21 May 2020

Delivering essential housing

Housing availability in England is at breaking point. Last September, research from the National Housing Federation estimated that over 8.4 million people in England are in unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable homes, with over 400,000 people either homeless or at risk of homelessness.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for construction; however, despite this, all our housing sites, many delivering critical affordable homes, have kept building. Richard Sterling, national development manager for housing explains why we have a duty to continue building housing safely during Covid-19, and how it has been essential to embed safe working practices to ensure the building of important new homes continues.

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Across England and Wales, we build over 1000 homes each year, including many social and affordable schemes

Keeping our residential sites open

Richard explains, “We build all types of homes, from housing estates to care homes, retirement villages, mixed-use and student accommodation, as well as build to rent. Many are for councils and housing associations who want to expand communities and provide quality new homes for local people. We have a responsibility to deliver on this.”

On the 23 March the Government announced more stringent measures to control the Coronavirus. While construction was one of the industries encouraged to continue, some housebuilders decided to temporarily halt their operations for several weeks.

We took a different course and kept sites open while adjusting to the required safety measures. Richard explains, “Immediately after the stricter control measures were announced, there was a lot of confusion across the industry regarding the role of construction and housebuilding. Guidance was issued by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), directing a series of Government-backed Site Operating Procedures to be implemented, allowing sites to remain open and operate safely.”

The guidance was reviewed across the business and a decision made to remain operational on projects where Covid-19 social distancing practices could be adhered to. Richard clarifies, “Feedback from customers demonstrated an overwhelming desire to keep sites operational, where social distancing could be implemented. Housing was no exception and given the wider company approach to continue, it was perhaps easier for our residential sites to stay open in comparison to the wider housebuilding industry."

Staying safe at The Marches

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One example of how this was done was at the Marches site in Wolverhampton, our 133-week program for WV Living to build 266 new homes, combining private sale, shared ownership and council properties. Jim Donnelly, senior operations manager at The Marches explains in more detail.

“Like at all housing sites, we instigated safe working procedures at the site. We started by reviewing the roles that could be continued from home against those required to be on site. This led to relocating design and commercial roles to home environments, creating extra space in our site cabins for social distancing. Across the site, we widened pedestrian routes, so they were two metres wide and created one-way systems and hold points to avoid overcrowding. Sanitation stations were created, our canteen was arranged to provide one seat at a table to enable social distancing and we staggered breaks and lunchtimes to ease congestion.

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Site cabins have been reconfigured to abide with social distancing

“Signage on site explained social distancing rules at key places such as the toilet block and drying room, where numbers entering the rooms were limited. To enforce the procedures, each morning we hold ‘toolbox talks’ to explain the latest guidance and allow our people and supply chain partners to ask questions. If anyone shows symptoms of the Coronavirus or needs to self-isolate, they are empowered to do so, and it is critical they abide by this directive.”

Shortly after the increased Covid-19 control measures were announced, our numbers on site decreased by over 50%. Over the past month we have seen most of our supply chain partners return to site, which is excellent. Our site operating procedures have helped our operatives to feel safe, we have also welcomed the increased support and clarity from the Government regarding the role of construction during these extraordinary times, such as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma’s open letter of thanks to the construction industry, released on March 31.”

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Clear signage and safe working instructions are distributed through the site

Innovating during adversity

Adapting our sites and working practices to abide by Covid-19 safe working practices has been a challenge, yet it’s led to much learning that which will be embedded in future working practices.

Richard explains, “One of the key advancements Covid-19 safe distancing rules has forced upon us is fully embedding matrix planning into our operations. The practice involves a linear approach, splitting a building into zones, selected trades then have access to a zone at any one time. Utilising this method has been essential while following the CLC’s Site Operating Procedures, as it avoids too many people working in the same space. This is the most efficient and safest methodology for allowing our supply chain partners to complete their tasks.”

Jim highlights the importance of IT and virtual meetings, “Almost overnight we have all had to become experts in video conferencing. We use it each day to hold meetings with our customer, supply chain partners and internally. We are seeing how useful virtual meetings are in terms of logistics. Face to face communication will remain important, but physical meetings will reduce. This will allow us to become more efficient and spend less time on the road, so there are also environmental benefits.”

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Many of our site teams are providing virtual tours for customers