Modular Construction’s Suite Life

Computers have been commonplace in construction companies for generations, now. The 1982 introduction of the IBM PC changed the relationship of companies with computing by bringing relatively inexpensive computing to the desktop of individuals and organizations alike. But in those early days, software was limited in capability by the limited memory and processing power of the PC. As both evolved, individual software applications were integrated into systems and suites of applications, providing greatly improved benefits to the user.

As computing changed businesses, businesses changed their approach to doing business. In construction, technology was giving architects and engineers digital design abilities via CAD and BIM (computer-aided design and building information modeling) while field applications, ranging from remote project monitoring to digital punch lists, brought technology to the jobsite. Meanwhile, offsite construction was also benefiting from technology as robotics changed the way modular and prefabricated buildings were assembled in the shop and later onsite.

Investment in Water Infrastructure

Are we investing enough in our water infrastructure? New data shows, the answer might be a little bit more complicated than it once was, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) recently created a status report on COVID-19’s impact on America’s infrastructure—and the outlook is bleak.

Fiber to the Farms

Rural development loans and grants are being used to bring broadband Internet access to farms and small towns across the country. With many businesses and schools depending on remote work rather than in-person contact because of the COVID-19 pandemic, having Internet access is vital, not a luxury.

Nineteen recipients of a total of $75 million in federal grant funds under the Mississippi Broadband COVID-19 program, which is designed to help residents and businesses in unserved or underserved areas of the state get fast, reliable internet access in 2020, are required to match 50% of the overall cost of their individual project. This cost sharing approach will make the project a community partnership with the companies involved while allowing the companies to recoup their investments from long-term Internet access fees.

From $660 Billion to Foreclosure?

U.S. lodging industry contributes nearly $660 billion to U.S. GDP according to the AHLA (American Hotel & Lodging Assn.) With record low travel demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of independent hotels cannot afford to pay their commercial mortgages and are facing foreclosure with the potential of having to close permanently. Tens of thousands of hotel employees will lose their jobs and small businesses that depend on these hotels to drive local tourism and economic activity will likely face a similar fate.

A report, from research firm Trepp, shows that the hotel industry is facing a historic wave of foreclosures as COVID-19 continues to devastate the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic in February, the hotel segment has faced an increasing number of delinquencies and is the most heavily hit sector of the CMBS (commercial mortgage-backed securities) market.

Construction Cloud Gets Pyped

Construction-focused software and systems are still a limited field compared to the general applications market. Niche software is often developed with high technology aspects, such as AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning capabilities, that slow their adoption due to “fear of change.” Construction is one of the largest industries that is slow to accept new technology, unfortunately.

One answer is to make the application easily integrated with systems in use at many companies already, and offer the technology embedded in a cloud-based system making its use easier and less expensive. Major players in the market are quick to recognize the benefits of these technologies and, by integration or acquisition, make them part of their overall construction system.

One Done, One Begun

Design, engineer, and build under one roof can provide all the right services for large clients, such as cities and universities, when they want to limit the number of companies involved in a project. One such company is Woolpert, an AEG (architecture, engineering, geospatial) and strategic consulting firm with more than100 years of experience, 1,000 employees and 30 offices. The firm was contracted in 2015 to provide design and engineering upgrades to five campus buildings at the UNCC (University of North Carolina-Charlotte).

The $17 million renovation of the Academic Complex at UNCC was recently complete. Five academic buildings make up the complex at the southeast end of campus. The buildings include and were renovated in the order of Denny, Macy, Barnard, Garinger, and Winningham. Woolpert upgraded the MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing), install a fire protection system, improve accessibility, provide interior finishes and exterior windows, and address minor building settlement at these buildings.

AI: Slowed but not Stopped

AI—Artificial Intelligence (or Augmented Intelligence)—has been a buzzword for decades. Every day we hear of things being augmented with AI: autonomous cars, for example. But is AI really growing and being implemented in practical, useful applications?

Apparently so. Worldwide revenues for the AI market, including software, hardware, and services, are expected to total $156.5 billion in 2020, an increase of 12.3% over 2019. While this year's growth is somewhat slower than previous years due to the economic impact of COVID-19, IDC (ntl. Data Corp.) believes investment in AI will recover quickly.

USDA Loans and Grants

The Rural Development Program at the Department of Agriculture can be a funding source for small towns that have infrastructure plans but no capital. There are two programs, loans and grants, each with its own requirements and funding sources. Eligible borrowers include public bodies, community-based non-profit corporations, and Federally recognized tribes.

Direct Loans require repayment terms not longer than the useful life of the facility, the applicants’ authority, or a maximum of 40 years, whichever is less. Interest rates are set by Rural Development, and once the loan is approved, the interest rate is fixed for the entire term of the loan. Interest is determined by the median household income of the service area and population of the community. There are no pre-payment penalties.

Pennsylvania to Profit from USDA Investments

The Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) has been on an investment spree recently, putting money from the Rural Business Development fund into several states and projects. Pennsylvania will receive $358,639 to provide technical assistance and training for small businesses in rural areas of the state. The funding can be used for training, technical assistance, acquisition or development of land, pollution control, and distance adult learning for job training and advancement. In addition, the REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) is making awards of $143,067 that can be used for energy audits and to install renewable energy systems such as biomass, geothermal, hydropower, and solar. The funding can also be used to increase energy efficiency by making improvements to heating, ventilation and cooling systems; insulation; and lighting and refrigeration.

Residential Construction—Ups and Downs

The construction segment has been hit hard and often by the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting with massive layoffs in March and April due to sites being closed for health safety reasons, the industry took advantage of the loosening of restrictions in May and June to add back workers.

According to the BLS report JOLTS (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey), the construction sector hired 679,000 workers in May, followed by 498,000 in June. By comparison, 423,000 construction workers were hired in June 2019. The construction hiring rate in May—the number of hires (679,000) divided by total employment and sector job openings—increased to 9.7%, after a subdued 3.7% rate in April. This was the strongest rate of hiring in the history of the JOLTS data. In June, the rate was 6.9%, slower than May, but still well above average.