Experts predict COVID-19 will have long-term ramifications for many aspects of the U.S. construction industry, including lead time extensions. In this report, we will take a brief look at some of the recent changes to construction lead times and then, at the end, offer several practical recommendations to help you avoid unexpected lead time extensions.

Lead times are a measure of the amount of time that elapses between initiating a process and completing that process. On construction projects, lead times typically refer to the amount of time that elapses between placing an order for an item and its delivery to the project site, but it can also refer to the time required for the preparation of drawings, plant hires, approvals processes, and so on. 1

The material delivery time for all items has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, before the onset of COVID-19, the delivery time for ready-mixed concrete was only one or two days; the current delivery time is now one to two weeks, according to reports from our own team members and the general contractors we’ve talked to. For steel pipe and tube, the previous delivery time was four to eight weeks; current delivery times for these same materials is now four to five months, and we expect this to remain true in the near-term future, as shown in the table below.

Chinese government containment efforts and quarantines have slowed or shut down factories in dozens of the country’s cities and provinces, leading to forecasts of a sharp falloff in production of everything from cars to smartphones, according to the New York Times. For commercial builders that rely on Chinese-made goods or materials, this could mean higher material costs and potentially slower project completions, according to Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. 2

The shipping costs for containers from China to the east coast of the U.S. have climbed more than 500% from one year ago, according to freight-tracking firm Freightos. U.S. builders look to China for everything from steel and stone to millwork and plumbing fixtures. By conservative estimates, nearly 30% of all U.S. building product imports come from China, but some American construction firms rely on China for up to 80% of their materials, because they are generally less expensive. 2, 3

The building supply chain is not as advanced as the technology industry. It still has many blind spots, which makes it difficult to manage and may cause a bullwhip effect. This happened with lumber during the pandemic. Builders started to fear a lumber shortage, they stocked up, it exacerbated the shortage, prices went up, then manufacturers ramped up production. The increased production can then lead to a glut of lumber, leading in turn to falling prices. It starts with a small disruption but gets amplified with customer buying behavior.

There is not much an individual project owner can do to shape or avoid these macro-level outcomes. But there are a few practical things you can do to help your project avoid unexpected lead time extensions in the future:

  1. Insist on sub-contractors regularly supplying up-to-date information on all possible delay issues. This will enable you to stay ahead of the curve with regard to lead times and plan accordingly.
  2. Maintain detailed records about your workforce and sub-contractors, to the fullest extent possible. This will enable you to keep track of labor market dynamics and mitigate the consequences of delays or disruptions.
  3. Review every active contract to consider what actions needs to be taken and identify provisions which may assist in the current situation. This will enable you to make quick decisions before the situation worsens and leads to other side effects. 4
By Xinyao Wang, Research Analyst
October 11, 2021
Item Pre-COVID Delivery Time Current Delivery Time Future Delivery Time
Prestressed concrete products 3-4 months 6-7 months 6-7 months
Asphalt roofing and siding 2-4 weeks 2-3 months 2-3 months
Concrete block and brick 2-4 weeks 3-6 weeks 3-6 weeks
Ready-mixed concrete 1-2 days 1-2 weeks 1-2 weeks
Precast concrete products 2-4 weeks 4-6 weeks 4-6 weeks
Brick and structural clay tile 3-4 weeks 16-20 weeks 16-20 weeks
Flat glass 3-4 weeks 8-16 weeks 8-16 weeks
Gypsum products 3-4 weeks 5-6 weeks 5-6 weeks
Insulation materials 2-4 weeks 4-5 months 4-5 months
Steel pipe and tube 4-8 weeks 4-5 months 4-5 months
Aluminum mill shapes 4-8 weeks 4-5 months 4-5 months
Sheet metal products 2-4 weeks 4-6 weeks 4-6 weeks
Fabricated structural steel 6-8 weeks 5-6 months 5-6 months
Metal bar joists and rebar 2-3 months 6+ months 6+ months
Construction machinery and equipment 12 months for AHUs
18 weeks for generators
8 weeks for lighting
22 week for switchgear
25 weeks for env. cold rooms
18-20 weeks for lab casework
12 months for AHUs
18 weeks for generators
8 weeks for lighting
22 week for switchgear
25 weeks for env. cold rooms
18-20 weeks for lab casework
Xinyao Wang
Xinyao WangResearch Analyst