What Covid-19 might mean for construction

We are all focused on the immediate impact of the coronavirus emergency – but we need to look forward, too, says Hywel Davies

Construction faces a huge challenge. It is a critical element of the UK economy. Approximately 3.3 million people work in it, and it accounts for 12-14% of GDP. And our industry has a vital role to play in the delivery of any recovery from the impact of coronavirus.

It is a key vehicle for delivering the new homes we need, and for building low or zero carbon homes. It is essential to any levelling up in the UK. Construction is also a vital growth multiplier; every pound spent on construction and infrastructure generates nearly three pounds in economic activity. Construction and infrastructure face many difficulties right now, but it is essential for keeping the UK economy resilient in the face of this complex, challenging, fast-moving and totally unprecedented set of circumstances.

Construction operations must remain open if possible: whether they are construction sites or produce materials and equipment needed to keep Britain building. The sector is particularly vulnerable to the reduced workload that enforced closure of sites and projects will cause.

Around 40% of those working in the sector are self-employed, and more than 200,000 construction businesses are SMEs; all are vulnerable to cash-flow problems. Complex projects have complex supply and delivery chains that need to be kept intact. It is vital that the cash is kept flowing in the sector to pay workers and suppliers, avoid job losses and closure of SMEs and prevent cost increases on projects. The health sector may also yet need additional infrastructure in a hurry before this emergency is over.

The public sector has a huge responsibility to pay contractors and suppliers promptly and to do all it can to drive that behaviour throughout the supply chain. Private firms must also play their part, however.

The current circumstances should spur us on to use the break to imagine what construction should look like in future

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced many welcome measures to support business, but deferring VAT and PAYE payments may also be needed to keep the wheels turning now. Construction must embrace fundamental change, not only in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy and in response to the new Building Safety Regulator and regime, but also to deliver improved productivity, more offsite manufacturing, and much greater uptake of digital technologies.

The fragile position of many firms clearly demonstrates that the typical business model is a long way from healthy. Far from being a reason to pause any reform initiatives, however, the current circumstances should spur us on to use the break from normal working practice to imagine what construction should look like in future.

There is a feeling that too many in the industry see Dame Judith Hackitt’s review as yet another in a long list of reports – from Banwell in the 1960s through Latham, Egan and Wolstenholme – to be quietly stalled and parked. There is no evidence that this government will allow that to happen. Legislation is promised and almost certainly being drawn up now.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is developing its plans for the new regulatory body and the gateway processes that will challenge the design and construction teams to deliver the approved design in reality – and to identify clearly where the as-built differs, why, and how that change was managed, in order to demonstrate the building will still be safe. BSI and the Engineering Council are working with the professional engineering bodies and others to develop the competence framework for the buildings in the scope of the new regime.

Whatever damage it does, Covid-19 will not stop building safety reform. Then there is the digital revolution. The current situation has got many of us working online fast. We do have the technology, and CIBSE will be looking to use it to continue to support our members and share our knowledge more widely. This technology can also enable the development of building designs online, however, and the standards for digital design and information exchange are available to support the creation of digital-asset models.

If anything, the current situation is more likely to drive that process than hinder it. The BS EN ISO 19650 series of standards and the UK BIM Framework provide the tools, guidance and support industry needs, and the UK BIM Alliance is developing the guidance and the framework to learn from the experiences of its early adopters. This all ties into the Hackitt reforms through the ‘golden thread’ of building safety information. Better digital design, construction and information-exchange tools and digital-asset models feed into eliminating the performance gap and delivering zero carbon buildings. The current emergency offers significant opportunity, as well as huge challenges.

About the author

Dr Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE. www.cibse.org