Impacts of COVID-19 on the Building and Construction Sector in America
A guest post from Judy Zakreski, Vice President of Global Services, International Code Council, America
The COVID-19 pandemic with which the world is still contending has impacted every aspect of life, and the construction and building safety industry are no exception. Every country – and in some countries, individual jurisdictions – have navigated a different approach to construction in the time of a pandemic. Many countries, including the United States, Australia and many countries across Europe and Asia, allowed construction as an essential activity during the pandemic. Others, namely Scotland, but also others spanning the globe including New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, had at least a partial halt on all residential and commercial construction in response to the pandemic. In all cases, building regulators – whether they have been working for the past several months or are in the process of slowly resuming activity – are faced with a new reality – one in which their own safety and the safety of buildings and their occupants needs to be viewed in a much different light as a result of the pandemic that continues to threaten global health.
The International Code Council, an NGO which publishes model building codes used throughout the world, including in all 50 states in the U.S., and offers a suite of value-added solutions to help jurisdictions to build the capacity necessary to effectively enforce building regulations, has formed a task force of the brightest minds across the building industry to look ahead to what the building safety industry needs to continue to function effectively. Three main functional areas of concentration have emerged: maintaining a safe workplace for construction and building safety professionals, ensuring that buildings can re-open safely, and designing buildings for the future incorporating lessons learned.
On construction sites, masks and social distancing are enforced by many jurisdictions, and new methods of work have emerged including creating teams of workers that interact only with each other on multiple projects to limit exposure. For code enforcement officials, from a practical virus-containment perspective, it has become common practice for all workers to vacate an area during an on-site inspection. However, the bigger discussion beyond that relates to the vast array of digital tools that can help to create effective remote environments through virtual inspections, online permitting and plan review, etc., that maintain the efficacy and rigor of inspections and enforcement. The challenge, of course, is that the mere existence of tools does not equate to their widespread use – that takes funding, which in times of economic downturn, is particularly difficult.
As businesses begin to reopen, in some cases in a building that has been stagnant for several months, preparing these buildings needs to be a safety priority. Without proper preparation and maintenance, the building can pose a danger to incoming occupants whether from a stagnant HVAC system, plumbing system, or powerless carbon monoxide and smoke detection systems. To help jurisdictions reopen safely, the International Code Council has created an extensive list of tips and considerations for property owners and managers to use.
Finally, as designers and building safety professionals look ahead, lessons that have been learned – and continue to be learned – from the pandemic will find their way into new building codes and designs, even in existing buildings. Public health concerns about indoor spaces will need to be addressed through building upgrades that include advanced HVAC and ventilation systems that allow for increased airflow and physical barriers that allow for social distancing between co-workers or employees and customers. These and other changes to building codes will be explored by the aforementioned task force with the aim of being incorporated into the 2024 edition of the International Codes.