EIFS on Parade

Steven Ferry

September 2005

There’s no question about it: Exterior insulation and finish systems have made a whole new architectural style popular and reduced design limitations. The product misconceptions and misapplications have quickly become a thing of the past. We all knew it was only a matter of time before the insurance companies would wise up and EIFS would surge forward into even more widespread use, especially when it comes to decorative shapes.

"EIFS has significant weight benefits and ease of application,” says a Californian contractor. "Hand plastering a profile is extremely time-consuming compared to EIFS, making EIFS relatively inexpensive and allowing us an economical way to achieve a decorative look. That’s really where EIFS evolved from—we had these very expensive profiles being done in plaster, and someone asked how we could make them more easily? That prompted the evolution of acrylic products, and EIFS was born. It really took off because everybody wanted to take advantage of the benefits. Then it became so popular that they tried to put it in the wrong places! And then, all of a sudden, you have leaky buildings and everybody is disappointed because the performance isn’t good. But again, as with any system, if you put it in the wrong place, it’s not going to work!

"Those who know the EIF system and are educated in it, understand the difference between the reality and the media blitz from the attorney side; they know its performance is solid and that it simplifies the framing and the underlying work. From the contractor’s side, EIFS is the most economical option, adding value to the owner. For the architect, there is an economical solution to complex design challenges.

"There is really, really cool work that goes on with EIFS, that takes great imagination on the design side and someone skilled on the technical side to apply it—it takes a true team approach with the designer, manufacturer and us to make it work.”

A Texan agrees: "When an architect or a designer thinks about the appearance of their building, they are not limited by this product at all. They can pretty much create anything they want, and that is really the best thing about EIFS.”

As does one from Utah: "EIFS gives architects more flexibility for a finished product without having to use heavier materials. Since this product has become available, the building market/industry has created a whole new look. If used properly, it lasts as long as any masonry product.”

And a contractor from Kentucky says, "EIFS is a finished material that gives a designer more flexibility than anything else I can think of. So architects and designers do like it for that ability to incorporate detail and a little razzle dazzle without running the costs out of sight.”

Finally, there is the Ohio manufacturer of EIFS items, who adds one important application point: "Take architectural remodeling of older houses—foam can do a good job matching existing designs.”

As for challenges, a Californian says that "technically, the challenges to producing decorative EIFS work are making sure the system is applicable to the function. EIFS has its pros and cons, but many designers will say, ‘Hey, let’s do this in EIFS’ when the system does not lend itself to that application in terms of size versus engineering, or profiles versus durability and weather/water intrusion. In other words, don’t use EIFS where drainage becomes compromised. EIFS has very good weather characteristics, but when it’s not designed or installed correctly for the application, you’ll have an issue. The same goes for any system, of course.”

A Floridian feels "The challenge in applying decorative EIFS is the extra detail work. You’ve got arches, radiuses, all that kind of stuff and you can’t just put the goon squad out there, you know! You need people who know how to read a ruler and how to put the measurements on an order in such a way that a cutter can cut it. It has to be timed right, too, because decorative EIFS pieces are rarely off-the-shelf and often have to be field measured while the job is in progress without holding it up.”

A Texan thinks there are no real challenges and that the work is just more time-consuming. The Ohio manufacturer has one more challenge worth considering though, next time you are measuring for an EIFS project: "The challenge at our end is getting the geometry and then scaling.”

The manufacturer goes on to say, "From a marketing standpoint, the challenge is letting more people know we can do complex shapes and that Styrofoam and polystyrene work well in many applications—some construction folks are so used to concrete that they have not looked at EIFS yet. But the whole ornate EIFS area is growing.”

His sentiments are echoed by a Washington-based manufacturer, who says, "Here in the Northwest, there is no real demand for ornate EIFS—just little bit of dental molding type decorative cornice vaults, nothing overly exuberant.” As he points out, though, there are "places such as Las Vegas, where the demand is astronomical.”

A Floridian is one of those contractors who sees a lot of requests for ornate EIFS work: "Decorative EIFS is in vogue right now. Most jobs that come across my desk have something of that nature on them, whether for window treatments, door treatments, mid cornices, little columns and everything else in the direction of the more ornate, Mediterranean look, if you will.

