In a year of unprecedented upheavals, perhaps the strangest phenomenon in Singapore has been silent construction sites brought to a halt as Covid-19 spread through the 340,000-strong construction, shipyard and process foreign worker community. Today, as workers return to building sites with new distancing protocols, the fallout of the pandemic is becoming clearer – and the effects are likely to last longer than many could have ever imagined.
As senior director at CIAP Architects, Theodore Chan’s job is to imagine and design that future while tackling more pressing, immediate issues.
He tells The Peak, “We’ve done a lot of healthcare projects – medical centres, clinics and hospitals – and have ongoing projects. But clients have been coming back to us and saying: ‘You know, with this new normal from the pandemic, perhaps we should review the spacing, even in the office. Instead of being 1m apart, should we be 1.5m or 1.8m?’”
This social distancing also applies to construction sites. “The Ministry of Manpower now controls the number of workers one can have at a work site,” Chan says. “Where I used to have 500 workers, I can only have 250 workers now. So what’s going to happen? Productivity is going to be affected very badly. It’s simple mathematics. If a construction project used to take eight months, it’s going to take 16 months now.”
These delays are something the industry has been grappling with. What's more, as most contracts do not list pandemics as force majeure events, developers are not required to grant contractors’ requests for an extension.
“It is a very daunting problem, especially for public sector projects,” says Chan. “The authorities have come in to say they will support the contractors. They will pay 50 per cent of the additional charges due to prolongation and the contractor will pay the other 50 per cent. This is an ex gratia kind of thing. It is to acknowledge that Covid-19 is nobody’s fault, neither the contractor’s nor the client’s.
We hope the private sector will follow what the government is proposing. The delays increase costs for consultants, too. If we had factored in 12 months for a project that is now going to go on for 24 months, where am I going to get the fees to cover the additional man-hours?”
In some ways, the pandemic may have accelerated changes in the industry that were already coming. On one hand, the authorities have shown concern about the reliance on foreign labour. On the other, building technologies are improving. Chan envisions some opportunities because of the confluence of these factors.
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