1.8 The Changing Environment of the Construction Industry

The construction industry is a conglomeration of diverse fields and participants that have been loosely lumped together as a sector of the economy. The construction industry plays a central role in national welfare, including the development of residential housing, office buildings and industrial plants, and the restoration of the nation's infrastructure and other public facilities. The importance of the construction industry lies in the function of its products which provide the foundation for industrial production, and its impacts on the national economy cannot be measured by the value of its output or the number of persons employed in its activities alone.

To be more specific, construction refers to all types of activities usually associated with the erection and repair of immobile facilities. Contract construction consists of a large number of firms that perform construction work for others, and is estimated to be approximately 85% of all construction activities. The remaining 15% of construction is performed by owners of the facilities, and is referred to as force-account construction. Although the number of contractors in the United States exceeds a million, over 60% of all contractor construction is performed by the top 400 contractors. The value of new construction in the United States (expressed in constant dollars) and the value of construction as a percentage of the gross national products from 1950 to 1985 are shown in Figures 1-6 and 1-7. It can be seen that construction is a significant factor in the Gross National Product although its importance has been declining in recent years. Not to be ignored is the fact that as the nation's constructed facilities become older, the total expenditure on rehabilitation and maintenance may increase relative to the value of new construction.

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Figure 1-6:  Value of New Construction in the United States, 1975-1995

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Figure 1-7:  Construction as Percentage of Gross Domestic Product in the United States, 1975-1995

Owners who pay close attention to the peculiar characteristics of the construction industry and its changing operating environment will be able to take advantage of the favorable conditions and to avoid the pitfalls. Several factors are particularly noteworthy because of their significant impacts on the quality, cost and time of construction.

New Technologies

In recent years, technological innovation in design, materials and construction methods have resulted in significant changes in construction costs. Computer-aids have improved capabilities for generating quality designs as well as reducing the time required to produce alternative designs. New materials not only have enhanced the quality of construction but also have shortened the time for shop fabrication and field erection. Construction methods have gone through various stages of mechanization and automation, including the latest development of construction robotics.

The most dramatic new technology applied to construction has been the Internet and its private, corporate Intranet versions. The Internet is widely used as a means to foster collaboration among professionals on a project, to communicate for bids and results, and to procure necessary goods and services. Real time video from specific construction sites is widely used to illustrate construction progress to interested parties. The result has been more effective collaboration, communication and procurement.

The effects of many new technologies on construction costs have been mixed because of the high development costs for new technologies. However, it is unmistakable that design professionals and construction contractors who have not adapted to changing technologies have been forced out of the mainstream of design and construction activities. Ultimately, construction quality and cost can be improved with the adoption of new technologies which are proved to be efficient from both the viewpoints of performance and economy.

Labor Productivity

The term productivity is generally defined as a ratio of the production output volume to the input volume of resources. Since both output and input can be quantified in a number of ways, there is no single measure of productivity that is universally applicable, particularly in the construction industry where the products are often unique and there is no standard for specifying the levels for aggregation of data. However, since labor constitutes a large part of the cost of construction, labor productivity in terms of output volume (constant dollar value or functional units) per person-hour is a useful measure. Labor productivity measured in this way does not necessarily indicate the efficiency of labor alone but rather measures the combined effects of labor, equipment and other factors contributing to the output.

While aggregate construction industry productivity is important as a measure of national economy, owners are more concerned about the labor productivity of basic units of work produced by various crafts on site. Thus, an owner can compare the labor performance at different geographic locations, under different working conditions, and for different types and sizes of projects.

Construction costs usually run parallel to material prices and labor wages. Actually, over the years, labor productivity has increased in some traditional types of construction and thus provides a leveling or compensating effect when hourly rates for labor increase faster than other costs in construction. However, labor productivity has been stagnant or even declined in unconventional or large scale projects.

Public Scrutiny

Under the present litigious climate in the United States, the public is increasingly vocal in the scrutiny of construction project activities. Sometimes it may result in considerable difficulty in siting new facilities as well as additional expenses during the construction process itself. Owners must be prepared to manage such crises before they get out of control.

Figure 1-8 can serve to indicate public attitudes towards the siting of new facilities. It represents the cumulative percentage of individuals who would be willing to accept a new industrial facility at various distances from their homes. For example, over fifty percent of the people surveyed would accept a ten-story office building within five miles of their home, but only twenty-five percent would accept a large factory or coal fired power plant at a similar distance. An even lower percentage would accept a hazardous waste disposal site or a nuclear power plant. Even at a distance of one hundred miles, a significant fraction of the public would be unwilling to accept hazardous waste facilities or nuclear power plants.

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Figure 1-8:  Public Acceptance Towards New Facilities (Reprinted from Environmental Quality - 1980,
the Eleventh Annual Report of the Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, December 1980.)

This objection to new facilities is a widespread public attitude, representing considerable skepticism about the external benefits and costs which new facilities will impose. It is this public attitude which is likely to make public scrutiny and regulation a continuing concern for the construction industry.

International Competition

A final trend which deserves note is the increasing level of international competition in the construction industry. Owners are likely to find non-traditional firms bidding for construction work, particularly on large projects. Separate bids from numerous European, North American, and Asian construction firms are not unusual. In the United States, overseas firms are becoming increasingly visible and important. In this environment of heightened competition, good project management and improved productivity are more and more important.

A bidding competition for a major new offshore drilling platform illustrates the competitive environment in construction. As described in the Wall Street Journal:

Through most of the postwar years, the nation's biggest builders of offshore oil platforms enjoyed an unusually cozy relationship with the Big Oil Companies they served. Their top officials developed personal friendships with oil executives, entertained them at opulent hunting camps- and won contracts to build nearly every major offshore oil platform in the world....But this summer, the good-old boy network fell apart. Shell [Oil Co.] awarded the main contract for [a new] platform - taller than Chicago's Sears Tower, four times heavier than the Brooklyn Bridge - to a tiny upstart.

The winning bidder arranged overseas fabrication of the rig, kept overhead costs low, and proposed a novel assembly procedure by which construction equipment was mounted on completed sections of the platform in order to speed the completion of the entire structure. The result was lower costs than those estimated and bid by traditional firms.

Of course, U.S. firms including A/E firms, contractors and construction managers are also competing in foreign countries. Their success or failure in the international arena may also affect their capacities and vitality to provide services in the domestic U.S. market.

Contractor Financed Projects

Increasingly, some owners look to contractors or joint ventures as a resource to design, to build and to finance a constructed facility. For example, a utility company may seek a consortium consisting of a design/construct firm and a financial investment firm to assume total liability during construction and thereby eliminate the risks of cost escalation to ratepayers, stockholders and the management. On the other hand, a local sanitation district may seek such a consortium to provide private ownership for a proposed new sewage treatment plant. In the former case, the owner may take over the completed facility and service the debt on construction through long-term financing arrangements; in the latter case, the private owner may operate the completed facility and recover its investment through user fees. The activities of joint ventures among design, construction and investment firms are sometimes referred to as financial engineering.

This type of joint venture has become more important in the international construction market where aggressive contractors often win contracts by offering a more attractive financing package rather than superior technology. With a deepening shadow of international debts in recent years, many developing countries are not in a position to undertake any new project without contractor-backed financing. Thus, the contractors or joint ventures in overseas projects are forced into very risky positions if they intend to stay in the competition.