The dangerous side of lockdowns for Repairs

31 August 2020
By Hamish

Through July and August, Victoria has been square in the public eye as we watched COVID-19 cases climb and climb. And with the rising cases came a lockdown (and then a second) with the advice that people stay in their homes as much as possible, let no one in.

We watched as Victoria and then states north of Victoria saw infections rise again, and with warmer weather coming and people more inclined to get out, the question which arises is will less social distancing mean there will be more widespread lockdown across the country?

The risks on mental health and well-being are well known and are fortunately being discussed, but one area which we believe is less discussed, but which will likely have longer term consequences is the impact that lockdown has on the condition of a building and therefore, longer term, the safety of a building, and thus the occupants.

As reported in The Domain during the first lockdown, trades such as ours which provide Building Repairs and Maintenance were prevented or limited from attending sites to fix issues with the building. From more simple things such as glass replacement to the more serious, such as loose cladding or render, the work restrictions covered all types.

Better that we forewarn you than it is sprung on you later, so today we will look into the risks of lockdown outside those identified as health risks.
We will look at:

  • The risks to occupants;
  • The economic costs (deferring maintenance leads to increasing costs which will hurt the owners or the insurance agencies PLUS the instant cost to trades who have reduced work);
  • An increase in attempted rectification by non-qualified persons (such as residents or handymen); and
  • Insurance impacts from deferred maintenance and/or from non-qualified people doing the work.

The Pandemic Scare

Because apartment building owners may have concerns about bringing the virus into their premises, we have seen a rise in people delaying repairs, even if they are necessary. For them, doing so will potentially expose them to COVID-19 given that tradies bounce from one site to another to carry out their work.

As a result, some apartment owners and strata managers resort to hiring someone from the building to fix structural problems — which we all know, is far from ideal because they cannot guarantee the quality, safety, and precision of the completed job. Further, the NSW statutory requirement states that only people who hold a contractor licence can do the work specifically described on their licence cards.

Not surprisingly though, fear of contracting the Coronavirus is not the only reason why building owners have chosen to defer remedial works. Because businesses have been shuttered and people have been off work or have reduced work hours, budgets are being directed to what is seen as immediately essential – Food, medicines and entertainment from the boredom. This has meant that funds put towards sinking funds and special levies are not always a priority (Though we will say this is showing signs of starting to change as people realise that their homes do need to be looked after now they are spending so much time there). So it has been understandable that owners of apartments and other large-residential buildings to wait and see before committing funds to get repairs going.

But what building owners fail to realise is that deferred repair works mean increased costs – even just fixing the visible problems is not enough as the underlying issues are getting worse.
Why? As a supposedly small structural issue becomes bigger and more serious, the expenses associated will balloon because more damage is being done under the surface, more materials will be needed and more work hours will be spent for reparation.

COVID-19 Safe Initiative

Remedial works should not be postponed, because when structural issues are not fixed at the earliest possible time after detection, they will only get worse and could bring serious harm to the residents and damage to assets. According to the president of Strata Community Australia in NSW, Chris Duggan, “ Work on strata buildings is classified as one part of the economy that can, and should, operate.”

And what Mr. Duggan says is actually true. In fact, the NSW Government has released a COVID-19 safety plan for construction and tradespeople that aims to create and maintain a safe environment for remedial businesses, their workers as well as their customers.

To help residents, keep the economy ticking over, and also keep longer term costs down, the plan published on 30 June 2020 from the NSW Government contains several important COVID-19 Safety Plan points including the following:

Make sure all workers comply with COVID-19 health advice so far as reasonably practicable. Most importantly, do not visit clients’ homes or construction sites even if you have mild symptoms.

Before attending a job in someone’s home, ask if there is anyone in the house with any cold or flu symptoms or anyone who is in home-isolation. If there is, reschedule your visit until the home isolation period has finished or for several days after symptoms have resolved.

Restrict non-essential personnel and visitors from entering the site or reschedule visits to a time when there are minimal personnel on site, wherever possible.

Minimise contact with household items and fittings not related to your work.

Businesses can also register as a COVID-safe business by filling up the form available in the website. Doing so can reassure customers that contractors, tradies, and other remedial professionals abide by the safety plan.

Sydney is on a perceived lockdown. But what does this mean?

The NSW government made it clear that they won’t return to a lockdown (unless critical) any longer but learning from what happened in Melbourne, they are open to setting in place certain restrictions so as to contain the second wave. In effect, people need to become cautious and more vigilant this time and avoid gatherings and invitations to their homes. In the remedial industry, this means projects getting cancelled or moved to much dates.

The question which we believe those in strata need to ask themselves more now (at least as rectification is concerned) is what will happen when the cases are under control mostly, and the economy pushes forward again? A surge of urgent works on strata buildings will likely occur, and with this increased demand and limited manpower, there is a chance that costs will be driven higher – a cost that too many will not be able to afford, but will have to.

Never postpone your remediation needs because deterioration excuses no one.

Unlike humans where for many there is an immune response which works to fix the body, a building suffering from structural issues, will not get better by itself. The longer that you defer structural repair, the more risks it poses for the building and then longer term, the greater impact on the occupants. Our recommendation is if your building shows signs it needs remedial works now, you should get it done as soon as possible. And if in doubt, speak to someone anyhow, and at least know what you are dealing with.