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AWCI Member Spotlight: Clark Contracting Services

In today’s ceiling market, CCS works hard to stay on top of trends.

Michigan’s Clark Contracting Services (CCS) is a relatively new company but it has established relationships with a number of major general contractors in the state. Founded in 2017 by parent company Clark Construction to self-perform all facets of carpentry, CCS’s portfolio covers an array of commercial jobs. Many of those contracts call for specialty ceiling systems—some of which are anything but straightforward.


Higher-level educational institutes are one sector that keeps the contractor on its toes. As an example, CCS recently completed a three-contract job for Kettering University in Flint. The ceilings were a challenge. The four-story administration addition to the university called for installations in small breakout rooms designed around the perimeter of the building’s centerpiece: a four-story interior atrium. The rooms were all roughly on 18-degree angle layouts.


“None of the ceilings were square to any of the walls or to the atrium openings on each floor,” says Colin McLean, CCS project manager.


To establish layouts, CCS had to load CAD files from the architect into its robotic laser layout system for grid points on ceilings and walls for all of the systems, says McLean. It was a turning point for the company, which up to that time had used laser CAD layout systems only for complex specialty jobs. Now it sees the benefit of robotic layouts for many jobs.


McLean credits the shift in part to architectural firms that have made files more accessible. Those files are better organized for end users. “It makes a world of difference when you can pull accurate layers off a CAD file and get what you need in true lines, numbers and points. It eliminates a lot of questions.”

University Projects

At the university project, CCS installed a custom metal pan ceiling system with a custom vinyl applied wood grain finish, extending from the underside of exterior canopies on each floor around the building and through the glazing into the interior. It was tricky to ensure the ceiling was aligned from the outside in. Any measuring and cutting missteps could have led to panel shortages, requiring months of wait time for a resupply. The project also used specialty ceiling systems.


Material lead times were extended during the pandemic, which also caused unexpected cost escalations in materials on the job. “It was a very high-stakes installation all around,” McLean says, adding that one of the keys to its success was their decision to do mock-ups in repurposed cargo containers prior to the project start.


The challenges at Kettering University are an example of what CCS and other contractors can expect on many university and college jobs as designs increasingly become more complex, says Larry Cowper, CCS’s director of self-perform operations, based in the CCS office in Auburn Hills, Mich.


Another challenging project was the 38,000-square-foot addition to the Michigan State University College of Music where CCS installed MDF radius molded sheets in rows forming linear acoustic clouds in four high-bay music rooms, says McLean. The work was custom milled by a shop in partnership with CCS.


Critical to installation success was coordinating the work with other trades such as the metal stud framing contractor, which had to lay out a metal supporting frame first to determine how the custom ceilings could be built, McLean points out. CCS also had to schedule work with finishing trades responsible for the various acoustical wall systems specified.


“Everyone brought different pieces of the pie to the table. They all had to be the exact shape and profile. We had to interact with the contractors for the performing arts equipment and fixtures that had to live in the ceiling space as well,” says McLean.


He adds that subs were coming up to completion of the job—in time for a planned special musical performance commemorating the building’s opening in March 2020—when the pandemic shut the project down. About a month and a half later CCS was back on-site working under strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols to wrap up.


“The precautionary measures required cleanliness, organization and having room and space,” says McLean. “Those are normally luxuries when you get into high-end finishes of a higher education building. I guess you could say it was a positive takeaway of COVID on this job.”


CCS is also doing another contract for a music school at Wayne State University. Like at Michigan State, the job has a complex acoustical shell and acoustical floors that have to be “tuned and tweaked,” points out Cowper.


A combination of two metal ceiling systems, one installed on walls, presented a CCS crew with an unusual challenge at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. The metal panel wall system specified came in two colors with 3-inch reveals, making for a difficult installation, says Dan Hoffman, the CCS project manager who led a crew of four on the ceiling and wall contract completed just before the pandemic.


That university contract also called for a lay-in metal ceiling featuring 1,800 square feet of copper colored panels and 4,330 square feet of a gray perforated system. While it was easier to install than the panels, it was tricky to lay out because the 20 x 80-foot ceiling was at an elevation of 40 feet to as high as 60 feet, explains Hoffman. The two-tone perforated tiles were also heavier than most tile systems, so they required careful handling during transit on the scissor lift.


“Border cuts had to be precise with metal because we didn’t have the luxury of cutting up the tile and replacing it quickly. You might be able to do that with a sound or acoustic panel because they are cheaper, but that type of wastage wasn’t an option for us on this job,” he says.


