As the national economic doldrums drag on through yet another month, you can’t blame the construction industry’s collective longing for a sense of normalcy—a return to the days when bid opportunities were plentiful, the competition was familiar, and margins were anything but wafer-thin.
But those counting on simply picking up their pre-recession stride when conditions do improve are likely to be sorely disappointed, and out of the running for the most appealing project opportunities.
In researching articles for the upcoming Top 400 Contractors Sourcebook, I asked top executives of several leading firms what their customers will be looking for from construction firms as the economy recovers. The consensus points to a future where yesterday’s approaches and attitudes will no longer apply.
In fact, says Laura D’Ardenne, Manager of Sustainable Construction for PCL Constructors, some changes are already in place.
“Owners are looking for knowledgeable contractors who can be part of process, and help them evaluate strategies,” she says, adding that firms are also being called on to demonstrate their knowledge.
“You can’t just say you know BIM or sustainability,” D’Ardenne says. “You need to show just how well you understand it, including how you’ve used it to improve your own operations.”An intimate understanding of project delivery methods, P3s, and other financing options will also have to be standard equipment in contractor’s skill sets.
Rich Cavallaro, President of Skanska USA Civil, Whitestone N.Y. sees this as “an area where contractors will be stretched, or need to bring in other partners who have that expertise.”
Expect contractor creativity to be in high demand as well, particularly by public-sector agencies that have been (and will likely still be) relying on Harry Potter-like techniques to fulfill their missions with shrunken budgets. It’s only natural that they’ll expect the same kind of “right-brain” thinking from their construction partners in areas where they lack resources and expertise.
“Owners are being more progressive in how they get work done,” says Pat McCann, President and CEO of Weston Solutions, Snellville, Ga. “Governments are cash-strapped, but they still want to see back-burner projects get going. Beyond making every available dollar count, contractors will also have to bear in mind that they are serving not only their clients, but also their clients customers as well.
For example, Jim Andoga, President and CEO of Austin Bridge and Road, foresees DOTs making more use of incentives and penalties to spark the kind of creativity that gets projects done sooner, and reduces inconveniences to the public.
“That’s what they’re really looking for,” Andoga says.
No doubt, many contractors have already adjusted to the new construction landscape. Others, however, may resist change for whatever reason—doubt, disagreement, or the perceived cost and effort involved. They do so at their peril, because whether they realize it or not, the industry has been in a near-constant state of change for the past two decades.
Just consider how green design has gone from costly curiosity to minimum requirement for many building projects, how the adjective “alternative” is no longer used when describing design-build, or how many transportation projects have successfully emulated the rapid turnaround of the $1.6 billion I-15 Reconstruction Project prior to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Writer and futurist Alvin Toffler once wrote that “change is the process by which the future invades our lives.” With the post-recession future already taking shape, it’s up to each contractor what to do about it.