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The Road Ahead, Part 2

Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow; don’t stop, it’ll soon be here … — Christine McVie

Last month my narrative seems to have degenerated into what many columnists fall victim to in January, that is, a seasonal descent into prognostication—a prediction into what the coming year holds in store. Worse still, I personally predicted a world of gloom and doom for the building industry in general, and for commercial drywall estimators in particular. Thankfully, I did allude to some possible “unforeseeable mitigating factors” that might intervene on the positive side of the path ahead. Might, of course, is the operative word here, a modifier that absolves me of any accountability as I continue to explore the murky regions of the yet-to-come.


In the realm of possible vindications from a pending downturn that the construction sector may yet experience, three standout items come to mind: panelization, regional activity and health care work. For my purposes, these subjects stand out either as exceptions from or responses to the paralyzing symptoms of excessive costs that are plaguing the building-trades environment. With respect to response, I regard it as the upside of the downturn—that is, the function of excessive cost creating incentive to correct—and I think the potential for this to occur is best exemplified with panelization.


I cite increased use of panelization as an opportunity for significant cost-cutting because it potentially affects both labor and material. As stated previously, the demand for more skilled carpenters and finishers outstrips the current size of the workforce, a phenomenon that has many commercial drywall contractors (and their estimators) submitting prices that exceed prevailing wage levels. Fortunately, it has been shown that manpower requirements to turn out product in a controlled environment are about half of that needed for complete site-constructed installation (stick-framing). This obvious advantage exists in addition to the use of pre-cut framing members, a common practice in off-site assembly that minimizes material waste.


Ironically, the main attraction for owners to opt for panelization is schedule reduction, not thrift, as panelized product is currently less cost-effective than its site-constructed counterpart, even given the above-mentioned cost-cutting features. And so it becomes clear that increased utilization of plant-constructed components lies with cost savings, and I believe there are a number of areas where some current costs inherent in pre-manufactured construction can be pared away—three of them emerging from the design phase.


First, and I believe foremost, an apparent cost-savings opportunity lies with repetition—that is, the need for more of it—as repetition of a panel results in savings in all phases, from VICON (virtual construction) engineering, through assembly, to site installation. All too often, architects tend to avoid repetition in the design of exterior skins in pursuit of their constant fixation on aesthetic appeal. Don’t get me wrong—I am not suggesting that all consideration of aesthetics should be abandoned in favor of pragmatism. But I do insist that some variety can be sacrificed to repetition if the very survival of a project is threatened by excessive cost. For example, distinction can be achieved by simply varying the finish skin (i.e., metal panel to EIFS, and vice versa), while still replicating the configuration of the base panel. Clearly, if an architect would factor a healthy level of repetition into his design from the outset, he would stand a better chance of getting a green light for funding his project, since he is able to present some significant cost savings in the bargain.


Another cost-saving opportunity in panelization rests with the VICON engineering process. It seems that in an effort to design panels that will withstand the rigors of transport and placement, many VICON engineers have resorted to designating uncommon framing components of heavier gauges and oversized flanges, where standard, more readily available (and cheaper) framing members might be utilized by applying certain methods, such as decreasing stud spacing.


Still another cost-cutting possibility once again involves the design of the panel itself, and its compatibility with its regional climate. For instance, many architects specify water-management EIF systems in regions where rainfall is nearly non-existent, such as here in my native Phoenix. Similarly, many engineers who hail from coastal areas insist on specifying G90 galvanization for framing members applied to inland projects, adding 10% to framing material costs over a standard (and quite adequate) G60 coating.


I’ll restate the obvious: We are beginning to experience a startling rise in the cost of construction that might stifle continued activity. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to reach this conclusion. But excessive cost historically stimulates incentive to find savings. I cite some possible routes to those cost-savings. Whether or not these routes will be explored by those who can make a difference remains to be seen. I may be a prognosticator, but I’m not clairvoyant.


Next month: more of those “unforeseeable” mitigating factors.

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

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