Should building sites in Norfolk and Suffolk be open for business?

Barnes Construction has started a phased reopening of its sites Picture: Nixon Photography

Barnes Construction has started a phased reopening of its sites Picture: Nixon Photography - Credit: Archant

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating many issues and challenges for the local construction industry. Sue Wilcock looks at whether sites should be open or closed.

Sue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page

Sue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page - Credit: Archant

Construction is a key economic driver. So, in the current climate, should building sites be open or closed?

Historically, construction is a barometer for any downturn or upturn in the wider economy. However, it is not given equal footing under the key worker status laid down by government.

Mark Hart, joint MD of Barnes Construction, said: “We closed our sites when we went into lockdown, as above all else, we wanted to protect the wellbeing of our staff and supply chain.

“As we are not considered key workers, there are problems with keeping sites open when you have a diminishing workforce due to a lack of childcare and restrictions due to vulnerable family members.

“However, keeping sites closed has a major bearing. It impacts the stability of the sector and the general economy and for businesses, it escalates costs and the risk of insolvencies amongst the supply chain.”

Therefore, Barnes like many of its competitors has started reopening its sites.

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“This is a phased approach and will be on a site-by-site basis as it is not a one-fits-all scenario. Overall, the contractor must be given the acknowledgement that it knows its sites better than anyone and is therefore in the best position to decide whether it should be open or closed.

“We need support that we will not be penalised for the decisions we make. The Safe Operating Procedures (SOPs) are endorsed by the government and implementing these standards means that the contractor is likely to see a significant drop in productivity. Therefore, we could face the threat of legal proceedings around perceived breach of contract due to the delay in completing contracts.

“The challenges of reopening are many. But, most importantly, is keeping our employees and the wider workforce safe while trying to achieve productivity under the very demanding guidelines set out by SOPs. We must consider how we adhere to social distancing rules, not only while working on site, but while travelling to and from work and taking rest breaks.

“There is also an immediate problem with the difficulties of getting product and PPE to site, as most builders merchants are shut, and we cannot build if we don’t have the materials.”

The closure of sites also affects the design and consultancy elements of projects.

James Potter is MD of structural engineering and design business Superstructures. He commented: “This is a complex situation and the overriding matter is the safety of workers on site.

“Although it is great to keep all industries working as much as possible, there is the issue of work being less efficient while following the new SOPs, which could follow through to contractual disputes.”

Craig Western, director at Wincer Kievenaar Architects, explained: “Getting sites up and running again is not solved just by getting the workforce to site. The situation is compounded by availability of materials. How can you build if you don’t have bricks, wood, or steel?

“As an architect, there is no substitute to visiting the site to meet the client and understand the building’s surroundings and sense of place, as this is intrinsic to the designs we create.

“However, we have adapted and are using technology to carry out site meetings virtually. There are positives that are coming out of this, and some of the ways we are now doing business, we will definitely continue with once this crisis is over.”

Lobbying government for support on key issues

The Suffolk Joint Construction Committee (SJCC) has been working hard on behalf of the local construction industry.

Video conferences have taken place with the committee – which is made up of representatives from the main construction professions – to discuss the challenges being faced as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The MP for Ipswich, Tom Hunt, took part in one of the meetings and listened to the concerns. He has now written a letter to the government’s Minister for Business and Industry, Nadhim Zahawi MP.

The four points he has raised include establishing: clear guidance about sites being open or closed, a government stance on breach of contract for late delivery of contracts, proper access to the correct PPE to enable sites to reopen safely, and finally, that public sector projects in the pipeline will not be cancelled or delayed.

Darren Webb, current chair of the SJCC said: “The SJCC committee is working together in the interests of the Suffolk construction industry and we will continue to do so as we work through this challenging time.”

Recruiting for the restart

Despite the crisis, Superstructures continues to bring young people into the industry and has offered another sixth former a place on its degree apprenticeship scheme starting in September.

This follows on from its work experience placement in March, just before COVID-19 hit.

The appointment is the second success to come from the collaboration between the Ipswich-based structural engineering design company and Suffolk One, following on from Liam Swann who joined the Superstructures team last year.

Virtual is the new normal for site meetings

Not visiting sites is the new normal for businesses in the construction sector. However, Wincer Kievenaar is using the tools at its disposal to continue to meet and work with new clients in a virtual world.

Although the technology has been available previously, the team is utilising it more than ever across all aspects of the business. All meetings are now held virtually instead of visiting the site, and building inspections are undertaken using video footage.

Online documents and information are shared with the client and design team instantly through video calls, giving an immediate result. Uppermost is the aim to keep the projects moving, while at the same time including the clients, planners, and the project team.

This story is in association with Barnes Construction, Wincer Kievenaar, Superstructures and Suffolk Joint Construction Committee.