Features - Business

How Coronavirus is changing the construction industry?

Parm Bhangal, Managing Director of Bhangals Construction Consultants, looks at how the construction industry wants to bring social distancing to building sites.

For the past couple of months, the majority of building sites across the country have been dormant as workers have stayed at home in lockdown. Following Sunday’s announcement that the UK’s lockdown is to be eased, developers have been refining the plans they have been working on in recent weeks to ensure employees can get back to sites as soon as possible – whilst maintaining social distancing. However, feedback from across the construction industry shows bosses are divided on the best ways to achieve this.

As construction consultants, project managers and quantity surveyors, the majority of our team at Bhangals Construction Consultants work from an office and go out on visit sites. When the lockdown started, we began holding our meetings virtually, did our valuations by video and put our site visits on hold. Arguably, in an office environment it is a little easier to socially distance yourself. On a building site, if you have trades working together in close proximity how do you apply social distancing measures? For example, we are governed by regulations for things like heavy lifting. If you have a material that’s too heavy to lift by one person and a few people are needed to lift it, they would be in fairly close proximity to one another, so how do you balance the existing industry regulations with the new rules of social distancing?

There have been suggestions from some quarters that, in addition to general PPE such as gloves and masks, respiratory equipment should be given to employees who are working in close proximity with others. This has been ridiculed by some in our industry who feel this is impractical on building sites. However, if we expect people working in our NHS to wear such equipment, it is well worth considering for our own industry to keep staff safe.

Some developers have come out strongly in favour of temperature checking people before they come on to a site, as a high temperature is one of the prominent symptoms of the virus. As a country, we haven’t really done this yet, but other countries have been carrying out temperature checks at airports and other locations. Whilst some construction bosses think this would be useful, others believe it to be impractical.

There are also concerns that when workers do return to sites, they will quickly forget about social distancing so many developers have suggested putting up signs on sites to remind people to keep their distance. Workers may also be encouraged to travel to work alone, unless they are living with the person they are travelling with, and may be urged to bring their lunch with them so they can limit other social interactions. Some developers have suggested closing their canteens too, but if you want to keep people on site throughout the day, you should provide them with essential facilities such as hot water and toilets.

Many developers also appear to be in favour of carrying out deep cleans on sites at the end of every day in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.

As well as all of the above to consider from a health and safety and virus control aspect, there are financial implications to consider to when thinking about returning to construction projects.

In all honesty, at this point it is impossible to predict what the construction industry will look like in six to twelve months’ time. As estimators we are currently being asked by clients if their construction costs will go down after the pandemic. To try to answer this we need to look at the basic economics of supply and demand. To give an example, there is currently a shortage of plaster products on the market, so products which usually sell for £3 to £5 a bag are now being auctioned for around £25 to £35 a bag. This is because the supply of the product is just not there. If plasterers are paying a higher price for the material, the end price is going to be higher.

This in turn leads us to think about the entire construction market and what might happen as a result of this pandemic. It could go one of two ways. The first is that as lockdown restrictions are beginning to be relaxed everyone pushes to get their projects back on track, whilst closely monitoring social distancing. As a result, instead of seeing two trades on a project, developers might decide to call in five or six to try to catch up on time the industry has lost in recent weeks. A large developer building a sizeable housing site might decide to get bricklayers, roofers, plasterers, electricians and plumbers all on site together in a bid to get the project back on track and get their houses sold. If this happens these large developers will take up a lot of resources. If trades are in demand, the supply of them will be lower and prices will be increased.

However, housing developers will also want to see positive sales figures. If they are not selling their houses, they may reduce their activity and pull some trades offsite. In this second scenario, trades are not going to be needed as much and prices may come down.

Another reason it is impossible to predict what the industry will look like in a year’s time is because it is made up of different markets – the new housing market and the existing property market. The existing property market is made up of our customers and end users who are living in properties which they want to improve and extend. During the pandemic people have not been going on holiday or socialising. As long as they have still been getting paid, they may well have been considering home improvements. At this point we don’t know how well the new housing market is going to fare.

All we can do is keep a close eye on what is going on in both markets. We can also look at supply and demand and see if any trends emerge. The example of the plaster product shortage is a perfect example. Look at what is going on, take that information on board and think about how this could impact your projects and prepare as best as you can for it.

Bhangals Construction Consultants is an award-winning construction consultancy with offices in London and Northampton. To find out more, visit www.bhangals.co.uk.

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