Opening New Frontiers with EIFS
February 2005Exterior insulation and finish systems have been used for decades in Europe and the United States without problem—until "The North Carolina Incident” exposed problems, but those problems turned out to be not with the system but with the workmanship related to flashing and other areas not necessarily associated with EIFS. That left a sour taste in the mouth for an industry that knew the product was sound, despite what the media and lawyers were saying. The dust is settling now in the United States as the industry focuses on the real issue: applicator training. But the whole affair has left North American contractors slightly on the defensive, so it might be therapeutic to see how well EIFS is doing in areas where the bad news merchants have not unsettled the minds of owners, architects and general contractors. In a country like Chile, for instance, which includes the same diverse climates, terrains and challenges as the United States, on a strip of land as wide as Florida yet longer than San Diego to Barrow, and in the same time zone as Maine, even though it is on the West Coast of South America.
We asked Rodrigo Añazco, owner of Cielpanel, a major drywall, residential steel-framing and EIFS contracting company in Santiago, Chile, how EIFS is doing in his country. Because Cielpanel is responsible for 80 percent of the nation’s EIFS work, Añazco was able to speak with some authority on the subject.
CD: So what sort of volume are we talking about for EIFS construction in Chile?
RA: We’ve installed close to half a million square feet in the last three years, and we estimate the total volume in the country to be more than 600,000 square feet. Right now, though, we know of projects for this year equal in volume to the prior three years combined, and 2006 will be even bigger with the construction of the largest shopping center in South America by Cencosud, which has been using EIFS for the past 12 or more years.
EIFS construction is concentrated now in three principal mall groups, although it looks like the number one Chilean supermarket chain is now exploring EIFS for its new projects.
CD: How about the residential side?
RA: EIFS is picking up there, too. For instance, the GC, Queylen, is building a large project of houses using only steel framing finished with EIFS. In the desert of the extreme north, the largest mining company in Chile is trying EIFS in a housing project of 4,500 units.
CD: Interesting. How and when was EIFS introduced into Chile?
RA: A large Chilean retail and supermarket chain, Cencosud, had been using EIFS in Argentina for years. When the economic crisis hit that country in 2001, Cencosud turned to Chile for its expansion. So EIFS was introduced with a bang to the Chilean construction scene during their subsequent construction of the Florida Center Mall in Santiago. The use of EIFS then spread through the architects working on and visiting the site, to other projects, especially mall projects.
It is interesting that we always find large groups of top architects involved in these projects, where they are introduced to and become familiar with the EIF system. Because they usually also teach at universities, they invite their students to visit the project and then lecture them on EIFS as experts on the subject! You could say that EIFS has been advertised through the best channel possible: satisfied word-of-mouth about the possibilities of the system and various completed projects. For these reasons, I believe a large and strong base is being built that augurs well for future use of EIFS.
For instance, while we were working on one EIFS project at a mall, the architects of our project owner’s direct competitor called us to discuss the specifications for their future mall in the area. They had decided to change their project to a style similar to the one we were working on, because they felt it was attractive and gave "life” to the walls with the novel use of moldings.
This trend to EIFS has been reinforced and even driven by one other phenomenon—a cultural shift: Chileans adopting the American model of shopping every day in large malls meant we needed to build a lot of large malls in a hurry!
The fact that USG keeps a representative in Chile has been very important in building the momentum toward EIFS, too. And an architectural firm spread the know-how, such as translations of specifications and applications, as well as facilitating the arrival of American trainers to our country to teach us new techniques. These trainers calmed contractor concerns about the system during the early days.
CD: Understood. Were these concerns related to the ongoing problems in North Carolina?
RA: Well, most contractors here had heard about the quality problems and lawsuits in the United States, but as projects had already been completed successfully here and one could see that the system worked, the news from North Carolina did not have much impact. Certainly the media has not taken up the hue and cry. Even if it had, it is doubtful it would have changed contractor perceptions: Contractors understood the problems stemmed from improper installations. Because the principal brands in Chile—Dryvit and Senergy—have emphasized controlling quality heavily at all levels, there is no perception that the kind of problems experienced in North Carolina would ever surface here.
CD: That’s encouraging. As the major player in the EIFS market in Chile, what have you done to ensure proper application?
RA: We have put great emphasis on training, using a program we developed that is based on the AWCI EIFSmart program. Last year, I went to Houston with my associate, Julio Delgado, and several of our supervisors, to study the AWCI program. We then made another trip to inspect projects in Las Vegas and traveled to many different trade shows in the United States. When we ran into a problem obtaining U.S. visas for employees below supervisor level, we solved it by putting together our own program.
CD: What factors make EIFS such a good solution for Chile?
RA: More than half of the EIFS projects are concentrated in Santiago, our capital city, which compares to Southern California in that the climate is dry and the zone one of high seismic activity. This last point figures heavily when it comes to deciding on a system, and the best answer seems to be EIFS.
CD: You have provided an idea of future volume; can you give specifics on where and why you see EIFS construction growing?
RA: I believe use of the EIF system will grow in the same way that and as steel framing has. Two years ago, national consumption of steel for framing was 900 tons monthly. Today, it is almost 7,000 tons each month, despite the huge increase in steel prices. Light exterior façades such as EIFS relate very directly to this level of steel framing use. Increased demand, and the fact that no contractor who has adopted this form of construction has abandoned it, leads me to believe that we have a fashionable trend that is unlikely to quit.
Despite the country’s experiencing an economic crisis for the past four years, retail chains grew by 8.2 percent last year and are focused on following Wal-Mart’s strategy during the 1960s: creating a presence in small cities, even though doing so may not be justified commercially. Steel framing is very common in low-priced condominiums, meaning EIFS has a strong and growing market in residential, too.
