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A view from the east

Could life after lockdown in China show us the future of construction sites?

In my role, I am very lucky to be in contact with construction professionals around the world, all of whom have been impacted by the knock-on effects of coronavirus, both personally and professionally.

By leading my practice’s presence on LinkedIn and keeping abreast of developments on many subjects, I saw the gradual creep of the virus across the Far East and how it rapidly impacted on people, businesses, society and entire countries before emerging in Europe.

As the UK headed towards lockdown, this insight gave our practice a significant heads-up into the precautions we should adopt and meant we began home working earlier than most.

Given the virus has different timelines in every country, and that lockdown has already been eased significantly in places initially affected, that international overview has also offered a window on what the new norm may look like in our own offices, on site and in terms of new types of work.

That led to discussions with Alan Wilson of SELECT and ultimately a sharing of views to inform discussions with government.

One of the most pertinent conversations was the organisation of a virtual meeting between myself, Alan and a friend and former colleague at Robert Gordon University who now runs a large international architect’s practice in China. I reached out to him because it became clear that we could learn much from his experience of adapting his life, business and site interactions, and he duly painted a vivid and fascinating picture of what’s happening in a country several months ahead of us in terms of dealing with coronavirus.

Of most interest to me – and no doubt SELECT Members – were the measures which appear to have been introduced on many Chinese construction sites.

This fed into the development of a flowchart, which in turn facilitated discussions regards the development of potential new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) with the Scottish Government and Construction Scotland.

From this first-hand experience, it’s not a massive leap to create a hypothetical scenario of what could be in store for Scotland as we move forward tentatively into a post-pandemic world…

Construction sites

Before a single worker set foot on-site, the post-lockdown period saw many sites in China thoroughly deep cleaned and disinfected.

After that, companies were required to compile a register of staff. The people named on this list were then the only ones allowed to access sites and premises.

Following this, sites were then re-occupied on a phased return as follows:

  • Week 1 – 50% occupancy

  • Week 2 – 75% occupancy

  • Week 3 – 100% occupancy

This re-occupancy was also based on site need, e.g. during the first week there may have been a demand for more engineering staff than say labourers.

Shifts are now spread to prevent crowds at the start of work and throughout the site. Before every shift, each registered worker has their temperature taken to determine whether they are allowed on site. This process is repeated later in the day, with all results recorded. If a worker has a high temperature, the site is automatically closed for three days.

Everyone on site wears appropriate, good quality PPE at all times, including a face mask and gloves. Remote meetings and webinars are preferred by default and there are strict controls on actual physical meetings.

Physical distancing is also strictly policed during break times, which are staggered over shifts to prevent too many people being in one place at a time.

As well as regular cleaning and ongoing monitoring of all sites, the biggest focus is on the continuous education of the workforce to underline that everyone and every business is only as strong as the weakest link. It’s made very clear that these measures protect workers and their families – and that sites will be closed and potentially jobs lost if they are not followed.


Outside of construction sites, everyone wears a face mask if they’re out of their homes. The only exception appears to be in open spaces, e.g. public parks, but everywhere else, people follow the rules and cover up. This has coincided with a phased reopening of shops, but there are still strict limits over how many people can be in the premises at one time, which we can already see in the UK when we shop for groceries.

It seems likely that will reshape how all of our workplaces are reshaped, which may in itself present opportunities.


Unlike the measures implemented by the UK Government thus far, tracing is seen as essential in China and is underpinned by an RAG smartphone app, which contact traces, allows access to work/shops etc when green, home isolation when amber and isolation in a medical facility when red. Firms also ask staff to record where they have travelled and any face-to-face meetings so they can respond should the virus flare up and dictate that contacts need to be traced. From a cultural perspective, China and the UK are clearly very different, but the epidemiological use of our data may be a sacrifice we here in the UK may need to make to allow life to open up fully.


As well as the register of staff mentioned above, visitors planning to visit businesses appear as though they must be approved the day before, with all deliveries collected at the door. As on sites, temperatures are checked on arrival and only then are staff or visitors approved for entry.


Like construction sites, offices and other places of work in China had a deep clean before reopening and cleaning was subsequently done more regularly and thoroughly. Many businesses in China now appear to have cleaners on site throughout the day, working in rotation to keep premises disinfected.


For many businesses, company travel outwith the immediate area has to be approved by senior management.


In addition to observing the distancing measures that are now familiar to us all, alongside the all-encompassing use of Microsoft Teams or Zoom, it appears that face-to-face meetings in China which are judged as essential are now limited to less than one hour. PPE precautions are also strictly followed, with face masks an essential part of every meeting, office work and daily life.

In conclusion

From what I have learned about the Chinese experience, there has been good adherence to these measures, underpinned by continuous education. That said, in recent weeks it has become clear that there have been reoccurrences of the virus in China and South Korea which has meant that certain stricter controls have had to be reintroduced at a more local level.

Like China, if these measures are to work in Scotland, education and enforcement are vital if we are to address the key issue of reducing the spread of coronavirus and reopening our economy.

Equally, having watched the Far East it is clear that there are opportunities to reshape our workplaces, homes and public realm to cope with the stresses and strains caused by the virus, which may create new forms of work for all of us and thus a swift economic bounce back.

Government policy and guidance is still being shaped but I certainly hope that our endeavour to learn from China and other countries will have at least catalysed those discussions.

How successfully will Scotland and its construction industry emerge from lockdown? Only time will tell…


How the landscape could look


  • Site to be thoroughly deep cleaned before any work restarts.

  • Documentation/checklist of items cleaned to be created and signed off by cleaning company.

  • Any staff returning to work must be identified to principal contractor by all sub-contractors, design staff etc.

  • In conjunction with client, principal contractor, design team and subcontractors will plan to reopen as follows:

  • 1st week – 50% occupancy

  • 2nd week – 75% occupancy

  • 3rd week – 100% occupancy

  • Occupancy to be based on site need.

  • Register of all staff to be created by principal contractor in conjunction with design team and sub-contractors.


  • Person(s) at site entry point to ensure register is adhered to and that operatives have appropriate PPE to enter.

  • All workers attending site to only be allowed access if they are on register, to be checked on entry and departure.

  • Site to explore option of using a suitable app to ensure correct checking in and out.

  • Operatives should observe social distancing at all times.

  • Arrival and departure to site to be done on phased basis to minimise numbers entering site compound at same time.

  • Temperatures of all staff on site to be taken before and during every shift. To be undertaken by person(s) designated to monitor site and the results recorded. Anyone with a high temperature or symptoms to be sent home.


  • Secure area created for deliveries and waste, outwith secured site isolation area. Delivery, refuse and skip operatives not allowed on site beyond secure area.

  • All deliveries to be arranged 24 hours in advance and all delivery staff to wear appropriate PPE, including face mask.

  • Everyone on site to wear PPE, e.g. face mask, gloves etc, at all times. If not adhered to, operatives will be asked to leave site.

  • Sites to be disinfected on a regular basis throughout the day.

  • Disinfection data to be recorded and passed to principal contactor. All contact points, e.g. stairs, handles, tables, toilets etc, to be disinfected regularly and notices posted to show when disinfection is done and by whom.

  • All breaks to be taken over a shift system to prevent overcrowding.

  • Sites to lower density of people on site/at choke points in efficient manner.

  • Site offices to follow normal office protocols. Where possible, meetings to be done remotely using video link etc.

  • Regular reminders about importance of PPE to be made on ongoing basis.

  • On-site operations will be suspended temporarily if there is a confirmed case.


Willie Watt PPRIAS

Architect and Masterplanner at Nicoll Russell Studios Ltd

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