The Emergence of Construction’s Sharing Economy

“Collaborative consumption” is the latest fad in America. Individuals and businesses are more aggressively using existing resources, whether it’s in the form of the cars people use (Uber and Lyft), homes or apartments that aren’t being occupied (Airbnb), or money waiting to be invested (FundingCircle).


According to VB Profiles, this “sharing economy” includes 17 billion-dollar companies that collectively employ 60,000 people. Twelve of them are based in the United States, with eight in California. Four are in transportation, another four are in finance, three help distribute goods and another three help people share space; however, none are in construction.


Construction isn’t often at the cutting edge of new social trends, but the industry has seen major advances along multiple dimensions, including the use of computing to better design projects and coordinate with subcontractors.

The sharing economy often takes the form of people allowing others to use physical items. A recent white paper, “Tech Innovations Drive Increases in Heavy Equipment Leases and Rentals,” reports that there could be a trend toward companies cutting down on costs by sharing expensive heavy equipment. Forklifts, wheel loaders and other machinery that are idle could be loaned out to companies in need, creating construction’s version of subletting. Not only could this shave costs, but it also may help companies comply with an Environmental Protection Agency objective to reduce utilization of older Tier IV machinery.


Sharing Intelligence

Design-build represents a level of collaboration that one might associate with the sharing economy. In this instance, what is being shared is the construction firm’s insight, which for decades has largely been an untapped, unshared resource. By refining design, timetables, materials selection and resource allocation in a unified process, construction took a step forward into the sharing economy.


This move also may help solve the industry’s most formidable challenge: attracting young knowledge workers. Conventional wisdom suggests that young jobseekers like to work in teams, enjoy joint problem-solving, thrive on creativity and take pride in the tangible outcomes generated by an industry like construction. To the extent that construction can divorce itself from old, silo-oriented models, the industry is likely to become more appealing to the types of people who continue to flood into finance, law, government, technology and other economic categories.


Information sharing during the period of service delivery represents yet another way in which construction industry stakeholders are creating common platforms. On the ground, superintendents and other project leaders enjoy greater access to real-time data, due in part to the rise of mobile computers and tablets. Wi-Fi hotspots grant instant access to critical information onsite or offsite. Supply chain issues can be brought to light more quickly, as can emerging issues pertaining to subcontractor coordination.


Construction also has the ability to make the world a better place by generating sustainable infrastructure. Ongoing emphasis on the installation of energy-saving technologies, improved methods of dealing with stormwater, recycled materials and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions could help make construction more appealing to talented jobseekers.


Sharing the Manufacturing Model

Some would argue that permanent modular construction, which shares many features with manufacturing, also represents a pathway into the sharing economy. Modular construction advocates point out that this form of delivery allows for rapid, timely construction of specific types of structures, including those used to house fast food restaurants or members of the military. Such methods also may relieve pressure for the industry to secure highly analytical workers because modular construction takes place in controlled settings with fewer variables.


Prospects for costly errors also can be reduced when large projects are more easily broken down into smaller ones—turning ripple effects into isolated occurrences.