This is part three of a four-part series examining how automation will change Canadians’ lives, for better or worse.
Homebuilders and policymakers have been grappling for years with a problem that comes, fundamentally, down to arithmetic: the number of homes Canada must build keeps growing, and the number of hands to do the hammering, sawing and bricklaying is not keeping up.
Ian Arthur from Kingston, Ont., knows the problem from both sides of the equation.
Arthur worked as a member of the provincial parliament in Kingston for four years before leaving his seat in Queen’s Park in 2022 to head up his own company in the construction industry. In doing so, he might have found the missing link to fill the labour gap in Canadian homebuilding.
His startup, nidus3D, can be seen on construction sites across Ontario these days with large metal beams and a robotic head circling the foundation of a home, laying concrete in a set pattern until the shape of a building starts to rise out of the ground, layer by layer.
Arthur compares it to the home version of a 3D printer that most Canadians might be familiar with, which creates small plastic implements or artistic sculptures, but on a much greater scale.
“What the 3D construction printer does is it begins to change that process through automation. And I think it’s opened a lot of doors in terms of the speed and reliability with which we can deliver housing,” he tells Global News.
3D Printed Basement
As an MPP, Arthur says the solutions being proposed for the housing affordability crisis were “not adequate” for the scale of the problem ahead, where growing immigration targets face labour crunches to get roofs over newcomers’ heads.
As an entrepreneur, he sees potential for robotic hands to get the work done.
Industry representatives — those tasked with both getting homes built and looking out for the jobs of skilled labourers traditionally putting shovels in the ground — agree that hitting Ottawa’s homebuilding targets likely can’t be done by human hands alone.
“We have to address this labour crisis. And I think one of the only ways that we’re going to be able to do it is through partial automation of the job,” Arthur says.
Saving time, money and labour
While material costs and reliability of supply chains have been major factors affecting the cost and delivery of new housing in Canada over recent years, industry stakeholders have also been ringing warning bells about a labour crisis in the field.
Canada’s labour shortfall is well-documented, with a tight unemployment rate near five per cent for much of the past six months, but the crunch comes at a critical time for housing in the country.
Earlier this year, Ottawa set a goal of building 3.5 million homes over the next decade, a feat that would require roughly doubling today’s annual pace of new home construction. That bar was set before the federal government boosted its immigration targets in November for the coming years.
Kevin Lee, president of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, says more than a fifth of the industry’s workers are set to retire in the next decade. As hard as it can be for builders to get labour on job sites today, it’s about to get a lot harder just when the feds are trying to ramp up their pace, he says.
“There are literally hundreds of thousands of job openings coming up. We already have a shortage right now. And on top of that, we need to build a lot more homes,” Lee says.
In the next year, Arthur sees nidus3D being able to construct an entire storey of a building in just a day’s time with just a fraction of the workforce needed on the typical job site.
Habitat for Humanity took a leap with nidus3D earlier this year in Leamington, Ont., breaking ground on the first 3D-printed build of its kind in Canada consisting of four 560-square-foot units. That project wrapped up this October, and the startup has since taken on builds closer to home, including a two-storey structure on Wolfe Island near Kingston and a home with a 3D-printed basement inside the city itself.
When it comes to price, Arthur says 3D concrete printing is “in its infancy” as an industry but claims it is currently cost-equivalent to other masonry structures. He adds that he expects the startup’s costs will fall “very rapidly” over years.
“We think it’s going to be one of the most affordable ways to produce buildings that we’ve ever seen,” he said.
Are construction jobs going to robots?
Arthur says the nidus3D solution runs with three to four workers on-site at a time, and he sees potential to scale down that team further as the technology advances.
But while the job itself requires fewer warm bodies on a site at a time compared with traditional building methods, he doesn’t believe the mechanical solution is taking a job from a human worker.
Without sufficient workers today to build the homes Canada is eyeing for the decade of population growth to come, robotics and automation are a pathway to do as much as possible with the labour we have, Arthur argues.
“I don’t think in the next multiple decades we’re going to see this really taking away jobs in any form. What it may do is allow the skilled tradespeople we have to actually get buildings out of the ground,” he says.
Arthur says he understands the concern of increasingly advanced automation taking jobs, but argues that’s “more fear than a reality.” The overwhelming demand for construction jobs means there will be work for every tradesperson graduating into the construction sector over the next 20 years, he says.
Global News asked Sean Strickland, the head of Canada’s Building Trades Union, whether he agreed with Arthur’s take, or if he harboured concerns about workers’ jobs going forward.
Speaking to Global News in front of a condo construction site in downtown Ottawa, Strickland, who’s worked in the trades his entire career, took a historical perspective on the question as he gestured to the crane behind him.
“Hundreds of years ago there were no cranes, there were pulley systems. There were workers in the foundation with pickaxes making the hole. And now we have automated machines to do that,” he said.
“We have adapted to technological changes as tradespeople for a very long time.”
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Strickland added that he believes construction is “ripe for more rapid technological advancements.”
Certain jobs are especially apt for robotic enhancement, he said: heavy lifting tasks that could be augmented by powerful exoskeletons or planning jobs where drones can regularly survey a project and upload data throughout the building process.
But there are also jobs on sites that are not well-suited to robotic hands, Strickland said, such as tasks that require plans to be adapted over an unexpected snafu.
Arthur, too, sees the need for humans to make sense of the “complexity” of homebuilding, factoring in varying building code standards and how different components in a home work together.
“I think there’s going to be a need for human oversight of that for a very long time,” he says.
Building a robot that has the executive functioning required to make the kinds of decisions needed every day on a construction site is not a future Strickland sees on the imminent horizon.
“I’m not a Luddite, we have to embrace the future … (but) I think we’re quite a ways away yet from robots building all our homes.”
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The Habitat for Humanity project where nidus3D cut its teeth was paid for in part by a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s funding stream aimed at promoting innovation in the industry.
But Canada-wide and on a city-by-city basis, there’s “some work to be done” on adapting policies to encourage innovative approaches to housing where automation can play a role, Lee says.
Panelized or modular builds, where parts of a home are constructed in a factory and stitched together on-site, are especially well-suited to projects that promote urban density, says Lee.
Municipalities ought to embrace policies for “granny flats” or laneway homes that add density to an existing plot of land in a less-disruptive way than an extended construction process, he argues, and are often more affordable ways for young families to break into the housing market.
“When you have new innovative technologies coming into the marketplace, sometimes those don’t don’t fit into the (regulations) very well,” Lee says.
“Creating a system that can work on getting those approvals done more quickly is going to be important to help make sure innovation can happen as quickly as possible.”
Enabling a robot revolution in construction doesn’t have to come at the extent of creating new jobs in the field, stakeholders say.
Lee says advertising the growing technical side of home building can resonate with youth who for years have been pushed into jobs in the knowledge economy rather than the trades.
At a time when job vacancies are abundant in the industry, nidus3D has been inundated with resumes from “frankly, overqualified” applicants who are excited about the technology itself, he says.
One employee currently at the company has a computer science background but looks to apply that to the hands-on satisfaction that comes with homebuilding.
“I think between the tech and also the sense that you’re contributing to something that’s really important, has a nice appeal for a lot of young people,” says Lee.
When nidus3D shows off the tech to schools, Arthur says he can see the possibilities for the industry’s future light up in students’ eyes.
“I think we have to make construction cool again. I think we’ve got to get kids interested in going into the trades,” he says.
“We’ve had a lot of great responses from the classes and the jobs that we’ve shown the technology to so far. So hopefully that points to the future.”
— with files from Global News’ Anne Gaviola
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