Most construction sites are operational again, but problems with supplies and managing safe distances between workers are hampering efforts to recoup lost time
As lockdown measures in the UK ease and more construction sites return to work, contractors are pushing hard to recoup productivity lost when the coronavirus pandemic built to its peak.
According to the latest figures from trade association Build UK, which represents over 40% of construction firms, 93% of infrastructure and construction sites in England and Wales were open at the end of May, up from 56% the previous month.
Output on sites reached an average 79%, compared to 49% at the end of April, with housing lagging behind other sectors.
Sites in Scotland suffered more, with only around a quarter of projects currently open and productivity at a similar level, due to tougher lockdown restrictions that required the closure of all non-essential construction works.
Covid-19’s severe toll on public health has seen site activity levels nationwide hit by factors such as staff being furloughed or choosing to stay at home, missing supplies and materials and disruption caused by social distancing measures.
Balfour Beatty had 83% of its UK and US construction sites open in May, but said 17% of them suffered ‘significant disruption’ due to the lack of availability of employees, subcontractors or materials.
Willmott Dixon managed to keep its sites open throughout the lockdown but experienced a ‘huge drop off’ in workforce numbers and productivity following Boris Johnson’s Stay Home message on March 23.
The government decision to encourage local councils to permit sites to extend working hours until 9pm on weekdays and Saturdays has helped claw back lost time
Anthony Dillon, MD for Willmott Dixon’s northern business, told RIBAJ: ‘Quite a few supply chain businesses furloughed their workforce and were reluctant to bring them back to site for at least three weeks to ensure that they received the reimbursement from government. Since then, headcount and productivity has gradually increased and of the 26 projects currently live in the north, productivity rates are between 90 and 95%.’ One project, at a university, had to be deferred due to economic uncertainty resulting from coronavirus, he added.
The two metre rule
Social distancing requirements have forced site teams to radically rethink many tasks and activities resulting in extensive resequencing and reprogramming.
The Construction Leadership Council’s (CLC) guidance Site Operating Procedures has been widely adopted and helped standardise approaches. Member-SMEs can refer to the National Federation of Builders’ (NFB) set of site specific procedures.
According to James Butcher, head of policy and research at the NFB, additional coronavirus safety precautions are adding ‘weeks and months’ to programmes on sites run by smaller contractors, which he claims suffer a much greater impact than bigger firms.
‘Social distancing has had an impact on material and staff availability,’ he told RIBAJ. ‘It has reduced productivity, which means some housing projects miss planning start and end deadlines ... Some projects will not be able to restart immediately, as risk assessments are still being completed and staff trained – for example Covid-19 supervisors.’
London and South East-based SME Corniche Construction kept eight of its nine sites open during the lockdown, but social distancing measures (developed based on CLC guidance) have added 15-20% to programme times.
Managing director Mike Smith told RIBAJ: ‘It was challenging to re-programme works and scale back from the norm of five or six trades on a site to just two, depending on how we were able to segregate successfully, yet still maintain some momentum... The real issue came with works that were two handed, or deliveries. In those situations, we just used common sense and made sure that people wore masks and goggles.’
Efforts to adapt on projects have typically included measures to prevent access by non-essential visitors, including the design team and certain subcontractors, in preference for virtual meetings using Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Start and finish times are being staggered to reduce congestion, and labour reduced to the minimum. Stairways and corridors have been converted to one-way circulation routes, and canteen facilities set out to keep workers at a safe distance.
Transport to and from sites has presented its own challenges, due to the risk of infection associated with crowded public transport, reduced train timetables, and a tendency for operatives to share vehicles.
‘We have really had to think about people traveling to and from work, which is not strictly our legal responsibility, but we have a moral responsibility,’ says Dylan Roberts, director of health, safety and wellbeing at Skanska. ‘We've done things like hire parking lots, particularly in London, so people can park nearby and then cycle or walk.’ CLC guidelines were updated to allow operatives to share a lorry cab provided they also work together.
Skanska closed most of its building sites when the lockdown came in, then reopened them in a ‘slow and controlled way’ so that today 80% are operational and productivity is back up to 80% on average.
