Vancouver Economic Commission draws attention to city's $426-million construction-technology sector

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      This afternoon while browsing the Vancouver Economic Commission website, I came across something most people are unaware of.

      That's the city's $426-million local "contech" ecosystem.

      What's contech, you might ask? It's the juxtaposition of construction and technology. And it can deliver much cheaper capital projects.

      The University of Texas Construction Industry Institute states that the adoption of proven technology can improve this sector's productivity from between 30 to 45 percent.

      "Even though the construction industry has not kept pace with the automation advancements of other industries, automation has proven to improve most key areas including cost, schedule, quality, safety and production," it states.

      According to a recent paper by BCIT Sustainable Business Leadership  researchers Lara Azarcon and Felippe Calçado, there are 66 companies in Vancouver that could be characterized as "contech".

      They based that on these companies' use of robotics, the Internet of things, modularization, digital twinning, analytics, and software development in their work.

      "Construction technology, or contech, refers to the collection of innovative tools used during the construction phase of a project—including machinery, modifications and software—that enable greater productivity, reduce material waste and result in higher-performance buildings," Azarcon and Calçado wrote.

      These Vancouver companies employ about 1,600 people. About 460 work in robotics and 3D-printing or with drones. Another 455 are with companies engaged in modularization.

      "Unlike fintech, healthtech and other sector specific technology clusters, contech is in the early stages of development in Vancouver," Azarcon and Calçado pointed out, "and strong growth and maturation require proper alignment with the whole of the construction sector."

      In addition, there are nine publicly traded contech companies with offices in Vancouver.

      Scius Advisory conceived and commissioned the study, which was supported by the Vancouver Economic Commission and the Vancouver Regional Construction Association.

      Azarcon and Calçado concluded that largest contech category by revenue was "prefabrication and modular construction" with 10 companies. Collectively, they had $101 million in annual revenue as of March 2020.

      Here in Vancouver, temporary modular housing makes it possible to provide homes to people who previously lived in the streets.

      One large provider, Ontario-based Horizon North, states on its website that it relies on "sophisticated technology and industry leading design software".

      Another contech company, Nexii Building Solutions Inc., had hired former mayor Gregor Robertson as its executive vice president of strategy and partnerships to advance green building technology.

      Meanwhile, BCIT's School of Construction and the Environment offers an associate certificate program in building construction technology. The website indicates that credits can be applied toward a certificate in architectural and building technology.

      The report included this chart of Vancouver's contech ecosystem.

      Survey showed construction industry dissatisfaction

      The paper offers a response of sorts to B.C. Construction Association survey of 320 construction companies, which was conducted last year.

      The BCCA claimed back then that employers in this sector are "underserved by a tech sector that seems largely unaware of the huge potential market they represent".

      “Making the switch to new technologies can be hard, especially for small companies that are more comfortable doing things the way they always have or who don’t have the time or staff to research different options,” B.C. Construction Association project manager Stephen Richter said in a statement on his organization's website.

      “But construction is changing, and with a skilled labour shortage and industry pressure to reduce costs and increase competitiveness, it’s more important than ever to innovate and become a future-forward construction company.”