As Northern Ireland begins to reopen the very infrastructure around us is, and has already, changed rapidly. John Mulgrew looks at what the office of the future could look like, how planning and construction is working in a post-coronavirus world, reopening the housing market and a changing urban landscape
There’s a good chance if you’re reading this article from a workplace or office environment, it looks different from the one you walked out of just weeks ago.
Tightly packed workplaces, closely confined meetings and close proximity chat with colleagues in the corridors and stairwells may be a thing of the past for the foreseeable future.
It’s brought the discussion around how we are work to the fore. But, like me, while you realise that while advances in technology – once just a convenient boon – mean much of our business can be done from the confines of a home office or kitchen table, many of us want to return to some form of workplace as soon as we can.
Darragh McCarthy, founder of financial services firm FinTrU, put it well in a recent episode of the Ulster Business Podcast. “We are all social beings,” he said.
However, how office space is developed and planned is something which is already being discussed and well underway among some businesses. The coronavirus crisis has also prompted RMI Architects to produce a report examining what that new office could look like.
“In the short term all office based businesses will need to re-evaluate their current spatial planning layouts,” it says. “Many are currently based on medium to high density open plan workspaces and businesses will need to consider how these can be quickly adapted to accommodate the new world where social distancing is the norm for the foreseeable future.“
Rob Jennings, managing partner at RMI Architects, says: “As countries across the globe begin the process of moving from strict lockdowns to allowing businesses to reopen, the prevailing advice is that social distancing is going to be with us for some time. Automated doors and sign-ins will become more commonplace to avoid the need for staff and visitors to touch door pulls and handles. And inside the office employers may need to consider a return to subdivision and cellular office arrangements.
“Creating social distancing in circulation routes can pose greater difficulties and consideration will need to be given to developing ‘one-way’ systems within offices and ensuring these are clearly communicated with directional and social distancing signage. Alternate stairwells may need to be used for staff travelling up and down floors.”
Ciaran Fox, director of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA), says the reduction in travel caused by home working could see a move towards cutting back on particularly long commutes, and the possibility of new shared office hubs in towns and villages.
Nial Borthistle, business development manager at Glandore, which provides high-end flexible workspace and serviced offices in Belfast and throughout Ireland, says that the situation is “likely to change the way corporates approach office space”.
“A lot of companies have already been looking at more flexible office models for a while now. If they weren’t considering a more flexible approach before, the global pandemic has certainly pushed the question to the forefront of any long lease holder’s mind.”
Elsewhere, planning and the processing of applications is continuing – the portal online providing the requisite platform while some decisions are being made through delegated authority as mechanisms are put in place to allow the resumption of much of council committee work.
One of those areas still up in the air at the time of writing is when Northern Ireland’s residential property market will be allowed to return.
RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) has called on the NI Executive to provide clarity that the house buying and selling process, including inspections and valuations within clear parameters of public health, can restart.
“The NI Executive now has the opportunity to pave the way for a resilient post Covid-19 recovery,” RICS policy manager, Dr Patrice Cairns, says.
“What the housing market needs first and foremost though is clarity, and an unambiguous signal from the NI Executive that the house buying and selling process, including inspections and valuations within clear parameters of public health, can restart.’’
The other quandary is what impact the lockdown and ongoing pandemic will have on property prices, on the whole. And while the residential market here has effectively been placed on hiatus, and no property deals can transact, John Minnis of John Minnis Estate Agents, says although we can’t predict the future, that the housing market will effectively start from where it left off. He also said that there has been a sharp spike in online queries and traffic, amid lockdown.
“The market will need time. People are phoning me every day looking to view houses. There has been a spike in the analytics, and the interest in people logging on has gone through the roof while we are in lockdown.”
John says there may be new demands from consumers, such as families with young children looking at buying a bigger house, while older people may look towards downsizing and buying a property with less upkeep.
“For all those reasons, it remains the same. That’s the difference. There hasn’t been a property boom so there won’t be a property crash. Someone will press play and we will be back to normal.”
“If anyone had told me that in my second month in my new role with the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) that I’d be issuing statements asking the industry to step down from all but essential construction work, I wouldn’t have believed them,” Mark Spence of the CEF, told Ulster Business.
“In the days and weeks that followed lockdown, the bulk of work on our construction sites here began to shut down.”
In a survey carried out in May, around 52% of members said they had closed 100% of sites over past month, while 32% of members closed 75-99%. But looking forward, that numbers changes dramatically, with just 7% of those quizzed saying all their sites would be shut.
“In reality the impact of the Covid-19 virus has been so rapid, so overwhelming and so dangerously misunderstood that it has taken our industry and most others by complete surprise,” Mark says.
“The call for downing tools on all but essential works was called for by many members in the days before the lockdown and according to our survey a week later was supported by close to 90% of firms, with over 40% even thinking the Industry could have acted sooner.
“The remainder would argue still that their particular activities typically outdoors could still be delivered within the two metre social distancing guidance that makes so much construction work unfeasible.
“One thing is for sure, the NI construction industry is resilient and there will come a time when some degree of normality returns and, although the economy and society will be different, so too construction will have changed to meet this new challenge.”
A CHANGING ENVIRONMENT
“This is not a time for minor tweaks but for big, bold, ambitious changes that not only facilitate a resumption of social and economic activities in the short-term but also leave a lasting legacy of cleaner air, reduced carbon emissions and improved wellbeing,” according to Joan McCoy, president of the RSUA.
That came following the first announcement from Infrastructure Minister Nichola of a move to make sections of Belfast and parts of Derry, more pedestrian friendly.
That included the pedestrianisation of Hill Street and Gordon Street in the heart of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, the widening of the footpaths on key arterial routes and extending waterfront spaces in Derry. And cycle lanes are now likely to be extended and improved in the coming weeks in order to encourage people to bike to work, if possible.
“Finding solutions will only be possible if we work together,” she said. “Work is already underway by my department to establish a walking and cycling advisory group with representatives from a wide range of public and voluntary sector organisations.
“In the coming weeks I will announce plans for pop up cycle lanes and quiet streets across Northern Ireland. At a time where there are constraints on public transport, I want to make it easier for people to choose to cycle.”
Joan McCoy says: “In the very short term as increasing numbers of people return to their workplace it is not enough to encourage people to walk, run or cycle to work. The Government must create safe space to enable this whilst maintaining full access for people with impaired mobility.
“This would be a big challenge on its own but we must also factor in the space required for people queueing outside shops, increased spacing at crossing points and outdoor space for some businesses like cafes to expand into when they are allowed to re-open. By September we need the infrastructure in place to enable the majority of children to safely get to school on foot or bicycle.”