Features - Business

Building upon change in 2021

In this article, John Miles, Technical Manager at Assent Building Control, discusses how the challenges of 2020 will lead to long term change for the industry. Assent Building Control is a leading Approved Inspector in the UK.

2020 has been a game of two halves for the building and construction sector. On one hand we have seen more commercial property become vacant as businesses fall during the pandemic, and the temporary slowing of the homes market as lockdown halted house moves and restricted access to materials. On the other hand, there have been new requirements and upturns. The sector had to deliver emergency projects at short notice – notably the Nightingale Hospitals – and after an initial property slump, stamp duty holidays have created a housing boom.

Although the first vaccines are being administered in the UK as I write, COVID-19 is going to be with us for some time and will continue to impact the construction sector well into 2021, maybe permanently. But the pandemic is just one of several challenges the sector must deal with in the year ahead. The consequences of Grenfell are still rippling for instance, with new fire safety information management rules coming into force. 2021 will continue to be a game of two halves – adapting to existing ongoing change and innovating in what will hopefully become the aftermath of the pandemic. I see three crucial areas of focus.

Fire safety information management

Due for publication next summer, the BSI’s new fire safety information management standard, BS8644 2021, aims to ensure that all a building’s fire safety information is digitally stored and easily accessible by all parties that may need it.

The standard represents a crucial benchmark for the industry to follow, ensuring that any building’s critical information is quickly and easily shared between relevant authorised parties – whether that is the fire service, the police, anti-terrorism units or others.

Businesses in the sector must start preparing now and realise it is not a one size fits all approach. They must review and, if required, adjust their practices for storing and accessing information, and consider adopting information management platforms to help them do so. Compliance is not going to be an overnight process; organisations need time to prepare.

Initial steps should include learning and familiarisation around the changes and preparing clear implementation plans. I also encourage businesses to collaborate with their suppliers and industry peers. This is a common standard the whole sector must follow for very good reasons. It makes sense to start early and share best practice.

Significant building footprint changes

COVID-19 has shaken up the world and some of the impacts will be felt for a long time. Some, such as working practices and building utilisation, are likely to change for good. Official figures show that working from home has become a way of life for almost half of British workers. Many workplaces currently lie empty which begs the question, what will their owners do with them in 2021 and beyond? On the high street, reports suggest another 18,000 premises could become empty in 2020, close to double the number in 2019.

I anticipate an increased number of opportunistic development purchases triggering more building footprint changes, which could lead to unforeseen building regulations challenges.

Retail premises will be a major focus. It’s unlikely the traditional town or city centre high street will recover and this will lead to greater repurposing of these properties into either co-living or co-working spaces. Take for example STOK in Stockport – repurposing the former Marks & Spencer store into an office and leisure development. Or the Kampus built-to-rent residential neighbourhood, repurposing buildings owned by Manchester Metropolitan University. These projects represent an accelerated shift from traditional concentric planning to more multi-purpose neighbourhoods.

A key consideration with large scale footprint changes is the need for early site access for building inspectors and consideration of building regulations requirements. Changing business use can throw up unforeseen issues which can delay projects or lead to budgets overrunning without early inspection and careful planning. A greater focus on studying the pathology of building fabric and the impact this has on future use will be required. Information management will be crucial to the timely gathering of buildings data, to ensure projects progress with pace and on budget, reducing time to market and protecting developer margins.

COVID-19-induced digitalisation of industry processes

It’s fair to say that building and construction has not been the quickest adopter of digital transformation so far. We’re a bricks and mortar industry, literally, and it shows. However, Covid-19 has created the conditions to make digital a reality in 2021 and beyond.

Investment in technology is increasingly required to support the new normal and to allow secure transfer of information between all parties involved in a project. Businesses need to adopt new processes and technologies to streamline actions and prevent further delays in project developments.

One example is site inspections. It became necessary to use technology to conduct COVID-19-secure remote inspections in 2020 due to the difficulties of having third parties visiting sites under COVID-19 restrictions. Measures such as video-based site inspections were introduced and offer more cost efficiency and future digital audit trails as additional benefits. We think these digitised processes will become mainstream in 2021.

This presents challenges and opportunities to the sector. Cost and time efficiencies can be significant; however, it will mean closer working with trusted digital service providers that can offer the secure platforms required for compliant information sharing. Given that construction sites aren’t blessed with the most reliable and stable internet connectivity there are infrastructure challenges to contend with, but the industry also has a responsibility to seek out suitable digital solutions.

2020 has been a year of conflict for building and construction but much of this could result in welcome change in 2021 and beyond. At Assent, we’ve seen first-hand how far the construction sector has come in its evolution during the challenges of 2020. Like many others, we have had to face up to immediate change but also keep an eye on where the sector is heading in the future. Although COVID-19 was unexpected and unwanted, the slowdown over summer has afforded us, like many, the chance to rethink and accelerate other areas of the business and our digital services ready for the future.

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