What construction during Covid-19 means

Wednesday July 08 2020

Workers go about their duties. Most construction projects have been affected by Covid-19 and many project owners have had to either make adjustments or suspend work. FILE PHOTO

Barbra Nimusiima, like many other construction site owners, did not envisage the occurrence of the Covid-19 pandemic when she resumed construction of her four-storeyed building in Kisaasi. She had initially built the ground floor approximately two years ago and had resumed work on the first, second and third floors respectively early February.

Armed with Shs200m, she had saved what she thought would be enough to complete the three floors. However, after the roofing stage, Nimusiima realised she needed more money than she had saved to embark on the finishing stage. It was at this time that the lockdown happened, and most of her tenants had to stay home.

This significantly affected how and when the tenants paid their house rent to raise more money to have the finishing done. Some tenants started paying rent in instalments while others spent as much as three months without paying their rent. At the same time, hardware shops were closed although they were later reopened when the lockdown was partially relaxed.

“I thought the total lockdown was for a short period but it went on much longer. It has affected income inflow in terms of rent collection payments by tenants to finish the construction.

The construction went on for about three weeks after the lockdown started until I realised I was running out of money for work to proceed at the desired pace. I asked the engineer to reduce the number of foremen at the site from eight to three because I could not foot their daily wages of Shs20,000 per person at the expense of having the work complete,” Nimusiima explains.

Stalling of projects
The construction of Kenneth Akankwasa’s country home in Rukungiri, like Nimusiima’s rental units at Kisaasi, was equally affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown of private transport meant Akankwasa could not drive upcountry to check on the progress of his house that had reached the ring beam level.


“I was left with no choice but to suspend the works on the project on phone. I could not trust the engineer to proceed with the work because there are some construction stages I needed to personally oversee so that I am not cheated of construction materials but also to prevent the engineer from deviating from the initial house plan,” Akankwasa explains.

Unlike Nimusiima whose construction project carried on despite Covid-19, Akankwasa’s had to unfortunately come to a stall for two months because he could not inject more money at the expense of compromising quality works.
Nimusiima and Akankwasa, were lucky to have construction projects up and running before Covid-19 was confirmed in Uganda. There are property developers such as Charles Ofwono, who were not as lucky.
He was due to commence construction of rental units on a 50x100 feet plot of land in Sseguku, Entebbe Road in March when Uganda recorded its first case of coronavirus.

“I had planned to start in March but the lockdown affected everything. The house plan took long to be approved and I ended up diverting the funds and bought a Fuso truck that could make me more money instead,” Ofwono recalls.

Drop in land prices
However, it was not all gloom for Ofwono, institution of the lockdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After buying the truck, he was left with some money to acquire himself prime lands, measuring 81x59ft and 81x81ft respectively at Lubowa, with the same land title.

“The land I acquired is much bigger compared to the plot where I was meant to start construction. The Covid-19 pandemic brought down the price of the land by a significant amount because there were very few people buying land. I used this chance to bargain with the owner until I settled for a better deal,” Ofwono says.

Keeping the site Covid-19 free
Moses Atwine Kanuniira, the Director Physical Planning at Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), says the requirement of continuing with construction is dependent on meeting the standard operating procedures as provided by the Ministry of Health. This includes water and soap to wash hands, sanitising using alcohol based sanitisers, keeping social distance and avoid unnecessary. movements from one place to another.
These procedures as issued by the Ministry of Health, Atwine emphasises, are universal, but not unique to KCCA or the Ministry of Health to enforce at sites because it affects everyone.

Camping near site
“For property developers who have major construction sites under contractors who think they may not be able to lose time, they should provide for camping in the nearest location so that site workers do not have to move long distances between their homes and the site,” Atwine advises.

Warning against camping on site
Unfortunately, he observes that some people or site owners misinterpreted this to mean that if you have a site, then workers should camp there. This, Atwine reiterates, is not accepted because authorities do not allow workers to sleep at a site that is under construction.

It is also illegal to accommodate your site workers on the ground floor, if, for instance, you have two or three floors complete. If the structure caves in before it becomes firm, your workers will die and the site owner will shoulder all the consequences.
However, if the site is big enough, Atwine advises that you can have a tent or make shift structures for workers to stay there.

