We are still counting the cost of Covid-19’s many impacts – on health and on business. As a property developer, I have seen this impact on my industry. It has been the nail in the coffin amid Zimbabwe’s already spiralling economy. We have, however, also seen wonderful innovations and opportunities surface in the face of such a difficult situation. Even the biggest obstacle can present opportunities to learn and adapt and I’d like to share my experience of staying hopeful and resilient in what’s being called the ‘new normal’.
In order to keep the engine running, I decided to take on some smaller property development projects. One of these came from a United Kingdom-based client looking for a three bedroomed cottage to be built in Mandara, Harare. So how did I manage to pull this off in such turbulent times? Let me tell you.
Hitting the ground running
Towards the end of 2020, the Zimbabwe government relaxed Covid-19 lockdown conditions and the construction industry was allowed to work while following strict protocols.
Having established a solid reputation for quality work, we were recommended to the client. While bigger plans were in the works the client wanted a three bedroomed cottage built with the agreement that if I met his expectations, he would consider me to build the main house.
In early November, I got the green light to begin the project, promising to have the cottage completed in 90 days.
In the first two weeks, we set up the site which included putting up a security cabin for caretakers and clearing the area. The tricky part was getting travel exemptions for my 20-member team and we hurried to acquire disposable masks, hand sanitisers and a thermometer for temperature checks every morning. Despite a few delays, key materials for the super-structure were on track. Aggregates, cement, bricks and other small components were all in storage at the site. It was all system’s go!
Having the materials we needed, we used concrete to create the foundation and the superstructure began to take shape. I must admit that I have a profound appreciation for brickwork. This is full disclosure, no holds barred. Why? It moves very fast and one can see progress every day. So that worked well with my need for visible movement within a tight deadline. We were ahead of schedule and I was ecstatic. I provided my client and architect with frequent updates so that they could participate and feel comfortable as we progressed.
By the third week, we struggled to get pre-cast lintels and this delay cost us four precious days because, without them, we couldn’t continue with wall plates and roof. The delay wasn’t a wasted opportunity, though. This time was used to ensure other areas kept moving, including digging the sewer trench and septic tank. I also ensured that the roof was prepared. I was still calm because we were on track and the client was very happy.
Once brickwork had been completed, I brought in an experienced roof carpenter who I knew would get the job done speedily without compromising quality.
In an industry like mine, your reputation is only as good as your last job which is why I always put in every effort to refine the finishes. My client, being a well-travelled professional, provided the opportunity to demonstrate the sterling quality of my work. To meet this expectation, some materials like bath fittings, flooring, doors, lights and kitchen appliances had to be sourced from South Africa – no small task at a time when travel had been severely restricted.
Having to temporarily halt work over the December period caused a lot of pressure for the people that had been unable to work for months during the lockdown and we knew they were desperate to earn an income.
All hands on deck
Once we resumed in January another tough lockdown was announced and our timelines were plunged into uncertainty.
This called for another freeze in human movement and the project had to stop. Towards the end of February the Ministry of Housing and Social Amenities allowed the construction industry to re-open and we hurried to remobilise and complete the project. This was done using a diesel generator for power because the Zimbabwe Electricity Distribution Company was only dealing with existing sites at the time.
Bizarre, right? I had seen it all by now and learned to anticipate the bumps ahead.
We realised that the 90-day deadline was fast approaching. At this stage I was determined to meet the client’s timeline despite the lockdown restrictions. The hindrance of free movement of employees and curfew timelines impacting work hours posed a huge challenge. I resorted to two site visits to keep my finger on the pulse. The rains were incessant and showed no signs of abating but we soldiered on. These delays ultimately meant we had to shift our deadline by two weeks but the client was more than happy with our progress and didn’t mind the minor delay.
Ultimately, after this administrative and logistical marathon, we delivered a structure that I’m proud of in a short space of time. We got the bigger project from a very pleased client. It goes to show that good planning, monitoring and professionalism are truly the winning combinations.
Lessons I’ve learned:
1. Don’t leave specifications to the last minute. Have the design ready.
2. Always look ahead to plan around obstacles.
3. Create a good relationship with the client for seamless communication and decision-making.
4. Always have a site manager to keep an eye on the project.
5. Keep your eye on the money and stick to your budget.