CD: Seems hopeful. Does Chile have its own EIFS manufacturers, or are they using North American products?
RA: There is one major local manufacturer of EIFS that we used once for a project (and never again), as well as several very small manufacturers that are not currently selling. The local manufacturer has seen sales reduced in this last year, lost to U.S. and German brands that are 30 percent more expensive. There are several reasons for this: Their basecoat is clearly deficient, there is no product variety, and they have conducted no laboratory research or tests. Most importantly, they can show no projects more than two years old, while Dryvit or Sto have projects located next to ocean waters that are more than 30 years old.
Additionally, the base polymers of their products are not made in Chile, so the American product will always be superior. Lastly, the Chilean manufacturer does not train its applicators and it cannot count on loyal applicators interested in ensuring a good final product. Compare this to Dryvit or Senergy, who check their projects and threaten to revoke applicator certificates if they make mistakes.
For these reasons, I believe the local products will disappear unless they take dramatic action, and we will be dependent on manufacturers in the United States or Germany. CD: That makes sense. Do you have an example of an EIFS project on which you have worked? RA: The La Dehesa Mall project was made up of three separate contracts that we negotiated and executed. The first was the Jumbo supermarket (37,000 square feet in four months), Easy HomeCenter (51,000 square feet in four months), and the Mall Shopping Center (160,000 square feet in three months). We completed it one month ahead of schedule. EIFS was chosen by the owner, Cencosud, because it was already aware of the system’s properties. The general contractors were Cypco for Easy and the Mall, and Deroussy for Jumbo. We were the applicator for all the EIFS work. The architectural firm was Alemparte y Barreda and the products used were Fibrerock sheathing, Tyvek Stuccowrap, EPS from BASF, Dryvit Genesis DM basecoat, Dryvit mesh and Dryvit Sandpebble finish. The moldings came from BASF and were made on site with an application of basecoat and mesh. As this entire project was an open-courtyard design, when all was said and done, 90 percent was done in EIFS Outsulation from Dryvit, including exterior façades, interior and exterior molding, and all the interiors. About 40,000 square feet, the rear façade that is not visible to the public, was executed with a local finish directly over fiber cement sheeting Had another system been used, the work would have taken more than twice as long to complete, and therein lies a key benefit of EIFS. As future expansion requires demolition and having the shortest-possible construction times. EIFS was the obvious choice (not that there was any other choice). In the case of this mall, a clinic is being added right now, and there is talk of two more department stores being built, thereby validating the wisdom of using EIFS. Another major benefit to using EIFS was the capability to change the project radically mid-construction. As can be seen in the photographs, the initial construction on the Easy sector called for minor use of moldings. Then, as we moved into work on the next phase, the Jumbo sector, more moldings were spec’d and by the time we began work on the mall façade, the specs for molding had become intense. This freedom to change the specs over a period of two months would have been impossible with any other system available. CD: Apart from the changing specs and the size of this project, did this project present any other challenges? RA: The timeframe. We doubted we could meet it, but the mall opened its doors in time for Christmas sales. We had one other challenge: After applying the basecoat on the first walls, government inspectors arrived and, after inspecting our work, made a strange demand. The EIF system was new to them and the closest point of reference they had was stucco. Seeing our application so thin (1/16-inch as dictated by ASTM C1397), they demanded that we apply the base three-times thicker! It was difficult to convince them that EIFS was not the same system as stucco, and we saw the clear need for associations such as the EIFS Industry Members Association. It would be helpful if they could publish the most important points about the EIF system in Spanish to facilitate the spread of knowledge. We are certainly willing to assist in such a project. CD: Excellent. Is there anything else you feel would be of interest to contractors about how EIFS has started to take off in Chile? RA: For those who are looking for new markets in developing countries such as Chile, it’s valuable to know that structural changes, such as in the way people shop, do drive construction. In our case, mall construction represents almost the totality of commercial construction. The neighborhood store is disappearing. These changes are certainly typical of Western developing countries. It is important to identify such shifts during their initial phases. As we approach maturity, companies in Chile are not willing to pay for American labor, which is more expensive, but are willing to pay for its products and the knowledge associated with them. I feel a shameless plug for Cielpanel is appropriate here, too: Dryvit’s representative, Pedro Fernandez, awarded us a quality rating similar to the one given in the United States, and with the Free Trade Agreement between the USA and Chile in place since last year, we’ve been focusing our sights on expanding our work into the Caribbean and Central America. We are preparing workers in these areas to handle projects for U.S. contractors at $75 per worker per day, or completing jobs for a negotiated price. That’s something that the AWCI membership may find of benefit. CD: Finally, do you have any suggestions or requests for the manufacturers? RA: Chile represents more of an opportunity for new manufacturers who want to sell American quality. For whoever wants to give it a try here, I recommend they stress the benefits of EIFS in terms of viability in the event of earthquakes, which are very common in Chile and the first question a customer will ask. In addition, although I may not be the most appropriate person to say it, any product or system imported must be marketed in a way that assures the quality of installation. Maybe, and as it has been up to now, through a local applicator, such as my company … . In the end, Añazco added this thought: "I love what I do. The adrenaline rush that happens on each one of the projects forces you to be constantly on alert. Each project is different, and each one is a new challenge to improving our service. ... We’ve visited various [wall and ceiling] trade shows as well as projects in the United States, Central America and the Caribbean. This has motivated us to cross our borders and expand our operation to these areas, where the use of these systems is more intense. This dream does keep us going.”
About the Author
Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.