3 June, 2020

Following the Government’s recent announcements relaxing some aspects of the lockdown, the construction industry is returning to work in force. Many sites, mostly at the smaller end of the scale, never really stopped, simply continuing to work with fewer resources on site. Now more labour will return to work and, at the same time, access to sources of materials will be available again. This is clearly good news for the economy and our industry, but it does create a different set of challenges compared with those we’ve been facing in the last ten weeks.

Previously, the biggest impact of operating with a reduced work force, and material shortages, was maintaining progress against programme and hitting critical construction dates, but at least this smaller workforce and the lower tempo on site meant we could continue following the Construction Code of Practice on social distancing. Difficult times for all, but together we managed to keep projects running.

Now it’s going to be different. With more labour on site, how do we reconcile the desire to get back to previous levels of productivity but do so entirely safely? How do we address the day to day practicalities of large numbers returning and activity intensifying?

The social distancing guidelines mean significant changes to the site logistics. When everyone arrives at site, how do we all get in? What are the welfare and catering capacities? How many toilets do we have? Social distancing is probably here for a while so we need to rethink site logistics, otherwise it will fast become the limiting factor on site numbers, and consequently a block on productively. Sites with a previous capacity to accommodate up to 150 people a day may be limited to 40 with full separation measures in place. To release this restriction the Government is encouraging builders to spread the working day over a longer period to allow it to use split shifts, staggered start and finish times and to help take some pressure off the peak hours for the public transport system. Local authorities need to be willing to accept these longer hours on individual sites. 

This more flexible approach will help take pressure off welfare facilities as will other measures like one way systems, greater physical isolation and much enhanced hygiene regimes, but we have to acknowledge that full compliance may be hard to achieve in practice given the difficulty of choregraphing the very large number of activities taking place at the same time on any large construction site, and the fact that some activities simply can’t be undertaken physically – and safely - with social distancing in place. 

So, can we look to other industries to see what else we could do?

The Formula 1 plan to create a travelling biosphere so that Grand Prix races can be staged is interesting. Could we create a similar biosphere for our larger construction projects? A contractor and subcontractor “village” with its own accommodation would allow the workforce to operate on a 14 day on, 14 day off cycle, keeping everyone isolated from the contagion risks of travel to and from site and double or triple shifting to reduce the pressure on the welfare and catering facilities. Covid-19 contact tracking could also be used and the 14 day off period itself creates a safe period of self-isolation.

“Villages” like this may not need to be physically all in one place; accommodation could be a block booking of local hotel rooms in walking or cycling distance from the site. Welfare accommodation could be spread out over empty office space in buildings close by. Reducing the risks that come from getting to site and creating an environment to work safely at full capacity is the key to unlocking the shackles on much greater productivity.

Covid-19 is forcing us to examine everything we do more critically, so it’s a good time to use a lens that’s broad enough to see what we can learn from other industries and consider whether thinking differently might give us access to the insight to re-engineer construction for the longer term. Take technology for example, a sector widely characterised by innovation. Just think for a moment about the components in the laptop I’m using to type these words. It has a pre-built chip, pre-built hard drive and a pre-built track pad to name only three key parts, all assembled in ideal, purpose built manufacturing conditions, where quality control and consistency are much easier to achieve than in the open air on a rainy building site. Is now is time that modular construction becomes the norm? Pre-built, modular building components can be manufactured in controlled environments and delivered complete to site, significantly reducing the need to assemble all the individual parts from scratch. More automation means less labour on site.

No easy answers, there never are, but let’s not try to reinvent the wheel; rather let’s look at what works well elsewhere and consider how we can adapt it for our own industry.