Necessity is the mother of invention…—Plato
Ours is a phenomenally innovative society, and the construction industry is no exception in this regard. Wherever there is evidence of impediment, drudgery or difficulty, someone always seems to generate a better program, method, product or tool to get the job done faster, more efficiently, with better quality and less cost than previously thought possible. The most basic components comprising our segment of the industry, drywall and metal studs, were simply inventive improvements over the lath-and-plaster and wood-framed assemblies of the past, and the creative developments that emerge every year in the wall-and-ceiling trades indicate a healthy continuation of that tradition of Yankee ingenuity.
Over the years, we’ve seen the emergence of cordless power tools, portable wire-feed welders, glass-mat sheathing, mold-resistant board, drywall grid for ceilings, gas-actuated pin-guns and high-build primer, to name a few. These kinds of cutting-edge technologies have contributed immensely to the advancement of productivity, quality and even safety in the drywall trade. More recent developments specific to our industry include innovations in scaffolding, tools and installation methods. Even the drywall product itself is undergoing a metamorphosis that is nothing less than remarkable.
One of the most inventive advancements that I’ve seen lately associated with the equipment segment of our construction division is the “tele-tower.” This grandchild of the “Perry” type scaffold (another great innovation from the past), in compact mode, shrinks to short and narrow dimensions and roll through a standard door opening easily, yet breaks out and with its integrated outriggers extended, cranks up to a safe working height of 18 feet, then folds back up again with ease. It’s like a drywall version of “Transformers.” This ingeniously conceived piece of equipment should be of particular interest to estimators, because it eliminates the cost of renting electric or gas manlifts on many jobs—especially interior projects, like tenant improvements, where maneuverability and deck height conditions make the tele-tower a perfect fit for productivity and cost effectiveness.
As mentioned above, cordless drills for light-gauge framing attachments have been around for years. But with the development of more powerful lithium ion batteries, cordlessness has made the jump to drywall screwguns. The 18- and 20-volt power-packs provide enough juice to generate the rpms needed to drive drywall screws for extended durations, and require reduced charge time when depleted. Pair this with the long-awaited perfection of collated screws and screwgun attachments, a well-equipped drywall hanger today has no excuse for not hitting the proud production standards of yesteryear (and many do!)—another development that should be factored into an estimator’s determination of productivity levels.
Month before last, I touted the manifold benefits of prefabrication—i.e., panelization of interior framing/drywall. This method of construction enjoys widespread acceptance in Europe but is still in its infant stages stateside. While the jury is still out regarding overall cost savings, the controlled atmosphere of a plant allows predictable and higher levels in production. Clearly, the process minimizes the demand on an ever-shrinking manpower pool and reduces the volume and duration of the onsite presence, giving an estimator who can offer this option an edge with the growing number of GCs and owners who are looking to minimize that presence.
And who would’ve thought that something as basic as drywall could be improved? But someone must have been listening with a sympathetic ear to the moans and groans that commercial drywall hangers emit after a long day of hefting 5/8-inch board. Well, that and the falling productivity levels in that scope of work drove the innovators to come up with an answer to those complaints: lightweight drywall, of course! I can just picture a nerdy coterie of mad drywall scientists racing toward the vanguard of all drywall research like it was the Manhattan Project. Be that as it may, they did come up with a pretty revolutionary concept for our industry. After a few stumbles during its inception, those resourceful innovators have produced a line of drywall that boasts all the strength and performance of regular 5/8 drywall, with the phenomenal distinction of being up to 30 percent lighter than its standard forefather. In fact, lightweight drywall has enjoyed a level of acceptance that may herald the discontinuation of the production of standard drywall. In the same spirit of this milestone development, a major drywall manufacturer has just announced the introduction of lightweight glass-mat sheathing. Is anybody surprised?
Yet, with all of the current development of better tools, methods and products, do these innovations translate into cost savings that an estimator can rely on? Only time will tell. But in order for us to know for certain, we must be willing to embrace innovation. I know of otherwise-progressive firms that still skim drywall mud for a Level 5; who have their crews drag screwgun cords around; who rent manlifts when an innovative piece of scaffold will serve the purpose—all in the name of “how we’ve always done it.” In this age of innovation, those five words may well serve to be the epitaph of a firm’s demise.
Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.