Project Focus: Shopping Malls

Steven Ferry

March 2005

March marks the month we cover mall projects, and the past two year’s issues have highlighted the challenges faced by contractors: in remodeling projects ranging from reducing noise and protecting from dirt and damage, to working around mall hours and cleaning up before the start of each day. The other issue was the phenomenon of "head-turning”—the men being distracted by ladies in the mall, resulting in dropped materials, tools and production, broken fingers, etc.

On new construction, the challenge was meeting a schedule based more on wishful thinking or economics than practicality. This then led to challenges keeping other trades on schedule while dealing with the diverse and often changing requirements of tenants.

These earlier articles had one major oversight, though. We only asked North American contractors for their take. Our continent is so vast and our market so active that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are other countries on this planet, and some of our membership does live and work in these other countries.

So is their experience with malls the same as that of the majority in North America? Do contractors in other parts of the world experience the same issues when they work on malls?

Not really. For starters, if the lack of contractors who had worked on malls is any indication, malls are mainly a North American phenomenon. The contractor in Bermuda laughed, saying theirs was a small island and had no malls. "OK, strip malls, then?” produced the same response. Seems each shop in the country is an island unto itself.

THAT NATION OF SHOPKEEPERS

England has long been known as a nation of shopkeepers. Any chance they have a mall boom ongoing? Doesn’t seem so. While malls do exist in the United Kingdom, all the AWCI contractors in the UK said they had worked very few. W.A. Browne of Browne Building Services Limited, in Billingham, North England, reports "We’ve done some EIFS work in malls, conversion-type buildings, but we focus on steel framing for the residential market in England and Portugal. We’re moving from brick and block through the timber frame market and now into light steel framing. I went to the United States for the first time in 1981 and brought light steel framing back into the UK from US Gypsum. At that time, we would cut and use, which required education and skill.

"I’m close to writing a book about the lack of investment in training in our industry, though. Over the 40 years I have been involved in the industry, the skill level has become atrocious. Only the poorest quality school-leavers come into the construction industry now. There is no pride in the industry anymore. Those who would normally be the operatives on a site, are now doing the management jobs. Everybody wants to sit behind a desk with a computer.

"Also, the drug issue is large in the UK market now. I remember attending a break-out seminar on ‘Drugs in the Workplace’ 15 years ago and thinking this would never happen to us. And of course it has!

"That is why this new ‘E-Wall’ steel-framing system is so timely. We can take an architectural drawing on an Autocad, convert it to FrameCad and feed that output into the computer of the steel-cutting machine in our warehouse, which then cuts all the individual studs, all individually identified.

"‘E-Walls’ requires as much skill in putting together as a kid’s Mechano set, if you are familiar with those—it is as simple as painting by numbers, so it requires very little training. The result is that we can put up houses in half of the time, with much better tolerances and with limited-skill employees.

"As for the little EIFS we have done on malls, it was going quite well until the problems arose with litigation in the American and Canadian markets. Owners and architects then said they liked the idea of the system, but having read articles about the problems in North America, they would not buy into it. The British Board of Agreement stated that they didn’t mind having EIFS applied to brickwork, but not timber framing or steel framing. It was a lack of understanding that is starting to untangle finally, but the UK market is now demanding a drainage system rather than requiring the real problem be fixed: Making sure the product is used correctly—but that’s the American way of doing things, isn’t it?”

HOW MUCH A SQUARE FOOT?

Robert Atkin of Atkin Trade Specialists, based in Cardiff, Wales, has had his company work on a couple of small "malls” in London. "Basically, what they’re doing in London,” he explains, "is buying blocks of old buildings and then rebuilding flats [apartments or condos] over shopping ‘malls’ on the ground floor.

"The main problem in taking two-story buildings and making them into six-story buildings is having the loads come down the building, transferring onto columns on the ground floor level. We generally raze these buildings to the ground and design them in concrete and hot-rolled steel on the ground floor and a lightweight (2 mm) metal stud solution on the floors above that. The idea is to keep the weight down as much as possible because we’re building on London clay.

"We can’t drive in piling in a residential area without ending up with lawsuits, and if you go down more than 2 meters anywhere in London, you hit water anyway.

"But there are two additional constraints on design in these malls. Shops don’t like columns, because each column represents 1,000 British Pounds [about $1,900 US] of conveyor belt out of the shop because people can steal goods when concealed behind a column. "And you can’t put services in a concrete wall, which means they have to be made thicker and therefore you lose sales space. In Oxford Street, for instance, rent is 2,000 (British Pounds) a square foot, so if you make the wall an extra 2 inches thicker, the shopkeeper loses a fortune!”

One issue Atkin has encountered that some North American counterparts will find familiar, is lack of access.

"You have to gain permissions from all the authorities to have traffic control of the roads. We’re going to work on a project in May that is on what’s called a "red route,” which means no parking whatsoever at any time of any day. But we need to bring in a concrete mixer and a concrete pump and obviously our wagons will have to offload out stuff as well. So we will end up hiring a couple of traffic wardens at cost for about 12 weeks—and no doubt see them arrive in the morning and by the time the trucks arrive in the afternoon, the wardens will have gone for the day, Sodd’s (Murphy’s) Law.”

