What happens when you finally get your dream home project off the ground, only for Covid-19 to shut down the build?
For first-time buyers Thomas McGirr and Fiona Murphy, it means the newlyweds, who are about to have their first child, have had to abandon plans to begin family life in a newly renovated home. The refurbishment of their end-terrace, three-bed property in Irishtown, Dublin 4, which was very close to being completed, is on pause as a result of the restrictions.
But it could be worse, McGirr says. The couple live locally, having moved in with Fiona’s mother, Mary, a couple of years back, to save for a deposit. McGirr visits the site every day to open windows to help dry out the concrete skimmed floors – laid the day Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the lockdown – which ensure the home will have luxurious underfloor heating.
His brother Brian McGirr, a plumber, advised on the plumbing and heating decisions. “Our builder, Dermot Harper of Harper Homes, kept us right,” McGirr says.
When they bought the property in December 2018, the house needed complete renovation, insulation, rewiring and replumbing. As is typical of much of the older housing stock in the area, its only bathroom was situated downstairs.
Some homeowners turn one of the bedrooms upstairs into a washroom. The couple didn’t want to make that compromise and so enlisted the services of Joe Fallon Design and Architecture to add the tiny extension to give them the additional space.
He also reconfigured the layout to create a far better sense of flow and to give them a second space to escape to, or to use as a kids’ playroom.
The site has been closed but a skip left outside the house over the course of the lockdown began to fill with other people’s waste. McGinn had it removed.
He feels they’re one of the lucky ones. “We’re not in a rush. We’re comfortable enough. We’re living rent-free and only have the one mortgage to pay.”
One south county Dublin resident in Monkstown is mid-conversion of a garage into a home office with a separate entrance, which should have been a timely move.
While only two weeks out from being finished, the structure is just bare block walls for now. It doesn’t yet have a roof but has a roof membrane. The architect is in touch and he’s being told that works will be allowed on site from Monday May 18th, with social distancing. “The downside is that there is no longer a timeline to completion,” he says. Meanwhile, he’s working at a table that he borrowed from his mother.
Across the city in Inchicore, Dublin 8, a couple is living with a kitchen extension that is not even halfway through, says contractor Kevin Moran of Moran Builders. “It’s been built and has a roof but that’s it.” He has done his best and has fixed them up with an oven and a microwave, which is set up in the living room, as well as a temporary sink.
Moran managed to get the roof on before lockdown and has checked in with them since to make sure they’re okay, reasoning that he might be able to consider the works essential.
The windows aren’t yet in and the back is exposed. The couple say it is cold and very draughty but they are toughing it out. “It’s not ideal but the weather has been really good,” says one half of the pair.
But they have no counter space and the couple say their diet has gone to pot as they’re living mainly off ready meals. “Something like this is a first world problem,” they say.
The Inchicore couple are not alone. A lot of sites are exposed or open, says architect Denise O’Connor of Optimise Design, but she says anyone in that position shouldn’t worry. “A builder won’t have installed anything that can be damaged if the roof isn’t yet on. Furnishings generally don’t go in until the windows do.”
But some people who are mid-project already have concerns and while not clients of Optimise Design, have contacted O’Connor for help.
One has a joiner who can’t be reached. Others are worried that their tradesperson may go out of business. She says it’s really important to keep the lines of communication open. “Don’t rely on third parties,” is her advice. “Talk directly to your build team to try and find out timelines.”
With construction sites due to reopen on May 18th, the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) has issued a document to all contractors on safety measures to make sites safe. Ahead of this some 60,000 workers have already undergone an induction programme to make sure they understand the new safety measures. Recommendations include the addition of a Covid-19 compliance officer on larger scale developments. On smaller scale residential jobs Shane Dempsey, director of communications at the CIF, sees this role being taken by the main contractor.
“The new social distancing measures will see some delays or loss of productivity,” he says. “Social distancing will mean that less workers can be on site at one time. On residential renovations, this will lead to longer timeframes.”
Most builders on residential projects work under contract, says architect Paul Brazil of Brazil & Associates. “It [the contract] still stands,” he says. He’s reasonably confident that they’re all on board and anxious to get back. “But we don’t yet know working procedures and how they may affect fixed price contracts if the workload period has to be extended.”
While he says there is an underlying belief that subcontractors will happily work for less, he doesn’t believe this will be the case and wonders how the work model is going to operate or where costs are going.
What is certain is that social distancing is going to delay the build period, says Lisa O’Brien of O’Brien Quantity Surveyors.
“Contractors may look to issue notice for an extension of time. A four-week timeframe might become eight or 12 weeks. This will increase the cost of some elements of the build, a foreman for example, if you’re hiring one, will have to be on site for longer and so will any scaffolding needed.”
How this will be arranged comes down to forward planning, says David Dwyer of Summit Scaffolding. It is an aspect of the building process that he already has to manage. “As it is most jobs – about 98 per cent – run over by six to eight weeks so we already have to be pretty flexible.”
The supply chain may also need addressing, O’Brien says. What may have been a six-week lead on tiles or sanitaryware to come from Italy may now become 12 weeks.
One solution she suggests is revisiting the spec sheet to try to replace those choices with something more readily available. Another issue is that some materials, such as stoves, kitchens and/or ironmongery, may have been already paid for by the contractor, who may now end up out of pocket, at least for the duration of the delays.
Contractors’ ability to resource current and future jobs is another big question, she says. “Can any foreign workers who went home get back into the country and where will they self-isolate before coming on site?”
O’Brien doesn’t foresee supply shortages. Nor does Moran, at least for those who are already mid-build, but he expresses concern about the availability of plywood and medium-density fibreboard later this year.
O’Brien doesn’t see building rates going down but raises a bigger question. As long as this situation prevails, she queries what will be deemed “essential works” by the Government.
“Affordable housing schemes will be but will a house extension or refurbishment be considered essential? Tradespeople and contractors working in the residential sector may diversify and become sub-contractors to bigger, affordable housing developments.”
And if so, will the residential sector lose the talent working in it and push the costs of renovation even higher and out of the hands of ordinary buyers?
With much of the housing stock in Ireland already in need of upgrading, buyers looking to do small-scale extensions will have to spend far more time crunching the numbers to see if the costs are worth it, especially if property prices soften.