AWCI Member Spotlight: Performance Contracting Group
A Large Contractor Capable of Doing Ceiling Work for Big-Name Clients
Don Procter / September 2023
Performance Contracting Group, Inc. has continued to diversify its product lines over the past few decades, and in the last five to 10 years that includes the specialty ceilings market, a segment ramping up in a number of its markets in the United States. Its San Francisco Bay Area branch is the contractor’s largest in ceilings, with many of its clients among the technology giants such as Apple, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn.
“They are leading the charge on high-end speciality architectural solutions in metal and wood,” says Chad Davis, general manager, Performance Contracting, Inc.’s San Francisco office.
The work is often rewarding but also challenging.
Davis, who began his career about 20 years ago in PCG’s head office in Kansas City, says exposed ceilings and architectural sound-absorbing finishes are more popular in office spaces in the Bay Area than in many of the contractor’s markets across the country. To meet the demand, increasingly PCI acts in a design-assist capacity on the oft-times complicated details, including the logistics and coordination with other trades such as mechanical and electrical.
“The general contractors or maybe the architects, depending on the job, reach out to us to help them complete the design. When one of our estimators is putting a cost to the job, they are also having conversations with an engineer on how to suspend it, how to do the trims, the different parts for the structural side of it.”
One of the details impacting ceiling jobs is lighting. A growing trend is architect-specified linear lighting. Often long and narrow, it doesn’t fit traditional 2x2 ceiling grids. “It gives a modern look but creates difficulties for the installation and requires pre-planning for additional work,” explains Davis.
And like elsewhere in the nation, the Bay Area has suffered from the pandemic’s impact. Material lead times continue to drag, with shortages of raw materials, particularly metal, creating planning and scheduling challenges, says Davis, adding some wood material orders have doubled to 12-to-16 weeks.
While the pandemic was taxing for PCI, Davis says it wasn’t all bad. Buildings still got built, if only at a slower pace. “We weren’t facing the same aggressive deadlines to complete work during COVID so we had a little more time to plan and figure out what success looked like and then execute it,” he says.
He points out that “trades stacking”—a pre-pandemic problem on large busy sites such as the airport project (read on)—was all but eliminated during COVID-19. While the pace of building has picked up since the pandemic, it still hasn’t returned to hectic pre-pandemic levels, a positive change in the building world, Davis suggests.
Consider the Earthquake Potential
Another issue affecting the contractor in San Francisco is earthquakes. Seismic detailing is critical to prevent or minimize up-and-down or horizontal movement of ceilings, says Steven Gomez, project manager PCI, San Francisco. Compression posts made of studs ranging from 1 5/8" to 6" are connected to the grid and anchored in the deck. Typically installed every 12 feet, each post has four seismic wires attached and tensioned in four directions.
While Gomez says figuring out seismic restraints is usually straightforward, installing those restraints after mechanical/electrical work is completed can get tricky. “I might need a post in a specific spot where there is a giant duct,” he says, “so I have to decide whether to build around the duct, move the post or add another post elsewhere.”
“You can’t really talk your way out of it when an inspector comes to check that you built it correctly,” Gomez adds, noting it is a reason to develop a close relationship with the structural engineer.
Davis points out seismic requirements vary from one municipality to another in California, based on their location to major fault lines. “If you are near the Hayward Fault Zone,” he says, “you might have to do more than you would if you were working only 10 miles away.”
Big Ceiling Jobs
SFO. Among the branch’s notable recent work are contracts at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and the giant Google Bay View Campus in the Silicon Valley. At SFO’s Terminal 1, PCI completed a variety of speciality ceilings aimed at catching the eye of airport visitors. Floating and seamless metal panel products at elevations from 15 to 60 feet required scores of scissor lifts and in one case, 100 x 100-foot “dance floor” scaffolding.
“There were a lot of crazy angles at height we had to deal with,” Davis says. “It created a logistical challenge moving around the space, and there were safety concerns to address.”
Work at the airport started in late 2017 on a $10.5 million contract for about 115,000 square feet of ceilings at the terminal’s boarding area. The contract called for the installation of metal torsion spring ceiling panels that were identical in appearance to radiant heat panels installed on the ceiling (rather than conventional return/supply ductwork) by the mechanical contractor.
Gomez says accurate ordering was vital because running short of panels would have resulted in lengthy delays to reorder. “We couldn’t miss critical dates of completion,” he says.
Another challenge was a “complicated boomerang ceiling” where panels “curved up into a separate ceiling,” Gomez explains. Each of the panels had a unique pattern of perforations, and the entire ceiling required a continuous soffit—a tricky measurement task, he says, adding the layouts were done by hand.
Working off the same shop drawings as the mechanical contractor, the pair collaborated on the installation of the panels ranging from 2-by-2s to 2-by-8s. “Coordination involved issues like wireless access points, fire sprinklers, video cameras and screens (monitors) on the ceiling. There were a lot of devices, and we did all the cut-outs for it,” Gomez says.
PCI subcontracted a plaster ceiling project at Terminal 1 to another AWCI contractor, Patrick J. Ruane Inc. To complete the job, PCI built a metal stud frame covered with pieces of drywall that followed the undulating ceiling form. Plaster crews then worked from dance floor scaffolding about 60 feet above the terminal floor.
Gomez says PCI built “skateboard ramps” on the scaffolding platform to follow the waves of the ceiling so plasterers “could walk a long run and keep their hand steady at one height.” Creating the ramps was labor intensive and tricky to get right.
Google. Construction for PCI on the 1.1 million square foot Google Bay View Campus started in 2019 and included about 20 wall and ceiling products in two office buildings, and the event center. It was one of Gomez’s most challenging jobs: “We had many different vendors’ products, different shop drawings to look at and approve, mock-ups to do, different team members from the GC to deal with. It had a lot of moving parts.”
PCI had three contracts on the five-year project, including a $5.1 million contract largely comprised of T-bar ceilings with specialty baffles designated for office areas at the new Google campus in Mountain View. The event center featured aluminum foam acoustical panels.
PCI’s third contract included the installation of one-inch fabric-wrapped insulation wall panels in about 40 colors for conference and meeting rooms. “We needed a giant spreadsheet to make sure we were ordering the right material and color for each room,” Gomez says.
Work at Google included numerous specialty ceilings “in small amounts, sometimes one-offs,” says Gomez. In one of Google’s cafes, for example, common plastic milk crates were installed in clusters at varying ceiling elevations. In some open office areas corrugated metal acoustical panels complete with perforations made to “mimic the bottom of a steel deck” were specified.
Gomez says because PCI faced tight deadlines at Google, it was critical to meet weekly with owners and/or architects. “They were very accessible, which was important because so many ceiling issues could come up any time,” he explains.
Even during the design stage of the buildings, PCI was involved in constructability and material/supply discussions. “We had secured a lot of the materials before we needed them because we had to stay on top of the pre-con process,” Gomez says.
Benefits of Technology
Over the past five or so years, efficiencies have notably improved at PCI. The Bay Area division had 540 workers in 2018 and 300-plus last year, but company revenues between the two years was similar. PCI attributes that partly to taking on more high-end jobs but also to it corps working smarter with technology in hand.
A case in point is a BIM-driven robotic solution for full-scale floor layouts. “Anything we want it to print on the ground we put in the BIM model and it will print it,” explains Davis. “For intricate specialty ceilings where we’re trying to figure out how to lay out all of the supports, parts and pieces, we’re able to send this around to print on the ground. It’s like a robot dog.”
The contractor also benefits from a 360-degree camera that allows users to walk a project and create accurate, full-scale floor layouts through progress image files sent to personnel off-site. It reduces schedule time and rework costs, Davis says.
Specialty Ceilings Become More Popular
Shawn Burnum, vice president of operations at the Performance Contracting Group’s head office in Kansas City and an AWCI past president, says the cost of specialty ceiling applications has dropped as product and demand have increased over the past five to 10 years. Along with growing popularity in San Francisco, areas such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York and pockets of Texas are seeing a shift from traditional ceiling products. “There is a lot more competition to add a few (specialty) elements that don’t break the bank but can give your building features that separate it from the buildings around you.”
Technology is also spurring growth. “If someone wants to put a speciality ceiling in a room before they spend the money, they want to know what it will look like. They can BIM it to show you exactly that so the owner won’t be as nervous about spending the money,” Burnum explains.
Burnum adds that any advantage an employer can gain in the personnel recruitment game is worth a try. “If we have a facility that people get excited to be at, it can’t hurt your recruiting or your retention efforts. I don’t know that I’d go to work for someone because they had a cool ceiling, but I do think your impression of the company and what they want to do in terms of giving back to employees and investing in them matters.”
But keep building those “cool ceilings.” You never know how many ways it can enhance your business and recruitment opportunitites.
Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.