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ICE Community blog

Can lessons learned from Covid-19 engineer a way out of homelessness?

13 January 2021

After working as part of an emergency housing scheme, graduate member Will Harwood asks what the coronavirus pandemic response could mean for the housing crisis longer term? 

Can lessons learned from Covid-19 engineer a way out of homelessness?
Truro Cathedral, Cornwall

It may seem like a distant memory right now, but if you have ever spent a summer holiday in Cornwall, you’ll know what a beautiful part of the UK it is. The county is a desirable place to live, and I feel very lucky to call it my home. However, Cornwall’s beauty also brings challenges, not least, in terms of housing.

The context of the housing landscape in Cornwall is one of rising costs, growing demand and a massive problem around affordability. In fact, with Cornwall having one of the lowest average income levels in the UK, homes in the county cost nine times the average salary. This means, even before Covid-19, Cornwall faced an extraordinary challenge to deliver safe, affordable homes for the local community.

Covid and homelessness

The coronavirus pandemic has changed perspectives and priorities around many things, and one of these is the response to homelessness. Getting people off the streets, or out of a cycle of ‘sofa surfing’, into secure housing, where they can protect themselves and others, has been a key priority in Cornwall. I’m proud to have played a role in delivering a key part of this response in the form of a scheme to install emergency modular accommodation on two sites owned by Cornwall Council in Truro and Penzance.

Truro housing project
Truro housing project

A temporary housing solution

This project was always going to be an enormous task, not just given the timescale of completion in three weeks, from start to finish, but also because of the constraints of safe working practices in the context of coronavirus. Added to this, the project was breaking new ground for Cornwall in the use of modular units as a temporary housing solution.

Each of the sites saw the construction of 11 temporary dwellings, using prefabricated sleeper cabins. The units were grounded with the installation of a trenched sewer, water, and power connection to the existing mains supply, as well as ducting for future connectivity works. A pleasant green area for recreation was also added.

During construction, managing Covid-19 supply and labour issues proved particularly difficult. At the height of lockdown, we found it difficult to source materials from our regular supply routes. Instead, we had to adapt our procurement methods to source from a wider pool of vendors. Another issue was labour supply as the majority of operatives were either furloughed or shielding at the time, making it difficult to meet programme dates. We overcame this by collaborative working with our sub-contractors, along with offering training to our employees in line with the government’s Covid-19 guidance.

Since the projects were being delivered under emergency housing powers, we were also trying to deliver to a very tight time scale. All the works to the site were completed within three weeks from the start of construction but due to the nature of the project, the scope changed several times over the construction period due to changes in client need. This required rapid communication to the site team, as well as accurate monitoring as part of our change control procedures to allow us to monitor the budget and advise the client on the level of funding to apply for.

The Cornwall housing team at Carrick Cabins
The Cornwall housing team at Carrick Cabins

Operational issues

During the scheme, operative separation became an increasing issue as the number of site personnel increased and the workspace reduced as the cabins and fencing were installed. Another challenge was neighbour relations with the sites being carefully chosen to reduce impact on residential areas. Consultation was carried out to inform local people of the places and work to divert the site entrance helped to reduce through traffic to the site.

Job done!

Despite all this, the emergency accommodation was finished in record time. The dwellings are being used as temporary housing for vulnerable or homeless people. Their innovative construction means their use can be extended beyond the predicted six months as required, providing a safety net for people in need now and for the foreseeable future.

The project has taught me the importance of having flexibility in the supply chain and management process to deal with unexpected situations. I’ve also learned the value of being able to respond rapidly to meet local demand or emergency situations. Overall, it has reinforced my belief that civil engineers are vital to the wellbeing of local communities.

So what next?

I hope that this project has shown what can be achieved when partners come together in the face of adversity. I’d like to think that Covid-19 could change the way we respond to homelessness in the future. Housing is not just a critical problem for Cornwall, it’s a challenge for communities across the UK. By thinking differently and breaking down barriers, progress can be made. As civil engineers, I hope we can all play a part in keeping up momentum on housing, on behalf of those people who need a safe place to live.

  • Will Harwood, site agent at Cormac