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Construction Site Theft Has Gotten So Much Worse

Opportunistic thieves have burglarized construction sites at an astonishing rate since the pandemic started. Though construction site theft was already a major hazard for building owners, the ripple effects of COVID-19, soaring costs of building materials and extensive permit backlogs, have caused these sites to be idle sitting ducks for longer than ever. In fact, equipment theft alone is so common that the National Equipment Register and National Insurance Crime Bureau estimate losses to construction companies are somewhere between $300 million and $1 billion annually. Those figures don’t even account for the steep cost of stolen tools or building materials, which can add to another billion dollars worth of losses on their own. 

The construction industry is being urged to tighten construction site security, since it seems to no longer be a question of if burglars will target a site, but when. A medley of factors contributed to this influx of crime, an unexpected acceleration of commercial construction, inflated costs of building materials, the ease of swiping unsupervised tools, the lack of security personnel, and permit backlogs. But no matter the reason, construction site theft underscores an urgency for advances in security technology. 

The pandemic plunged the U.S. economy into a recession, forcing millions of Americans out of work and into uncertainty. Yet, the construction industry boomed. The commercial real estate industry held up better than experts had initially anticipated after the COVID shutdowns had commenced. In spite of the economic slump, more commercial real estate developments continue to sprout, according to the midyear CBRE report. Projects costing more than $50 million each will increase by at least 40 percent year-over-year for total completions of 430 million square feet, according to Dodge and Data Analytics. 

The upswing in commercial real estate development is a good thing, but with that success comes a double-edged sword: the rise in construction sites inflates the rise in cost of building materials. 

Material brigade

Lumber was already experiencing stark price volatility prior to the pandemic. Demand on lumber had increased, not just because of construction but also for things like paper manufacturing, cardboard packaging, charcoal, furniture, and so on. The supply just can’t keep up, so the price on lumber has shot up 300 percent since April of 2020. However, there is another material that’s mushroomed in popularity thanks to the pandemic: copper.

Copper’s price reached an all-time high of $10,512 per metric ton in 2021. While copper is vital to the construction sector and has other important applications regarding energy generation, energy storage, and transmission infrastructure, the pandemic boosted its popularity further. Copper’s specific atomic makeup makes it antimicrobial, so much so that dangerous bacteria, viruses, and fungi disintegrate within minutes of contact. The hygienic hysteria that came in the early stages of COVID-19’s onslaught naturally led to a spike in copper use. Granted, that reasoning wasn’t unfounded but increased demand for copper coating on door handles, handrails, tabletops, and push plates created a robust market for the mineral. The heightened demand drove the cost of copper up even further, creating a growing black market for the material and making it a more attractive target for theft.

Although lumber or copper can fetch a pretty penny on the black market, the cost of damage done from the theft can be staggering in comparison to the value of the stolen material. Though the property damage from a hasty robbery is undeniable, in some cases it can be deadly to property owners. When “in-service” copper ground wire is taken away, it “can energize various system components that normally aren’t energized. Electricity can be a silent killer, similar to carbon monoxide,” says Jeremy Wilcox, operations manager for Southern Iowa Electric Cooperative, Inc., in Bloomfield. “The danger may be there, and you will not know it until it is too late.” 

Tool’s gold 

Though the increased cost of building materials certainly plays a factor for opportunistic thieves, hand tools are the most frequently stolen item on construction sites. Hand tools like handheld generators, sanders, drills, grinders, and jackhammers are easy to swipe, which is ultimately why tool theft accounted for 39.8 percent of all burglary incidents in 2015, and that number has only gone up since. “Thieves are 10 times more likely to steal powered hand tools than non-powered hand tools,” says Nicola Dale of Security News Desk, “with 32,067 taken from 2019 to 2021,” in the city of London alone. What’s worse, only 1 percent of stolen powered hand tools are ever recovered in London, according to Metropolitan Police data. 

Even in looking at heavy machinery, the reward of selling off stolen pieces from large construction equipment often outweighs the risk of stealing it. Larger equipment can be broken down into smaller pieces, which makes it indistinguishable. “Engine-powered, large-sized equipment sells between $10,000 to $50,000” according to GoCodes

Construction tool theft poses more dire consequences to sites now while the global supply chain crisis remains at large. Replacing stolen tools puts sites on an even longer delay when there’s already a prolonged shipping backlog, and unfortunately, that’s not the only backlog that’s directly impacting construction sites.

Permit me not

Though the virus has thankfully begun to recede and we’re beginning to inch back to normal, many construction sites continue to sit idly thanks to permitting delays, exposing them to theft for even longer than usual. In New York City, for one example, the Department of Buildings has shrunk significantly in the past year. Beginning in mid-April of 2020, the D.O.B. had shortened its hours from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., until this last October, when the hours were reduced even further to 8:30 a.m. to noon. Yet that’s not all, just obtaining a certificate of occupancy, which certifies that a building is in compliance with building codes and is suitable for occupancy so that the construction or remodel can commence, is taking much longer. Before the pandemic, a construction expeditor applying for a certificate in Manhattan could receive theirs within a day, sometimes two. Now, that wait time adds up to about a month, and often longer. A few inside sources have stated that the downsized D.O.B. is dealing with a backlog of almost a thousand applications for a certificate of occupancy, and that’s a major problem since most developers cannot let tenants move into finished buildings without this certificate. 

Of course, these setbacks are not isolated incidents limited to the Big Apple. Permit backlogs are prevalent across Vancouver, Santa Barbara, and all over Hawaii, just to name a few. The backlogs keep construction sites vulnerable for longer and longer, increasing the opportunities for theft and ultimately raise legitimate safety concerns for property owners. 

Theft in the lurch 

Statistically speaking, the most common cause of construction site theft is something called ‘security negligence,’ a surprising amount of sites are dimly lit without security guards or cameras. Lacking adequate site security is just asking for thieves to steal equipment. 

So, how can you avoid this? The most obvious tactics involve making sure your site is properly illuminated at night. Installing security cameras is also a given, since cameras not only deter theft, they also showcase the thieves if a theft were to take place. Keep equipment immobilized when not in use (so don’t leave any keys in the ignition). Track inventories thoroughly. Schedule deliveries of equipment or material so that they only arrive right before you need to use them, to avoid a conspicuous stockpile of supplies that sits on site for weeks. 

Another thing to consider is GPS tracking and geofencing. Setting up a geofencing GPS system that sends you text alerts whenever an equipment’s engine is activated after hours, or if any equipment moves off the job site. In the spirit of remote technology, set up alarms integrated with motion sensors on strategic locations like gateways and windows. 

Newer tech like drones and robots are also rising in popularity for site progress monitoring as well as performing security detail. For instance the ‘Spot,’ a four-legged robotic puppy developed by Boston Dynamics, is expected to appear more frequently on construction sites in the next 10 to 15 years. While ‘Spot’ can navigate challenging terrain and can squeeze into tighter crawl spaces, it also has 360-degree cameras, which not only supports its AI but aids heavily in its security support as well.

In spite of some new technological advances in construction site security, the risk of construction site theft isn’t anything new, but the chain of cause-and-effect from COVID-19 certainly exacerbated the theft hemorrhage. The cost of putting up a new building or remodeling existing architecture is enough on its own without the price and project setbacks of a burglary. A healthy construction industry is vital to economic recovery, so property owners and developers need to take every precaution necessary to protect their sites.

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