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Schoolwork Isn’t for Everyone, But Some Love It

Two years ago, half of those contractors surveyed steered away from working on school projects, mainly because the competition was so fierce. The same rough ratio held this year, with 11 out of 19 saying they never/rarely worked on schools. The reasons they gave this year were more varied; read on.

“We simply stay away from these school projects for three reasons: One, they seem to be mismanaged by the school boards, which tend to be difficult to deal with and scrutinize changes beyond what is reasonable. Two, for some reason, pick-up contractors tend to chase school work, which makes it even harder to compete. And three, most schools are built with concrete block and have drywall partitions on top of the CMU to serve as ‘closure walls,’ since it is difficult to install block between bar joists. This becomes tedious and expensive, and many times, the drywall bidder does not take this difficult factor into consideration.” (Florida)

Charles Beatty III, president of Beatty Drywall Systems in Wilmington, Del., provides some specifics on the competition that keeps him out of schools in his state, and it is not from the pick-up truck artists: “We really haven’t done a school job in years, only because all our state-funded projects have wage rates that typically reflect the union scale. The formula to figure it is biased, and the unions make sure they get their rates. They’re not paying $36 like us, but $20-something plus all the benefits, retirement and everything that goes onto their build-up; whereas we have to pay the full $36 plus FICA, FUTA and all that stuff on top of it. So we’re at a disadvantage when bidding against them. We’ve priced school jobs without using the wage rates, and the union companies come close to our numbers. So, it’s pointless for us to even go after these jobs.”

“We just can’t compete against the people who bid on school projects.” (Arizona)

“On the metal stud and drywall portion that we could do, we don’t become involved because a couple of contractors in town always seem to get those jobs with low bids. We can’t be competitive in that market.” (Arizona)

Another Floridian, echoing the sentiments of other contractors, stated that the usual materials required for schools meant they did little work on them. “It has been quite a few years since we have done a school project of any note. Since we work with stucco, lath and [exterior insulate on and finish systems], the majority of our work on schools is limited to soffits and fascias.”

“We live in Eagle County and the two schools constructed recently are both brick, whereas we do stucco. I don’t know why they did that: maybe they knew somebody in brick.” (Colorado)

“We don’t do a whole lot of schools because they’re all exposed masonry in our area. Kids can’t beat up a block wall that’s exposed, painted masonry. If it’s plaster, it’s more susceptible to damage. Stucco cracks and we’re not going to use EIFS because it’s more expensive, so that’s the situation with schools here.” (Arizona)

A parallel problem to the issue of school board management of projects was expressed by another Arizonan who had one experience too many with a general contractor on a school project: “We only worked on one school that I can remember, quite a few years ago, and it was the scheduling that was more difficult than anything—trying to install our framing and drywall. The GC was having the A/C guys go out ahead and the electricians doing stuff overhead when they shouldn’t have been. He was thinking ‘hurry up and get the job done,’ but causing pain and heartache on the other end. I told him to @#%! off and left, and have not done a school since. It seems like this is a characteristic of school projects from what I have heard. We absolutely do not touch schools any more.”

Another wrinkle with GCs and school boards was expressed by yet another Arizonian who hasn’t done schools in a long time, “just because the contractors for schools are usually slow-paying, on top of the schools being slow paying. The last one we did was about three months ago. It was a small job, but we haven’t been paid because the GC went out of business!”

Lastly, there’s the contractor from Georgia who doesn’t work on schools anymore because “Pete, the general we usually do business with, started doing stores and shopping centers, which we find less aggravating to work on than schools. The most unusual school we did do was Woodstock High. At that time, it was the largest job we’d ever done, about a million dollars, and the largest school in the country.”

Scoring an A+

If half the contractors don’t do schools for various reasons, then that means the other half do. While the challenges were too great for those above to want to bother with, the other half is able to meet those challenges. Explaining how their company has made a go of it for the last three-quarters of a century and counting are the Woolard Brothers of Montgomery, Ala.

“Schools around here are low-budget deals and as a general rule are pretty simple. The biggest challenge is to be the low bidder, because there is a lot of competition. We do over half the jobs in our area, and we’ve been doing it for a long time. The company was born in 1932 by my father, I’m second generation and I’m going to be 65 next year. My son is in the business; he will be third generation, and I have a grandson who’ll be coming along here pretty quick, who’ll be fourth generation. It’s a good family business and we succeed in part, we think, because we buy materials and so forth a little better than our competition.”