Having 60-70% of the workforce on site has meant an improvement in individual productivity
‘We’ve had to re-evaluate how we undertake some tasks, either reducing the number of people doing the job, using mechanical means, or finding new ways of working,’ says Roberts. ‘We had a real challenge installing cladding on one of our projects where the normal method of working would have required several people in close proximity. By redesigning the activity, we managed to get the work done with fewer people who work without facing each other.’
The contractor set up a dedicated ‘production hub’ on its intranet where employees can share good practices and ideas on how to overcome problems with different tasks with input from its operational excellence team.
Willmott Dixon had to find a workable alternative to grouting operations on one project that would have required workers to stand close to an auger, which meant using additional PPE and respiratory protective equipment. A two-man job lifting heavy panes of glass was made safer by using mechanical equipment instead.
Social distancing precautions have inevitably extended work processes, but the government decision to encourage local councils to permit sites to extend working hours until 9pm on weekdays and Saturdays has helped claw back lost time.
The supply chain
However, longer hours don’t help if key materials aren’t delivered as scheduled. When builders furloughed staff in April, many suppliers and manufacturers followed suit, which caused a lag on certain products when sites reopened and scaled up production.
Several contractors that RIBAJ spoke to reported difficulty sourcing finishing plaster and plasterboard; one said critical elements needed to ensure that buildings are safe from fire, such as lifts and roll shutter doors, were a challenge to source.
Neil Sherreard, director at Swindon-based contractor Beard Construction, which kept 35 of its 38 sites running through the peak of the pandemic, comments: ‘There has been programme slippage, sometimes because we have struggled to get key components and certain materials have been very hard to come by. When we were struggling to get deliveries, we dispatched our own lorries to go out and find material from various places to feed the sites. In some cases we stockpiled material in our yard.’
The impacts of Covid-19 on construction haven’t all been negative. Reduced numbers on sites and fewer overlapping trades have meant that certain activities progress faster, while extended programmes have allowed a greater focus on quality.
Mark Beard, chairman of Beard Construction comments: ‘Having 60-70% of the workforce on site has meant an improvement in individual productivity. We've been able to create an atmosphere that's calmer that leads to a better quality of work produced.’
Construction is fighting back but the big unknown is how Covid-19 will impact society and the economy going forward, especially if there is a second or a third wave of infections.
The Construction Products Association has warned that the near-term effects on the economy and employment are likely to be considerably greater than those faced during the financial crisis of 2008/09. Even in its most optimistic scenario, if construction output bounces back by 25.5% in 2021, it will still be 6% lower than in 2019.
The latest research from IHS Markit reveals a ‘rapid’ drop in new orders received by construction companies in June, almost exclusively attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.
With high levels of uncertainty on demand, getting construction back on track is going to take time, co-ordination and collaboration. The CLC has published a three-phase ‘Roadmap to Recovery’ designed to get the industry back on its feet over the next 24 months.
‘Even when we get through the harshest aspects of the pandemic the economy won't be in the same state as when we went into it,’ says Beard. ‘But with supply chain goodwill and customer goodwill, we will find a way.’
John Cole on site inspections
Having an effective approach to on site construction is difficult in the current circumstances. On one of the major projects I am involved in, the workforce has dropped from 900 to 400. The main contractor has issued a set of rules about social distancing and other coronavirus related safety instructions on site but given the nature of construction this will be virtually impossible for all trades to maintain.
The site inspection team (architects, engineers and clerks of works) that was based in office accommodation on site is now working from home and visiting the site for short visits on a rota basis resulting in much less frequent inspections than previously.
The contractor and sub-contractors have been required to take significantly more photos and videos of specific pieces of work, particularly any that might be about to be closed in. Inevitably however the quality control that was there before will be somewhat compromised.
All meetings, site and design team meetings, are now being held remotely through Skype/Facetime and this has seemed to work quite well. I feel design teams with site inspection responsibilities should put in place a strategy to optimise the use of photographs and digital technology as above.
They should also simultaneously advise clients of any enforced changes that this may have on the duties and scope of their work as specified in their conditions of appointment and identify any associated risks.
If the architect is the contract administrator it should also bring the client's attention to the potential scenarios whereby termination of the contract by either side may become necessary, particularly where work might be suspended by government order, and in these circumstances it should explain the provisions allowed for in the particular contract form in use.
John Cole is an architect and was previously chief executive of the Health Estates Agency in Northern Ireland