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Who’s in lockdown in the built environment and who isn’t – for now

Working from home or remotely using modern technology. Teleworking or telecommuting conceptual illustration

The shutdown of non-essential services as a response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic has created choppy waters for built environment professions to navigate.

On Wednesday, the Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air conditioning and Heating (AIRAH) made the case for heating, ventilation, airconditioning and refrigeration (HVAC&R) to be considered an essential service.

Writing to the federal, state and territory ministers, the industry body industry stated that without HVAC&R, building maintenance and support services, essential services will be jeopardised.

“Key facilities, such as emergency services, healthcare and public health, information technology, communications, energy, food and agriculture, government facilities and transportation systems, are all underpinned by heating, ventilation, airconditioning and refrigeration systems,” M.AIRAH chief executive officer Tony Gleeson said.

“In most cases, if the underlying HVAC&R systems fail, the facilities themselves will fail.”

Even in buildings that are no longer occupied due to the lockdowns, a degree of maintenance is necessary to keep these facilities in safe and working order for when the shutdown rules are lifted. One danger is corrosion cells and stagnant water in piping, known as dead legs, that can lead to further health issues such as Legionella.

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“Today’s buildings are simply not designed to be shut down for extended periods,” he said.

The US has already deemed workers that ensure “continuity of building functions” as part of the essential workforce.

Construction sites have got the official green light to keep operating at this stage. The likes of Urban Taskforce, Master Builders Australia and the CFMEU National Construction Division welcomed the decision to exclude construction sites from lockdowns.

“If coronavirus forces the shutdown of the industry it will have a devastating impact on the economy generally and upon the lives of construction workers and business operators and all their families,” MBA and CFMEU stated in a joint statement.

They argued that the industry can enact social distancing in workplaces, along with heightened safety measures to protect workers and reduce the risk of infection.

“Social isolation and hygiene measures as discussed with health authorities are already in place on many sites and must be immediately put in place on all sites,” stated the press release.

The two organisations are also calling for a “liveable safety net” in the event construction sites are shut down by the virus, quick payments for work, and commitments from governments and clients that liquidated damages provisions will be waived.

They also want a “comprehensive package” of stimulus measures to underpin building activity.

On Tuesday, NSW Urban Taskforce CEO Tom Forrest welcomed the message delivered by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to exclude construction sites from the lockdown.

“Every precaution will be taken to keep all employees and staff safe. Clear communication will continue to be the key,” he said.

“If the message from the health authorities and the government changes, then the industry will (of course) follow that advice.”

Removing waste is undoubtedly an essential service but the National Waste & Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC), which represents both national waste and recycling companies and state and territory affiliates, is calling on governments to lend a hand to affected businesses.

According to NWRIC CEO Rose Read, like all businesses, the waste and recycling sector is experiencing financial stress as business customers shutdown, demand reduces and segments of the economy slow.

“Specifically, we are asking state governments to waiver landfill levy doubtful debts, put on hold all planned levy increases for at least six months and where appropriate waiver current waste and landfill levies for affected businesses over the next three months,” Ms Read said.

“We are also asking state and local governments to be more flexible on certain facility licence conditions so that social distancing to protect staff can be maintained and collection time curfews be lifted so that bins can continue to be collected.”

After the weekend’s announcement, solar experts were not certain whether or not solar was exempt from the lockdown or not. But so far, it appears solar providers are considered essential.

Provided construction is still going ahead, building professions further up the line should be able to continue, especially designers because this phase is possible to do remotely. Engineers have already been tasked with putting their problem solving skills to good use during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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