The 2016 Dive Awards for the construction industry

From sustainability leaders to disruptive tech, we recognize the top 10 companies, people and trends defining the industry

The construction industry is often thought of as change-averse. However, there are more than a few companies and executives bucking that notion by championing new ideas and approaches to keep up with an industry that does evolve, even if it happens slowly. That openness to change is a recurring theme among our 2016 Dive Awards winners.

From rethinking the role of unions (for better or worse), to recognizing the absolute need to bring more women into the field, to celebrating the builders of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, for delivering a complex, energy-efficient design to the National Mall, we've selected companies, individuals, projects and ideas that look within the industry for ways to improve it. The editors of Construction Dive made these picks with the help of a panel of industry experts.

Company of the year

Winner: AECOM

Some scoff at the construction sector's lofty sustainability goals, and others get to work. Engineering giant AECOM has become known for taking the latter tact, most recently pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2015 to 2020. The company's aggressive approach to carbon emissions comes as the industry struggles to meet its own benchmarks set to help reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.

Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

"There's a huge opportunity — and responsibility — for architecture and engineering firms to better address environmental impact and performance," said Katie Weeks, director of communications at the Institute for Market Transformation. "AECOM's efforts are worthy of recognition over large contracts. We still need a lot of leadership."

The AECOM-designed Golden 1 Center in Sacramento is one example of that green ethos in action. Recently certified as the world's first LEED Platinum indoor sports venue, the $557 million facility generates enough solar energy to compensate for the grid power it uses.

Other nominees: Balfour Beatty US, Skanska USA, Turner Construction, Toll Brothers


Executive of the year

Winner: Sarah Carr, McCarthy Building Companies

Sarah Carr

Sarah Carr, vice president of operations and education services at McCarthy Building Companies in California, has been vocal in encouraging women to join the construction industry as the co-founder of the southern California-based Women in Construction Operations professional organization.

Drawing women into construction careers is crucial, as women represent 9% of the industry today but 47% of the U.S. workforce. To help tackle that problem, Carr has worked within McCarthy and with the industry to explore how diversity can improve companies and address the skilled labor shortage plaguing construction businesses.

Carr's "focus on women in construction operations is a valuable example of how our industry is working to build the pipeline of women" for leadership positions, said Sue Klawans, senior vice president and director of operational excellence for the Gilbane Building Company.

Other nominees: Brendan Bechtel (Bechtel), Sheryl Palmer (Taylor Morrison), Patrick Byrnes (Linbeck), Jon Kinning (RK Mechanical)


Most disruptive/innovative idea of the year

Winner: Mass-timber construction

Wood towers are rising worldwide as mass-timber construction gains traction as a structural alternative to steel and concrete in mid- and high-rise buildings. But so far, the material's allowance for those heights has been largely performance-based, rather than incorporating the material using prescriptive measures written into building codes.

That could soon change, as a growing list of uses cases supports wood advocates' push to get mass-timber more readily accepted by building codes. This year saw the topping out of Brock Commons (shown below), an 18-story mass-timber residence hall at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. University officials said that, when compared with a conventionally built alternative, the building is equivalent to removing 500 cars from use for a year.

Brock Commons, Vancouver
naturally:wood; photo by: KK Law

"Timber is beginning to displace some iron and masonry, which are very expensive trades, and we still haven't seen where this wave will crest," said Lucas Hamilton, building science applications manager at CertainTeed. "If it frees up money and time, anything is possible."

Other nomineesPrefabricated, net-zero energy, high-performance construction; the WELL Building Standard; big data; smart lighting


Transformation/turnaround of the year

Winner: Union stronghold cities transitioning away from organized labor

While several major projects got back on track this year after significant setbacks, the biggest transformation underway is occurring on a broader scale. Construction unions are slowly losing their grip on private markets in typical union stronghold cities, such as New York and Boston, according to reports from companies and trade groups in those areas. Major firms are considering allowing collective bargaining agreements to expire due to higher labor costs.

"There is a vast amount of nonunion construction going on, predominantly in the Brooklyn area, and it is starting to migrate into Manhattan," Jeff Arfsten, managing director and chief operating officer of Lendlease Construction US, told Construction Dive earlier this year. Although the number of union-exclusive private projects is dwindling in favor of open-shop models, unions still dominate public projects.

Organized labor groups justify the higher wages required for their workers with claims that they provide a better, safer product than nonunion workers. However, proponents of the merit shop philosophy argue that nonunion job sites are just as safe. 

"While we always need union labor skill, today’s financial world can’t always fund it," Hamilton said.

Other nominees: Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, Alaskan Way Viaduct, Hyperloop, Mercedes-Benz Stadium


Obsession of the year

Winner: Skilled-labor shortage

Top of mind for the industry this year was labor — or the lack of it. Several industry associations have reported that members are struggling to source enough skilled workers to meet increasing demand after losing employees during the recession, and they are therefore raising wages to attract and retain qualified laborers. "Labor was the key story of the past year," said Robert Dietz, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. "Obtaining, recruiting and retaining."

"Labor was the key story of the past year. ... Obtaining, recruiting and retaining."

Robert Dietz

Chief Economist, National Association of Home Builders

Construction employment growth hit a three-year low this summer as industry groups press Congress to invest more in career and technical training programs. And legislation to reform and reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act — the Workforce Advance Act — is working its way through Congress. Construction Dive has spoken with young professionals who asserted the value of technical education programs in shaping their career path. 

"None of the other choices [in this awards category] matter if you don’t have labor to put work in place," said Stuart Binstock, president and CEO of the Construction and Financial Management Association.

Other nominees: Public-private partnerships, offsite construction, integrated project delivery, growing BIM adoption


Project of the year

Winner: National Museum of African American History and Culture

The newest Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened in September after overcoming decades of planning and funding obstacles. The Clark-Smoot-Russell team was brought onto the project in 2012 to manage construction, which took approximately four years.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
Ryan McKnight

The project is significant beyond its historic nature, as its builders operated under an accelerated schedule while executing a challenging design. They completed the museum on-time and earned LEED Gold certification. The 410,000-square-foot museum is the deepest building on the National Mall, with its base situated 65 feet below grade. That the majority of the structure (60%) is underground also complicated the building process.

The NMAAHC stood out as the Project of the Year for its ability to overcome challenges involved with building on Washington’s National Mall, the complexity of the construction process and the historic significance of the museum. Dietz called the project "a remarkable building and purpose."

Other nominees: U.S. Bank Stadium, OdySea Aquarium, Sandy Hook Elementary School, McGill University Health Centre


Policy/regulation of the year

Winner: Federal Aviation Administration's commercial drone rules

When the Federal Aviation Administration handed down its final drone rules in August, a new segment of construction technology was effectively given permission for takeoff. Construction and infrastructure are among the industries in which drones are most often used, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

A drone being utilized on the job site

Previously, small unmanned aerial vehicles could be used for commercial purposes on a case-by-case basis. With the new rules, companies no longer need to seek the FAA's permission for most uses, offering formal guidance where there previously had been red tape and uncertainty.

However, the rules aren't perfect. The FAA has said it plans to rethink whether drones can fly over people not involved in the project and the requirement for operators to keep UAVs in their line of sight while in use. Still, the industry is hopeful in its quest to use drones for everything from data-capture on job sites to aerial project photography. "I think their use is going to dramatically change the inspection and investigation game," Hamilton said.

Other nominees: OSHA silica rule, the U.K.'s BIM mandate, OSHA fine increases for serious workplace violations, the Department of Labor's Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order


Technology of the year

Winner: Virtual, mixed and augmented reality

Technology is continuously disrupting the construction industry, and virtual, mixed and augmented reality made major strides this year.

These technologies can enhance collaboration among project stakeholders before construction begins. They can also aid in more than just design and collaboration, as companies find ways to use them to improve job site safety by allowing managers and workers to view site conditions without subjecting them to safety hazards.

"The more comprehensively we can visualize what's to be built, the better we can design, plan and then build it right the first time," Klawans said. "VR, AR and mixed reality have proven valuable to us. We are able to better inform clients and move decision-making upstream."

Stacy Scopano, senior construction industry strategy manager at Autodesk, told Construction Dive earlier this year that the proliferation of 3-D modeling software and new VR products like the Daqri Smart Helmet and Microsoft HoloLens are leading to the tipping point for VR in construction.

Other nominees: 3-D printing, innovations in concrete, 3-D laser scanning, wearable job site technology


Homebuilding innovator of the year

Winner: Sm+RT Homes

Builders today are thinking small to find solutions to the pervasive problems surrounding affordable housing in the U.S. While some are looking to microscale units, others are focusing on modular construction for its low building costs and more ready replicability compared to conventional construction methods.

In Minneapolis, Sm+RT Homes is taking the lead to fill hundreds of lots in the city left vacant following the recession, particularly on the the city's blighted North Side. Sm+RT Homes completed its first house in August, and it has nine others currently in the works, with four of those completed in the factory and awaiting foundations on-site. The company says its factory-built model results in up to 70% less waste than a conventionally built home and cuts typical construction costs by 10% to 15%.

Sm+RT Homes, Minneapolis
Sm+RT Homes' first project
Sm+RT Homes, LLP

Construction Dive picked Sm+RT Homes as the 2016 Homebuilding Innovator of the Year for its small-scale, local focus on implementing a fast-growing construction technology to solve housing needs unique to the Minneapolis metro.

Other nominees: Smart Living 360, Surge Homes, Sprout Tiny Homes, PulteGroup


Home design trend of the year

Winner: Modular housing

Offsite, or modular, construction has been a growing trend in the commercial sector, especially for healthcare and hotel projects. The method is also emerging in the residential industry, offering builders the opportunity to more easily implement energy efficiency features, reduce construction time and cut down on waste. The controlled environment of a factory also allows builders to avoid the potentially unknown variables faced on the job site.

Homebuilders such as Living Homes and fellow Dive Awards winner Sm+RT Homes have experimented with modular construction methods to streamline supply chains and contribute necessary housing inventory to urban areas. However, the construction industry's slow-to-evolve nature, as well as a lack of strong demand from clients, has hindered faster growth so far in modular housing.

"Even if it's not full blown modules built off-site, we can see more 'sub-assemblies,' or components being combined into single-step applications," Hamilton said. "The trend will continue."

Other nominees: Tiny houses, co-living, aging-in-place renovations, better integration among smart home technologies and systems

The 2016 Dive Awards were distributed across our twelve vertical markets: BioPharma, CIO, Construction, Education, Food, Healthcare, HR, Marketing, Retail, Supply Chain, Utility, and Waste. Click here to see all of the Dive Awards winners.

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Filed Under: Commercial Building Residential Building Technology Corporate News
Top image credit: Pixabay; rhythmuswege