The COVID Built Environment
Real Estate

The COVID Built Environment

We are living in the times of COVID-19, an unparalleled crisis that has metastasised throughout the world, but valuable lessons can be learnt from it. While the world has been busy focussing on creating built environment that is resilient and sustainable to overcome natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones, not much has been done to handle epidemics like SARS, H1N1, Ebola and now COVID-19, the global pandemic. The recent rise of viruses has held up the mirror to reality and proven that just building robust structures and edifices isn’t enough. We need to be prepared to grapple with these challenges by using models of ‘Care’ and ‘Conserve’ and technology to ensure biological disasters do not disrupt societies, businesses and economies.

One of the key sectors that have been impacted heavily is the built environment sector. Due to the national lockdown and issuance of ‘social distancing’ directive, all construction work had been put on hold , till recently. It is only now that the government has issued a notification for construction work to be allowed  in a controlled manner, with appropriate safety measures in place. The crisis has ensured that the construction industry will have to look at learning to work under some regulatory practices. This will raise the important question if there is a requirement for regulatory and development authority for construction on a nation-wide basis.

While there are conflicting reports on the requirements for permitting construction, what would be of relevance is that the built environment sector is benefited by a minimum set of guidelines. Moreover, state governments and local authorities are expeditiously clarifying any local need for further stringent measures to be taken  beyond what has been suggested by the Central Government. This means that most projects under construction (commercial or residential) will result in capital loss for the developers and investors, which will in turn cascade into losses for other sectors as well and cause a liquidity crunch.

This is where following the framework of ‘Care’ and ‘Conserve’ will help the built environment counter balance the impact of the virus. Care in practicing consideration for employees, clients and stakeholders and dealing with them by being empathetic. This can be observed in the shape of allowing the workforce the option to work from home, upholding genuineness and transparency at work or espousing collaboration and upskilling at work, as per requirement.

Conserving cash by maintaining supply chain, retaining talent, smooth functioning of critical functions with the aid of business continuity plans is also effective. However, given that most of the already languishing real estate sector  is dependent on the stimulus provided by the government, it would need significant support from the government, which is being given in various forms.

Along with the government’s decision to launch the 1.7 lakh crore Prime Minister ‘Gareeb Kalyan Yojana’ fund, a key initiative that has been announced to provide relief to construction sector against economic disruption, is the existing Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund  of Rs 31,000 crore under the CGA, which will be accessed as a result of the lockdown. This will provide reprieve to 3.5 crore registered workers, who survive on a daily wage and will help in a quick turn-around of the industry in a short time frame upon resuming normal business.

On the infrastructure front, while the National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) has been established, it is important for it to be implemented quickly so that the recovery rate is faster. Additionally, while financial measures undertaken by the RBI  and the government for ensuring security of the lower social strata are commendable, focus needs to be on MSMEs sector . This sector will improve when the overall economic scenario is redressed by emphasising on government led initiatives. At the same time, built environment sector on the whole, will be looking forward to reforms on authority approval and land policies so that the necessary policies can be ushered in to make the process far more streamlined and efficient than it is at the moment.

This puts the spotlight on what we can do now to plan and protect the sector against such disasters happening in future. We can invest in education and training to provide the requisite knowledge and skills to professionals and workforce who are required to deploy digital construction technologies  like 3D printing, BIM, robotics, automation, drones, Artificial Intelligence, Cloud services, reality modelling, etc. This will help prepare for the imminent circumstances by providing industry led and competency-based education to those working in the industry and empower us to deal with such future crises.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led us to realise that there exists an extensive acceptance of digital services across the globe. Conventional industries like the built environment need to adapt and transform their way of working to be future -ready for such exigencies like the COVID-19. More than any event or occurrence before, the virus has managed to remove the hesitation and scepticism that precedes technological innovations. This is an opportunity in disguise and will support in building a roadmap for a better future of humankind.

About the Author:

Nimish Gupta is the Managing Director of RICS South Asia.

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