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Are companies doing renovations during the COVID-19 pandemic?

(Editor’s note: This article, which was written during the first province-side lockdown, has been updated to reflect the changing face of renovations during the pandemic. The situation, including the impact of new lockdowns on local renovations, remains fluid.)

While health is the top priority at present, many Ottawa homeowners are wondering about renovations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are renovators still on the job? Are they accepting new contracts? And when can a homeowner reasonably expect a new renovation to be started?

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The answers vary, from a “yes-with-qualifications” to “it depends.”

Are renovators working during the pandemic?

In most cases, yes.

The Ontario government has designated residential construction an essential service, so construction can continue provided stringent health and safety measures are followed.

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Local renovators are carrying on, whenever possible, with projects they’ve started or signed on to do.

“(We) are running at about 75 per cent right now with the additional protocol we have in place to provide a safe working environment,” says Steve Barkhouse, president of Amsted Design-Build. “This includes individual hygiene and protection but also limiting the number of people on site and (having a) single worker in an area at a time. There is also time spent sanitizing the work areas regularly.”

MORE: Cleaning can fight COVID-19 in your home

Over at OakWood, vice-president of operations Patricia Liptak-Satov says shutdowns by some suppliers and trade partners means delays with some projects, but the company is moving ahead whenever possible to complete all projects currently in the build phase.  Most of OakWood’s employees are working from home, and the company’s headquarters and design facility in Orléans is temporarily on lockdown.

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Liptak-Satov notes that, in some cases, homeowners don’t want anyone in their homes during the pandemic. In those situations, OakWood, like others, is securing the site and respecting their client’s wishes.

So far, Ottawa’s larger renovators anticipate completing all the projects promised for 2020 by the end of the year.

Other, smaller firms have abruptly found themselves with little or nothing to do.

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Emma Doucet, owner of Grassroots Design + Build, has seen her work go from full speed ahead to zero in one fell swoop. Factors like having elderly parents and young children mean her team is simply not comfortable on job sites or even in the office, where they fear infection. She’s shut down her projects for the time being, and with jobs postponed or cancelled outright, what promised to be her busiest summer ever is now uncertain.

She is finishing up some drawings, but overall “it’s been devastating. It’s been so fast and furious,” she says. As to what the next few weeks hold, she says, “I feel like there’s not a road map… Honestly, it’s day by day. It depends on who wants to work and what work (is available).”

What about project materials and labour?

This is becoming a problem.

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“A lot of our suppliers are from Quebec and they were ordered to shut down,” says Roy Nandram, owner of RND Construction and president of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association. When it comes to the trades, he adds, “People are scared to come to work.”

At Gemstone Corporation, vice-president Josh Zaret says materials are becoming scarce and some suppliers are tightening up the way they do business. For example, Gemstone was recently able to pick up windows in Montreal for a project but had to pay in advance. “That is unheard of for us.”

renovations during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Herb Lagois of Lagois Design-Build-Renovate says tiles and countertops are among the items in tight supply. He adds that even when things return to normal, suppliers and manufacturers will be faced with backlogs and renovators will need to rely on communication and the good relationships they’ve built within the industry to keep materials flowing as needed.

The labour problem is complicated by the continuing shortage of skilled trades people in Ontario and across the country. In the first nine months of 2019, for example, there were 13,000 job openings in Ontario’s construction sector, according to the provincial government. Ontario has been promoting trades careers, but it will take time to make up the shortfall.

Are permits and site inspections keeping up?

Depending on complexity, a renovation requires permits and multiple inspections by the city and others. In many cases, a renovation cannot move to the next stage until an inspection has been completed on an existing stage.

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The City of Ottawa has closed its Client Service Centre counters during the pandemic, so renovators, like builders, must submit their permit requests online or via courier.

City inspectors will not enter occupied areas of a home, condo or apartment during the pandemic, so renovators also need to co-ordinate that requirement with homeowners, landlords and others.

Some renovators are experiencing a slowdown in the issuance of permits and the scheduling of inspections, while others are not seeing any negative effects at present. Others are waiting to see what happens.

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Zaret says his company is in the midst of insulating one project, which requires inspection before the next stage — drywalling — can start. “If we can’t get the city in to inspect, we’ll have to shut the project down. We’ll know that next week.”

Says Lagois, “I really feel for the folks at the city. There’s only so many hours in a day and (only) so many qualified folks.”

Projects contracted but not started

What will happen if you expected your renovator to start your project in the coming weeks?

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Like so much else about COVID-19, it depends.

OakWood at this point is moving projects along, says Liptak-Satov. Clients can digitally view project details and information and attend online meetings via screen sharing and video conferencing. “All OakWood departments are up and running while continuing to move projects through the OakWood process. We assess this on a daily basis.”

renovations during the COVID-19 pandemic

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RND has three pending projects but is waiting to start until we get the all-clear on the virus, while Lagois is moving forward on some new contracts, including establishing start dates, but holding off on a couple of others. “It’s so fluid right now: We have two large projects ready to go, but what’s the point if we can’t get, say, windows when we need them?” says Lagois.

Amsted has pre-ordered and stored materials and is juggling its schedule to meet the needs of clients, trades people and suppliers alike. For instance, they bumped back by a week a client who had returned from a trip and was in the 14-day isolation period, and, as a precaution, will start that job a week after the client has been cleared. “We have only lost about two days in our schedules over the past three weeks,” says Barkhouse.

Looking ahead

Even if they can’t start swinging hammers for a while, most renovators are still booking projects into 2020 and beyond.

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A lot can be done through virtual meetings and, depending on the severity of the increasingly likely post-COVID-19 recession, there will be a lot of pent-up demand for renovations.

“There will be shortages of everything, including good renovators, labour, materials, supplies,” says Barkhouse. “And that means prices go up further and delays grow. So much can be done right now to prepare and start a renovation safely.”

If you are in the market for a renovation, that means now is also a good time to think through even more thoroughly what you want done and to start assembling photos and other examples of your reno wishes. Find renovation planning and preparation ideas here.

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Above all, as Nandram points out, patience will be in order for anyone wanting a renovation in the coming months: “We are all in this together and we are waiting for normalcy.”

Originally published March 30, 2020.

About the Author

Patrick Langston All Things Home Ottawa homes

Patrick Langston

Patrick Langston is the co-founder of All Things Home Inc. and a veteran journalist. He has written widely about the Ottawa housing industry since 2008.

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