The Demands of Decorative Drywall

Mark L. Johnson

February 2008

In today’s tough market, some firms have been thinking outside drywall’s normal dimensions. They’re building walls with "texture.” They’re mixing colorants into skim coats. They’re constructing 3-D shapes and embedding objects into the walls.

"We’ve all seen in the movies and magazines the ‘cool’ interiors that money can buy,” says Dan Casey, owner of Deco Drywall Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif. "After having the occasional opportunity to let the creative juices flow, and finding great enjoyment in the results, I’ve decided to concentrate on the decorative side of drywall.”

Yes, Casey is going the route of the artist. A drywall veteran of 30 years, he’s experimenting with color, hand-troweled finishes and layered surfaces. He won’t discuss details—"we’ve had another drywall contractor around town hear of what we’re doing and try to sneak his way in,” he says—but he admits the niche is lucrative.

"Santa Barbara is one of those unique communities with people who can afford the best,” he says. "Right now I’m giving it away cheaply to get the word out. Eventually, we’ll start getting paid for how special it is.”

Key to Survival
Whether they want to or not, most drywall contractors find they handle decorative projects sooner or later. The market drives them. A high-end homeowner wants coves built into the ceiling of a dining room. An architect wants curved soffits added to the lobby of a building. Someone wants to recreate the walls of a 19th century Spanish mission. Such treatments come up regularly, and drywall firms are expected to handle the work—or at least know a specialist who can.

But lately, a few firms are rethinking their approach to decorative drywall. Some see special build-outs and finish treatments as a means of survival.

Scott Koeppen, owner of Precision Drywall Inc., Huntley, Ill., for example, has his eyes on supplying Venetian plaster to Chicago’s residential market.

"I just hired someone who has [Venetian plaster] experience,” Koeppen says. "Have we applied it on a job yet? No. But I know there’s a market for it. I’ve seen it on jobs and had multiple customers ask for the process, but I’ve always deferred them to someone else. I wasn’t capable of providing it until now.”

Koeppen is no stranger to specialty work. His firm targets high-end residential remodeling and new construction for which architects often specify unusual wall configurations. Precision Drywall crews have hung radiused soffits, drywall domes and barrel vaults. But the future as Koeppen sees it lies in finishes.

"You can command good money for finishes, because there are few people out there who do them,” Koeppen says. "It’s supply and demand. If we do them, and the next drywall guy can’t, we stay ahead of the game. We’re going to get work.”

Hard to Price
But the work can be tricky—and hard to price. An owner may call for a wall treatment that’s not in the contract. To him it seems a small thing to ask, since he doesn’t realize the extra man-hours it will require. Hence, the maxim for the contractor is, If you build it, they might pay.

For example, Bison Drywall is a commercial and residential drywall firm based in Pikesville, Md. The company is no stranger to building circular walls, arched ceilings, trey ceilings and coffered ceilings. "It’s what we do,” says John Miller, drywall supervisor for the firm.

Recently, Bison Drywall completed extensive build-outs and 3-D shapes for a retail home furnishings mall. Crews built interior store-front "mockups” out of metal framing, gypsum board, corner bead and top coat. The façades included "six-pane windows,” "balcony railings” and even "mailboxes”—a little village made of drywall.

"We had to field the design and spec it ourselves,” says Miller. "It all came out of the owner’s head.”

A 40-year veteran drywaller, Miller recommended foam for the façades. But the owner insisted on drywall.

"Obviously, it was hard to price,” says Mark Owens, owner of Bison Drywall. "We kept our time, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get paid for it.”

The example illustrates the difficulty of decorative drywall construction. It’s hard to price the work and harder still for customers to accept the true costs.

"We’ve pulled the invoices—every materials invoice and our subcontractor’s invoices—to show what it cost,” says Owens. "We’ll break out what was in the contract and what was not in the contract. We need to show them the cost of labor and materials plus our markup.”

According to Owens, the decorative drywall façades added $54,000 in materials and labor. If overhead and a reasonable charge for profit are included, the total up-charge would be $90,000, he says.

Seeking Innovation
Still, proper pricing is one part of the equation for handling decorative work. Offering unique treatments is just as important.

