This article on hotel and motel construction goes beyond the usual challenges of telescoped deadlines and complex designs. It seems contractors are running into a variety of issues, which might be useful to share.
The Great Rush
The most common issue, says a Floridian contractor, “Hotels are fast-paced, get-them-done-in-a-hurry, so you man your crews more.” That’s a though echoed by an Arizonan: “The biggest challenge on hotels comes when they typically give you a week per floor, for framing, hanging and taping. You build up the crews and keep running, with the challenge being to have everybody in place and finishing everything without having to come back. Problems making it work are mechanical and plumbing not having their two-hour shafts in on time or tested, or the lights aren’t on—there is always something.”
“They want the work done extremely fast,” agrees an Alabaman. He points out the obvious ramifications: “They are usually trying to beat a deadline for a certain season or time of the year when they want their hotel to open. When all the trades have to work on top of each other, it slows the speed of the job. On one job, we were able to make the deadline, but the first weekend they opened, all the toilets backed up. The plumbers had difficulties because of the speed at which they had to work.”
A Georgian points out another consequence: “The problem is worsening. GCs push the finish subcontractors into an allotted time of 25 days, whereas the original time line given was 50 days, and threaten with liquidated damages. Nobody wins in the courthouse. They tie you up in court, and you may win or you may settle, but you will have spent thousands of dollars defending your position, assuming it was the correct position. Many GC contracts are not very nice to subcontractors, so you have to ensure you insert your provisions that if they want you to work 18-hour days, they’re paying 8-hours a day overtime. Sixty percent of them are willing to pay, and the other 40 percent say ‘No, you’ve got to do it anyway,’ and you fight for it at the end. I’d say 70 percent of these are kept out of court because you end up settling without receiving everything that you should, but you realize that it’ll cost you more money if you go to court. And the other 30 percent do go to court. It’s a tough life, but it’s a choice we’re making because we’re still in this business.”
A contractor from Idaho has his own way of dealing with scheduling pressures: “GCs tend to give us impossible schedules. We do drywall so we’re usually toward the end of the cycle with any extra days usually already wasted. That puts us under pressure, and we respond by applying as much manpower as is available and working long hours and weekends. I have done a pretty good job over 26 years of not letting the reason for the schedule being behind be my fault. I’m pretty hardnosed. I have a pretty good reputation of getting things done when they need them to be done, and I guess people respect that enough that they listen to me. If there is a problem on a job, we try to work with them to get it ironed out so that we can get it done in their time frame.”
Putting Skills to the Test
“After you’ve done a bunch of hotels, they’re all the same,” says an Arizonan. “We did a really nice hotel out here at a casino, 300 rooms, and in the lobby we built a big radiused dome out of regular framing and [drywall] in adobe finish over which they put paintings on canvas.”
That’s the kind of challenge from an architect a contractor wants to deal with. One that two contractors would prefer not to deal with concern space, not enough of it designed into the building. “On a hotel we worked on last year,” reports a contractor from Delaware, “the drawings were terrible and they had trouble fitting the mechanical trades—plumbing and electric, and heating and cooling—into the spaces. They didn’t allow enough space for them, which messed up all kinds of things.”
A Coloradoan has noticed the same issue: “From the hotel jobs we’ve done, the biggest challenge is lack of plenum access, plenum space. They’re very compressed from floor to floor. An acoustical ceiling installer trying to cover up everyone’s systems up in that plenum is constantly battling height issues, because they’re trying to squeeze all the mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems into a real tight plenum space. I think they squeeze the structure because they want as many floors as possible within the height the building. If they were to increase the height between each floor slab, it would definitely ease the pain for everybody. I don’t know from a design or structural standpoint if that’s possible, but it would sure make the contractors happier if they had a little more height between floors.
“In some of the hotels we’ve done, the bottom of the slab floor construction is just textured and painted and it is the ceiling. So in all the hotel rooms, you basically have a single floor system that’s solid concrete and the top is carpeted and the bottom is a painted or textured ceiling. That pushes all of the systems in the building out into the corridor. It makes for a lot smaller scope of work on our end, but we’re still having to deal with all the heights and constraints and crowdedness of small plenums running down a corridor.
“I think they can still do wood-frame construction up to three or four stories here in Colorado. If it goes beyond that, they have to do a steel or concrete construction, which may be less expensive. With lumber prices today, I don’t know if that holds true. But most of the hotels that were two to three stories were all wood-framed. It’s rare for commercial—it’s kind of a weird niche because in commercial construction, you just don’t see a lot of wood anymore. But hotels are one of the exceptions, and I don’t know if that’s because the usage or the zoning or classification for that type of facility still allows it. With hotel construction of steel and concrete, you don’t have these plenum issues.”
