One industry that has remained open throughout lockdown and been forced to quickly innovate is construction – and Matt Linekar and Stephen Moore from West Midland contractor Willmott Dixon have been at the forefront.
Gone are the days where you could enjoy a concert surrounded by tens of thousands of people, or hug those outside of your household as a friendly greeting. Instead, we now live in a world of social distancing and masked outings. But the impact of Covid-19 isn’t just those changes staring us in the face. There are more subtle, underlying ramifications that are yet to be explored completely, such as alterations in building design.
The question is, are Covid-related changes we are now seeing in building design here to stay, or a passing trend as the industry attempts to guide itself back to normality when the pandemic is over?
One of the biggest changes in building design is the importance that is now being placed on ventilation.
The need for proper circulation and fresh air to reduce the risk of contamination has never been more prominent – especially in the education sector where large groups of students must move around the building during regular intervals.
The care sector is another one that must adapt to changing times and, again, consider the importance of ventilation in communal areas or corridors that could be the hub of cross contamination. Many care homes are now drawing on primary care regimes and lobbying rooms to protect infected patients, altering facilities to increase the safety of both staff and residents.
But, with providers in these sectors already struggling to source funds and a potential vaccine not set to hit the UK until next year, many of these measures may not be instigated.
Stephen Moore, pre-construction manager at Willmott Dixon, said: “We have seen a variety in responses from our customers, with some not wanting to make significant, long-term changes to a problem that is deemed to be short-term. Cost management is key when it comes to these alterations, but many businesses are struggling to weigh up the short-term benefits with the financial impact that it can have on the outgoings of a project.
“This response is being reflected by local authorities. Spatial problems are undeniable when discussing social distancing in schools, but councils don’t have the money, space or desire to make long-term changes to facilitate social distancing measures, and we are seeing many private sector companies take a similar stance.
There is a focus for adapting operational policy rather than a significant change to buildings and the way they are designed to function.”
It’s not just the elements of design that have been impacted by Covid-19, but also the process in which these designs are created. The informal nature of construction sites means that social distancing is often hard to maintain.
With a mountain of competing factors to contend with – such as the need for team work, the variety of jobs that have to be completed simultaneously and strict time scales that have to be adhered to – contractors have had to make dramatic changes to ensure staff stay socially distant while working on projects.
This has meant for many firms, including Willmott Dixon, that focusing on off-site fabrication has helped the design process.
Matt Linekar, head of building services at Willmott Dixon, said: “One of the key things that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated is off-site manufacturing.
“MMC is already a hot topic for the industry and the pandemic has simply enhanced this.”
Mr Linekar added: “Distancing on site – and within the wider community – is probably here to stay, so as an industry we are having to find ways to accommodate that, but whether or not there will actually be long-term design implications remains to be seen.
“The short-term response has been one of meeting practical challenges on sites, but the reality is that the construction industry is a very competitive marketplace – potentially even more so as the government has positioned the built environment at the forefront of the recovery strategy.
The government is encouraging a ‘build back better’ approach but there are inevitably cost implications associated with that and without legislation to demand improved standards and a force for change.”
Mr Moore said: “We have had to adapt to the implications of Covid-19 both at home and at the workplace.
“It may be that we will want to change the designs of buildings in the future. It is arguable that we will need to accommodate less densely populated workplaces with more space for flexible working – consumers will begin to demand something different and design will change to recognise that.”