Battling Inefficiency

These times have turned jobsite productivity on its head. Here are ideas on what to do.

Mark L. Johnson / November 2020

What do AWCI member contractors think about their production workflows?

“Every day is a battle on every job,” says Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Inc., in Pennsylvania. “As construction schedules are increasingly condensed, there is less margin for error. And as time goes on, profits are squeezed tighter and tighter, and there is less room for give and take among the trades.”
    
What’s needed is more collaboration, more teamwork, more inter-trade support, Bernstein says. But that’s hard to pull off. While a more unified job site may have been common in the past, a lack of harmony and professional courtesy is in short supply right now.
    
“We have a combative environment on the job site,” says Bernstein. “Everybody is trying to save their own skin.”
    
Can anything be done?
    
“We have consumed ample quantities of Xanax,” says Bernstein, speaking, of course, in jest before explaining what’s fundamentally needed.
    
“Everybody is busy. Time is short. Problems happen and you think, ‘How did we fail to communicate this? Why didn’t somebody tell us this? Or, why did we fail to communicate this effectively?’” Bernstein asks. “The more we revisit this problem [of job site inefficiency], the more we see the need for good communication.”

Let’s Meet Together
Today, the search for job-site efficiency comes as specialty contractors bear multiple burdens that no one could have foreseen happening all at once—wildfires out West, hurricanes and tropical storms in the South, a COVID-19 pandemic instituting new work procedures and regular job-site shutdowns. Pulling together crews on safe job sites and finishing projects on time and profitably could hardly be more difficult.
    
Still, concerns over growing production inefficiencies are nothing new.
    
A survey of Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry members in the spring of 2017, the most recent member survey of its kind, found that contractors worried most about recruitment, skills training, legal liabilities, working with inexperienced general contractors and schedule compression. Such concerns underscore the necessity of having healthy communication among project stakeholders, the need to touch base and collaborate.
    
The contractors were surveyed about their concerns for the decade ahead. And now, their worries are here, manifest on today’s job sites.
    
“We do things twice, sometimes three times over,” Bernstein says. “No sooner do you unload a few skids of material when a construction manager says you can’t have that space.”
    
Bernstein adds: “Even with all the technological innovations we’ve seen, I feel like we’ve gone backward in so many ways.”
    
The solution? Have more meetings. Meet face to face, in the job site trailer, and not just through digital documentation sharing, text messaging and email.
    
“Nobody likes meetings, but you get the ability to read body language and the ability to pull someone aside and get a word in,” Bernstein says. “In 5 to 10 minutes of face time, you may solve a day’s worth of problems.”

Help from Technology
Many AWCI member contractors see construction technology playing a role in rethinking the job site. Executives at such firms say they are diving into technology by researching, developing and adopting what’s new.
    
“If you are not getting into technology and taking it under your wing, you will get left behind,” says Ralph Schultz, CEO at Fred Shearer and Sons, Inc., in Oregon. “We are evaluating new technologies constantly and trying to keep our pulse on the cutting edge.”
    
Schultz says technology can bring efficiencies to the job site by introducing new means and methods.
    
“Finding the right ones and seeing how they fit into our normal day-to-day functions is the challenge,” says Schultz. “So is figuring out the returns on investment.”
    
The key to achieving an acceptable return on investment through technology begins by looking for solutions to common problems and identifying processes that can be streamlined.
    
Bernstein, for example, is on the hunt for a technological solution to Penn Installations’ timekeeping function.
    
“Men report to their superintendents, who enter their time into a sheet, and then pass it on to our timekeeper, who has her own Excel sheet, which then goes to our payroll service through another sheet,” Bernstein says. “We need technology that allows us to streamline that process without making mistakes.”
    
Investing in useful technology takes time and energy—and a measure of discipline—to avoid adding technology that may be unproven.
    
“Technology may come out and grab your attention, but maybe not all the bugs are worked out,” says Schultz. “Everything is not ‘Buy this magic device and your life will be easy.’ Some technology may require a change in how we do things, just as new techniques on how to build are evolving every day.”
    
Schultz says it’s important to drive the process of adopting useable technology from the top down and to involve everyone in the organization.
    
“I can sit in my office and say, ‘Look at this cool little thing,’” says Schultz, “but it doesn’t mean anything if the team can’t see the vision for it. So, we involve our entire team, the whole organization.”
    
