The construction industry’s future will be shaped by innovation and collaboration between all industry stakeholders.
This is what we heard from Pierre Pomerleau, the president and CEO of Pomerleau Inc., when he sat down with Emilio B. Imbriglio, the president and CEO of Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton, for a One on One Rendez-vous presented by the Association québécoise des entrepreneurs en infrastructure (AQEI).
Pierre Pomerleau confirmed that the construction industry is “advancing in leaps and bounds” thanks to the increasingly widespread use of technology, as well as continuous improvement efforts and innovative collaboration methods.
“Innovation has long been part of Pomerleau’s DNA,” he said, adding that it’s also the key to overcoming the various challenges affecting construction projects. Innovation allows teams to work faster, more efficiently and more sustainably, while maximizing return on investment.
“Innovation is extremely important. For instance, improving project scheduling by just 10% would save hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide,” said Pierre Pomerleau.
“The best-kept secret in innovation is in the construction industry,” said Emilio B. Imbriglio.
Pierre Pomerleau emphasized that all industry players—both large and small—need to get on the innovation bandwagon. You don’t need to embark on a major innovation initiative: you just need to target your company’s key processes.
To cultivate innovation, you need to start conversations about it and find ways to promote it within your organization. “First, you need to set up innovation infrastructure. Innovation should flow upward from all company teams. People working out at job sites need to know that they’re not just on the receiving end of procedures; they can also propose ideas on how to change things for the better. At the same time, the organization needs to be able to make use of these suggestions and disseminate them throughout across their work sites.”
With this in mind, Pomerleau established an Operational Excellence Foundation in 2018. It’s tasked with optimizing the company’s performance by promoting valuable innovations across all Pomerleau construction sites.
More recently, the company launched aXLab Pomerleau, in partnership with Factry, on its Montreal campus. The lab will put a variety of innovative ideas to the test and conduct a global technology watch,” explained Carolyne Filion, who acts as the company’s Manager of Innovation, R&D and Special Projects.
Pomerleau’s innovations don’t stop there. In early 2020, it was the first construction company in the world to use Spot, an autonomous four-legged robot, at its construction sites. Spot can reach dangerous areas and perform routine tasks.
Carolyne Filion pointed out that, for the past 10 years, the Building Information Modeling (BIM) process has been the cornerstone of innovation in the buildings field. It has enabled data standardization at all project stages and led to better stakeholder collaboration. Now the civil infrastructure sector is adopting a similar process for data standardization with Civil Information Modeling (CIM).
Collaboration drives progress
Pierre Pomerleau believes the pandemic accelerated progress. The industry discovered that it could adapt to rapidly changing needs through innovation and collaboration.
“During the pandemic, we realized that if public clients and contractors worked more collaboratively, we could do miracles,” he said. As an example, Pierre Pomerleau cited the five COVID-19 clinics his company built in just nine months.
He firmly believes that the whole industry benefits when stakeholders work together as partners, as demonstrated by the Entrepreneurs engagés movement led by several industry players. They quickly implemented strict, standardized sanitary measures on construction sites to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among workers and, in doing so, they protected operational continuity.
Pierre Pomerleau thinks we’ll see more and more collaborative development projects, such as build-finance arrangements and public-private partnerships, because they “create creative tension” that’s beneficial for the projects and the communities they serve. This is already paying off, as demonstrated by the most recent construction phase of the new Université de Montréal Hospital Centre (CHUM).
“Today, all levels of government are looking for ways to encourage collaborative development. We’ll never go back to siloed construction methods, that’s for sure. Each project has its own delivery method. You need to consider the specific considerations affecting each project. Determining the delivery method is the most important decision in a project,” he added.
The seasoned entrepreneur would like to see alternative project delivery methods used for smaller public projects, so that smaller players can get into the game and gain experience using new construction methods. He also emphasized the importance of supporting smaller contractors, “to make sure the whole supply chain flourishes,” as governments did during the pandemic.
In addition, Pierre Pomerleau believes that public project owners need to find project management methods that don’t hinder agility and innovation. They need to be more flexible when issuing calls for tender and when reviewing innovations proposed by general contractors. Doing so would allow alternative delivery methods to evolve.
In the closing remarks, Caroline Amireault, a lawyer and executive director of the AQEI, pointed out that local entrepreneurs have lost interest in public-sector projects in recent years.
Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton recently led a construction industry consultation which found that 72% of general contractors can’t be bothered with public contracts because of the conditions that come with them. This loss of interest is rooted in major constraints and unbalanced risk sharing, said Caroline Amireault, but fortunately “change is in the air.”
“Regulatory changes are on the horizon, and I think that’s extremely positive,” said Pierre Pomerleau.
Addressing today’s most pressing challenges
Innovating can also make companies more efficient and allow them to overcome the challenges posed by the labour shortage. Pomerleau hired 350 people in the past year and the company works hard to provide its employees with adequate training, onboarding and equipment, while also promoting diversity and inclusion.
“You have to seek out latent talent and stimulate it by giving workers value-added responsibilities.” New technologies can relieve workers from having to do repetitive and non-value added tasks.
Innovation can also help address environmental challenges, with the development of new construction methods, more efficient use of materials and recycling. “By finding innovative ways to save the planet, we can also save money. It’s profitable,” said Pierre Pomerleau.
For instance, while working on the Champlain Bridge deconstruction project, his company is making environmental protection and waste material recovery top priorities.
Finally, innovation is essential for designing smart cities, which start with smart structures. Pomerleau is highly interested in the concept of empathetic infrastructures and buildings, which are designed to be perfectly aligned with user needs.
Strong growth across the board
Pomerleau is Quebec’s largest construction company and an industry leader in the country. The industry is growing rapidly, and so is Pomerleau, which currently has nearly 300 active projects across Canada.
Initially a family business, Pomerleau was founded 57 years ago by Hervé Pomerleau, the father of the current CEO. The company is currently focusing on Canada and counting on organic growth, but Pierre Pomerleau says he’s open to acquisitions in the coming years. Its subsidiary Borea Construction, which is Canada’s leading renewable energy construction company, is keenly interested in New England’s wind power projects.