It is a given that building owners want fewer leaks and building envelope problems. Contractors and designers want fewer callbacks, and manufacturers want fewer warranty claims. While the industry continues to focus on materials to improve installation efficiency, it needs to improve training and quality assurance.
Like other construction industries, the building envelope industry is always seeking “better, faster, cheaper” materials and methods to complete projects. The industry is always seeking easily installed materials at a lower cost.
A brief summary of construction history helps explain why workmanship is often not prioritized in the industry.
- Prior to the industrial revolution, labor was cheap. In fact, labor was so cheap laborers were often expendable. Having a worker fatality every now and then was “unfortunate.” This abhorrent practice improved between the industrial revolution and the world wars.
- After the Great Depression and World War II, things changed as those that fought these wars desired more prosperity. Greater importance on worker safety reduced productivity and increased costs. The GI Bill emphasized college education over working in the trades.
- Fast forward to the oil embargoes and the energy crisis in 1973. New emphasis was put on energy efficiency. Suddenly buildings needed insulation. From a building envelope perspective, heat became an added factor in the overall water resistance equation. Construction became more difficult.
- Fast forward again to the late 2000’s, the great recession, and the most recent “dark days” prior to COVID. The construction industry contracted; “bandwidth” went down. Contractors had to lay off much of its skilled workforce. Many in the industry took an early retirement if they were able. This was a huge exodus of skill and talent in the industry.
This brings us to the present time. The economy improved, and the industry found itself with a “gun” to its head. The industry needed to achieve 2006 levels of production with 2013 levels of staff. Now the industry is booming again and doesn’t have the workforce to pull it off. Add a lack of effective immigration policy and poor leadership in DC and we have real problems.
COVID 19 isn’t helping. The pandemic is forcing the industry to slow down. Workforce concerns are even more of a concern. Regardless of your opinion on the pandemic, job site shut downs and 14-day quarantines hurt the workforce.
Owners play a role in this as well, as they want their projects done “better faster, and cheaper”. A school board once asked me to comment after watching a presentation on a major building project. I suggested they spend the same amount of money but make the overall project 30% smaller. This was not a popular opinion. Enough said.
Today, the industry must achieve more than it did before with a less skilled, less trained workforce. Bad weather and climate trends don’t help. Project schedules are not getting easier. Manufacturers have rushed to help contractors by offering more materials that are faster and easier to install.
So why does all this matter?
While material “improvement” has led to increased speed, there are many cases where this has reduced performance. This is a good thing for consultants and a bad thing for our clients. Is it any wonder that 100 year-old buildings are still functioning while 10 year-old buildings aren’t?
Skilled labor and quality installations are the key to performance.
The industry must focus on training its workforce and the quality of its product. This is critical in an industry where project success often rests on a single bead of caulk.
I have said “A good material installed well will always outperform an excellent material installed marginally.” I applaud the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) for its Pro-Certification program. Further, designers should begin specifying NRCA Pro-Certified crews. While there is some concern about putting the cart before the horse, the industry will respond when its required.
Third-Party Quality Assurance (TPQA)
In addition to observations of the installation quality, TPQA often includes review of design details. Focus should be on transitions between cladding and adjacent systems. Design reviews are critically important when multiple cladding systems are being installed by multiple contractors.
TPQA also provides the construction team with a consistent approach to quality. Very few contractors, designers, or owners have similar expectations for quality across all trades and cladding types. These services help define quality expectations across all trades often reducing finger-pointing between parties during and after the work.
TPQA benefits specialty trades and manufacturers by providing third-party reporting when project conditions are not suitable for their work, and benefits GCs by obtaining third-party reports that justify often-inevitable construction delays based on weather or other conditions.
Advances in construction materials influence current industry practices. However, material advancement alone is not sufficient for outcomes that meet owner needs over the long-term. Industry focus on quality by a competent workforce and TPQA will result in better performing buildings and more satisfied customers.