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Building Amidst a Pandemic
Amidst manpower shortages caused by the tightening of border controls, disruptions to material supply, and stringent safe management measures imposed on worksites, HDB and its partners have been working tirelessly to deliver BTO flats for Singaporeans.
HDB continues to deliver homes to Singaporeans amidst disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic
In April 2020, construction sites across Singapore fell silent, as the country imposed strict restrictions to control the COVID-19 outbreak. More than a year later, the construction industry is still looking to regain its footing as tight border controls continue to impact labour and supply chains on an unprecedented scale.
This has resulted in delays to some Build-to-Order (BTO) projects.
“Although we were mentally prepared for a delay, we couldn’t help but feel disappointed when we were told that the key collection date for our new flat would be pushed back,” says Annabel Lim. She and her husband, Jasper Wong, finally collected the keys to their Dawson flat in February 2021 after a 9-month delay.
The keys to their flat were one of approximately 16,700 keys that have been handed over to home owners since January 2020, when the pandemic set in. The rate of keys delivery for HDB flats has since returned to, and exceeded, the pre-pandemic levels in 2018 and 2019.
Annabel Lim and Jasper Wong are among home owners who collected the keys to their new homes in 2021
Recognising the severe challenges faced by the construction industry, the Government rolled out a slew of support measures to keep construction works on track. This includes the $1.36 billion Construction Support Package that helps share the increase in both manpower and non-manpower costs brought about by the pandemic.
Likewise, HDB has been supporting its contractors to minimise delays to BTO projects. For instance, HDB is extending the period of protection against steel price fluctuation by 9 months, as well as providing additional supply of concreting materials at protected prices, to ensure construction work can progress.
Lack of labour remains a huge obstacle for many construction companies, some of whom have had to scale down operations as a result of manpower issues and supply chain disruptions. Approximately half of BTO sites today are operating with less than 80% of the required workforce.
In addressing the manpower crunch, HDB supported various industry partners to bring in migrant workers from source countries, while subjecting them to stringent safety and test protocols. HDB also works with its contractors and consultants to optimise and redeploy existing resources. At Bedok North Vale, with only 60% of the usual manpower available on site, works within the flat such as painting, were prioritised over those in the common areas, so flats could be handed over to buyers earlier. HDB has also applied for exemptions to allow less noisy works to be carried out on Sundays and Public Holidays.
Together with the Ministry of Manpower and Building and Construction Authority, HDB is also working with its contractors to bring in more migrant workers in a safe and controlled manner to help ramp up construction.
HDB has been able to continue delivering BTO projects, such as Bedok North Vale, by working closely with its partners to expedite construction works as much as possible
Apart from limiting the inflow of foreign workers, tighter border restrictions have also affected the import of essential building materials from countries such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. To prevent complete work stoppage, HDB worked with its contractors to diversify the supply of major architectural and landscaping materials, and relocate some of their precast production from Malaysia back to Singapore.
Vaccination, as well as safe management measures such as automated temperature-taking and Safe Entry check-ins at site entrances, have been key enablers to a safe reopening of construction sites. HDB had implemented additional stringent measures as another layer of safeguards – for example, workers are segregated into zones, each with dedicated rest areas and toilet facilities to minimise interaction and reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Workers at the construction sites also have to go through Rostered Routing Testing (RRT) every 14 days, to quickly detect possible cases, and prevent clusters from forming. A pilot trial of Antigen Rapid Tests at 35 BTO sites for visitors and workers not staying in dormitories—an additional test on top of the RRT—also augment community surveillance efforts.
HDB also worked with contractors to build Temporary Living Quarters (TLQs), to house healthy workers from the same project in a safe environment on-site. Relocating them from off-site dormitories helps cut down the risk of infection and reduces the number of workers who need to commute to site daily.
Stringent measures help keep our worksites safe (Photo: Dr David Sing/ Shutterstock.com)
The continued delivery of flats amidst the pandemic goes beyond the construction sites. After the circuit breaker was lifted, key collection appointments for new flats resumed in full swing. The increased workload also meant that the frontline counters had to be kept open on Sundays for other housing appointments, such as for new flat buyers to sign their Agreement for Lease. Flat buyers were also kept updated on the construction progress of their new homes and revised completion dates.
“Our officer was patient in explaining the circumstances to us, which we appreciated,” Annabel says. To facilitate home owners’ advance planning, HDB adjusted its procedures to keep affected buyers informed as early as possible about any delays. This is done as early as the 18-month mark, and again at the 12-, 6- and 3-month marks before the Probable Completion Date. Annabel recalls being kept informed of developments, and agrees that the engagement helped them better adjust their plans.
“The original plan was for Jasper to move in with my family for three months. He ended up living with us for a year due to the unexpected circumstances. We are glad that we had the support of our family and the arrangement worked out.”
While moving in with family is an option for some home owners, others may require alternative accommodation in the interim. HDB is ramping up the supply of flats for rental under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme—even securing new sources of supply such as polytechnic apartments—to support families in need of temporary housing as they await the completion of their flats. The eligibility criteria and allocation process have also been fine-tuned, to channel the limited resources to those who need it most.
Reflecting on their housing journey, Annabel says, “On hindsight, the delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise when it came to our home renovation. With the extra time, we could do more research and refine our designs – so it was ultimately not time wasted.”
Annabel and Jasper are looking forward to building their future together in their new home