Perils & Pitfalls of Trading Through Covid-19 in the Construction Sector

A worker inside the carcass of a modular build during construction

Jonathan Collins, MD of modular building specialist Enviro Building Solutions, gives an insight into how his company has worked to manage the diverse challenges of the pandemic, identifying key issues that continue to influence the construction sector.

Trading through COVID

It came out of the blue for all of us as a totally new experience and one we had no textbook or instructions for managing. How do you move forward when the entire commercial world is closing down around you?

Guidelines on who should close and who should remain in business were by no means clear; the construction industry was originally encouraged to keep working to minimise long term impact on the economy.

Add to this the punitive penalty clauses in construction industry contracts regarding over runs and other contractual issues, and the future looked like a maze we had no real guidance for manoeuvring through.

Talk to your people

As a business, we began by consulting with our people and had massive support from our staff. Many individuals had their own concerns. Some had young families or elderly parents, and with little known about the virus, we needed to negotiate a path that worked for everyone and respected individuals’ preferences. As a result, we ended up with a mixture of choices, with some support staff choosing to work from home – which has proved an effective option.

We then looked carefully at our working processes. Within the factory environment, social distancing was perfectly achievable. We were able to implement measures designed to keep our people safe. On-site, however, construction programmes would obviously take a hit with only half the expected manpower in place.

Seek client support

Our clients were universally delighted that we had made the decision to continue work. Many of the current projects involved creating additional accommodation for schools and other educational establishments. It was quickly becoming evident that extra space would be a significant consideration in getting children back to school in a safe manner. Recognising that so much educational time was already being sacrificed to COVID-19, schools were keen to complete planned new construction projects as soon as possible.

Our work certainly didn’t go unappreciated! “In a word, Enviro Building Solutions were professional,” stated Jonathan Simcock, Architectural Technologist and Project Manager for City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. “Our project, a nursery building for Low Ash Primary School in Shipley, ran right through COVID lockdown. The team helped keep the work going and dealt with numerous supply issues that occurred due to the pandemic. It was one of only two school projects that stayed open throughout the lockdown. This was solely down to the way Enviro handled the project and looked after their staff.”

Flexibility and ingenuity

With the construction supply chain massively disrupted by the pandemic – from steelwork to window frames – we have obviously experienced some significant and unavoidable delays. Flexible working and the ingenuity of our teams has helped us to focus on areas where we could continue whilst safely ‘mothballing’ other areas until materials became available.

Faced with a total shutdown in some areas of supply, though, there have been projects where we have been forced to stop work. As an example, one of the key issues in the early stages of the lockdown was how to house our site teams working in areas where there was quite simply no availability of overnight accommodation. This led to the complete closure of one site until regulations began to ease and we were able to secure hotel rooms. An issue we simply could not overcome.

Opening up the working world

In May, as the virus began to recede and the commercial world started to reopen, most of the supply problems didn’t just go away. It has certainly cost us as a business to trade through the pandemic. Going forward, we face a raft of new uncertainties.

Coming out of lockdown, it became evident that the construction supply chain couldn’t simply pick up again; there was significant fallout. The shortage of materials we had experienced in the early weeks was, if anything, exacerbated as the sudden increase in demand threw the natural cycle into disarray.

Cost implications

Pre-COVID, we had always engaged closely with suppliers to agree on pricing. Post-COVID, price fluctuations have been significant. What’s more, the situation has bred an extremely risk-averse attitude from many businesses. This means that some are demanding pro forma payment on the product. This situation doesn’t match the natural cycle within the construction industry.

It’s been uncharted waters for everyone, but for Enviro Building Solutions, it’s also been a team effort, and we’ve all learned a lot. As a business, we’ve been pleased and proud to continue to deliver our projects more or less to schedule, despite the mountains we’ve sometimes had to climb.

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