Project Focus: The Joy of Creating

Steven Ferry

July 2005

Ask contractors for challenges and you are likely to hear two types: challenges they would rather not have to deal with—those created by others, whether owner, general contractor, architect or other subs seemingly only to make life difficult—and those that bring us and our jobs to life: the challenge of solving technical hurdles to create a building with a "wow” factor. We report back on both types of challenges because they both exist. So if you just want to go for the technical angle, fast forward through to that section.

Two thirds of those surveyed work on restaurant projects. Of those who do not, half avoid them because such projects are too small for their larger companies to be competitive. Also, they recognize the detail work can be technically challenging, and it helps to specialize in that type of work. The other half would like to break in to restaurant chain work, but find that, as a contractor from Delaware points out, "A lot of times these restaurants and retail guys send a front guy who arrives in town, opens the phone book and calls all the contractors for pricing. It’s hard to get those kinds of jobs, because he’s calling everybody in the phonebook that will show up.”

An Alabaman puts it another way: "So many restaurant owners are tied up with a general contractor who has a master plan for building their specific restaurants over and over. These generals have subs who follow them and know to create the interior detail and finish that will bring about the exact motif needed. We had a few of these in the past, just enough to learn what is going on and that we can’t compete.”

Restaurants are generally highly specialized as far as—and it’s good to have done two or three of them—learning what is going on. We just have never done much in that business.

An Arizonan has similar words to say: "We just can’t compete against the people who do them out here. We’ve bid quite a few through the years, but out-of-town contractors come in and do them because a lot of chain restaurants have their own contractors. If they do bid it out, they often have smaller contractors around town do their jobs.

Things that Annoy

Now for the unpleasant hurdles associated with restaurant work, which one-in-four contractors voiced. All except one, which follows, concerned the same issue: scheduling.

The other concerned multiple walk-throughs and comes from another Arizonan: "It seems everybody’s opinion on the finish work seems to be becoming more anal. Instead of walking the job with one main superintendent or the owner, it seems GCs are using three or four sets of eyes—and everybody sees something different on the job. You walk through the finish on the drywall, you’re going to see something, I’m going to see something, your superintendent is going to see something, and it doesn’t make it quite fair to the subcontractor to be walking through with four or five different people. We lose money, but they don’t care. When it becomes completely out of control, I’ll usually do a stop work notice, or I kind of bully up on it. We’re a fairly large outfit, so we can bully up the GC a little bit. Other than that, 90 percent of the time we just bill our way through it and put up with the (nonsense), just so we get paid.”

"Owners want fast turnover, so it is difficult to meet their schedules,” was the shortest of the comments about scheduling, from one of the Arizonans. A Floridian adds: "Restaurants are always behind schedule and have a quick fuse to begin with. These projects tend to have all trades on top of one another in order to meet the aggressive schedules. We have not done a restaurant project in over three years and simply try to stay away from them. Although we are currently doing a Taco Bell (a small project for us) that was negotiated with one of our best customers. It is a pain of a project, just like we expected.

A Coloradan adds, "Always the biggest challenge is, no matter which GC you’re working for, they never have enough time and they over-commit; so you have 15 different trades in the same room trying to work at the same time, because restaurants never change the opening date.”

The contractor with the most to say on the subject is from Delaware: "We had one that was pretty challenging only because it was a combination restaurant and apartments. The owner was building it himself and didn’t use a contractor, so it took twice as long as it should have. He didn’t know how to coordinate and some of the contractors walked off the job before they even started because his time frame had gone out so far. They would say, ‘Well, I’m too busy, I can’t do the job now!’ We just waited until he had enough ready that we felt we could go in there and actually accomplish something. He understood that, but it was just painful, all the way through. It cost us extra in production and we lost on that.

"Of course, restaurants, retail, are real time-sensitive and you have a lot of people trying to get their job done in everybody else’s way! What’s happened today is that everybody wants it done faster. Owners are asking for unrealistic schedules, and there’s always a contractor out there who’ll say he can do it. And he’s lying to get the job, and then he’ll document every time he’s held up for whatever reason to justify why he went over the schedule, using subs as the whipping boys. ‘You have to get in here, if you don’t get in here we’re going to supplement your forces, blah, blah.’ Most of it is idle threat, but it’s crazy. It becomes very adversarial and it’s all driven by that schedule. They’re trying to do things ass-backward.

"So many general contractors out there (these days) are willing to say whatever it takes to get the work. Whereas even just five years ago, they would be more realistic and say, ‘Well, it’s not going to take six months, it’s going to take eight.’ But when somebody steps up to the plate and says, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll do it in six months!’, everybody catches the fever. They know that if they don’t say they can do it in six months, and at the right price, they won’t get the job.

