Building better?

The impact of Covid-19 on every aspect of life is undeniable. As the pandemic began to spread throughout March 2020, no one could have foretold the ways in which this disease would change society. One industry that has remained open throughout lockdown and been forced to quickly innovate is construction – and Matt Linekar and Stephen Moore from 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 the 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?

A change in requirements
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. This requirement also means that designers must think about the importance of flexibility to be able to purge the air in classrooms, and also consider window patterns and wall fans and their impact on the acoustics of these rooms.

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 the vaccine roll out in 2021, many of these measures may not be instigated.

Stephen Moore, Preconstruction 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.”

Perfecting the process
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 and the different ways in which we might be able to utilise modern methods of construction (MMC).

“MMC is already a hot topic for the industry and the pandemic has simply enhanced this – and the last few months has given us the opportunity to explore the options in more detail and will no doubt continue to play a part in construction projects in the longer-term.”

Long-term or short-term
The construction industry is one that has never stopped working, so very quickly firms were forced to adopt new ways of working to help protect their teams and prevent the spread of Covid-19, all while ensuring that essential building projects did not stall.

Matt 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 and moving forwards with a different way of working, 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.”

Should we change the approach to building design?
There are potentially significant positives associated with a change in design focus, especially when you consider the environmental targets the UK is working towards and the impact more sustainable building would have.

Stephen added: “Moving towards a focus on whole life cost is an important first step – but that will rely heavily on customers adopting a shift in mindset, thinking about overall value rather than initial outlay. It’s challenging, especially against a backdrop of a damaged economy and already stretched budgets, especially within the public sector.

“Sustainability will be key, but that is something that has been put somewhat on the backburner for the time being as we navigate through the Covid crisis. As an industry, so often the focus is on cost and designing to meet the minimum standards rather than considering the longer-term impact of a building. Moving forwards, it would be great to see a move away from considering a higher initial cost, but a better performing building, as ‘uneconomic’ and seeing customers investing in better quality products.

“The manner in which we live and work has had to adapt to the implications of Covid-19- and design does not seem to be addressing a long-term fix at the moment but maybe this will change over time. 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.”

What next?
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, in the medium term at least, considerably. We have undertaken the world’s biggest remote working experiment, learned to distance from one another and change our behaviours in accordance with ever-changing regulations – but will this change the face of building design for the long-term?

Matt said: “Any real changes to the industry will take time to filter through. At the moment, we have collectively been focusing on how to keep our industry moving safely and working alongside our customers to ensure that their spaces are flexible enough to meet changing requirements.

“Whether or not there will be long-term changes to design is yet to be seen. There’s no question that we approach life in a different way, but without legislation enforcing things like changes to ventilation systems or improved environmental credentials, progress will likely be slow. There is certainly the opportunity to shift towards a whole life value approach to building in the longer term, which would undoubtedly see us ‘build back better’.”

Willmott Dixon is a privately-owned contracting and interior fit-out group. Founded in 1852, it is dedicated to leaving a positive legacy in its communities and environment and in 2018 it was one of only six companies to receive a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the promoting opportunity through social mobility category. It creates value for customers, stakeholders and communities by working in a sustainable and responsible way to shape the built environment and make a positive impact to society’s well-being.

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