Partnering With Other Subs

David O. Hunt Jr.

July 2007

In a perfect world, a general contractor would coordinate sequencing at the start of a project, and a natural progression of work would flow smoothly through to completion.

Allie Abdulla, senior project superintendent for Karsyn Construction, Fresno, Calif., said projects are growing in complexity, and said he hasn’t worked on project that has gone according to plan in more than four years."Something always happens that pushes the schedule back,” Abdulla said. "Frequently, it’s the weather. And when the schedule fails, we’ve got to pull together and make it up.”

Abdulla said cooperation between subcontractors is critical to making a job profitable for all the trades.

"We can’t rely on the general contractor,” Abdulla said. "Projects are more complex now, and there has to be a lot of cooperation. Subcontractors must work together on the sequencing to make sure projects get done on time.”

Abdulla said his firm and subcontractors from other trades meet frequently to coordinate schedules: "We sit down with other trades to work out a plan for when we will frame up the walls.”

Abdulla said the firm employs framing, taping, drywall and lath/plastering foremen, supervising about 10 projects each. However, he said each large project requires a project manager just to coordinate the more complex demands of scheduling, meetings and inspections on a job.

Abdulla said the company is working on a hospital project for the state of California, and the project has fallen six weeks behind schedule. He said the end date won’t change, and the general contractor is pushing subcontractors to make up the time.

He pointed out that overhead is high on such projects, and much work needs to be completed by piping, mechanical and electrical contractors. "Sequencing becomes really critical on these hospital and school projects,” Abdulla said.

Abdulla said general contractors frequently try to push wall and ceiling contractors to frame the walls before urging other trades to accelerate their work.

"As the wall contractor, we can usually accelerate,” Abdulla said. "That means they’ll have us frame the walls before pushing the plumbers and electricians to get their work done.”

Abdulla said problems begin when one of the subcontractors isn’t willing to cooperate for the benefit of everyone: "Sometimes a subcontractor will say, ‘I want to do my work first.’ But we have to coordinate it or it isn’t going to work. Either they’ll trap me or I’ll trap them. If there’s no coordination, it will cost everyone money.”

Find the Leaders
Mike Hamilton, vice president of Martin Corporation of Escondido, Calif., said his firm works cooperatively as an outgrowth of maintaining a clear view of who it wants to hire. He said Martin Corporation employs people who have attained a high level of expertise and work well with other people.

"No one leaves our company voluntarily, and our people get along well with other people,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton also said that because his firm pays well, they are able to sustain a high level of experience. "We have a great feel for who we want to work for us,” Hamilton said. "Our people are calm and even keeled. They know what they want to do. They generally like mathematics and have mechanical skills. Those kinds of people become leaders. We are fortunate to have them working for us.”

Hamilton said Martin Corporation works with an established set of contractors and subcontractors over and over again. That repetitiveness, he said, yields a level of predictability that creates a profitable atmosphere for subcontractors.

"When the work is well-coordinated, everyone’s making money,” he said.

Hamilton said, in contrast, public works projects yielding the lowest bidder might see fewer qualified subcontractors.

"The low bid guys aren’t always the savviest and you might see one or two weak subcontractors who are just going with the flow because they can’t lead. They don’t have the ability,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said leadership and cooperation are important in working with other trades. The walls, he pointed out, touch nearly everything else in a building.

Get to Know the Other Tradespeople
Tom Harris, project manager for Mowery-Thomason, Inc., of Anaheim, Calif., said his firm frequently coordinates with roofers, glazers, plumbers, electricians, insulators, door manufacturers and HVAC contractors.

Harris said the level of experience among general contractors in his area has diminished, making it more important for wall and ceiling contractors to get along with other subcontractors.

"It is supercritical that our foremen get along with the other trades,” Harris said. "It would be really bad if we didn’t get along.”

Harris said Jeff Arno, the company’s foreman on the Provident St. Joseph’s Medical Center project in Burbank, Calif., has developed a great relationship with other subcontractors. Mowery-Thomason is framing new indoor and outdoor walls on the project. The outdoor walls were framed over existing walls using vertical slide clips. Harris said the company is doing the exterior sheathing and the one-coat plaster exterior.

"The job could have been a nightmare,” Harris said. "We are remodeling a working hospital, so maintaining a good relationship with other subcontractors on this complex project is critical.”

Harris said the exterior plaster on the project is covered with a coat of epoxy primer and two coats of elastomeric paint. In order to complete this work in the confined space around an 80-foot tower, Mowery-Thomason allowed the painter to use the company’s scaffold.

"The job runs so much smoother when the subs have a good working relationship. On the Providence job, Jeff has formed a good working relationship with all of the major trades. They look out for our interests, we look out for theirs,” he said.

Prepared from the Get-Go
Rob Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc., of Frederick, Md., said his superintendents and project managers collect a list of subcontractors at the beginning of a project, setting a cooperative tone right from the start.

