A chair’s perspective of vertical living in COVID-19 times

By Dr Janette Corcoran

The advice is to self-isolate and, if necessary, quarantine at home – but what if home is shared with several hundred others in a vertical village? 

For this instalment of perspectives on vertical living, I sought insights from the chair of an owners’ corporation (OC). And for this I turned to fellow Docklander, Jamie Tarling, who was the inaugural chair of Banksia - an award-winning building which, as the name suggests, was inspired by the Australian native flower. 

And as the first chair to take the reins, Jamie had challenges aplenty.  

Perhaps among the most difficult was sorting the myriad of contractual agreements put in place prior to the committee’s formation which were, in his words, “not ideal”. Some contracts were up to 99 years in duration and others had annual increases three times higher than inflation!  This is where a committee shows its calibre and during the first two years of operation, the committee, led by Jamie, was able to lower annual fixed costs by $120k without compromising amenity.

And his opinion as to the best feature of vertical living?

Along with great amenities, Jamie joins the chorus of praise for the sense of community within our vertical villages - “I’ve never been more social with my neighbours!”  

But will such proximity and closeness to neighbours become a double-edged sword in these COVID-19 times?

Jamie shared that the Banksia committee had been considering the situation since the pandemic was first announced. Its objective was to find a balance between assisting individual residents and keeping all residents safe. And its starting point was the pragmatic recognition that low supermarket stocks would likely mean that some residents would not have enough food to last 14 days of self-isolation. The flow-on from this is that food and/or grocery deliveries were highly likely:

“We’ve just been debating the merits of whether we continue to allow deliveries to residential floors, which assists residents in self-isolation, or whether we have owners collect all deliveries from the front doors.” 

The rationale for the front door collection option is that it would prevent delivery workers from spreading the virus (if infected) within in the building.  

These concerns reflect discussions being held in other OCs where questions such as: what happens if a large number of residents are infected? Does the committee need to know? Do other residents need to know? Do they have the right to know? What happens if lockdown occurs? How is this handled? Where do the standards come from?

These and other legal questions were the subject of a recent webinar hosted by LookUpStrata, an independently and wholly Australian owned website. While it was emphasised that this was a legal discussion and not specific legal advice, it was apparent that current legislation gave OCs little guidance as to their responsibilities and powers under pandemic conditions.  So, these remain questions to be answered in the near future.

And with mention of the future, my final question to Jamie was about what innovations he saw – or wished to see. And to this, Jamie quipped, “deliveries via drone to our balconies is on the wish-list!”.

In a possibly more immediate timeframe, Jamie then nominated building security as an area in need of attention. In particular, knowing who had access to the building was a constant challenge as FOBs could be easily passed between individuals. This point has obvious relevance in these COVID-19 times and will be especially important to buildings with high numbers of short stays (as many host internationals). 

Jamie then shared that he recently attended a presentation that demonstrated how phones could be used as building FOBs. To be activated, a resident’s phone must be registered in the system by the building manager. The underlying premise is that people will be far less willing to give their phone to someone else, especially a stranger.

 “Just think of how this could help with identifying short stay visitors - giving the building manager the opportunity to ensure they’re properly inducted.”

Of course, an interesting catch-22 situation arises if you are inclined to let your phone go flat and your charger is in your apartment! •

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