When the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry’s board of directors approved a plan two years ago to buy and build new headquarters office space, the people involved with the project knew they would face some tough challenges because of who AWCI represents—contractors in the fields of drywall, plaster, ceiling systems, cold-formed steel framing, insulation and more—and they wanted their new offices to embody as many of those fields as possible.
"We wanted our offices to be a showcase for all the trades that AWCI represents,” says Executive Vice President Steven A. Etkin. "And we had to find a contractor for the buildout who would be involved in the design process, and then bring that design to fruition.”
The plan was put in motion. At the time, Burke Nicholson was AWCI’s president; he appointed AWCI Past President Ken Navratil to assist Etkin in providing oversight of the design and construction process. Navratil and Etkin teamed up to develop the overall look of the office and to select colors and materials. Navratil made several trips to Virginia from his home in Ohio at strategic times to oversee the design and construction.
"The general contractor and architect learned a lot about our industry by working with Ken,” Etkin says. "Ken even did the take-offs for the job so that when I asked our members for donations of materials (see page 81), I had the quantities and specifications ready.”
The Owner Who Knew Too Much
Obviously, because of all the specialty work, AWCI is not your typical building owner.
With members involved in the buildout, AWCI needed a design team to work with those members because they took an active role in the design, selection of materials and say in construction.
"The designers were not used to a client who knew a lot more about the materials and methods of construction than they did,” Etkin says. "After a while, they learned to work with us and realized this was a collaborative effort rather than a traditional architect-client relationship.”
AWCI decided to stay with the base building architects and mechanical engineers because of their familiarity with the building. But in May 2006, when it was time to find a general contractor, the association asked for two bids. Requests went to the base building general contractor, which is a large contractor in the area, and to a small, family-owned general contractor whose primary work is small projects like AWCI’s.
AWCI’s architect advised that the smaller GC wasn’t a big fan of paperwork. She said the company also handles most changes within the scope of the project without up-charges, and does not mark up change orders submitted by subcontractors.
AWCI selected Farro Construction, the small general contractor, because of the stronger personal commitment of its owner.
"It was one of the best decisions AWCI made,” Etkin says. "Our GC showed the trust he had in AWCI by working for months before he even sent us a contract.
"At one point, I asked him if he planned to finance the entire job himself, or if maybe he was planning to give us a contract and invoice. Once we got the contract and first invoice, I paid him the next day because of his obvious commitment to the job.”
Because AWCI’s new offices would have design elements not normally seen in 7,700 square feet of office space, it soon became clear that the wall and ceiling contractor who would do the buildout would have to be a member of the association. That would guarantee, Etkin says, that the finished space would meet or exceed AWCI’s expectations.
With the general contractor in place, AWCI required him to use an AWCI member for the wall and ceiling work as opposed to the contractor in his original bid package. He was resistant at first because of his past successes with his wall and ceiling subcontractor, but he eventually came around. Two AWCI members bid on the package, and it was awarded to AWCI Lifetime Member C.J. Coakley Co., Inc., also located in Falls Church, Va.
What Went Right?
AWCI’s Etkin says that picking the right general contractor for the job and using an AWCI contractor member for the wall and ceiling work was key, as was having AWCI-member suppliers and manufacturers who stood by ready to help and support when asked.
Things that could have gone wrong did not because the general contractor, C.J. Coakley and the manufacturer representatives frequently figured out how to solve problems that stemmed from the lack of details in the drawings.
AWCI asked its manufacturer members to donate materials to the project. There were so many members willing to provide materials that AWCI had to strategize about which companies they should ask first. AWCI created a prioritized list of members to give first right of refusal. Priority was given to those members who previously supported AWCI with sponsorships of various AWCI meetings and programs.
"We were very proud of the fact that each member, when first asked, said yes; no one turned down a request. Members said we could have whatever we wanted,” Navratil says.
Considering how deeply Navratil was involved in the design of the office space, this was music to his ears.
But one local manufacturer’s representative soon realized that AWCI members know a whole lot more about construction than the average building owner.
In a meeting where AWCI’s members asked the rep for his design input, "he treated us like a typical client who was selecting high-end materials until they saw the cost,” Navratil says. "He steered us toward materials more consistent with the scope of a small office project, and that’s not what we were looking for.”
Etkin adds, "Once we realized what was going on, we told the rep that his bosses told us we could have anything we wanted, so he needed to start thinking about how to make our offices a showroom. His eyes lit up when he realized we were serious.”
What Went Wrong?
In addition to the incomplete architectural drawings mentioned earlier, there was one other problem, and it’s spelled H-V-A-C.
"It is not surprising that the main problem we had involved a building system that AWCI members don’t install,” Etkin said. "But when the HVAC problems started becoming ceiling problems, we knew we had a big problem.”
The problems started when AWCI realized that the seller had installed all their work without regard to AWCI’s building plans. Mains and VAVs that were already in place conflicted with AWCI’s ceiling design. Getting them moved and re-engineered took time in addition to arguing about who was going to pay for what.
AWCI was faced with the typical problems associated with a 2-foot plenum, 20-inch deep VAVs, base-building pipes and sprinklers. Since it was more costly to move the duct work than to change the light fixtures, AWCI upgraded from 2-by-2 high hats to 2-by-2 fixtures that only went up 1 1/2 inches to the top of the ceiling grid.
Getting the HVAC system finished delayed the project six weeks.
"I think in AWCI’s case it was worse,” Etkin says, "because we provided so much of the materials and did sketches of how we wanted things to come together, bypassing the architect.”
When the project started, AWCI was working with a senior (vice president) designer, a mid-level designer and a junior design professional. After the project went from conceptual design to detail design, the mid-level designer left the firm. Just as construction was about to start, the senior designer left the company. Once construction started, the junior designer was all who was left.
"If it was not for the willingness of the general contractor and C.J. Coakley to step in,” Etkin says, "we would have had substantial problems and delays.” In response to the lack of details, the GC commented that he didn’t know he had bid on a design-build job.
And throughout the project, the general contractor kept saying that Coakley’s work was top class, and that the company followed through on change requests without requesting payments.
Punch List Open House
Even with continuing move-in date delays, AWCI scheduled an open house on Jan. 15 in conjunction with a meeting of AWCI’s Executive Committee. Luckily, the move-in occurred about three weeks before the open house.
But those three weeks also included the end-of-year holidays, so very little time was left to complete a punch list by the time the open house would start. By the afternoon of Jan. 15, construction workers and caterers were trying to finish their jobs prior to the first guest’s arrival at 4 p.m.
"Since the opening was so close to the move-in date, we made the open house into a punch list party,” Etkin says. "The only thing is, we did not tell this to the general contractor until he got there. When he arrived, I told him that we had a few members who wanted to walk the space with him.”