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Tight Schedules: How to Loosen the Grip

Here's how leading AWCI contractor manage scheduling expectations of GCs


Schedule compression on projects has been a problem for wall and ceiling contractors for years. Little has changed in the past decade, sources say, or even since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    

GCs characteristically trade-stack their projects. Some also expect speedier production rates on the part of each trade. And when delays arise, they may, and often do, require the wall and ceiling trades—the final input in the construction cycle—to make up lost time and help deliver the project on schedule.

    

“Schedules usually come down to money, don’t they?” says Tommy Weeks, special products division superintendent at Marek in Texas, who has been in construction for 23 years. “Businesses want their brick and mortars put in place because they’re desperate to get revenue.”

    

What do AWCI member contractors do to loosen the grip of tight schedules? Let’s find out.



Why Schedules Are Tight

Construction sites are typically fast-paced work environments. Hundreds of skilled workers and their field leaders, representing each trade, must navigate stacks of materials, machinery, lifts and crews at work. The collaboration effort required is massive. Each trade must manage its own staffing, logistics, material deliveries, equipment needs, even their crews’ morning stretches, and yet they must also coordinate their needs and concerns with everyone else on the project.

    

Clearly, the GC must facilitate this coordination. They set master schedules and put-in-place milestones, but often they do so without meaningful input from each trade. GC schedules tend to be general, sources say. They often lack the details associated with wall and ceiling sequencing and installation durations. And even when the GC is thoughtful and accounts for assembly construction appropriately, delays can and do happen. But despite weather interruptions, late material shipments and schlocky work on the part of other trades, the GCs remain in control and usually stick to their schedules.

    

“The end date never changes,” Weeks says. “Some activities may get pushed back, but the end date never will—and everything bottlenecks as each trade tries to finish.”

    

Construction time frames during the COVID-19 pandemic saw many GCs allow some scheduling latitude, sources say. The GCs were mindful during the pandemic that material supplies and transportation systems were disrupted. They understood little could be done and tolerated some work getting behind.

    

But today, with the pandemic seemingly ended, the scheduling latitude once enjoyed by subcontractors has “gone by the wayside,” Weeks says. “The GCs don’t want to hear about supply chain problems anymore.”

    

That’s because project schedules effectively derive from the “time value of money,” says Don Allen, AWCI’s director of technical services. Allen explains that building owners and developers invest huge sums into their projects and want them finished as soon as possible to garner returns on the investments. A new apartment building needs to generate rents. A sports stadium must be ready to support ticket sales, advertisers and the team’s all-important home opener. Even a school, while not a revenue generator in the classical sense, must be done in time for the next semester or the new school year.

    

This is why many projects require subcontractors to sign contracts that contain “liquidated damages” clauses. Any delay caused by a contractor will cost that contractor dollars—$5,000, $10,000, whatever—for each day the project goes past the contracted completion date due to a contractor contributing to the delay. Allen says these clauses are not new, and they tend to be more common with projects such as sports stadiums and critical facilities like hospitals. But the penalties, clearly, can be severe.

    

So, yes, schedules can indeed have a tight grip on a contractors field operations.

    

But what happens when the GC wants to not just meet a completion date, but wants you to work faster?



Managing Tight Schedules

As has long been the case, wall and ceiling subcontractors have had to manage the expectations of general contractors. There’s also the reality that wall and ceiling construction—particularly interior framing, sheeting and finishing—comes at the tail end of projects, when there’s little leeway left to alter workflows. If the firm digging the foundation for a sports stadium runs into a delay, that time must be made up somewhere—and the interior drywall and finishing firm is the final trade on site.

    

Here’s what to do.

    

Pass on some projects. Brent Allen, vice president at Compass Construction in Ohio, says his company has a “captured market.” By that he means Compass Construction works only for certain general contractors, the ones who have shown reasonableness on project timelines in the past.

    

“We don’t have too many problems with schedules because we tend not to work on the huge projects,” says Allen, referring to several recent large projects by Amazon, Facebook, Google and Intel currently out for bid or underway in the Columbus marketplace. “We only work with realistic, reasonable and true partners.”

    

Allen says Compass often works for builders/developers who tend to sell their building spaces entirely before they even break ground. For this reason, tight scheduling has little grip on Compass’ workflows and profits.

    

Issue weekly RFIs. Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York, says timelines on his company’s projects are reasonable right now.

    

“Coming out of COVID, I’m finding the lead times on mechanicals and the overall schedule is manageable,” says Zaretzky about his interior contracts in the mostly vertical projects of New York City.

    

Still, Zaretzky says his field teams can effectively head off problems by putting out weekly requests for information. The RFIs document what’s holding up Ronsco crews and list everything the crews need to do their work.

    

“That RFI takes the heat off,” Zaretzky says.

    

“We make sure we review the schedules when we’re awarded projects,” he adds. “We make sure the durations the GC gives us for our tasks are acceptable. So, when they want to expedite a job—and do two weeks’ worth of agreed-to work in one week—we can let them know there’s a hardship to do that. Doing this pushes back and holds them off—or it gets us compensated.”