Jim Cooper, president of Arok Inc. in Phoenix, talks of one of his competitors who is especially successful in the school market: “The one guy who does the most schools here is Pete King, a big corporation in Phoenix. He does a bunch more schools than I do. We’ve done them over the years, too—we’ve been in business 33 years. But it’s not really the market we go after because it’s real competitive. Pete King does the framing, hanging, taping and painting. He stocks all his own materials. He’s a big operation.”

One Thing Should Follow Another

As for the challenges that characterized school projects, it is the same one that seems to characterize more and more projects these days: unrealistic scheduling. Another Arizonian made that quite clear: “School projects in general don’t usually have everything they need to put it together. There is always something missing. A lot of it has to do with the contractor. I’m doing one out toward California that has a bad schedule. They’re giving it to him in pieces. The plumbing and A/C guy went out of business, so he had to bring somebody else in—it’s a mess! What we’re doing, because of the crazy schedule, is rocking everything we can. And when the plumber and A/C guys get their stuff in, we’ll come back and put it up on the GC’s dime. I don’t know where he is getting his money from, maybe the bonding company, but that must be the only way he can keep going.”

Tim Vellrath, vice president of Wesconn Company Inc. in Plymouth, Conn., expressed similar concerns: “From a schedule and management perspective, schools are challenging. If the project management team is respectful of our trade, which is fireproofing, if management is competent, we get along pretty well. If they don’t give a @#%!, then you have a fight from day one. Generally, we really knuckle down, have good rapport with the management team, we are happy with the project, they are happy with it, the product is being applied correctly, and that’s the way it should go.

“But it’s not always like that. We have a job for Hartford Public Schools where the first thing the management said was, ‘We don’t want one crew; we want you to start with three crews.’ Well, wait a minute! They’re already starting to make demands! Then it was, ‘We want you to do this change order but we’re not going to tell you how much we’re going to pay for the change until after it’s done.’ So, our eyebrows went up and we said, ‘We won’t do that!’

“Of course they came back with, ‘Well, your contract says you must do it.’ And we said, ‘That’s fine, we’re not doing it.’ And the guy eventually said, ‘What do you want me to say, then?’ We replied, ‘Why don’t we tell each other toforget this contract nonsense, and let’s figure out what we have to do to get this job done.’ He agreed, and it seems to be working out quite well, too.

“At the other end of the spectrum, we’re doing a school, in North Haven, and no matter what we say or do, the contractor does just the opposite. Virtually everything you can think of has gone wrong with it, from misapplications to—right now we’re thinking of filing a suit against him. Instead of having the 10 moves figured in the contract, we’re coming up to 87 times they’ve had to move our equipment. The job was supposed to be finished in November; it’s still not finished in May. Everything is sprayed but last time it rained, I counted 100 leaks in the roof. It’s just a nightmare! I think in the end the courts will determine the GC did not know what he was doing.”

Two Arizonans added their two-cents to the issue of scheduling: “Generally, the challenges are in coordination and scheduling by the GC, which falls under planning.”

“General contractors try to squeeze the schedule into the one they’ve given the owner, and that’s usually pretty ridiculous. I can’t blame them really, but they always try to squeeze us in, saying, ‘Plasterers can always make up the schedule.’”

So much for the challenges that are headaches.

Challenges That Are Fun

Most contractors felt that schools represented no or little challenge technically, but occasionally some of these were challenged by the specs, as a Georgian explains: “Schools are pretty typical in our area: one story, 150 tiles and square feet, there’s just really nothing special about them. When they occasionally incorporate light-gauge metal trusses, that’s about as challenging as they come, getting a professional engineer to design the roof system and all, getting them made, to the site, hoisted by crane into position and set in place. For us it’s challenging because it’s not the typical interior work that we normally do.”

