New building technology inevitable as Covid-19 bites

Friday, May 15th, 2020 00:00 |
A demonstration of how to use a drone in management of construction sites. Photo/PD/COURTESY

Project managers urge National Construction Authority (NCA)  to introduce technology in construction management syllabus so as to embrace new norms in the industry.

Harriet James @harriet86jim

Project managers involved in construction are calling for enhanced use of new technologies in building sites to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, which has devastated the sector.   

While they are not deemed as mandatory professionals in most projects, project managers oversee all aspects of the building process, including establishing timetables, working closely with engineers as well as architects to develop work plans. 

With advice from quantity surveyors, these supervisors, also called project directors, help determine the cost of labour and materials and are responsible for ensuring the project is completed on budget and within scope. 

In a webinar dubbed Coping with Covid-19 in Management of Projects, project managers from Kenya, South Africa and Oman shared challenges they are facing and how they are coping with the Covid-19 crisis. 

The majority of workers in the construction industry don’t have the option to work from home.

They are low-income earners, working from pay-check to pay-check. “About 80 per cent of the workers in the building industry are low-income earners. We have mama mandazis, food vendors and masons.

If all sites close, where will they find money to pay their bills? How will they survive?” asks Rui Machado, CEO Anguloraso of Mozambique.   

Rui has projects in Zambia, Mozambique and Kenya, where the governments have imposed 7pm to 5am curfews.

This means Rui is losing around an hour daily, as he has to let the staff go home early.  “Transport costs for the staff has gone up too and this means wages are higher.

The price of construction materials has increased too, and despite the fact that we have implemented all the safety requirements necessary, things are not as easy,” says Rui.  

In countries such as Australia, construction projects have been permitted to go on even with restrictions, but not in Africa. 

In South Africa, construction projects were halted from March 20, but  industries such as mining are operating as they support many livelihoods.  

Professionals in construction are fighting to have the building sector in South Africa to be included as an essential service because of the significant role that it plays in the economy.  

“Maintenance work in hospitals, however, is continuing. But no new construction is happening,” says Ronnie Siphika, CEO Construction Management Foundation of South Africa. 

Oman has also imposed restrictions and construction sites have been halted until 2021.  “Government bodies finance the construction of hotels and tourism sites.

Other clients, too, are requesting for discounts on already agreed fees,” says Rober Oboch, a Kenyan construction project manager who works in Oman.

“Due to social distancing rules in Muscat, we are spending more money transporting manpower to construction sites,” says Oboch, formerly chairman, Association of Construction Managers of Kenya (ACMK). 

While other sectors such as engineering can be placed on hold to safeguard the health of personnel, activities such as project planning or engineering design can still go on without meeting the client’s in person, thanks to the latest technology.   

“People will need to think outside the box. While one requires to be physically present for site inspections and discussions in relation to government clients, digital tools can be employed to carry out design,” says Rui. 

 Rui is employing modern technology to connect with his workers on site, track issues, approve projects and check if work is ongoing.  

Tools that project managers are employing to handle their teams include  video conferencing — video chats as well as private chats, presentation streaming and screen sharing such as GoToMeeting and Zoom meetings.  

Other cloud-based tools such as drones give remote teams around the world the ability to report project status, share files, communicate, track, collaborate as well as conduct regular face-to-face activities. However, all these come with extra costs.

Project delays

However, this new normal has exposed the rigidity of the industry to adapt to new ways of doing business.

“It is a conservative and stubbornly structured industry and some contractors haven’t yet adapted to the use of technology in business,” says Oboch.  

He urges the National construction Authority (NCA), to rethink on introducing technology in the construction management syllabus so as to embrace this new norm in the industry. 

Another major implication of this pandemic is delays since many projects have even stopped, usually with the intention to resume work at a later date. Consequently, this has resulted in issues with contracts.  

“We must relook at our contract provisions for such calamities. There has been different interpretations as to whether Coronavirus is force majeure or not,” says Nashon Okowa, Chairman, ACMK.

Force majeure is the occurrence of an event beyond the control of the parties in a contract. 

“I think in 2020 such should be expressly stated without gray areas for misinterpretations. The old wine skin must now give way to new wine skins,” quips Okowa.   

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