21 Sep 2021

'It's not very efficient' - Auckland builders expect obstacles in level 3

5:59 pm on 21 September 2021

Auckland builders are being told to plan carefully to avoid chaos when they return to work tomorrow.

A locked up construction site in a suburb in South Auckland of day 1 of the lockdown.

A locked up construction site in a suburb in South Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Most sites are expected to reopen at level 3.

But straight away they'll face what other firms all around the country are struggling with - the squeeze on materials.

Todd Wickenden of Broswick Builders has seven projects to kickstart back to life. He's been rushing about making sure his workers all have masks, sanitiser and know the reopening rules.

"The phone hasn't really stopped, you know, with organising subcontractors ... clients all calling and pretty excited to get back to work."

"It's not the easiest thing to manage," Wickenden said.

Construction Health and Safety NZ says tradies need to be talking to each other now - so they're not falling over each other tomorrow.

"One of the things that probably worries us a little bit is the keenness to get back on site, particularly for a small residential site, is that all the trades turn up on the first day and there's a bit of chaos," said chief executive Chris Alderson.

"People [need to] sit back and just plan a little bit.

"We certainly don't want to have any problems from people turning up with a total lack of any protocols or controls."

Builders may be gagging to get back - but Wickenden warns that Covid controls will slow work down a bit. "It's not very efficient," he said.

The controls have also created probably the worst-ever packed-ice around building material supplies.

Though the thaw is now beginning, for the likes of Tony Castledine of Mitek, which most merchants rely on for steel plate to make frames and trusses.

He is arranging how to safely get 65 or so platemakers and distribution staff back in their Auckland factory.

"We finished up prior to lockdown with a container sitting in our yard here in Auckland ready to go down to Christchurch," Castledine said.

It would have kept the South Island going for days, but could not be moved.

"We had a social obligation to not bend the rules," he said.

"So yeah, we're coming back to just over 200 tonne of backlog of goods to be processed and dispatched." That would take at least a couple of weeks.

Mitek has contacted all the big chains to say orders will be filled - in strict order.

"We're not allowing anybody to leapfrog the system in terms of priority," Castledine said.

"There'll be no queue jumping, there'll be no customer-collects. We'll be totally reliant on couriers or our normal delivery service, which in itself could cause delays."

However, queue jumping is happening at the other end of the supply chain, as merchants in level 2 areas juggle short supplies.

Jamee Colman of Namloc Build in Wellington had ordered some plasterboard - then got a surprise.

"When I went to go pick it up, they'd already pre-sold it someone else," Colman said.

"So then they ended up pinching what I [needed] to fill someone else's order and I was thinking, 'Shit, this is getting really bloody cutthroat'."

He was told he'd got what he wanted but was unsettled. "I'm not a huge fan of taking this other guy's stuff.

"You know, like, obviously, yes, I'm gonna do it, because you're offering it to me, but I feel horrible about doing that."

Earlier last week Colman had driven around four merchants till he found the gib board he needed - buying 15 sheets though he needed only 10 "because of like, that feeling of the value of those sheets".

However, another plasterboard order had come through quickly, and he was able to keep his seven workers busy.

"I feel kind of like we're out of the woods to some extent," Colman said.

Yet the Building Industry Federation says it will take weeks and months to restore supply and stock levels.

Chief executive Julien Leys said one pinchpoint is that only about half the workers at Auckland's warehouses and manufacturers can come back at Level 3, and 80 percent at level 2.

"It's going to take between 10 to 14 days just to meet that backlog as we went into level 4," Leys said.

"Then we will see a significant surge of additional new orders coming through from tomorrow."

The next dire shortage ahead? Skilled labour, with the industry 25,000 workers short, which again needed urgent government intervention, this time around MIQ, Leys said.

The federation is now working on advice for the Government about improving the supply chain in case of another lockdown, something Tony Castledine of Mitek says is vital.

"We just have to be forewarned and be prepared for the fact that this could catch us out again," Castledine said.

"Lessons to be learned? Well, keep our warehouses as stocked as possible."

The scrambled restart by builders, and staggered restart by suppliers, will cause delays into next year.

"Those Christmas dates for a move-in are going to be very hard to hit now," Todd Wickenden said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs