Lockdown renos – it’s worse than we thought


The impact on people forced to stay in their apartments while building work goes on around them could be a lot more severe than originally thought.

If the apartments undergoing renovations are unoccupied, the potential for disruption to apartment residents increases exponentially under an assault of noise and dust and potential infection through increased contact with outsiders.

Above, below, to the sides – one renovation can cause a stack of misery in Sydney’s unit block Brady bunch.

Under NSW “prescribed work” rules you can only have two tradies in an apartment at a time, if it’s occupied. However, it could be a lot worse for some apartment residents when a neighbouring unit is empty.

In that case, it seems it could fall under the Rules of Construction, which allows one worker per 4sqm, which would be a maximum of 25 in, say, a 100 sqm apartment.

We know of at least one apartment in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs where the builder has told neighbours that they come under the Rules of Construction, not the prescribed work rules.

It’s worth noting that under Victoria’s lockdown regulations, renovations can’t be undertaken in an apartment block where even just one unit is occupied.

According to the NSW Government websites, “prescribed work” – which sets the limit of two tradies per unit – does not include renovations at unoccupied homes.

This NSW government fact sheet specifically excludes unoccupied homes from “prescribed work” restrictions:

“Prescribed work does not include renovations at unoccupied homes. The rules for construction applies to renovations at unoccupied homes.

And this is what the regulations say in our Rules of Construction:

Capacity of workers at construction sites (NSW Health )

Construction sites that are permitted to operate in Greater Sydney can have the lesser of 1 person per 4 square metres of space at the construction site; or 50% of the maximum daily workforce.

Hitherto, NSW Health has vigorously defended the deeply flawed concept that an apartment is a home, but a unit block isn’t. That said, renovations inside apartment buildings are completely forbidden in the “hotspot” LGAs in western and south-western Sydney.

I have written to both NSW Health and Fair Trading to check if an empty apartment in an otherwise occupied building is considered an “unoccupied home” and therefore falls under the Rules of Construction.

Earlier today, a media spokesperson sent me the definition of “prescribed work” (which I had already sent them) but didn’t address the contradiction regarding unoccupied homes.

Meanwhile, this the column I wrote for the Australian Financial Review at the weekend.

Renos pile on the lockdown pain for Sydneysiders

It’s been a while since the last new episode of The Brady Bunch appeared on our screens, but the images of the opening titles are still part of our culture.

But take that three-by-three grid of happy faces and replace the fictional family around the edges with images of the very real apartment residents in locked-down Greater Sydney and the smiles disappear.

There’s a front-line health worker trying to catch up on his or her sleep between long and harrowing night shifts, and harassed parents trying to home school their kids.

There’s a business person who’s been ordered to work from home and young parents trying to get some rest with their new baby. There’s a lonely and depressed single person trying to distract themselves with music, books or TV. 

There are the multiple couples in a shared flat spending way too much time in each other’s company, a single parent with a couple of young kids who are bouncing off the walls, and seniors who don’t get out much, even if they could.

In the middle square?  Why, there’s a major renovation going on, driving every other member of the strata block Brady Bunch insane with the noise, dust and general intrusion into their enforced isolation.

And since very few apartment blocks are two-dimensional, you can add at least one more stack of apartments behind that, directly affected by the noise and disruption from one unit.

Just to be clear, this could not be happening in Victoria – not legally anyway.  There you can’t do renovations in a home that’s occupied, and if one apartment in a block is occupied, then the lockdown rules say they all are.

Back in Sydney, the restrictions are minor and largely meaningless. You can’t have more that two tradies in an apartment at the same time and they must wear masks on common property (as do we all).

Two tradies?  As someone who managed to squeeze a reno between Covid waves, I can testify only takes one to operate a jackhammer or power drill. Also, right now and there’s no limit on the number of renovations that can happen in one block at the same time..

And as for DIY hobby renovators, the sight of lengthy queues of panic shoppers at Bunnings at the weekend must have sent chills through their neighbours.

When I raised this issue with NSW Health a couple of weeks ago, the response was that this could all be managed by the building manager, the committee and the application of common sense.

Reality check: the vast majority of strata schemes don’t have building facilities managers and they probably couldn’t prevent owners from completing work that has previously been approved.

Also, a huge number of apartment blocks have barely functioning committees. As for common sense? That can be in short supply when determined strata owners want to enhance the value of their properties.

This is a real issue, as witnessed by posts on my website and a caller to my recent spot on James Valentine’s Afternoons on ABC radio.

Is the lack of concern for people forced to endure renovation disruption because no one in the Crisis Cabinet understands what living in strata is like?

Well, two of its members – Stuart Ayres and Victor Dominello – are former Fair Trading ministers who had direct responsibility for strata.

A spokesperson for Mr Ayres the Minister for Western Sydney and Jobs (and other stuff), passed on the message that “no indoor work is permitted at an occupied residence in a local government area (LGA) of Concern”. 

Yes, but what is an “occupied residence”? A flat or a unit block? As that Shakespeare quote goes, after all the sound and fury, the rest is silence … until the jackhammers start up again.

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