"They’re just fooling themselves, really. With all the lead-times and everything on the materials, by the time they get to the drywall stage, and sometimes even the drywall framing stage, the metal studs, they’ve lost so many months just getting out of the ground! They think the answer at the stage is just to bring more people in. I always tell them, ‘I can bring more people in, but then you have to give me more work to do! You’ve got to get out of my way. You’ve got to get ready!’

"I walked through a hotel we’re doing where it’s taking forever, because the guys running it are schedule-driven. They’re building it backward—they needed four more months on the schedule so they could bring the mechanical and electric feeds up through the building, then start framing and run their way down. Well, they started us framing at the bottom. We can’t close up the shafts in every room for the mechanicals to the roof, because they’re not done yet! Well, we told them we’d have to be paid extra to come back and close the shafts.

"This kind of approach forces the subs to cut corners to complete the job faster. The owner wins by getting in quicker and generating income. He may have a less well-built building, but they probably look at a building in a 10- or 20-year span before they move on to something else. The big chain restaurants probably go on for 10 years, and then start to die slowly because somebody else has opened up something more exciting and different. So then they go through their renovation stage to stay competitive. They don’t see construction as a long-term affair and expect to renovate, sell or knock a building down. Which is good business for builders, of course, but it makes the construction process much more aggravating, much more adversarial, and I can’t wait to retire! Small jobs are sometimes more realistic in expectations, but a large job—we just completed a job where they wanted us to do 80 apartments in three months framed, hung and finished! We got it done because they had the other trades in step and the building ready so we could run, so it worked.

"But it was at times very adversarial, with the project manager screaming, yelling and throwing things. He had two heart operations while we were there. As an example, we had a three-week schedule to drywall and finish a floor, about 12 large apartments. So, we were going to start on a Tuesday—ah, couldn’t start! Inspector came and turned them down. Okay, so they had all this stuff to do. ‘Thursday, we’re going to do it!’ Well, come Thursday, ‘We weren’t ready,’ we were told, ‘we had to put the inspector off ‘til Friday.’ So now we’ve been put off for three days, we’ve mobilized and had our subcontractors on notice, and we’ve been put off. So now it’s ‘Monday.’ Well, Monday comes and we don’t have anybody there. ‘You don’t have anybody here!’ yells the project manager. ‘No, my guys are working somewhere, they have to finish what they are doing. But we have guys coming this afternoon and they’ll work late and we’ll have more men tomorrow and more men the next day.’ ‘Well, I need people here today!’ So, by lunchtime, he had called another contractor to send men in the next morning because I didn’t have enough men there! This was the first day on a three-week schedule!

"He was definitely one of the worst, but it is unfortunate, how the schedules drive everybody to such adversarial relationships. A superintendent on a job knows he’s not going to make it, but he has to try anyway. He has to do whatever he can and lie however he has to lie. The project manager is doing the same thing. And nobody tells the owner he’s not going to make it! I am sure they probably have it written in the contract. I am sure they have allowances for weather and this, that and the other, and liquidated damages.”

Maybe something can be done about this trend? This brings us finally to the challenges that are fun to deal with.

Getting Those Swirls and Curves Just Right

From Todd Toyne of Vintage Plastering Company in Tempe, Ariz., we hear that "The biggest challenge is converting existing buildings into restaurants. We’ve done a few of these, trying to line up the existing with the new design. There’s nothing you can really pencil down, you’ve just got to make the adjustments on site to make everything fit and line up. In plaster, there are many things you can do with thickness changes to straighten out exterior walls and lines—we can do quite a bit with our materials to accomplish that. When talking new construction, it boils down to the use of a lot of different types of materials and coordination. We try to work with the other subs and the other trades, installing the various materials that come into play with our trade. Usually you can work it out among the subcontactors, and that is the key. Everybody knowing that they are going to run into each other on the site and making a game plan ahead of time: good coordination, in other words.

Charles Beatty, president of Beatty Drywall Systems in Wilmington, Del., has done a few Panera Bread projects that were well run by the GC and that "were challenging because of the large amount of fancy, curved soffit work.”