Observing social distancing
To observe social distancing, Nimusima suggests reducing the number of workers on site.
“I reduced the number of foremen or manpower on the site to observe the government coronavirus preventive measures of social distancing. I accommodated the small number of foremen in the boys’ quarters and it was easier to monitor each other’s health because they spent most of the time in the same environment,” Nimusiima shares.

However, Dr Umarashid Gulooba, a general practitioner at Makerere University Business School, says some roles might make it hard to observe social distancing on at the construction site. He says some tasks such as bending of iron bars and timber cutting that workers have to do together as a group.
“Workers on your site may not keep social distancing because of the nature of their work. This leaves them with viable coronavirus preventive measures such as wearing of gloves, masks and face shields. If you want them to keep social distance, it indirectly means construction has to stop until the pandemic has cleared,” Dr Gulooba explains.

To make sure your site workers are safe, Gulooba advises that if you have space, accommodating them near the site like Akankwasa, may be a feasible option as opposed to allow them commute to their homes, unless it is within a walkable distance from the site where they don’t have to incur high transport costs that may also lead to late arrival to start the day. In such an arrangement, you have to subject them to temperature measurements and sanitisation every time they report for work as a preventive means because you don’t know who they associate with.

Effects of Covid-19 on sites
Daniel Kyeyune, an engineer, does not rule out the fact that some construction projects have stalled as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, not only due to shortfalls in money to finance the projects, but also due to the restrictions or ban on big numbers of people, an aspect that could be synonymous with sites.

“If works at your site had to stall during this period, if, for instance you were at ring beam level, wall plate or at a level where you were to cast the slab, the brick work may be damaged by a change in weather conditions. This may in turn affect the strength of the already existing structure such as when the rain hits the top brick layer if no protective measures were taken to cover the bricks,” Kyeyune explains.

While Nimusiima may have reduced the number of site workers to avoid incurring more expenses in form of daily wages, to control large crowds, like Akankwasa, and Atwine, advises that you may reduce on the numbers of staff at the site to avoid being caught on the wrong side of standard operating procedures of avoiding crowds.

Ibrahim Kajjoba, a site supervisor, recalls that a construction site where he supervised in Gayaza was affected in terms of less manpower by workers because some of them did not reside within the same locality as the site under construction, yet they used public transport means that was banned for some time. This, he explains, meant that work could not move at the desired pace because there were few workers.
“Some key stages of construction such as shaping of columns had to stall for some time until a solution and mutual decision between me, the site owner, the workers was reached to resume work. The work still went on but not as desired,” Kajjoba says.

What to do when project stalls
Joseph Oryang, an engineer with Century Investors Limited, advises putting breaks in works at specific points. If you stop at the foundation, cast the ground or floor slab where it can actually last years if it was well done before it can take off again. And if you build walls above the foundation, it is advisable to stop at ring beam level and cast it to prepare for the next phase.

If you are doing the roof, do not erect the timber without the tiles or iron sheets, otherwise the timber will get spoilt. Even if it is a steel structure, it will rust. Finishing at this stage can be completed much later as long as it has been covered by the roof.
“If your project is to temporarily be stalled, it should be at particular stages. For instance, you could cast the slab or stall at ring beam level. But if you have erected steel bars and you did not cast the concrete and the cash flow is affected, you will lose everything and have to redo all the steel bar works,” Oryang says.
Also, as mentioned earlier, if you are at a level where the top brick layer will be left exposed, Kyeyune advises taking measures to cover the bricks to protect them from damage.

Economic aspect
Joseph Oryang, an engineer with Century Investors Limited, observes that many projects that were lined up to take off have since stalled due to the effects of coronavirus. Many that were said to be extended are not being extended partly because of the world economy with many factors involved.

“When we see the Covid-19 pandemic affecting Uganda, it is actually affecting everyone around the world. This leads to multiple effects, including the real estate sector because the construction sector is not moving as it ought to. There is no new housing coming up and yet people have not stopped having children. It means there will be shortage of housing in the real estate sector,” Oryang explains.

This, he adds, is on top of thousands of workers being out of work as a result of many construction projects being stalled. What is saving them is that schools are closed and are not lately carrying the burden of meeting school requirements, something that will be a high mountain to climb the moment schools are reopened.