"More and more people are installing EIFS, and there are good and bad ways to do it. The residential world is where all the problems with EIFS were generated. We don’t have any problems with EIF systems in commercial work. I have been putting it up since 1982-3 I guess, and I have never had a single problem with it, or a claim. Of course, now I am paying the price on insurance for the problems, because the insurance people throw all EIFS contractors into the same category. We will pull out of it eventually with education of the people putting up EIFS as well as those insuring it.”

"The problem,” the Floridian believes, "was an outgrowth of the manufacturers’ distribution systems for the EIFS. When it first came out, it was a specialty item and contractors had to certify their applicators. Then the manufacturers expanded to contractor distributors, followed about 15 years ago by vendors, so that anybody could drive in with a pickup truck, buy and apply it. There was no watchdog.

"Frankly, I wish EIFS would fall out of vogue a little! Applicator competence has to be high, but when you have a lot of work, it’s sometimes hard to keep skilled personnel to cover. It’s just another hassle, but that’s also just part of business, I guess.”

Echoing the idea that EIFS is in demand in some areas, a Texan’s experience is that "Most jobs we do have shapes on them in some form or fashion, some being more extensive. Many jobs we’re doing these days are shapes only, in conjunction with either cement plaster wall or concrete tilt-up construction. A lot of jobs are getting drawn just shapes, not flat EIFS.”

A Missouri contractor has plenty of decorative EIFS work, although "Volume wise of course, we do more flat walls, with v-grooves and such; but when you look at the total cost, it’s $135 for a lineal foot of ornate EIFS (on one project) compared to $8 or $10 a square foot, depending on which system you’re using. That’s good business”

That being said, there are still areas where EIFS is not being applied, mainly because of the insurance:

"At the moment we’re not applying much EIFS because the insurance is just too expensive.” (Idaho)

"We’re no longer in the EIFS business because liability would cost us an arm and a leg, so we just decided that with all the possible legalities that could happen, we’d should just get out of it altogether.” (Ohio)

And some areas of the country where ornate is not appreciated: "It’s just been flat walls, I can’t place anything in my head that’s had any real detail work, I just haven’t run across it.” (Alabama)

A New Yorker, Ken Swan of Construction Services USA, has a successful EIFS operation, and other subs might find his advice instructive: "In residential there is always a demand for EIFS, because everybody wants their homes to look nice. In commercial, they don’t really go for the decorative stuff. They may go for some bands and flat stock, but nothing really decorative. The more decorative jobs you do, the busier you get! We had a philosophy four years ago that we would give away our decorative work for a little above cost and use that as advertising. It worked well. I mean it really worked well. People would see some of our jobs and call us right away. It eliminated the competition because we weren’t bidding against other contractors. We’re still making money at it, but not a killing. But the point is, we’re busy all the time, 12 months a year, even in the winter. We top it out, overwork half days, we’ll do whatever we have to do but we always have work. It’s at the point where we are turning down work every single week, because of the advertising that we do plus being an EIFSmart Contractor, plus actually having insurance to put up EIFS, which is very rare. You can’t get it even if you had a fistful of dollars!

"[For your company to be an EIFSmart Contractor, a percentage of your employees] have to complete extensive training programs, they have to pass their tests. The insurance company tests everything we do firsthand and each of our applicators has to be certified individually in order to maintain the insurance. I mean, they really do! Many contractors say they have insurance, but when you look at their exclusion page, they always have the EIFS exclusion. So that doesn’t count! But with people not that educated about who has insurance and what they’re covered for, they can be fooled. I can get any kind of insurance: For example, if I say I do debris removal, oh sure, they’ll hand me a policy, no problem. But does it cover what you do? That is the question. Insurers don’t want to give insurance to a guy who does three or four jobs a year. We do EIFS seven days a week because we work Monday straight to Sunday, and we have different crews that do different types of things. And the reason we work seven days is so that in the winter, when we do lose days, they make up their time off. We’re union and we’ve been working like this since 1984.”

Well, there it is: some thoughts from contractors about EIFS as applied now and the future. The photographs speak for themselves, though.

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.

For More Information
To learn more about the EIFSmart Contractor program of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, circle #139 on the Free Advertiser Information card. You will also learn more from the ad on page 59.