Residential Evil

Vince Bailey / February 2016

The way you do me is frightening—think I better knock on wood …—“Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd
I must begin by confessing my bias. I rose up through the ranks on the commercial side of the trade and started my estimating career solely on metal framed projects. OK, truth be known, before that I earned my living “hangin’ shacks,” as we used to say, in reference to drywalling on housing tracts. I admit that because, as a former residential drywall hanger, I know a thing or two about wood-frame work. And as anyone who has tread on both sides of the divide will attest, residential drywall is a whole different animal from steel-stud commercial work.
Nevertheless, the recent proliferation of multifamily projects in certain markets has apparently presented a temptation for commercial subs to creep over to the dark side. Granted, the lure of greater volume and fewer intricacies may be tough to resist. Multi-story condo, apartment, assisted living and hotel projects (I include hotels because their construction is so similar) can easily generate volume in the multiple millions for a drywall sub—sorely needed volume during an economic recovery that really hasn’t quite happened. The notion of performing such volume with a simplified performance—i.e., drywall alone, no framing—seems like a no-brainer. Easy takeoffs with greater repetition invite the notion of hiring less sophisticated (and less costly) estimators who can turn out more volume in less time. Then too, there seems to be a labor benefit in the field: Many (most?) residential hangers and tapers are more than willing to work for footage (piece rate), thus setting the elusive labor factor at a fixed cost. Economies of scale, lower overhead, less risk, fixed costs—these are critical business advantages that are hard to dismiss. Clearly, for many commercial subs, this wood-frame territory looks like drywall nirvana, and an easy conversion with few barriers to entry completes the seduction.
But, as with most easy-money propositions, the pitfalls lying in wait just below the surface are many and deep. And, not surprisingly, they are inextricably connected to the supposed benefits touted above.
Drywall made simple? The elimination of framing from the scope of work may seem to simplify the estimating and performance of the product at first blush. But on closer examination, the assemblies associated with wood-framed, multifamily projects can be more complex than first meets the eye and may incorporate a good deal of metal framing as well. Most large-scale residential projects are really a hybrid of sorts—that is, a mix of wood and metal frame assemblies. Generally, the bulk of the wall and floor framing is wood, but many times (but not always) drop ceilings and rated walls are metal framed. Trouble is, many plan sets don’t clearly define where one leaves off and the other takes over. Evidently, supposedly simple wood-frame projects are not immune to the ambiguity that plagues many intricate metal-framed jobs.
Breaking the sound barrier. Then too, many acoustically rated assemblies so prevalent in multifamily work are not only hybrid but quite sophisticated. Vibration-dampening clips and hangers, sound-deadening board, RC channel, rock wool, multiple layers of wallboard and acoustical caulk are all likely components in demising partitions and floor/ceiling assemblies that will be tested by acoustical engineers for designated sound-transfer coefficients. Drywall only, huh? Not hardly.
Déjà vu all over again. The advantages of repetitious construction are apparent, but their drawbacks are closely related to the benefits. Most estimators copy and paste or replicate multiple rooms or entire floors that are identical or similar, thus reducing their takeoff time exponentially. The trouble comes when errors and/or omissions are multiplied by the hundreds in the process. When a weary-eyed bidmeister misses a stick of corner bead in a guest room, well, one out of 30 sticks is no big deal, right? But when he replicates the page times a hundred, those omitted hundred sticks of corner bead suddenly become a problem. Change that omission to an array of sound-dampening clips or a layer of board, the problem becomes a disaster.
Gypsum gypsies. Piece-workers are the answer to that huge labor variable that constantly plagues commercial estimators. By tying their compensation to footage production in lieu of hourly, a bidmeister is able to fix the labor cost. Well, that’s the theory. Truth is, piece rate costs are subject to erratic behavior owing to current availability of work versus number of workers in the market. Consequently, an estimator could fix a hanging rate of 12 cents a foot, a conservative stab at the going rate at bid time. But four months later, when the installation is to be performed, the proliferation of work is such that guys are getting 18 cents for similar or less difficult work. An additional problem with piece workers lies with their general character. Typically, they may leave in the middle of a job to work for your competitor down the road for a cent or two more. Not that they’re a bad bunch. You just don’t want to bet the farm that they’ll be around tomorrow—which is just what you’re doing when you assign that supposed “fixed rate.”
Let me be clear: The above treatment is not a disparagement of subs who specialize in multifamily residential drywall. They have adjusted to the challenges that are specific to that market, and many are very successful. More power to them. But my advice to commercial drywallers who are tempted by the lure of easy money to make the jump to wood-frame projects, I’d take a cue from Sam and Dave: I think you better knock on wood, baby.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.