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Back to School for Contractors

Schools are places most people associate with one challenge
or another as they worked their way through them, but
what about the contractors who go back to school to build
or remodel them? What challenges do they face? Almost
half those surveyed said it was stiff competition from their
peers-some things never change.

and that is the biggest challenge,” admits Kevin Corcoran,
president of The Corcoran Company of Ft. Collins, Colo.

“The competition is stiff,” agrees Larry Kinglsey, senior
estimator at Baylor Plastering and Drywall Inc. in Day-tona
Beach, Fla., “but when you have done a couple, you’re
familiarized with the routine, how things work. The bonus
“Schools are extremely competitive in the public sector, is that each project is a sure thing because the owner isn’t
going to go bankrupt. It’s a bit like having
a low yield government bond versus
playing the riskier market. We receive a
lot of repeat business from clients
because we treat them well. These days,
given the current economy and people’s
nerves, if people know they are going to
receive a quality product and don’t have
to fight every day to achieve that goal,
they are more likely to throw business
your way, even if you are not the
absolute lowest bidder. And as long as
you price things correctly, you will succeed
these jobs are big: They don’t
build a single building these days. The
Celebration high school that we are
working on right now is a campus of 12

Ron Jefford, project manager at Horton
Drywall in North Little Rock, Ark., is
one who doesn’t think the race is worth
running: “We don’t do schools because
the competition is ferocious and there
isn’t enough money in it. Ceilings are
mostly acoustical, and we can’t compete.”

Barry Gibson, president of Commercial
Drywall and Plastering in Ocala, Fla.,
was among the 25 percent of contractors
surveyed who doesn’t sit with baited
breath waiting for the next school job to
fall into his lap: “We do few schools
these days because they are designing
them with mostly masonry construction,
painted block, etc., whereas there
used to be a lot of plastered soffits and
drywall. You see very little of this work

Dan Cook, vice president of Dasco
Construction and Drywall in San Jose,
Calif, is looking for more school work,
on the other hand. “We have been in
schools as a niche since being in business
(15 years now) because we know what
to expect and bid accordingly. It’s a
tough market now, though, with competition
increasing greatly this past year
from people who have never worked on
schools before. California still has a lot
of bond money for schools, but I am
being underbid and therefore have not
had any projects recently.”

More feisty is George Kealoha, supervisor
at Kealoha Construction in
Wailuku, Hawaii: “Most state schools
are pretty straightforward in design, fast
paced, usually, and with low margins.
We love competition because we see
ways to increase our efficiency. It keeps
us running with the pack instead of having
to swim alone.”

“Go super cheap is my advice,” says Keith
Hoffman, estimator for E&K of
Phoenix, Ariz., “and if you are bidding
in the Phoenix area, don’t ever waste
your time bidding against Pete King. We
figure they give their painting away free
just to get the metal studs and drywall.
And they piece their work out, whereas
our guys are all hourly.”

Flunking the Grade

Ah, competition, where would we be
without it? It tends to improve performance,
but not always, as 38 percent of
those canvassed reported when they
complained that poor quality work was
a major headache in the school environment.

“School projects tend to be awarded to
the lowest bidder,” claims Heather
Boulanger, general manager at Rolling
Plains Construction in Henderson,
Colo., “so they don’t necessarily have a
quality GC to run them. The GCs tend
to throw trades together at the same
time. These projects tend to be cut rate,
cut throat, cut corners cut everything.
When we do get one of these jobs, we
hit the ground running to get in before
the other trades and make sure we do
the job right the first time, without
messing around.”

Two contractors leveled their sites at
architects: “Many schools go with the
cheapest architect,” asserts Cook, “so
we receive incomplete drawings, which
in turn means change orders—good for
us but bad for the owner. I completed a
project once that had all sorts of details
included that turned out not to be wanted
for the job, so I made a lot of money
on it. That’s the result of faulty drawings
and is a waste of tight tax dollars.”

“Schools are cookie cutters these days,”
adds Hoffman, “no real challenge.
Square boxes. They go fast and easy. Rules and Regulations
Sometimes they have a large auditorium
or gymnasium that may not be detailed
properly up high. Typically, there is a lot
of rating—usually one hour—but the
hallways and corridors may show
acoustical ceiling, and above that may be
drywall rated that is hard to pick up.”
“The biggest challenge in California is
the state inspectors,” Cook objects, “as
they often do not understand the metal
framing concept or even the building
code with regard to firewalls the two hour
wall is commonly not understood.
Some inspectors are expert, of course,
but it drives you nuts when every single
job, you have to show them the fire resistance
manual and building codes.”

Rules and Regulations

No list of challenges and complaints
would be complete without a wee complaint
about the codes and regulations
themselves. Boulanger points out “The
switch from UBC to IBC has resulted in
an awful lot of trade offs with hourly ratings. The standards have dropped, in other
words, and we get very little work now,
as there is very little fireproofing called for
in schools.” An interesting statement on
the value of children’s lives perhaps.

“The only real challenge is the fire
codes,” states Kingsley, “because after
you’ve built what the GC, architect and
school board rep think is OK, the county
representative for the fire department
will come in and often as not demand
we take hundreds of line-feet of wall so
many feet above the ceiling.

“Complying with the seismic requirements
and codes for wall attachments,
etc.” is something that challenges Bob
Heimerl, president of Mowery-Thomason Inc. in Anaheim, Calif. “Being in
public works,” he adds, “you also have
to deal with school boards that have
jurisdiction over the school districts you
are working in, so the work also
becomes political at times.”