So much for England. But it is the source of the title of this article. Pall Mall is now the main drag through the city of Westminster in London and is named from the tree-sheltered walk nearby in St. James Park, "The Mall.” The name came originally from the game ‘pall mall,’ a cross between croquet and golf that was played in an alley called "Pall Mall” in front of Westminster Palace four centuries ago.

What does that have to do with malls in the Americas and elsewhere? Not much, except "mall” is the word that was adopted to describe the original malls built in North America during the 1960s.

While every effort was made to contact contractors in the Far East, the language barrier proved too great to move beyond first base.

CHILE IS HOT

As covered in last month’s article on exterior insulation and finish systems in Chile, however, here is one country where the mall market is very hot. Why? Because a demand for malls to shop in, by Chileans eager to shop in the American style, means lots of new mall construction and most existing outlets upgrading their image.

Given this activity, what are the challenges that contractors face in a country such as Chile when working on malls? Once again, we asked Cielpanel’s CEO, Rodrigo Anazco, for his take, based on the fact that his company has participated in most of the bids for drywall and EIFS work in the nation’s mall projects.

He says, "For years, before we started these mall projects, we built ceilings with iron beams and wood. In addition to being a far slower process, the wood was not treated and of low quality, leading to frequent ceiling failures.

"So we switched to a steel framing system that reduced construction time from 120 days for a large store, to less than 90 days.

"Another change accompanied the trend to mall construction in our country: Chilean architects opted to use EIFS in their shift toward the architectural style of Southern California. From our perspective, the application of EIFS allows us to respond to the spontaneous nature of the designing process, which can change on a daily basis, making scheduling difficult.”

Introducing major changes like this are bound to create new challenges, and that’s exactly what happened in Chile in a way that North Americans, well established in the building of malls, might not expect.

"The more we increased the speed of our work,” Anazco continues, "the more demand there was to match or improve that speed on the next project. This continued until we finally put our foot down and said that, in the case of EIFS, for instance, the system was quick, but it was not instantaneous.

"Having the suppliers participate in the projects was fundamental, because they could explain their experiences and the factory specifications that impacted the guarantees. This helped reduce demands for speed that were starting to compromise the quality of work.

"Speed of construction is probably the major hurdle we have to overcome, though. Mall La Dehesa, for instance, was 210,000 square feet, and we had four months to complete all work. To achieve these objectives you need to have a lot of quality workers, supervisors and inspectors on site, and also work several shifts and on weekends.

"So we provide training for all our employees, including a technical presentation by the project supervisor to our workers as well as the construction company managers. They cover the technical aspects of the materials and the EIF system, the method of installation and the quality criteria. Due to the lack of experience in Chile with these systems, we have to work with the general contractor to determine the required quality criteria used for the acceptance of the work. In addition, we have implemented a course similar to the AWCI EIFSmart course to update our current workers’ knowledge and train new workers.”

But some are not so "EIFSmart.” Anazco says, "Then there was the problem we had with the Technical Inspection Agency, which is made up, by definition, of people who possess the greatest knowledge of building products and installation techniques. But in the case of EIFS (which is new to Chile, and whose applicators are trained by Americans to their standards), these inspectors didn’t have the knowledge to inspect correctly. But they had to act as if they did. So, when they inevitably made mistakes, it was hard for us to have them admit it. We were finally able to break through to them after we attended the EIFSmart program.

"We basically increased our communication with the inspectors, making a presentation to them at the beginning of each project, sharing information and experience. We also let them know that there was an American norm that regulated the installation of EIFS, and there were associations such as EIMA and AWCI that set the standards.

"This proved successful because we are able to communicate to them without any erroneous ideas they might otherwise have formed from looking for information themselves in order to do their inspections.

"Moldings were a challenge from the very first project, and we handled that with American-style training for our applicators, provided in Chile.

"Lastly, the fact that colors might be chosen or changed at the last minute created problems for us over availability. Or usage calculations might be slightly off, leaving us a few pails short. "Our distributors came to the rescue, buying tinting machines and tints from their suppliers. So, when we needed a little more material, or when a sample was needed, or when there was simply no time to order, they had white base material available and tinted it, to provide us with the client’s chosen color.”

For contractors in other countries facing the same prospect of mall construction, Anazco recommends having qualified supervisors with at least three years of experience on large projects, who are prepared to manage a large number of workers. He says, "The pressure on-site is fierce throughout a project, and the supervisor has to maintain a cool head in order to avoid quality standards being eroded in the drive to meet deadlines. The financial preparedness of the contractor is fundamental so as not to put deadlines and quality standards at risk. This is a subject that generally doesn’t receive the attention it deserves, and has been the basic reason behind the collapse of some projects. I would advise contractors to be sure to plan strict and rigorous installation procedures and quality control, which leave little leeway for the site supervisor.

"Things can change dramatically and often, yet what the client wants is quick action and a system that changes based on his needs, which in the end will allow him to sell more, and more quickly. He is not interested in hearing explanations that mean late delivery, and being in an almost hysterical hurry, will prefer to leave a poor-quality installation in place. The only ones who are hurt by this approach are the contractors, who won’t be called for the next project. So do not compromise on quality and you will be called upon.”

The challenges in constructing malls outside of North America seem to have some overlap—the need for speed without sacrificing quality, the need for skilled workers—but there are some things North Americans don’t have to wrestle with that make the mall experience a tad bit less volatile and less likely to red-line the blood pressure gauge.

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