Hoffman notes a particular challenge: a high spot on the ceiling with a ledge below it. “It wasn’t easy to get to, and there were some conflicts with the structural steel overhead to get our molding in.” The crew also had to allow for lights and make sure the suspension grid could carry the loads.

Library Renovation

A recently completed contract that required some of CCS’s best ceiling installers was at the Flint Public Library. “It was a great project for the community and a great project for us to display our abilities,” says Cowper.


But it wasn’t easy.


“The renovation challenges for us were making these high-end custom finishes work within an old structure where the concrete and steel were not perfect,” explains McLean.


In major spaces in the library CCS installed a 2 x 8-foot acoustical ceiling grid with 2-inch reveals around interior columns and a 2-inch gap at the perimeter to accommodate the return air supply.


To complete the work the contractor had to set up “a bit of a manufacturing assembly line” with a table saw to cut, and then paint the reveal edge of some the bordering fibreglass tiles to ensure a seamless fit, he says. The pandemic caused material cost overruns and delivery delays for custom materials such as the 2 x 8 Tees.

The Future at Ford

At Ford Motor Company’s Central Campus Building, which is part of the transformation of its Research & Engineering Campus in Dearborn, Mich., CCS will be doing three custom specialty ceilings over a span of a few years. A standout among materials is Western Red Cedar, which will be installed on the exterior ceiling at canopies and soffits, McLean says. The project will start with mock-ups soon, and installation is set to commence in summer.


The project manager says because of the large amount of cedar required for the Ford Hub, CCS has to plan procurement through several lumber mills well in advance of installation to meet U.S.–legislated material allocation allotments. “For this project I think we’ve been the number-one purchaser of Western Red Cedar in the country,” he says.

Looking Forward—and Up

Cowper says the challenges CCS faces today are not just that there are many specialty products on the market but that several of them might be specified on one project. “The complexity of the projects on the whole has grown because of the diverse amount of finishes to every building. It used to be there was only a handful of traditional ceilings and then one or two specialty features, but now they are scattered everywhere in the building.”


Cowper sees the demand growing, with more owners across all sectors showing interest in specialty ceiling systems. It is a trend even happening in K-12 schools, he believes. “What used to be traditional two-by-four acoustical ceilings are now incorporating open ceiling plans, acoustical features, a lot of clouds and things like that.”


But while “high-feature” metal and wood ceilings have been on the upswing over the past few years, some projects are cutting back to meet overall building budgets. “As everybody knows, the commodity market is stable but it is still very high.”


Cowper says the challenge for contractors is keeping up with trends and also training installers. “A lot of these specialty ceilings can almost be one-offs,” he says. “It’s a never-ending learning curve to make sure we know how to estimate it, manage it, procure it and then finally install it.”


Hoffman is impressed by the multitude of new ceiling systems on the market. “There are a lot of technically interesting and esthetically pleasing options out there for, say, public spaces, hotels or universities. I think there are even a lot of options that architects and specifiers either aren’t aware of or don’t use enough.”

Group Efforts

CCS averages about 100 tradespersons, with 20-25 of them in the ceiling group specializing in wood, metal and other features. Ceilings represent about 30% of the company’s revenue.


Like its competitors, CCS is experiencing skilled labor shortages, but through its workforce development committee, the company has organized training events, often using mock-ups as training mediums in partnership with manufacturers such as USG, Armstrong and dozens of speciality ceiling suppliers.


“Mock-ups guarantee that we will have the training done ahead of the project,” Cowper says, adding sometimes YouTube videos demonstrating product installations are beneficial. “There are hardly any specialty ceiling jobs that don’t have some component that is new to us or the industry, which is part of the risk every specialty ceiling contractor has to accept.”


Cowper says that CCS, a union company, pairs apprentices and young journeypersons with experienced installers to ensure a learning continuum. Training as well at Michigan Carpenters union training centers or the International Carpenters union’s training facilities in Las Vegas is also critical to upping skill sets.


“Michigan has done a very good job of trade awareness and outreach, working with K-12 schools to get kids interested in the building trades,” he adds.


One of biggest post-pandemic constraints for CCS is adjusting to extended lead times on material procurement. “Most of the manufacturers have gone back into full production, but the caveat is that it is with longer lead times,” says Cowper.


“We spend a lot more time with our management teams refining material tracking procedures and ensuring good communication between our architects and customers about realistic time frames. For the most part we are able to get the project done on time and within budget, but it takes work from all parties.”

Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.

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