Other contractors were more enthusiastic about some of the technical challenges presented by their projects. Tim Vellrath in Connecticut was asked to fireproof a school in February: “Schools aren’t overly challenging from a technical perspective—we’ve had some high atrium areas that look good and are always fun to do—but we are doing a project right now for OJ Industries where we had to start spraying in the middle of February, during which weather conditions are not the best around here. First of all, the general contractor had the whole building wrapped. I have seen this in other places, where the whole building is shrink-wrapped with heavy-duty plastics. It worked pretty well—not perfectly, but well. So we took an extra precaution by designing a skirt, like an umbrella, 20 feet above where we were working. We wrapped it around the column and put some duct tape around it, shaping a waterway about 6 to 8 inches away from the column. It was enough, as the area was already protected from the wind by the shrink wrap, and any water that did get in was shed off the column.”

Todd Toyne of Vintage Plastering Company in Tempe, Ariz., says, “The Kingman High School created the most challenge because of the aesthetic detail work in the exterior of the building. We worked it out with the first few walls and developed a little system—there is always a learning curve on any job, so paying attention to detail and not rushing through it was the answer. We just completed a really nice school, Sandra Day O’Connor School in Northwest Phoenix, which has a high auditorium area. It was a challenge to get the scaffold built just to be able to do the work.”

Jim Cooper of Arok in Phoenix had an unusual project “where they took a whole shopping center and made it into a school. We took [wallboard] and made images like Southwestern mountains and put them over the board so it stuck out, with trim and stuff. That was one of the neatest things I’ve done on a school lately.

We’re just finishing up one now for the Paradise Valley Community College, an auditorium. Instead of acoustical or gyp plaster, they’ve spec’d exclusively regular cement plaster, which is really strange to me, with a full, three-coat plaster job on it. We did the exterior too, some of it was block, some of it was EIFS, some of it was metal panels. It’s a pretty tall structure at 70 to 80 feet.”

Jason Gordon, president of Heartland Acoustics in Englewood, Colo., who “does lots of schools” had a similar project at “Prairie Hills Elementary, about two years ago. It was a pretty involved project, with blue ceilings and cloud-shaped white sections that hung low, so it looked like an outdoor area. It was a difficult project but turned out really well. The curved perimeter trim shaped like clouds that hung 25 feet in the air suspended under another ceiling. So there were a lot of technical installation issues. Of course, the materials showed up wrong and had to be field-modified in a local shop and then further field-modified, so it didn’t quite go as smoothly as the manufacturer had thought the system would bolt together.”

“We did another custom school down in Colorado Springs, called Fox Meadow. This one had a lot of custom metal ceilings, clouds, a lot of acoustical treatments for the ceilings—standard work that was difficult due to all the custom materials and installation methods.”

Woolard Brothers in Alabama, while finding most school projects meat-and-potato work, do recall “the school in Pinelevel. If you can picture a building with concrete block outside walls approximately 11 feet tall, and a steel structure roof system with the ridge 24 to 27 feet up. All of the classroom protrusions and so on were block walls that ran up to 11 feet. Our job was to put metal studs and two layers of drywall on each side of those walls going from the top of the 11-foot block up to the roof structure, for fire purposes. We didn’t do anything on the ground, every bit of work was from 11 feet up. It took a lot of electric scissor lifts—we probably had 20 of them, with pretty well every person on the job having his own personal scissor lift.”

Rusty Plowman II, vice president of Delta Drywall in Denver, recalls the Denver University Law School as the most challenging his company has faced. “It was very high end with several complicated facets. A penthouse had an area that required 120-pound wind load construction, and so it all had to be engineered with massive 12-gauge, 2-inch structural steel studs that were pulled up and had to be man-lifted into place with winches inside the building. We have a local AWCI chapter we work with that won the Project of the Year award for that particular year.

“They wanted the project done in a relatively short period of time, so there were upwards of 75 to 80 men on the job at any given moment. On all the inside stairways they wanted Decocoat, a Sto plaster finish with ceramic beads in it, for high-traffic areas, given as a change-order after the fact. So, we had to get that all done at the end. There were a lot of high atriums and scaffolding, extremely fancy soffits and ceilings, radiuses, vaults and arches, ornamental drywall and that kind of thing. Saunders Construction was the general, probably one of the top 20 in the nation. They received many compliments on the job and when they saw the work on the drywall finish, their project manager said it was the best finish job he’d ever seen! Our guys just did a really good job on it.”

Which sure sounds like the equivalent of a 4-point grade average.

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.

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