On Site with Sykes

COVID-19 has created problems in every sector of life, and the building industry is no exception. However, it is also true that with a crisis like this, people think differently, and lateral thinking certainly creates new ideas and opportunities.


Christopher Sykes

is an Architect who trained at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. After he qualified, he worked in both London and Sweden. Having widened his writing and journalistic skills, he subsequently started his own publishing company specialising in building magazines and events. As a hobby, he used to write sitcom for the BBC.

One significant advantage that COVID-19 gives to building industry professionals is a new motto to remind them what it’s all about: C for climate, O for opportunity, V for vision, I for innovation and D for development.

Other influences include new thinking about adaptable layouts, new home office models, and public space forms that certainly change things. Another is increased interest in modular construction, as proved by the Chinese in creating two hospitals with 2600 beds in just two weeks in Wuhan. This showed how modular construction’s quick and flexible nature could have far-reaching uses outside the medical world. Another influence is that the move away from large town and city offices will decrease car reliance. To make the point, BBC Future reported that, after lockdown, Milan would transform over 21 miles of its streets for just cycling – Paris will follow.

Another ‘advantage’ of the epidemic is that it provides the time that is not ordinarily available to read, research and absorb new information. A good example is Architizer, the New York website founded with a mission to empower all with the knowledge to build better buildings, better cities and, ultimately, a better world. It is how architects, manufacturers, builders and others search for, evaluate and share building products and projects across teams.

Winning products

With climate change, we have been encouraged to experiment with new materials. We must keep abreast of emerging materials and products that help reduce the environmental impact of construction. Last year’s A+Award winners included acoustic panels made from coffee sacks and shingles crafted from plastic waste. The latest programme is set to showcase even more material innovations.

This is also a good reminder of the Enterprise Centre’s fifth anniversary at the University of East Anglia. Dubbed the UK’s greenest building, it is undoubtedly one of the most sustainable. It was also the first large-scale project to target both Passivhaus certification and BREEAM ‘Outstanding’, and meets the highest energy and environmental standard. Designed by sustainable architect firm Architype, in collaboration with contractor Morgan Sindall, it is an excellent signal to innovative thinkers and designers to be equally inspired by COVID-19 in this challenging period.

The natural and recycled materials used are an extraordinary palette. Interior glulam beams make up the main timber frame. The thatch for wall panels is an innovative system of hundreds of straw cassettes, making the centre the largest exterior thatched building in Europe.

Continually research these fascinating (and often beautiful) materials, and make sure to impart this newfound wisdom on to your clients. The more they are informed of their project’s environmental impact and the options available to them, the easier it will become to convince them to break with convention and build with something new.

We are also encouraged to look closer at how buildings are working. For example, ASSA ABLOY Door Group, a manufacturer of door closers, encourages landlords and building managers to take a more proactive role towards fire door inspections in support of the upcoming new Building Safety Bill. The new bill will introduce an ‘accountable person’ and a building safety manager for each residential building, to eradicate any confusion regarding responsibility and ensure direct liability for a building and its assets.

Last October, Construux in Canada highlighted new materials they believe are changing commercial construction. These include self-healing cement, which ensures that engineering and building structures last longer without significant repairs or replacement. Mass timber makes a comeback – essentially solid wood laminated and panelised to increase strength and durability.

Changing the house

Back to the UK, the Simply Construction Group, one of London’s leading house extension specialists, reminds us how COVID-19 means people have had to adjust their home for work, family and leisure. Not all domestic clients know there are many solutions to make the most of space and give a home and people a new lease of life to live, create and enjoy.

Manipulate the purpose of rooms and make them multi-functional. Create overlapping zones to give the illusion of more space. Think about lighting. Convert dead space into storage. Consider how you could convert a loft or basement to maximise existing space. Source compact and flexible furniture. Remove non-load-bearing walls and partitions. Add levels to the room when high ceilings permit. Plan an extension if extra land exists.

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