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25 May 2020

Covid-19 and Shovel-Ready Projects

shovel ready auckland

With the necessity for everyone to get the economy going again, there will be a strong temptation for the country to maintain and recreate the business activity and environment of the past either for comfort, practicality, urgency or because their business has not been significantly affected. All this with the laudable intention to move on to create a New Economy once some initial stability has been achieved.

When we look back in 50 years time will the then economy and environment be easily recognisable as of the 20th Century? Or will there be a clearly defined change of direction in the same way as happened after both President Roosevelt’s New Deal (which extracted America from the Great Depression) and the radical social reforms in Britain after WW2? Given the view, which is already developing in some circles, that Covid-19 was a total over-reaction and the subsequent economic damage untenable, there is a good chance that society will return to ‘business as usual’ with just a little tinkering at the edges.

Will the much talked about ‘Shovel-Ready’ projects be a continuation of the pre-2019 world or will the opportunity be taken to deliberately move New Zealand to be the country the infants of today would wish to inherit. The great fire of London in 1666 destroyed five-sixths of the old city which gave an uncomplicated opportunity to bring the environs up-to-date. Despite grand plans being produced, the city went back to the medieval layout of its past — a layout which can still be seen today. The driving imperative at the time was the need to ‘get the economy going again.’

As an aside, the fire was so extensive because the Lord Mayor dithered and delayed the ordering of the demolition of buildings for fire breaks, which was the standard fire-fighting technique then. When the order came it was too late. Going Early and Going Hard may be the right path for us but it attracts 20/20 hindsight criticism.

The building industry’s Shovel-Ready portion of the economic recovery must be early and strong, but it also must be guided by the long-term view rather than short-term political gains or panic. We must not be tempted by the ready-made answers being touted by all and sundry. For starters, we need to match projects with the actual available workforce and skills. Do I recall something about 100,000 additional houses to be built in 10 years? This was an answer to a question, (the Brief in construction language), which had not been defined, nor properly evaluated.

It doesn’t matter how good, clever or precise an answer is if it is a response to the wrong question. If on the other hand, there is no immediate answer to the right question then at least the resolution energy is being focused in a positive direction. Equally, of course, there must be a willingness to regularly check back to ensure that the question is still the relevant one, and be prepared to adapt it.

At the time of writing this, the list of Shovel-Ready projects has not been announced, but the economic commentators have championed the case for an emphasis on housing rather than motorways. Housing has the advantage of requiring a large workforce, can accommodate on-the-job training and there is an unmet need. But, is it a simple question of more dwellings or could targeted refurbishment of existing houses be included in the shovel-readiness definition? This is what I mean by putting effort into getting the question right first.

Taking the housing sector and the often spoken need to improve thermal performance, to me there appear to be three basic forms of dwellings which will require different approaches. The first is new homes which should be constructed to a quality which will be appropriate for the future; the second is attention to existing buildings of, say, the last twenty or thirty years; and then the older 20th Century houses.

The 20th Century dwellings are the majority of our housing stock and those in most need of refurbishment which will include thermal up-grading. Is the Shovel-Ready question for these to only be the ‘standards’ to be applied to the work? Perhaps the base question should be “Is this still the best location for the building, and is it still appropriate for the likely occupants?”. Once this is answered then more specific questions can be considered. Will owners and landlords be prepared, even if there is financial assistance, to contribute to capital upgrades when it is cheaper to invest in quality curtains and jerseys?

The question of appropriate location is still relevant for houses of the last 20 or 30 years, as also is its suitability for future occupants. The thermal performance of these homes is usually close enough to the current minimum that it is usually sensible to undertake intelligent up-grades which can/should easily exceed the present NZ Building Code (NZBC) minimums.

The third group of new dwellings, which will be the bulk of any Shovel-Ready fast-tracked housing programme, will be required to at least comply with the NZBC minimums. This does not mean that the thermal performance minimums must be maximums. There is no reason why much improved thermal performance parameters cannot be set for Shovel-Ready projects. Developers have been doing this for years for ‘quality’ subdivisions where there are significantly raised thermal provisions which must be complied with if a Resource Consent is to be issued. For Shovel-Ready projects, there is no need to wait for a change to Clause H1 (Energy Efficiency) of the NZBC. I understand that Kainga Ora (Housing NZ) have much higher thermal minimums than the Building Code, and from the various activities I am involved with in the residential sector, it is usual to find architects/designers/developers working to levels much higher than the NZBC-H1 minimums.

The need to ensure that the relevant question is being asked also applies to the methods being used to achieve higher thermal performance. The standard method is to just increase the insulation, as media publicity keeps telling us. The starting point for thermal control is not at all this simple. At the first stage, there is a complex and dynamic interplay between insulation, glazing and thermal mass. I have written of this in my various EBOSS Detailed blog posts of 2014 which culminate in the 15 December 2014 issue “Insulation, Thermal Mass and Glazing: The Juggling Game.”

In my opinion, a brief pause to properly evaluate the questions being asked is more important than jumping on the first assumed answers which come to mind, especially with the inevitable rush and urgent demand to start Shovel-Ready projects.

Through EcoRate Ltd – Architect I provide objective independent analysis and advice on sustainability matters, to Architects, Designers, Builders, Manufacturers, and others in the construction industry, included those proposing to build a new home. I am also a Homestar Assessor.

For more information feel free to contact Keith at EcoRate Ltd on 021 890 251, keith@settlement.co.nz, or visit www.settlement.co.nz

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