CEE Master's Student Tracks COVID-19's Impact on Construction

When the United States, along with much of the globe, went into lockdown in early 2020, construction was one industry that didn’t grind to a halt. Nevertheless, many construction firms took a serious hit, according to a UMD civil and environmental engineering graduate student who has produced one of the first systematic assessments of how the industry has fared.

Hala Marwan Alkhalouf’s master’s thesis, Impacts of COVID-19 on Construction, points to supply chain disruptions and worker shortages as two of the most serious factors affecting construction during 2020. Even where deemed essential, construction projects experienced delays because they depended on manufacturers and suppliers that—in many cases—were classified as non-essential. Projects also could not be completed on schedule if workers were absent. And with many becoming sick as the virus spread—or choosing to stay at home in compliance with recommendations by health officials—manpower shortages were frequent.

Alkhalouf obtained her findings by conducting case studies involving projects in the DC-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area, examining project schedules, meeting minutes, specification charts, monthly reports, and other documentation, and using Primavera P6 and Schedule Analyzer software to parse the data.

“I studied two aspects of construction,” said Alkhalouf, who completed her Masters of Science (M.Sc) degree while working full-time as a construction consultant for the Maryland-based firm O’Connell and Lawrence. “The first one is procurement; in every project, you need to procure material and transport it to the site. During lockdown, projects that did not already have all their material on site were impacted. You can’t build if you don’t have the materials.”

Lower labor productivity, resulting from sick or absent workers, also fed delays and drove up costs. “If you don’t have enough people to do the work, it’s going to go at a slower pace,” she said.

Between the procurement problems and worker absenteeism, the projects studied experienced delays of nearly a month—a costly bottleneck, since every additional day means additional money spent on overhead, salaries, and insurance. Serious as these delays were, though, the experience of U.S. firms during the pandemic has paled next to that of countries such as the United Arab Emirates, where construction relies heavily on migrant labor, housing the workers together in dorms. “One worker gets sick, they all get sick,” Alkhalouf said.

”People did not take this seriously at first—that’s the bottom line,” Alkhalouf said. “If they had, they could have procured the material much earlier and tried to expedite schedules, find ways to account for the delays before they happened.”

Hala Alkhalouf

What results of her research did she find most surprising? That the magnitude of the impact far exceeded the level of preparation. With the threat of an impending pandemic apparent since late 2019, and the effects on countries in Asia and Europe widely reported, contractors in the U.S. had the opportunity to make contingency plans—yet many were caught by surprise.

”People did not take this seriously at first—that’s the bottom line,” Alkhalouf said. “If they had, they could have procured the material much earlier and tried to expedite schedules, find ways to account for the delays before they happened.”

There’s a longer-term lesson having to do with resilience, she said. Post-pandemic, there are still many other threats to consider, including those posed by extreme weather. Companies, she believes, should focus more efforts on contingency planning and have backup options in place in case a supply chain breaks due to an unexpected hazard.

Alkhalouf’s thesis was supervised by Miroslaw Skibniewski, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, and editor-in-chief of Automation in Construction. “Hala’s research breaks new ground for better understanding how construction industry supply chains behave during extreme events such as the ongoing pandemic,” he said. “Contingency planning for early materials delivery may sometimes contradict the established knowledge of just-in-time delivery principles to achieve lean production on project sites and to avoid materials storage costs.” 

“Construction schedule adjustments are needed to avoid costly delays caused by absenteeism among laborers, and these can be facilitated by the use of IT and automation-based solutions,” Skibniewski said. 

Alkhalouf also credits the Project Management Center for Excellence—based at the department—with supporting her work. She now plans to continue her engineering research as a doctoral student.

Published March 24, 2021