California has its own set of issues, as
Cook explains: “Meeting state requirements
is really strict. You have to understand how the system works, how the
inspections go. You have to follow the
drawings to the letter, unless you can get
a change. Certified payroll meaning you
have to swear on your life that you are paying
all the benefits, union wages, etc.—
means a lot of extra paperwork, too.”

And Heimerl had one for the books
when he reported that “Schools are very
sensitive to which personnel are working
on a job—that they do not have any
record of perversion. We don’t screen for
that when we hire people, of course, but
I know of two schools we are working
on right now where we have to get security
clearance on them, or the school
runs background checks on those who
will be on the job. These men are then
issued a pass or card that they must wear
all the time they are on the job, which
says, ‘I am a white (hard) hat,’ so to

“They will sometimes partition areas
where those who do not have background
checks can work on their own.
Or a worker without a background
check can go into a restricted area as
long as another worker who has been
cleared always has him within his line of
sight. There have been cases of molestation
of students, not so much by construction
workers but by people within
the school themselves, such as janitorial
and maintenance people.”

You Want It When?

Like competition, rules aren’t about to
go away, but one element that can and
should be brought into being is adequate
levels of coordination and proper
scheduling. Four contractors felt these
were the main challenges in school construction/
renovation. “Most schools
want you to start the day they close in
spring,” says Corcoran, “and to be done
when they commence in the fall. So the
challenge is fitting construction into
those windows.”

Ron Molleur, vice president of EL.
Crane and Sons in Hutto, Texas, is of
the same mind: “The main problem is
schedule constraints—they release the
money too late and yet we have to have
the work done before the students
return to school. There are a lot of liquidated
damages and pressure to get the
job done on time, so sometimes certain
contractors do shoddy work.”

“Schools have to be ready by a dropdead
date,” echoes Bob Burgess, president
of Cascade Acoustics in Tualatin,
Ore., “so you have to be prepared to do
whatever it takes to get the project done.
Typically, it is a mad scramble during
July and August to get them done in
time for school opening. The fact that
we are in the process of completing a
$35-million high school four months
ahead of schedule shows that coordination
is the key. This project has a very
sharp superintendent who coordinates
everything very well, so all the subs
climbed on the bandwagon.”
ments are not ready when the hammer
is dropped to go.”

A peculiar problem with regard to coordination
is bringing in the deliveries on
time. Continues Burgess, “It seems door
frames are always an issue in schools,
always arriving late even though they
usually arrive on time on other commercial
projects. I don’t know whether
it is the complexity of the frames or the
fact that they are ordered late, or documents are not ready when the hammer is dropped to go.

“El-hi public schools are typically block
wall and wood truss situations,” states
Tim Cadenhead, commercial manager
at Sides Drywall in Auburn, Ala., “with
drywall in the administration area. Some
schools we have done were preengineered,
metal-building design projects
with exterior wall framing. The biggest
problem with these is coordinating the
mechanical. We always try to start with
the kitchen structure, because it will take
the longest to install the stainless steel
fixtures and the hood assemblies that
ventilate the area. There are always problems
there, while the classrooms themselves
are a breeze.”

Private and public schools have their
own sets of challenges. Corcoran has
noticed “a shift to charter schools in Colorado,
so the majority of our school
work is now universities and private
schools. The private sector is different
because you are dealing with a group of
very interested and active members
wanting to be part of the whole process.
Communication has to be very open to
satisfy this larger group. They like to
tour the facility while it is being built, so
it is important to shut down and clean
up while they come through, so they can
visualize what they are getting. And to
allow them to change their mind, as few
people can visualize a real building from
two-dimensional drawings.”

“In the public sector,” he continues,
“you have the certainty of public funds
and a superintendent for schools, so you
only deal with one person. It is less personalized
and fun than the private sector,
but more structured.”

An A+ for School

Having focused on areas of challenge or
problem, it might be sensible to let
Kinglsey bring this article to a close by
highlighting the reasons his company
likes school work: “By and large, the
budget has already been prepared, the
tax levies passed and the funding in
place. The kind of economic hurdles
one has to clear in the private sector do
not exist—such as owners might decide
after 9-11 not to spend $850,000 for
2,000 square feet in a beach front condominium
high rise. If you get a school
project, it is a sure thing.

“We start with GMP (gross maximum
pricing) so the owner has a general idea
of how much the project will cost. As
the project develops and everybody
compiles their particulars, they will bid
it at 30 percent, then 80 percent and
then 100 percent. They provide architectural,
mechanical and structural blue prints
that are not very detailed about
a 30 percent level. A wall in a hallway
would be the spec but you don’t know if
it goes to the structure above or to 6
inches above the ceiling, or what the finish
will be, whether it will have fancy
reveals in it, etc. The GC goes to the
school board with this low figure, and so
the project progresses in a predictable

“Often with hotels, however, they’ll
throw out 100 percent plans right at the
end and the cartel of owners will throw
up their hands and say, ‘We can’t afford

“Secondly, in a similar vein, the architectural
prints and specs on what products
to use and how to install them, generally
have been reviewed by the architect,
the GC and the school board rep,
who is also an inspector. So all the question
marks that appear in other types of
projects are ironed out before we start.

“We have been helping a GC with the
concept drawings for one particular
school that is going to bid right now
with 100 percent drawings, and I am
looking at specification books that are
1.5 feet tall. That’s what I mean. It’s not,
“What am I going to do here?’ No, the
drawings refer to a detail that will refer
to a spec book, and it is all very clear:
‘We want this type of reveal from this
manufacturer, painted, etc.’ All these
questions are handled ahead of time,
which makes it very easy, like painting
by numbers.”

Which kind of figures: School is where
things are kept simple if high pressured.

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a freelance writer based
in Clearwater, Fla.

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