Vance Carroll, owner of Synthetics Sidings, Inc. in Eagle, Colo., reports, "We’re working right now on a restaurant at the bottom of a Hyatt hotel. It was a little challenging to straighten the wall by an inch or two that they had built, so thank goodness for EIFS! The Charter at Beaver Creek has an interesting texture on the wall—big, half-moon Italian swirls. It was a little challenging to match the texture, but as I had done the original work 20 years before, I was able to go to the meeting to get the job with the original trowel I did the work with, worn out. It certainly helped close the sale, along with certain little demos I made for them. There was water intrusion as a result of flashings not being installed properly, but luckily it was all cement walls behind the stucco, so nothing rotted. They had actually had a roofing contractor come in to patch it in and their swirls didn’t even match the ones I had done on the walls, so we had to redo all their stucco patchwork, too.

"The Charter building is in fact the largest wood-frame building under one roof in North America. It has seven miles of hallways inside, and we repainted and recoated the whole thing with two coats of StoSilco Lastic. We totally redid the walls. I was impressed with the Sto product holding up for 20 years. Essentially, all we did was spray-wash and paint it. There were some areas with failures due to water getting inside, but other than that, the product held up amazingly well. It turned out to be quite a project, my first million-dollar job!”

Jason Gordon, president of Heartland Acoustics in Englewood, Colo., had his own story to tell about "some custom restaurants in downtown Denver, one of which had a bunch of glue-up ceiling tile with clouds under them. It was an old building with a bad structure and we were trying to adhere glue-up tile to a metal lath system from the early 1900s that they had skinned over with drywall. Of course, they wanted it to look all new inside so it was tough working with an old building and trying to make new finishes.”

Looking at new construction, Rusty Plowman II, vice president of Delta Drywall in Denver says they "did the Cheesecake Factory in downtown Denver. It’s a standout restaurant, no question about it, with some pretty fancy drywall work. We did some adobe-finish plaster on the outside that looks pre-cast, an interesting product. And then there is just a ton of ornamental soffits and that kind of thing inside.

"It’s always a challenge to get the work done, to make sure you pass codes and do all those things that are particular to restaurant construction, while matching all the finishes and making the architects happy. The most challenging part is trying to get the finishes and the textures to match the vision the architect has for the ambiance. They try to spec them right, but it’s hard to read their mind. You read the specs and get an idea of what you think he wants.

"Then the best way to approach it is with an ‘ambiance allowance’ of dollars within the original estimate; then sit down with the architect and ask ‘Just exactly do you want?’ and go through this mental process to come up with what the guy is really looking for. You have to have a bit of room to move. You can’t nail yourself down so much that it’s going to be a big problem later on—which I think happens to some contractors. They go out and hard bid a lot of that type of work and then when they become involved in it they’ll say, ‘Well, we really thought you meant this!’ And the architect says, ‘No, this is really what I had in mind.’ It’s a communication thing, a negotiated situation where you work with a particular designer and builder and you all sit down at the table at pre-construction and go through what they want.”

Someone else who knows what it is like working on a Cheesecake Factory is Jim Cooper, president of Arok Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz., whose company just completed the Cheesecake Factory in Peoria, Ariz. "The radiuses, domes, GFRG (Glass Fiber Reinforced Gypsum)—it has everything in it.”

And just to show that not all GCs have gone overboard on scheduling and coordination, he adds, "The main reason the project worked for us is we had a lot of good people, and we had a real good General—G.B. Mannisto out of Scottsdale, Ariz. Gary (Mannisto) knows his stuff, and he is fair.”

SIDEBAR

Cooler Chat

Continuing that idle moment around the cooler, we take a look at the lighter side of work on and off site, focusing this month on goofy things that have happened to those working in the industry.

"We were on a high-rise in Hartford and one guy kept pointing out a room in another high-rise across the street, 200 yards away. Every day, there was a naked lady at the window with beautiful long hair. But she always had her back to the window whenever we looked. So someone finally brought in a telescope for a better look, and after a while caught the lady as she turned around and only then did they realize that it was a guy.” (Connecticut)

We had a truck driver pull on site to drop material the night before it was scheduled to arrive. He fell asleep in his truck. When we arrived on site the next morning, we found the truck and no driver to unload the material. Later on, the manufacturer called, wanting to know where their guy was. We had no idea. A few hours later, he turned up. He’d been arrested and taken to jail for trespassing! (Florida)

I was trying to insure some guy and he had six children by six different wives and all with the same name. When asked how that happened, he said that all his wives loved him dearly and wanted to name their first child after him. They loved him that dearly that they left him, too. So we had Doug X with one SS number, and another Doug X with a different Social Security number and so on— a total of six children and one father with the same names and different Social Security numbers. (Indiana)

Thanks to those contractors who sent their stories. If you have one, please e-mail info@words-images.com.