Coronavirus: Can I Continue My Home Building Project on Lockdown?

Construction and coronavirus: What to do if your self build, extension or renovation project is affected by the Covid-19 crisis
by Chris Bates
8th May 2020

Many of our readers have already faced weeks of uncertainty about their projects due to the ongoing impact of Coronavirus. And with the government likely to be looking at a long-term phased approach to ending lockdown, the status quo could continue for weeks or months.

The situation is constantly evolving – on 7th April, the Scottish government closed down all construction work, for instance. Sites in England and Wales are not required to shut down, however, so in principle projects can continue, provided the latest guidance is followed.

But the rules for small sites and residential projects aren’t exactly transparent, and the “stay at home” message has divided opinion in the construction industry.

Some feel workers can continue to go to site during the Coronavirus crisis to ply their trades; while others strongly argue that the message “don’t go out” should be applied across the board.

So what does this all mean for those of you with live or upcoming home building projects?

MATERIALS WATCH

Here’s a quick look at the service level major DIY stores & builder’s merchants are currently offering. This guidance was last updated on 8th May 2020.

  • B&Q: Reopened all  stores (as of 30th April)
  • Homebase: Reopened all stores (as of 29th April)
  • Jewsons: Phased reopening of stores (initiated 27th April)
  • Screwfix: All stores open for contactless click & collect
  • Travis Perkins: Only open to trade account customers, with some branches delivery only
  • Wickes: Six stores open with shorter opening hours (as of 30th April)

If you’re planning to visit a merchant or store, it’s a good idea to call ahead to check current opening times, as they may not be operating standard hours.

Are you currently building or renovating your home? Have you experienced difficulty sourcing materials during the coronavirus lockdown, or found suppliers who are still operating a full service?

Let us know your experience in the comments section below and help your fellow home builders complete their projects.

Government advice on construction during the Covid-19 lockdown

While the Scottish government has closed all its sites, at present, construction sites in England and Wales aren’t required to shut down.

On 31st March, Alok Sharma MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, penned an open letter to the construction sector. In it, he paid tribute to all those working tirelessly within the construction industry and stated that “our country and our economy needs all our support.”

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Returning to Site

As of Wednesday 13th May, the government is encouraging construction workers to return to site. This is great news for self builders, home extenders and renovators with delayed or stalled projects – but it’s vital to ensure that your site continues to be a safe place to be.

To help you make your project Covid-safe, the National Self & Custom Build Association has released a handy downloadable guide to restarting building work.

Sharma continued: “Whether by building temporary hospital wards, installing complex and life-saving oxygen systems, constructing the infrastructure that society needs to function or ensuring that people have safe and healthy homes to live in, you are delivering for our nation through this difficult time.”

renovation before and after

If you can’t live in your home at present, does finishing the project count as emergency work under Coronavirus rules?

Clearly, there’s a need for construction of all types to continue during this crisis; provided it’s safe to do so.

The government website carries guidance suggesting tradespeople can carry out “essential repairs and maintenance in people’s homes” as long as they follow common-sense rules such as regular hand washing and social distancing.

It also echoes Sharma’s statement, saying “construction work… can continue if done in accordance with the social distancing rules wherever possible.”

The government has also worked with industry to create special Coronavirus Site Operating Procedures designed to maintain health and safety on building sites at this unprecedented time.

So can trades still work on my self build or renovation site during the Coronavirus lockdown?

The short answer is a muddy “yes”. But there are some major caveats to bear in mind.

Many trades are self-employed individuals, and provided it is safe to do so, they may wish to continue working to secure their incomes.

The government’s scheme to support the self-employed during the coronavirus crisis is not yet open for applications – and even when it does open, trades will have to wait for HMRC to reach out to people it deems eligible. This means many are currently in no-man’s land.

However, big question marks remain about just how much contractors can actually do on a home building project. To illustrate this confusion, let’s first distil some of the key rules about working on site during the lockdown.

QUICK GUIDE Coronavirus rules for construction projects

  • Works in people’s homes can continue if they count as essential repairs and maintenance.
  • Trades can continue to work providing they are well and have no symptoms.
  • Regular hand washing and the 2m social distancing rule must be observed.
  • Working areas (including vehicles and machinery) should be kept well-ventilated.
  • No work should be carried out in households that are isolating or where an individual is being shielded, unless that work is to remedy a direct safety risk.
  • You should limit your site to as a few workers as possible.
  • Materials should be handled in a way that reduces touchpoints between workers.

The easiest way to maintain safe social distancing on site would be to restrict your project to one type of trade at a time. This could be relatively easy to achieve on a renovation, extension or self build, as you may well only need a single tradesperson to complete the relevant phase of work – one plumber or one electrician, for instance.

single trade on site

Individual trades could continue on site while observing social distancing rules

But not everyone agrees. The FMB, for instance, is focussing on the ‘essential’ side of the government’s communications and suggested that works should stop they reach the point of a secured and weatherproof site, with materials safely stored.

According to an FMB press release, more than half of builders had already ceased more than 75% of their work by 26th March. So finding trades who are keen to work may be a challenge in itself.

There’s also the risk that contractors who are hungry for work may all be clamouring to get onto your site at the same time – which would make it impossible to follow social distancing rules.

Sourcing building materials during the Covid-19 crisis

There is an alternative to using trades, of course. If you have the DIY skills to move your project forward yourself as a hands-on self builder or renovator, you might be able to push ahead. Providing, that is, you can get hold of the materials you need.

As many self builders and renovators have found, since lockdown began it’s become increasingly difficult to source building materials. This is partly down to how the DIY stores and builder’s merchants were interpreting Coronavirus legislation.

At Build It, we felt many suppliers were taking a more literal approach than the legislation required.

B&Q and Screwfix, for instance, initially took the view that they should only sell a limited range of essential repair products. B&Q also restricted customers to home delivery or using its new contact-free click and collect service, with stores themselves are closed.

Things move quickly during lockdown, however, and on 30th April B&Q reopened all its stores (albeit with extra-long queues). The likes of Wickes and Homebase are also open and operating social distancing measures, much like supermarkets.

buying building materials

Ordering materials online may be the best route to keeping a hands-on project on track

Jewsons, meanwhile, initially operated only a limited number of stores and only delivered to essential businesses. These were defined as the likes of hospitals, schools, farms – and it was asking you to define why your delivery should be considered essential. As of 27th April, Jewsons has begun a phased reopening of stores.

Looking at the wider retail market, supermarkets and convenience stores were simply asked to define whether they offer an essential service and should therefore remain open. Shops that are open have continued to offer a broad range of products. The government isn’t asking them to limit what they’re selling.

When it comes to online shopping, through lockdown we’ve been able to buy pretty much the entire catalogue from the likes of John Lewis and Argos – so why weren’t we able to do the same with B&Q and Jewsons?

With many stores now reopening, the materials burden is starting to ease – but self builders and renovators are still likely to face delays and shortages of some products.

If you can’t get hold of essential materials for your project from the usual sources, one option might be to head to eBay or similar websites. Many traders on these portals are still providing a normal service in terms of product availability.

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