Challenges in Building Homes During a Pandemic: Has Technology Helped?

By Felicia Watson, AVP, National Association of Home Builders of the United States

Felicia Watson, AVP, National Association of Home Builders of the United States
Felicia Watson, AVP, National Association of Home Builders of the United States
Working through a global pandemic has created innumerable challenges for many industries both domestically and globally. Although technology has made it easier for some industries to shift their staff to a remote work environment, residential construction generally does not have that same option.
The residential construction industry, and particularly single-family home construction, at its essence has remained largely unchanged for years. With few exceptions, homes continue to be built mostly by hand. Certainly, some home builders may use modular wall systems, engineered roof trusses and floor joists, and even pre-built wall systems as part of their construction processes, but onsite assembly must still be done. Technological advances in tools, use of unmanned aerial vehicles for site planning or inspection, generators on jobsites, forklifts, cranes, and other equipment have facilitated increased productivity and faster construction, but home building still requires construction workers skilled in various trades (framing, roofing, tile, electrical, and plumbing) to assemble all the pieces into a finished product.
The spread of COVID-19 across the country has indeed created challenges for home builders and their trades. While construction was ultimately deemed an essential service in most parts of the country, requirements for additional jobsite safety protocols have all impacted jobsite efficiencies.
The most significant change in residential construction comes directly from various federal and state guidance documents dealing with COVID-19. Home builders have had to increase jobsite inspections to make sure workers are following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) guidelines for jobsite safety, including wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distance where feasible, and develop specific training for workers on these requirements. Builders have also had to identify and address those job functions where workers cannot be six feet apart, such as framing walls or setting roof trusses, because two or more workers are needed to perform the task safely.
As with all industries, the other impact of COVID-19 is the personal one. Workers who have been exposed to, or infected with COVID-19, must leave the jobsite, in some cases causing construction delays. Delays result in increased pressure to complete the project, which could result in workers resisting guidelines that are put in place for their safety. Unlike many other industries, the delays due to worker absenteeism and increased safety protocols have a greater impact on the home building industry as a result of the record demand for new homes.
Even before the impact of COVID-19, home builders have been using computer systems for ordering supplies and equipment for building projects, invoicing and managing vendors, managing contracts, and managing retail sales contracts. Builders, however, have been able to take advantage of new and expanding computer software capabilities to facilitate and improve homebuyer experiences, including the election of customer option choices for their homes, which can now be done remotely rather than meeting with customers at the office.
Some home builders have gone further, and set up on-line sales platforms, allowing customers to purchase a new home all from the comfort of their living rooms, including selecting the house and finishing options, completing all contracting and financial paperwork, and only having to appear in person to execute documents at the final closing. So, while technology had already made certain aspects and the related paperwork side of the business more efficient, it has also made it easier to manage during COVID-19 because these tasks can be completed from remote locations, including adding electronic signatures and acknowledgements as projects progress.
COVID-19 also affected supply chains creating supply constraints for home builders. At the beginning of the pandemic, when other countries first shut down, supply chains for building materials, products, and components used in housing were one of the first impacts felt, followed by various and evolving stay-at-home restrictions in many parts of the country. As the first wave passed and countries began to ship goods again, businesses along the supply chain were able to begin addressing shortages. When the second COVID-19 wave hit, most countries and businesses were better prepared to deal with pandemic related challenges. However, shortages still exist and in certain areas, continue to cause disruptions. For example, some builders have faced shortages for appliances such as refrigerators, which can cause delays in certificates of occupancy being issued, ultimately delaying closings on the homes.
The changes in demand and how homes are sold has shifted faster in light of the pandemic. Indeed, the market’s response has been to buy homes, and specifically single-family homes, outside of traditional urban locations. For many, COVID-19 has created a desire for more usable spaces at home including home offices and gyms, as well as outdoor spaces for entertaining. It remains to be seen if these trends will continue in the future, but for now, COVID-19 has influenced what people want in their homes. With land a finite commodity, builders can’t purchase it fast enough, and developable lots are hard to come by. Overall indications are that the demand for single-family homes will steadily continue.
Finally, unlike commercial construction, technological improvements that increase home builder productivity on jobsites are not likely to happen for the foreseeable future, in part because real estate and building is very localized. Building techniques vary across the country and while there has been a lot of talk about new technology, such as 3D printed housing, there are limitations and local requirements that will slow down this process. For example, in areas prone to hurricanes and tornadoes, there are different wind and load ratings added into the building codes to ensure structures are safe. In areas of the country where earthquakes are prevalent, different code requirements exist to address seismic considerations.
Builders are leveraging technology to move the purchase side entirely online to meet demand and COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to virtual home buying. The question now is how quickly builders will be able to respond to meet demand. While technology helps in some aspects of residential construction, at its core a home remains a hand-built product.