While these contractors are struggling with lack of space, a Hawaiian struggles with too much and too little space: “On the renovations side, that is always a challenge because they want to keep the hotel occupied while you do the work in phases. On new construction sites, I don’t know if there is anything particularly challenging, but usually there is a lot of fancy work in the lobby areas and meeting rooms, that kind of thing. So that would be more challenging on those sites. They usually specify a lot of custom materials and fancy work—radius work, columns, a lot of light columns, soffits and so on. When it comes to special materials, we of course have an added problem in Hawaii. It always seems these specialty materials come from New York or somewhere else on the East Coast [of the United States], which can add four to six weeks just in freight time, assuming they have the product in stock. And when you try to ship in less-than-a-truckload quantity, you are at the mercy of the freight forwarders because they bump materials. It’ll be sitting in some freight forwarder’s warehouse for space to be available.
“We’re working on renovations at a couple of hotels in Waikiki at the moment that are challenging because they are old structures from the 1960s when they built things differently. Trying to integrate new drywall construction methods with old cement plaster construction in certain walls and ceilings can present a problem!
You have to try to match things, and you end up using non-standard stud sizes so your wall thicknesses can match, that kind of thing. And then you have to order in those non-standard sizes.”
Shedding Light on Change
For a Georgian contractor, lighting can be an issue: “As we are in the finish trade, the biggest issue is making sure there is enough light in the area where you are finishing trades. We just worked on a hotel where the lighting was only in the hallways and we had to use task lighting in the rooms. And because everyone else has taken longer than expected, the finish trades usually have to make up the difference in the schedule.”
For a Coloradoan, it is change orders: “We have done many Hyatts and Marriotts where the challenge is persuading the owner to stay with the original designs. One in San Jose in particular, when we bid the job originally, had the plumbing in the walls with post-tension slabs so they core-drill according to where the pipes would be. Then the owner decides on an 1800’s look with the plumbing outside the wall. That meant re-coring, drilling holes in the concrete slab—and with post-tension slabs that meant cables in the slab holding it up, so we had to X-ray the slab to find out where the cables were so we could drill without hitting any cables.
“Owners don’t often realize the implications when making changes. We tell the GCs, ‘If this is really what you want, send a directive to all 20 subs involved in that change, have them price what it will cost them, take that cost back to the owner, and after the owner has been resuscitated, he can make the decision whether or not he really wants to make that change. Subs don’t like to make changes like that: It makes them feel they’re going backward, even if they’re being paid.”
A Problem Cured with Contract Clauses
From Delaware we hear of a problem that might be construed as prejudiced, but the speaker was voicing a serious concern about working in the United States with people with different cultural backgrounds: “The second problem with one job was that we still have to be paid for it. There is a group of hotel owners from [outside of the United States], and I think it’s part of their culture to negotiate really hard at the beginning of the job to get the best price, and at the end of the job to reopen negotiations with the money they still owe you. In this case, they’re trying to cut a deal with the million dollars they still owe. They come in and start claiming all these things are wrong, and they take you to court and you end up having to lien the project while they bring up all these dubious claims after they’ve been in the building for six months. They want to see how far you’ll go before they have to pay you. They probably win more than they lose because people give up and settle.
“On another small hotel job, the owner did the same thing to the general contractor. The GC had to go to court and it cost him $75,000 to take this guy to court to win the judgment and be paid. This highlights one of the problems with the American system. In the British system, when you take somebody else to court and you win, that other person pays your court costs. In America, each person is responsible for his or her own defense: even if you finally win, you’re not going to recoup all your costs.
“You could sue to cover costs, but historically there is no precedent in our law to recoup those costs. The way you do it is to have it in your contract to recoup your costs. If they don’t want to go with that clause, they can go to the next-highest bidder so they can try and stiff them at the end … . As far as hotels go, just watch yourself, be careful who you’re dealing with.”
America is a melting pot, of course; people from all over the world come to live and work in the United States. When those people arrive, so do their business cultures and traditions, and the construction industry is learning how to adapt to this sometimes new way of doing business.
“This is what I am up against on this property,” continues the contractor from Delaware. “I have a lien against this property, and someday we will probably get all our money, because I have written in my contract all kinds of protections for myself with the GC—that if I have to go to collections, they pay all of my costs. Most of the vendors that I deal with have it in their contracts with me for materials. If clients balk at it, I ask, ‘What, do you mean you’re not going to pay me? You’re going to pay me, right? Well, if you’re going to pay me, don’t worry about that clause, that’s only for the bad guys.’ And if they say, ‘Well, we’re not bad guys, take it out,’ my answer is still, ‘No!’
