6 May, 2020

A glimpse of light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, coupled with talk of a possible lifting of travel restrictions means it’s time to prepare for the challenges of restarting work on building projects. The longer-term impacts of the coronavirus outbreak have yet to be determined, so for the time being our focus needs to be on the here and now.

The search is on for the best short-term strategy as we scramble to get back up to speed.

Construction projects able to adapt to meet the Government distancing guidelines have continued through the lockdown as best they can, operating with reduced labour and materials. Whilst some have closed completely, we have seen others continue, but many with less than half the normal workforce. Getting hold of labour will soon be the lesser challenge compared with the shortage of materials caused by manufacturing shutdowns. “We have steel fitters on site - but no steel,” I was told by the site manager on one of my projects last week. It’s not an isolated problem and planning now will avoid being at the back of the queue. 

Where projects have stopped, we need to act responsibly and understand what conditions need to be met before work can resume. There should be four simple tests. Firstly, the government must have lifted any restrictions on the resumption of work. Secondly, it must be possible to work effectively on site within the safety rules on distancing. Thirdly, the contractors and subcontractors (and their employees) must be willing to return to site. And finally, the developer must be satisfied it wants to restart the project. This is less a question of reputational risk or financial expediency, it’s more a matter of acting responsibly in all the circumstances.

The restrictions that followed the coronavirus outbreak have changed us. Paradoxically bringing us together and at the same time forcing us apart. We have seen a surge of collective responsibility as neighbours and strangers come together to help those in need. Let’s not forget those attitudes when we go back to work. Don’t let your first call be to the lawyers, or the first document you pick up be the contract. Talk to your design team and contractors. Plan together. It’s a shared problem. Work out what’s important and urgent so you can prioritise; it can’t all be critical, and a staggered return may help with the initial surge in demand. 

Cash is still king and cashflow restrictions can kill a project. Open and honest discussions are needed with the contactor, sub-contractors and manufactures. Place orders, move to reserve materials and resources now. Early orders will allow you to be first in the queue. Make sure your ownership of materials and goods is secure.

Reassess your timelines, especially any legally binding target dates and commitments to third parties. See what can be rescheduled without compromising the overall objectives of your business plan . Working together and being sensible about what we do will avoid projects failing.

Gearing up sites to full capacity may take some time, so safeguarding incomplete building work remains a priority. Health, safety and wellbeing cannot be sacrificed in the race to get back to full capacity. Make sure the site remains secure and the works are properly protected against the additional cost of having to go back and do work for a second time.

Taking the best from this difficult situation, learning lessons and implementing change is not a choice, it’s our moral and social responsibility. The Government talks about being active, looking forward and not just standing by. It wants to get people back to work. Plan together with your teams now to ensure you are ready when this happens.

I am truly excited about the future and how ingenious, flexible and adaptive we will become, driven by a desire for socially responsible, digitally enabled change to everything we do.