Market Watch

Feds Announce Billions for Climate Change, EV Projects

A roundup of the latest construction funding news includes billions in federal grants and loans for climate change resilience, flood control, and electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing projects along with money for New Jersey schools and a record investment in Texas transportation infrastructure. 

Super-charged funding for EV plants

The U.S. Department of Energy in August announced a $15.5 billion funding package that’s expected to spur significant domestic EV and battery cell manufacturing projects. It includes $2 billion in cost-sharing grants and up to $10 billion in loans from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to retrofit existing U.S. automobile and component manufacturing plants for EV production. The department anticipates making 41 grants, ranging from $50 million to $300 million. In addition, the agency announced it will make available $3.5 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to expand domestic manufacturing of advanced batteries and materials for EVs. 

$3 billion for climate change resilience

In August, the White House announced the allocation of nearly $3 billion for projects to enhance resilience to climate change in hundreds of U.S. communities. The money, which will come from the IIJA, will be distributed through two competitive grant programs managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It includes $1.8 billion for 124 projects under the Building Resilience Infrastructure and Communities program and $642 million for 149 projects under the Flood Mitigation Assistance program. The projects will help communities prepare for extreme weather and address vulnerabilities to floods, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, and other climate change events. 

Transportation funding’s bigger in Texas

The Texas Department of Transportation has announced its plan to invest a record $142 billion in transportation infrastructure projects over the next 10 years. The 2024 Unified Transportation Program includes $100 billion for more than 9,000 roadway construction projects to address congestion and safety. The plan includes funding for the following metropolitan areas: over $13 billion for Houston, $11.5 billion for Dallas and Fort Worth, $6.2 billion for Austin, and $5.4 billion for San Antonio.

Funding for Garden State schools 

As students returned to schools, the New Jersey Department of Education and New Jersey Schools Development Authority in September announced the approval of $450 million for school construction projects. Combined with local funding, the measure will pay for over $1 billion in critical building upgrades for 252 school districts.

Technology Corner

AIA Survey: The Future Isn’t Now for AI

Apocalypse now? 

Middle ground can be hard to find amid the breathless prophecies that artificial intelligence (AI) will either save the world or kill us all instead. Google CEO Sundar Pichai told 60 Minutes he believes AI advances to be “more profound than fire, electricity, or anything that we have done in the past.” Computer scientistEliezer Yudkowsky, meanwhile, expects “that the most likely result of building a superhumanly smart AI, under anything remotely like the current circumstances, is that literally everyone on Earth will die. Not as in ‘maybe, possibly some remote chance,’ but as in ‘that is the obvious thing that would happen.’”

Obeying the law 

But odds are that AI will usher in neither a utopia nor a dystopia—at least in the immediate future. In what is known as Amara’s Law, futurist Roy Amara observed, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Although the evolution of AI seems to be moving at lightning speed, a new survey from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) reveals that few architecture firms are using AI, at least not yet. And any transformation of the AE industry could be years away.

Practically speaking 

The AIA survey, conducted in June 2023, found that only 5% of respondents used AI for daily operations with the percentage doubling to 10% for large firms (those with billings of $5 million or more). Forty percent of respondents were intrigued by AI’s potential but didn’t see any practical applications for their firms at the present time. While the vast majority of respondents (90%) expected an increase in AI usage in the next three years, only 27% forecasted a significant rise. Nearly one-third (32%) expected to increase their use of AI only slightly, and another 31% anticipate doing so moderately. 

Averaging it out

Presently, architecture firms most commonly use AI to produce design options, but its greatest value could be for handling busywork, such as determining locations of water pipes and electric lines, rather than more creative tasks. Fredrik deBoer, author of The Cult of Smart, reasons that AI systems are challenged to produce innovations. “The very fact that these models derive their outputs from huge data sets suggests that those outputs will always be derivative, middle-of-the-road, an average of averages,” he writes. “When your models are basing their facsimiles of human creative production on more data than any human individual has ever processed in the history of the world, you’re ensuring that what’s returned feels generic.”

The New Workplace

Work Stress Hits Historic Levels

Stress cases

Employee stress levels around the world are at all-time highs, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report, and the problem is particularly acute for North American workers. The report found that 53% of American workers and 56% of Canadian workers said they experienced daily stress—compared to the global average of 44%. 

Age and gender gaps

The U.S. and Canada combined have the highest regional percentage of female employees who experience high daily stress levels—with the figure hitting 57% for women compared to 48% for men. Broken down by age, 59% of workers under 40 reported daily stress compared to 46% of respondents aged 40 and above. The study also found that 55% of hybrid workers reported high levels of daily stress—compared to 53% for exclusively on-site and remote workers—perhaps due to less predictability about their work location.

Stress relief

Gallup reports that the key to reducing high stress levels, which impact worker’s wellbeing and performance, is employee engagement. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the pollster’s data show that employees who spend the most time working in the office are also the least engaged. According to Gallup, 38% of hybrid and fully remote employees reported feeling engaged—compared to 34% of remote-capable, on-site workers. Employee engagement is the highest among teams spending two to three days a week in the office. 

Constant feedback

According to Gallup, employees’ relationships with their managers are a much more important factor in determining employee engagement than whether they work in the office or at home. Its study found that 80% of employees who received meaningful feedback in the prior week were fully engaged—irrespective of how many days a week they worked on-site. That meaningful feedback can come in a weekly conversation of between 15 and 30 minutes that touches upon recognition, collaboration, goals, priorities, and strengths.

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