“I have a whole addendum that I add to contracts that we negotiate through. Many people don’t do that. The most important thing, of course, is being competitive and getting the work. But the second most important thing is negotiating a contract that is fair, so as to minimize your risk as a subcontractor and help keep you in business.
“But that still doesn’t mean, if you have that in your contract, that you are free and dry. Sometimes when you go to court, it’s your word against the other guy’s. What is the judge supposed to do? There’s no proof anymore, the job’s done. The guy claims he had to do X amount of dollars to repair your work, and you claim that’s false. So the judge is sitting there, he doesn’t know what to believe, so he usually splits it down the middle. So, if the guy owes you $100,000 and you go to court, you know you might get $50,000. Sometimes you figure you might as well take the $50,000 and not waste your time by going to court.”
One contractor from Colorado seems to have everything under control when it comes to hotel construction. “I’m redoing a Hyatt, 80,000 square feet on a five-year plan going over the entire exterior: redoing all ceilings, taking out and replacing all the caulking around their windows and doors, patching all the stucco and then painting the whole building, two months in the spring and two months in the fall each year. The challenges are setting up scaffolding 70 feet on angled roofs, getting up on their chimneys. It’s just routine for me, but I am sure it would give some people some head scratching! We had one incident the other day where a brace fell 70 feet and landed near one of the cars by the port cochere area. No one or thing was hit, thankfully.
“We have the necessary talent as far as construction goes, I train anyone who can speak English, so we get it done right and have a reputation for that. I make training my most important concern after safety. In 20 years, I think we’ve had half-a-dozen callbacks for problems. So I get to tell GCs, ‘You can pay me now or you can pay me later.’ And some who selected a cheaper bid come back and have me repair their problems. It may have cost them more than they originally paid on their contract, but they get their houses done right and they can sleep again at night.
“Your reputation follows you, good or bad, and mine has caught up to me now so I rarely have to bid on work; people tell me they want it done, just do it. They don’t even check on my work. They just trust me to get done what needs to be done. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of work and they don’t even check on me. It’s good to be king! I found out recently I have been putting on this Sto product now longer than anyone else in the field. That’s certainly going to give me some recognition, too: from Sto, I get a hat once in a while.
“Otherwise, the challenge is interfacing with the public and getting along with them. We try to keep it to a minimum, not talk to them unless we have to. If you do interact, be very polite and let the customer know they’re first. Whatever their needs and interests and concerns are, they come first.”
If Only Owners Could C What I C—
Florida Hotels & ICF
And finally, for a contractor from Florida, the challenge with hotels and motels is getting people to sign onto a superior building system that is still too new to be spec’d as often as it should.
Says the Florida contractor: “We have a hotel right now that we’re working real hard on, a four-story Comfort Inn & Suites. They love ICF (insulating concrete forms) and are working with us on details.
“We have several other motels and hotels that we have priced out: ICF is a great fit but the challenge is getting people to switch from traditional masonry, a process that has to start with the architects, and the manufacturers blitzing the architects, getting the information and the word out about ICF. Because nine times out of 10, when the plans are already drawn up out of masonry or CMU, it’s almost too late.
“You’re going to have to do a really good sales job to get it switched over at that point, because nobody wants to put in the time and effort to switch it over. If we can get the architects drawing it out of ICF, then the builders will build it out of ICF.
“With the climate that we’re in—hot, humid, high energy bills, hurricane impacts, wind resistance, mold and mildew, termites—all those things are reasons why ICF manufacturers need to have more salesmen in this area and be doing more seminars and product demonstrations. Unfortunately, most of the manufacturers are outside Florida and don’t realize what a great market it is. It’s like when you see Katrina and the effects of it from a news channel—it’s out of sight, out of mind five seconds after you’ve clicked the remote off. But when you actually physically go there and see it firsthand, and work in the remnants of the storm helping people who were victims of the storm, then it really sticks in your mind.
“In the same way, manufacturers never come here after these hurricanes to see what the market is doing and that people are looking for ways to build hurricane-resistant homes. One guy isn’t going to cut it for the whole state of Florida, for example.
“After Ivan, Charley and Frances I said, ‘You guys should have been here for a solid year with as many people as you could, trying to market your product, and you’d be building houses left and right.’ The urgency tends to wear off after a while, people tend to become lax and say, ‘Aahh, let’s just build it out of wood. We haven’t had a hurricane in three years, so it’s out of sight, out of mind.’
“We’ve just got to hang in there and keep bidding it and then that ripple effect will come once the word gets out. And before we know it, we’ll be too busy!”
Let’s hope so!
About the Author
Steven Ferry is a Clearwater, Fla.–based writer for the construction industry.