Judging from recent discussions I’ve had with various commercial drywall estimators, it’s pretty obvious that they are still hungry for ways to reduce the bottom line and enable them to snag a potentially life-saving project. As mentioned previously, most survival-minded subs have already sunk to the lower regions of the underworld just to stay on the same competitive level as their adversaries. Paring once-healthy mark-ups has gotten them "down and dirty” with the rest of the pack, but clearly something more is needed for that decisive edge.
I think the key to finding a latent, innovative advantage lies with doing a sweeping review of how an outfit performs the work. There always seems to be some facet of operations that has lagged behind in efficacy—something that can be improved upon and perhaps translated into a pricing reduction. Ask yourself: Has the mantra of "the way we’ve always done it” become a something of a drag on the production side? For instance, one possible leg-up involves taking a critical look at drywall finishing through the lens of recent developments in products and criteria.
The Big Finish
Much has been written and discussed on the questions that come up regarding levels of drywall finish, especially in connection with industry standards, revisions to those standards, and incorporation of new products to those standards. Still, it astounds me that few drywall firms seem to have explored the prospect of bringing their own finishing operations abreast of the accepted industry protocols, nor have they recognized the potential savings in doing so.
Given today’s overwhelming preference for a smooth-wall finish among architects and owners alike, a hard look at how your outfit’s approach to achieving a good smooth finish might flush out some potential savings. According to research done by Donald Smith, AWCI’s director of technical services, a 25 to 35 percent premium is added to the finishing cost when a level 5 is designated over a level 4 finish (Wachuwannano, September 2007). And so it stands to reason that significant savings can be reflected in your bid if that added premium could be reduced by half or more, and I propose that just such a reduction can be achieved by following the developments in the standards as suggested above.
More Material, Less Labor
Until recently, the accepted process (AKA, "the way we’ve always done it”) for achieving a level 5 finish was to apply a skim coat of joint compound over the entire surface of the wall and/or ceiling, then wipe and/or sand it smooth. This is a painstaking and time-consuming process as suggested by the estimated added cost—a process that many, perhaps most, drywall firms still employ as a matter of course, labor costs notwithstanding.
However, with the improvements made in the formulation of high-build primers that are simply shot on with a gun, the same (or superior) results can be obtained with a modest increase in material cost, but with a significantly greater savings in labor. These products are now recognized by the longstanding gatekeeper of drywall standards, the Gypsum Association, which lowers the obstacle of persuading general contractors and architects of the benefits of deviating from old norms during the submittal process. According to GA-214-10, a skim coat is still required for a level 5 finish, but a "skim coat” is defined as "a thin coat of joint compound, or material manufactured especially for this purpose and applied in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendations over the entire surface” (my emphasis).
With the Gypsum Association’s blessing, a skim coat can now be quickly sprayed on with an airless rig, and a costly step is almost completely eliminated. In many cases, the spray-on "skim” doubles as a primer coat for paint, making the entire wall decorating process even less costly.
The advantages for a drywall contractor are readily apparent. Not only can labor savings on finishing be reflected in the proposal, if the sub also proposes on paint (which many of you do), the prime coat of paint and the drywall skim are completed in one step, thus achieving even greater savings. In any case, the prime coat (and the duplication of effort in masking) can be bartered as a value engineering portion of the proposal, thus making it more attractive.
Utilizing high-build primers in lieu of traditional skim-coating is just one example of how a drywall sub can slough off old, antiquated ways and find avenues to exploit the innovative developments in our industry. Such cost benefits from going the extra mile may well give him what he is so desperately searching for in a ruthlessly competitive market—an estimator’s edge!
Vince Bailey is a free-lance estimator and consultant who has worked for several wall and ceiling contractors.