Back on the tools for trades at residential building sites

By Peter Brewer
Tradesmen Sean Hardwick and Ben Caldwell, both aiming to return to residential construction sites on Friday. Picture: Peter Brewer

For many of the Canberra tradies heading back to residential construction work on Friday under strict COVID-safe conditions, there may be a few unwelcome surprises in store when they return to their building sites.

The combination of heavy rain and sunshine seen across the ACT in recent weeks may have caused exposed timbers to twist and warp, excavations to fill, and tarpaulins to come adrift when the lockdown measures were imposed almost four weeks ago.

For builders such as Sean Hardwick, whose team of carpenters were working on various renovation projects before they downed tools and were sent home, the concern now is what may have happened to their progress work while they were off site.

"We did our best before we left our sites to secure them and brace everything as best we could but until you get back on site and have a good look, you just don't know what may have happened while you were gone," Mr Hardwick, who runs the Mitchell-based company Hardwick Projects, said.

"Exposed timber will move around if it not fully braced and trimmed out and when you get that combination of heavy rain and warm days that we had in Canberra just recently, it can amplify that movement."

Like hundreds of tradespeople working on ACT projects, Mr Hardwick lives in regional NSW. To fill in time, he has been helping out friends with small, local carpentry projects in Gundaroo while his Canberra projects sat idle.

"I've been trying to stay busy because it keeps me from going a bit bonkers, to be honest, and I have mates in the trade who feel the same way," he said.

"Our clients have been very understanding, which helps, but I can't wait to kickstart everything again."

Only one supervisor and five tradespeople are permitted on any one Class One residential site, and any tradies working on a renovation can't do so with the residents living there.

Ideal Building Solutions director and project manager Jarrod Elword spent much of Thursday printing out all the new documentation required for the residential restart, then preparing sites for when the teams return on Friday.

During the lockdown, Ideal Building Solutions had six of its eight sites sitting idle, one of which had frames and trusses in place, another just framed, and a third with 15 per cent of its roof exposed.

Access to sites during lockdown was only permitted for essential maintenance work or to ensure the safety of the premises.

"The way I see it, compliance is going to be a big part of keeping the ACT residential construction industry going now that we have a restart," Mr Elword said.

Builder and carpenter Sean Hardwick can't wait to return to work on Friday. Picture: Keegan Carroll

"I printed out material this week to get us ready to go because every site has to have a CBR check-in and a health induction for the teams, a COVID-safe plan, permits, masks in place and COVID safety signage."

He said that with a large concrete slab pour planned within days at a large residential site in Denman Prospect, he's now trying to figure out the logistics of making it happen with fewer people.

"Pouring a large concrete slab is a labour intensive business because once you start, you can't stop and the longer it takes, the harder the product becomes to manage," he said.

"Usually you would have seven or eight people on site at any one time for a pour but with the people density limits we're going to have to work out how to do it slower, and in a different way.

"The reality is that if we want to keep this [residential construction] going, we're going to need to adapt our practices to suit."

Greg Weller, the regional executive director for the Housing Industry Association, said that there were around 13,000 people working on smaller residential sites in the ACT but not all will return to work on Friday.

"I don't think there will be a huge rush back to the sites; I suspect it will be a staged process for quite a few businesses," Mr Weller said.

"Companies will prioritise the jobs that are close to completion or at a critical stage and direct their resources accordingly, and there will be others waiting for deliveries."

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