Aird also said he pores over plan drawings before the project starts, ironing out details that might cause conflicts with other subcontractors.

"We have found if we do not review the drawings carefully and ferret out all the inconsistencies, incorrect citations, untenable details and predictable conflicts of construction and/or access, we are bound to have a tough road ahead and maybe an unprofitable one also,” Aird said.

After his firm provides input on plan drawings, Aird requests a preconstruction meeting with the architect, GC/construction manager and subcontractors. Aird said preconstruction meetings also set a cooperative tone.

Aird understands it is becoming more and more incumbent on the trades to work together for the benefit of all the trades. He learned a hard lesson on this when his firm was working for a general contractor who hired a scaffold supplier to rig the entire exterior of a building. "The scaffold was set incorrectly for our needs; it conflicted with elements of the building that protruded from the façade and did not comply with OSHA standards,” Aird said. "When we requested a voluntary compliance meeting with OSHA, the general contractor declined, knowing he would be liable for any safety issues. When the trades ahead of us did not complete their work in correct sequence before we did the final skin, the scaffold came down and we had to return using 80-foot manlifts to complete our work. Our requests for compensation for that extra work were denied.”

"If we had forged better relationships with the scaffold subcontractor and the trade that was not installing his work in a timely fashion, we might have saved ourselves much aggravation and cost,” Aird said.

Trend: Hired Help
Aird recognizes the growing role of construction managers, but said they may not have the same level of expertise as a general contractor who employs people working on the site. He said the role of a general contractor previously included proper trade sequencing and quality of work. In his area, a third party engineering firm is usually hired to inspect and produce reports on work progress.

"If the general contractor doesn’t hire an inspector, and no one on staff is qualified to do so, we request they hire a third-party inspector,” Aird said.

Aird believes a third-party engineering firm serves as an extra pair of eyes and ensures that work on a project is completed correctly. He also said properly installed work brings fewer repairs and punch list items, and adds to his firm’s reputation for quality work.

He said another advantage to hiring a third party inspector involves his contractual obligation to share in the mistakes of other trades. He said if his firm installs work over other improperly installed work, and a failure occurs, his firm must share in the effort to repair it.

Bill Frankenstein, vice president of operations for Bayside Interiors in Fremont, Calif., said more and more building owners are hiring construction managers in a drive to cut costs. This trend, he said, is pushing subcontractors to hire foremen for different skills.

In a reversal of roles, he said field foremen today are spending 70 percent of their time managing a project and 30 percent of their time working with tools. Those figures, he said, used to be reversed. "Drywall contractors,” he said, "are being pushed more and more to run the job.”

Steven Wayne, president of Exterior Wall Systems, Mansfield, Texas, said he believes there’s a limit on how much responsibility should be delegated away from the entity representing the owner. But don’t misunderstand him; he values his relationships with other subcontractors.

"If there’s no cooperation, the project could become unprofitable very quickly,” Wayne said.

But not long ago, Wayne was asked to interpret plan drawings in a meeting attended by 35 or 40 people, including the architect and general contractor. Wayne said he believes those entities were formally trained, and remained in a better position to interpret the plan drawings for the group.

"We need strong leadership from someone representing the owner,” Wayne said. "Sometimes we need someone to make a decision about what’s best for everyone.”

Wayne said on a recent project, a concrete subcontractor with a large portion of work began to quietly operate on his own, not taking into account the operations of other subcontractors. Wayne said fortunately, the general contractor eventually stepped in and worked it out.

Wayne also said it is critical for the general contractor, through regular project meetings, to take input from subcontractors to keep the construction schedule current.

"When subcontractors have input, the schedule works well,” Wayne said.

Be Prepared
Joseph Wagner, president of G & W Plastering, Fond du Lac, Wis., said his firm cooperates with other subcontractors, especially when the time is near for their part of the project.

"We start going to job meetings about two or three weeks before the general contractor is ready for us,” Wagner said. "The general contractor needs our input to make sure the project is ready for us. We go into these meetings to push for things to make the project ready.”

Steve Donnelly, president of Stephen P. Donnelly Company of Edina, Minn., sees his firm as a facilitator with a strong focus on residential work.

Donnelly said on a residential renovation project, his firm might call other subcontractors to complete painting, roofing, chimney work or window replacement.

"We are coordinators,” Donnelly said. "We usually line up other subcontractors to help on a project. You couldn’t hire a general contractor here to do all that’s needed to fix up the outside of a home,” Donnelly said.

Because Donnelly said his firm acts as a facilitator, he has experienced few problems with sequencing. Donnelly said he uses established relationships and calls other subcontractors at the time they’re needed to perform the work.

So, if schedules are getting you down, and you’re tired of climbing over other trades to get the job done, you’re best defense is a good, proactive offense. As they say, If you can’t beat ’em … .

About the Author
David O. Hunt Jr. is a free-lance writer/photographer based in Hershey, Pa.