example, poor practices for installing green substitute materials such as timber can create defects which expose buildings to growing weather risks from storms to fires. Amidst a raft of new regulations from climate disclosure rules to building safety mandates requiring climate resilient infrastructure, any construction errors will also expose project owners to growing regulatory risks.  

Construction 4.0 drives transparency

The rise of ‘Construction 4.0’ technologies could fill gaps in human skills and bring new transparency to construction so that sustainable building innovations do not affect cost, safety and integrity. Digital technologies are now making it easier to shed light on risky construction processes and standardise and institutionalise best practices across projects. For example, software could automatically enforce standardised quality management processes for sustainable materials such as mass timber, ensuring new materials do not come at the expense of safety or structural integrity. Crucially, automating the documentation, monitoring and communication of defects both eliminates human error and reduces reliance on increasingly limited human skills.

Digital platforms can now remotely identify and track issues across projects and communicate errors to the relevant stakeholders from architects to subcontractors, improving visibility of quality control. Some platforms can automatically assess defects for compliance with safety standards or building codes, ensuring sustainable construction innovations do not create new regulatory risks. Automated systems even identify common trends among defects, shining a light on recurring issues and helping predict and prevent repetitive losses. This could bring unprecedented transparency and control to novel construction processes.

Democratising quality control

Construction 4.0 technologies could also ease construction skills shortages by enabling workers in the field to instantly record and report issues, driving more efficient, targeted inspections and mitigations. New systems enable construction workers to remotely report and pin errors onto drawings from any location using smartphones or tablets. By allowing all construction workers to instantly record and report issues, these digital technologies are democratising quality control and reducing reliance on specialist skills. Defect management software can then provide real-time updates on defect status, ensuring continuous, common visibility, and control of issues among or across all teams, fostering greater collaboration.

Smart, digital quality control systems engaging all employees could significantly reduce inspection and admin costs while improving project performance. The early identification and resolution of errors will also help prevent costly rework and delays and avoid safety risks and compliance breaches. Digital processes and practices are already spurring major improvements across construction from smarter cost estimation to enhanced progress monitoring.

Balancing conflicting demands

The combination of a growing construction skills shortage and the rise of novel new construction innovations is creating a cloud of uncertainty over quality control. Advances in Construction 4.0 technology now offer the opportunity to fill human skills gaps and balance competing demands for more sustainable infrastructure that is also safer and more resilient. The digital democratisation and standardisation of quality control can ensure new sustainable building innovations do not introduce unforeseen costs and risks to our built environment.

André Gunter Head of Pre-sales and Consulting, Idox plc