Change brought on by technology has fundamentally rewired society, forever shifting the way business is transacted. The construction and building trades, while initially slow to adapt, are themselves now in the process of a rapid technological transformation driven by shortages in skilled labor, demands for better productivity and cost reductions, and the meeting of sustainability goals and safer practices.
In this special multi-part content series, we’ll explore why digital transformation in the building materials industry is so important. We’ll highlight how and where technology has shifted the landscape, from the big-box stores where building materials are sold to construction sites themselves. We’ll look at how robots are changing the way work takes place, how software has altered planning and workforce allocation — and, of course, how technology has changed the very materials and tools that builders work with.
The building and construction industry is one based on relatively simple implements and materials — hardware in its most basic form. Hammers and saws. Nails and screws. Wood and cement. All of it manipulated by human hands.
It’s a world that has changed very slowly over the decades. The same basic processes, equipment, and materials that were used to construct a house in the late 1800s are still in use today; the methods and materials are all tried and true, skills passed down with pride from one generation to the next.
The result? The construction industry has been among the last to bend to the will of technological disruption.
Those days, however, are in the process of an astonishing transformation. Change is coming, and it’s now coming fast and hard. Swirling around the building and construction trades are the winds of massive shifts brought on by new technology — new apps that speed processes and reduce labor, new materials that are more environmentally sound and faster to install, new equipment and tools, some of it fully autonomous, and more efficient methods for ordering and delivering materials.
As a result, a rapid and perhaps painful period of adjustment is at hand — all due to technological disruption in its most classic form.
“Technology is enabling safety. Technology is enabling efficiency. Technology is helping companies cope with the challenges of labor shortages.”
Some of the unfolding changes have been driven by the pandemic. Soaring prices, supply crunches, and labor shortages crimped an industry that suddenly faced huge demand, demand driven mostly by residential renovations and construction. As demand spiked, companies suddenly realized that old, tried, and true ways simply weren’t up to the task. A shift began to pick up momentum — to new materials that could be produced faster and installed more efficiently with fewer workers; to new tools that shaved time and eased labor requirements; and to new transportation and distribution systems that helped relieve pressure caused by demand and eased pressure on bottom lines.
“In the last five, six, seven years, it’s become the norm to start leveraging technology,” says Forestell. “Now, everyone is using software, just for an example. And software keeps getting better, and there's more solutions every single day.”
But for every GPS-guided and autonomous vehicle being introduced to a job site, there are still dark corners of the construction and building trades where technology is viewed with suspicion and resistance to change is strong – order desks that use paper and fax machines, contractors who are reluctant to use social media or even send text messages.
“I’m very fortunate my son is taking over my business,” one lumber supply business owner recently told an industry conference. “I hate it when a customer texts me an order. I prefer to talk to my customer on the phone. I realize [technology] is the future; it seems like these kids can text faster than they can talk.
“But it’s not the way I’ve done business.”
Bridging that gap between old ways and new, and helping the market and construction ecosystem absorb change, is a task many companies face.
“Whether we’re talking about the construction industry or any other, maybe the human condition is such that people are resistant to change,” says Trusscore CEO and serial technology entrepreneur Dave Caputo, reflecting on the resistance to adopting new ways among players in the construction field.
*I think resistance to change is a very common story. But there are probably enough things happening in the construction industry that you need to be open to change – there are supply chain issues, price spikes, and labor shortages.
“Technology disruption generally follows and attempts to solve problems.”
Disruption is a topic Caputo is familiar with. He is the co-founder and former CEO of technology firm Sandvine, and before that, a co-founder of a scaleup called Pixstream. He was involved with exits by both companies of nearly half a billion dollars.
The construction and building industry, Caputo says, is a “show me” industry, one where the people involved need to see a material, method, or tool in action before they feel comfortable enough to switch. Once they do, once trust is established, resistance fades.
“Seeing is believing,” he says. “Using a new material is believing.”
He points out that drywall emerged as a replacement for plaster after World War II, when experienced plasterers were unable to meet the surge in post-war home construction. Now, drywall is ubiquitous. Trusscore, Caputo’s new company, has set out to do to drywall what drywall did to plaster — disrupt the status quo with a product that is more resilient than drywall, lighter and easier to install, and one that, unlike drywall, performs in wet environments.
“The construction industry is a completely different world than it was just a few years ago,” Forestell says. “Construction is changing so fast.
“And you know what? It’s changing for the better.”