In this way, Schultz encourages two-way communication before making a tech purchase.
    
“Someone in the field may see some technology,” says Schultz, “but we need to get everyone’s take on it to determine if it will make our lives easier. Then, we invest in it.”

Results through Prefabrication
GCs, construction managers and the trades compete for time and space on every project, day in and day out. That being the case, the wall and ceiling contractor doesn’t always know where to set his materials, lifts and toolboxes, nor when to get started. This is why off-site construction is playing a growing and important role in achieving job-site efficiency for specialty contractors.
    
Off-site construction—component pre-assembly, prefabrication and panelization—can take much of the guesswork out of construction schedules while also creating collaborative opportunities for the stakeholders involved.
    
South Valley Drywall, Inc. in Colorado, for example, regularly exchanges field work for factory production in the controlled environment of its South Valley Prefab, Inc. operations. Prefabrication helps the firm to save time for clients and eliminate some complexities associated with stick building.
    
A recent South Valley exterior panelization project is Catbird, a seven-story extended-stay hotel under construction in Denver. The hotel is a mixed-use structure. The first floor is retail and the hotel lobby. Floors two through six are guest rooms. The seventh floor is roof-top amenities space for social gatherings.
    
Brian Rohnke, president of South Valley Prefab, says the project began with the formation of a collaborative group. South Valley teamed up with the developer, the architect, the engineer of record, the general contractor and the load-bearing, cold-formed steel framing erector. All of these players toured South Valley Prefab in early 2019 and witnessed South Valley’s processes for prefabricating exterior finished panels.
    
Production efficiency would be important at Catbird, because the hotel—the job site—has a V-shaped footprint. Two diagonal Denver streets cross at an acute angle and create a triangular-shaped lot. Further, the developers wanted to keep an existing two-story structure intact on the property. That meant construction of Catbird’s walls could spare little room as they angled past each side of this in-place historical building.
    
It was all too clear that stick building on site would be terribly inefficient. There was no room for scaffolding, let alone extra workers and their vehicles and equipment.
    
“We had only one location on site for a tower crane base,” says Rohnke. “The existing building and the two walls of the new hotel fall within 12 feet of each other. In one spot, the new wall of the hotel is within 7 feet of the existing historical building.”
    
South Valley designed and fabricated 277 individual exterior finished panels, doing the panel fabrication in just 46 days.
    
“We actually finished the panels for the entire seven-story exterior façade and had those panels protected in storage for approximately a month before we started installing them,” says Rohnke.
    
The exterior panel installation began this year in early April. Rohnke says it was 98% complete by the second week of August. That works out to each floor—the load-bearing cold-formed steel structural framing provided by one contractor, and the finished exterior panels provided by South Valley Prefab—being erected every two and a half to three weeks, on average.
    
Many AWCI member contractors see prefabrication as a clear differentiator for their work and a solution to job-site inefficiencies.
    
“I am in the Northeast. In the worst of winter, expecting men to be efficient is asking a lot,” Bernstein says. “Inevitably between the clutter of any given job site and the field conditions, you can’t question that there is great efficiency and quality control in a factory environment that you can’t possibly duplicate in the field.”

Battling Disasters with Optimism
Specialty contractors everywhere face restrictions on their workflows due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some wall and ceiling contractors out west have also had to deal with work stoppages created by raging wildfires. How do they view such challenges?
    
“What our industry does is adapt and overcome,” says Schultz of Fred Shearer and Sons. “We’re in the midst of adapting and, hopefully, in the very near future, we will overcome it and get back to the levels of productivity we saw prior to the pandemic.”
    
As for the wildfires in Oregon, Schultz said many of his employees live in ravaged areas, and getting to work on certain projects has sometimes been hit or miss.
    
“We got cleared to work the other day [on one project],” says Schultz. “We could finally go outside and not feel like we were smoking 20 packs of cigarettes in one fell swoop.”
    
Schultz is taking the pandemic and the wildfires in stride, and he encourages others in the industry to do likewise. He sees better days ahead, when the wildfires and the pandemic are put behind us.
    
“It’s a matter of time,” says Schultz. “We are a nation that’s proud to adapt and overcome.”

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.