In the current climate, we have all come to terms with the effect of Covid-19 in the workplace, but it’s fair to say that, when the national lockdown was established in March, we were all somewhat unprepared. Whilst the government issued instructions that the construction industry was to remain operational, the continued operation of keeping sites operational proved to be less practical in real terms. Many site operations require the use of two pairs of hands, where social distancing is not possible, and, in the event of positive test results, the removal of skilled labour from site makes it clear that the construction industry is particularly vulnerable.
We have now also seen that there can be difficulties in obtaining materials. Sites typically hold little stock of building and engineering materials, due to the space required for storage and the ever-present danger of theft, and instead tend to place an order for all required materials upon the commencement of the project, and call the required quantities off on a week by week basis as the project progresses. It has become apparent that the manufacturing industry has been caught off-guard by the sudden demand for materials, and the availability at merchant level. We have even seen issues with raw material transport within the UK and the effect upon manufacturing.
Compounded by the fact that most materials come from outside the UK, and imports have been slower than normal, together with the likely expenses of paying premium charges for locally sourced materials means that many contractors have had to re-assess how supplies are managed and advance plans being formulated accordingly. The future may be that it will be more common to construct certain types of building off site, and delivered to site in kit form for specialist assembly, which will require an element of re-skilling of existing operatives, but could lead to more efficient construction in the future.
What has become apparent, is that, health and safety and quality control aside, the operation of many building has barely evolved over the last 30 years. Since the pandemic has effectively vetoed the tradition of the entire project team being resident on site, the use of cloud based and collaborative working has been forced to increase, with many site meetings being held via web-based group meetings undertaken by video chat or by group call.
This has proved to be a more efficient use of time, as meetings no longer require every participant to be present for the entire meeting, instead each participant can be called upon as required, as well as eliminating the wasted time in travelling. Furthermore, it is improved ecologically as the carbon emissions associated with travel are also omitted. This re-evaluation of site based roles has had the effect of individuals using their time in a more productive manner, rather than cutting roles and positions within the industry.
Site progress and quality control can also be monitored remotely, meaning that less site progress visits are required, which can exist in conjunction with the typical site management software used on site, such as Fieldwire.
Sites now are forced to evaluate space in relation to the number of people working within that space, in order to reduce crowding and maintain social distancing. Many sites also now enforce a one-way system around the site, meaning that the sequence of trades should be programmed more sympathetically, although this may not always be the most efficient way of working. Many areas have to be “signed off” on a trade-by-trade basis to enable the next trade to commence in the area. This approach reduces the problems envisaged with anti-infection measures, as less operatives can be in any area at one time.
Although the general feeling of Covid-19 on UK construction is that it all seems like doom and gloom, it is important to move forward and learn from the major event of 2020. Construction businesses need to be positive and pro-active if they are to survive the pandemic, and procedures need to be put in place on all future projects to manage the pitfalls that we have experienced to date. One of the keys to the success of future projects is planning all projects carefully with the input of all parties, and taking all assistance offered seriously.
We can all hope that the practices of recent years, where contractors are pulled into projects at the last minute, with deadlines looming, and no plans put in place for collaborative working are put firmly into the past. We have now seen the effect of the “new normal”, and we must put that behind us and learn from it. As we progress into the “Post Pandemic World”, then hopefully the future of construction can be brighter.