The Covid Future of Projects?

September 18, 2020
by Derek Hirst

I can’t see the future. 

Along with ‘should I get a haircut?’ and ‘I wonder if hand sanitiser is back in the shops yet?’ one of the things worrying me as we collectively struggle through this Covid pandemic is the effect on projects.

Right now in the UK many big-ticket infrastructure projects are back up and in full swing. However, elsewhere – and depending on local economic vs outbreak conditions, of course – some projects are still either all but ‘paused’ or moving along very slowly. 

As I see it, the longer term outcomes from this outbreak will hinge on the behaviour (and possible mutations) of this virus, together with the success of any vaccines.  In other words there is a bit of crystal-ball gazing as to how it might affect projects, and I would be really interested to hear peoples’ views on this.

There is no justification for changing designs or outcomes, increasing buildings, pavements, spaces or whatever in order to accommodate social distancing (whatever this week’s chosen social distance is) – even though it would adhere to current government guidelines.  This is because regulations and standards have not been amended to suit these guidelines and, fundamentally, the project requirements will almost certainly not have been modified to reflect them either.

Projects can not – and will not – pause until the discovery of a vaccine, so they will carry on delivering according to existing requirements, standards and regulations.

So does this mean that things might be built that are ultimately not (quite) fit for purpose?  There has always surely been this risk – it’s just that previously it has been tolerably small, given that we all felt we had a relatively educated handle on what the future would look like, comfortable with what we thought was coming round the corner. 

But is that still the case?  This time, are we going to be ‘knowingly’ building-in design ‘flaws’ (for want of a better word)?  Will we then have to rely on operating staff having to manage and re-jig spaces and interiors in order to cope?  Will it then be fair if the taxpayer and their chosen media mouthpiece pour scorn and criticism on their perception of an expensive job done badly?

Let us suppose a project does stop and go through a redesign to allow for social distancing and/or other measures resulting from this Covid pandemic, at what point in the lifecycle would it be acceptable for it to do so, and at what point is it too late and you risk building something not fit for purpose?  My suspicion is that the answer to both of these questions is “pretty early on” – with potentially many projects already in the ‘too late’ category.

It seems like, therefore, for many ongoing projects we have no choice: we have to keep going and see it through to the end, and hope that these clever people in laboratories come up with a silver bullet vaccine – and quickly.

There are no straightforward answers, and things are changing on a daily basis.  I can see many additional and consequential issues as well…but what do you think?