"We’re always thinking of creative ideas to incorporate into our portfolio,” says Deco Drywall’s Casey. Here are some of Casey’s ideas:

Mottled color coats. Casey uses various color-coat formulas. Sometimes applicators trowel on as many as five colored top coats to walls.

"The colors correspond because they’re from the same palette, but the technique for mixing them up is pretty fickle,” Casey says. "In the end, it’s a cool product—far superior to a faux finish and much more manageable than plaster.”

One of Casey’s textures is called cat’s paw. It’s a hand-troweled finish that simulates the insets and natural voids of plaster. Other finishes incorporate "veining” underneath the color coat. Like a patched plaster crack, Casey’s veining technique appears to have depth. "They’re truly 3-D,” he says.

Embedded materials. Casey takes objects such as tile, vinyl and fabric and embeds them in walls. One method is to embed the object, say, ceramic tile, in a flush manner.

"We cut a section out of the drywall and put a 1/4-inch tile backer board in there,” he says. "Then, we glue on the tile and float to it. The tile is completely embedded and the surface is flat.” A second technique involves gluing objects to the gypsum board and feathering color coat around them. It leaves the objects slightly raised on wall.

Casey has big plans for embedding fabric. "My idea is to glue a silkscreened t-shirt on the wall and then treat the edges,” he says. "We’d feather it into the wall, color coat up to it, and put a film of color coat over it, so that it looks faded. You’ll see the image, but it will be faded because it has a film of drywall mud over it.” The embedded silkscreened image will look like an object once lost to several layers of plaster and now found.

How does Deco Drywall price such treatments? "You guess how much time is involved,” Casey says. "If a client chooses a color and we have a formula for it, then it’s easy. There’s a lot time involved in coming up with colors. After that you figure out what’s production work and what’s going to be work on ladders and scaffolding.”

Building shapes out of gypsum board calls for the same discipline. Contractors must watch the clock.

"We once did several neat applications in a home,” says Koeppen. "But I actually lost my tail on it, because I didn’t have the work in my bid scope.”

Precise framing is the key to producing quality build-outs. But sometimes other trades are involved, which calls for the drywall contractor to exert some control. In Chicago, for example, residential carpenters tend to frame walls (including special build-outs) and drywall hangers and finishers complete the work.

"Say you’re working on a tiered system that will protrude down from the ceiling; we’ll drywall one layer and the carpenter will come back and frame over it,” says Koeppen. "We’ll drywall another layer and the carpenter will come back again. It’s not all done with drywall.”

Thus, checks and balances must be in place to do quality decorative work.

Marketing Challenge
Does decorative drywall make money for firms? Or, is it merely a way to differentiate in the marketplace?

"It’s a little of both,” says Casey. "But either way, you need to show the client what you can do.”

Casey suggests touting techniques in a number of ways. Have samples built into the walls of your office, put together a slide show on a computer and have a Web site to post photos of your work. Finally, carry samples with you when meeting prospects.

"While bidding one job, I showed the client our color coats made up on boards. They interested him,” Casey says. "My price was in the middle of the others bidding, but with the interest in the color coats, the owner chose me to do the job.”

Work began in a laundry room and was extended to the rest of the home. Yes, samples can land entire jobs.

"Sometimes we’re contracted to do a small drywall job and it grows to the point where the owner lets us run free with our ideas,” says Casey, who recently worked with a homeowner to create a "wine cellar” room. Casey’s crew installed a brick veneer, floated color coat around it, and tinted and applied stucco to simulate an Old World look.

"We also tinted the mud to produce the effect of sky and clouds on the ceiling,” Casey said. "On some walls, we installed small stone pavers complete with grout.”

Important to gaining clients is conveying expertise. You may need colorists to consult with, but knowing basic color principles can be crucial. At the very least, a drywall contractor needs knowledge to be enthusiastic about what he offers. And, it may mean going out and hiring that expertise.

Recently, Koeppen was at a $10 million home under construction in Highland Park, Ill. The superintendent asked him about doing Venetian plaster work in one of the home’s bathrooms. "I said I could do it,” Koeppen said. "I am fortunate to have a guy who is capable of applying it. He’s my employee.”

About the Author
Mark L. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Shenandoah, Iowa.
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