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Random Musings on the State of Our Industry

Things occur to me while I’m tapping my foot, waiting for my program to convert a set of plans from PDF to TIFF format or half-dozing on some droning lecturer during a seminar. Some of these things may have occurred to you as well, but I’m the one writing this column, so here are my—and only my—thoughts on the state of our industry:

• Have you visited any material houses lately? The yards I’ve recently cruised past look more like tumbleweed farms than centers of construction commerce: empty racks, abandoned sheds, cobwebs collecting on idle forklifts, feral cats staking territory, and vacuous winds blowing little phantom eddies of dust across the deserted yards. Sounds like a scene out of the post-apocalyptic film, “I Am Legend,” sans Will Smith. OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but I’m sure you’ve felt the pinch of vanishing inventories like I have. Now, I understand the apparent logic in reducing surplus when demand is down, but the incidental price increases make me wonder if somebody up there isn’t over-manipulating the supply side so more-than-generous markups will help take the sting out of lost volume. But hey, I’ve always been something of a closet conspiracy theorist.

• I’ve noticed a conspicuous uptick in load-bearing metal stud jobs coming across my desk these days. I’d say it’s about time that designers and engineers figured out that steel beams and columns are overrated, not to mention that structural steel fabrication is slower than a jack-booted snail on a taffy treadmill. Now that we cold-form contractors are shouldering more of the structural burden, our steel sources seem to be drying up. How’s that for (excuse the pun) iron-y? In any case, the transfer of volume to our scope is a welcome windfall.

• Speaking of load-bearing walls, a related change will undoubtedly develop in the form of plywood replacing gyp sheathing for the exterior skin, as the latter has no structural property for shear. Picking up the plywood in lieu of brown-board or glass-mat seems like a no-brainer, but there are pitfalls for the bidmeister who lacks the experience with wood—fire treatments, corrosion-resistant fasteners, Forest Stewardship Council certifications—all details that may sound trivial until such requisite upgrades double the anticipated cost of the sheathing material.

• And speaking of FSC certification, it just never ceases to amaze me the way we jump through loony loops for LEED points with no question of the logic, or lack thereof. I recently learned (the hard way, as usual) that in order for a project to earn the MR 7 LEED credit for forest products, wood materials equivalent to 50 percent of forest product value on the project must carry a pricey FSC stamp of approval. Huh? Think about it: Does every sub who contributes wood products to the job order half certified material and half un? Does the sub whose product comprises a substantial portion, and is early on the schedule (say, the plywood sheathing provider) order 100 percent FSC, thereby allowing the other subs (say, millwork) to skate? Does every sub order 100 percent FSC and thus inflate the cost of the project to the owner (often, the taxpayer)? Where do they come up with this stuff? Inquiring minds want to know.

• And who’s going to devise a gyp-based exterior sheathing product that has a structural rating for shear? I’m told that there already is a glass-mat board made with a layer of 20-gauge sheet metal laminated to the back. I’ll bet it’s hell on utility knife blades.

• And speaking of innovative drywall products, have you pondered the growing list of assorted types of wallboard these days? They’ve got lead-lined and ultra-light, flexible and moisture-resistant; they’ve got abuse-resistant and high-impact; they’ve got type X and type C; they’ve got foil-backed and mold-resistant board. The designers are delighted with the vast and burgeoning variety. I’m just surprised and dismayed that no one has come up with self-installing drywall. That development would put the daytime TV ratings through the roof.

• And speaking of mold, have you ever seen such hysteria over the development of a few spores? Remember the days when we just brushed off the offending stain and sprayed it with Kilz? Now the lawyers and abatement contractors, having exhausted the asbestos scourge, have based an entire industry on the myth of sick building syndrome. You’ve got to admire the ingenuity.

• For me, the best recent industry innovation hands down is still high-build primer to achieve a Level 5 finish without a labor-intensive skim coat. That it has, as of yet, been omitted from the spec books is a mystery that fuels my tendencies toward conspiracy theories (see bullet point one).

• More fallout from the slowdown in work: architects and inspectors with too much time on their hands and a penchant for justifying their existence. If anyone deserved to be unemployed, well … .

• Casino work seems to be the only portion of private sector activity that hasn’t dropped off. Seems to be human nature—desperate people will squander their meager resources on any chance for a windfall. I don’t gamble myself. There’s enough risk in the drywall business.

OK, these are the courses that channel my stream of consciousness when it’s unbridled. None of these gems merits a full column, but all of them deserve a passing mention.

Jack Kerouac would be proud.

Vince Bailey is an estimator at Valleywide Plastering in Phoenix.

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