    

Suggest time frames yourself. Weeks oversees Marek’s specialty ceilings, baffles, stretch walls, window treatments, glass board installations and more in North Texas—everything except for commodity drywall and cold-formed steel stud framing. As a specialty contractor, Weeks says his installations are not always included in the GC’s master schedule, and so he uses that to his advantage. He suggests what the time frames should be.

    

“If it’s a stretch wall, then it needs to happen after sanding and painting, but maybe before carpet,” Weeks says. “I’ll let them know where it needs to be put in and let them know the duration I need to perform the work.”

    

Weeks reminds GCs that specialty products require careful field measurements. After the specialty product manufacturer receives those measurements, they can send the shop drawings to Marek’s field team for approval and release for fabrication. The GC must understand that the window is narrow to get specialty products approved, built, shipped, checked for fit on site and finally installed.

    

“I’ll go to the GC and say, ‘Look, for me to field measure, here’s what I need. I need your base in. I need your millwork in. I need the substrate in. I need XYZ in place,’” Weeks says. “Sometimes I’ll ask the GC for a hold-to line to enable me to field measure and release for fabrication.”

    

“Most GCs have been around for a while, and they understand—they’ve been there before,” he says. “They may give me a little friction, but ultimately they listen to reason.”

    

Do anything you can. Some AWCI member contractors will do anything they can to meet deadlines, and that’s a mark of exceptional service. They may work extra hours, perhaps at their own expense, and even pay to expedite material shipments. It’s common among many AWCI member firms.

    

Other firms handle tight schedules on the front end. They factor in delays into their job estimates before bidding work.

    

“Our estimates may not be as sharp as what we would do for another, more favorable, GC,” says one drywall contractor. “But we must account for all costs. You want a competitive bid, and so does the GC, because they want the work, too. We find that some come around and become more reasonable in their expectations on the next project.”



Technology to the Rescue?

Construction technology can play a role in helping firms to meet field deadlines. Here are a few ideas to investigate.

    

Construction management software
. Construction software products provide real-time collaboration among field, office and trade workers. Software mentioned by sources contacted for this article helps subcontractors to reduce paperwork, streamline workflows, sidestep some rework and avoid miscommunication with other trades and the GC.

    

“Our field crews can log in online, read their RFIs and submit their daily reports,” says Weeks. “It’s all done electronically and has an exponential effect. It’s much faster than writing reports on paper and walking them up to a trailer.”

    

Is construction management software new? No. But deploying mobile devices with the apps helps field leaders to collaborate, document jobs site conditions, communicate installation progress and, effectively, deal better with tight schedules.

    

Automation technologies. Many wall and ceiling firms are piloting new job-site automation systems. These include a building information modeling–driven construction robot, a field layout projector and a drywall finishing robot.

    

Will these new technologies help subcontractors meet tight schedules so as to justify their investment and change field procedures? It’s hard to say. The technologies are still being tested.

    

Jonathan Hughes, vice president at Daley’s Drywall & Taping, says the Level 4 Targeted Spray system featured in the latest finishing machine helps Daley’s meet market demand for “exceptionally high-quality drywall finishes, while also offering much shorter schedule durations.”

    

Other BIM-centered systems include roll formers that can turn contractors into off-site fabricators with the ability to produce custom metal studs and framing products and kits. Roll forming isn’t new, but the software continues to advance, making it easier for firms to set up off-site prefabrication services.

    

Another automation idea is an interior wall framing system where studs and track are ordered cut to size using the project BIM. On the job site, framers snap the prepared studs together, one installer wearing a mixed-reality headset to do the work.

    

Artificial intelligence. Applying artificial intelligence to wall and ceiling construction is brand new—and, at this point, mostly theoretical.

    

“Most contractors I talk to don’t even bring up AI. They don’t see it as ready for the industry,” says Allen. “And I don’t see architects or engineers talking about AI either.”

    

Allen attended ASCE Structures Congress 2023 held earlier this year. The conference featured some discussions that mentioned AI systems. But, Allen says, the AI applications mentioned centered on the 3D printing of buildings. He says no presentations proposed integrating AI systems into construction processes.

    

However, a recent webinar presented by a construction software company suggests that AI holds great potential in helping field superintendents and others to work more efficiently. The firm believes some AI systems, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT language model, can automate basic workflows, such as preparing field reports. (See “AI: Your New Co-Pilot” in the July issue of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions.) AI could save construction firms thousands of person-hours a year in processing rudimentary data, executives said in the webinar. Of course, this remains to be seen.



A Compression Workflow

In the past 20 years, construction schedules may have accelerated by as much as two-fold. That means the GC running your next project might expect delivery of your scope of work in half the time today versus the past.

    

“It’s a compression workflow,” Weeks says. “You used to be able to finish one floor before you went to the next. Now they want two floors going congruently—or five floors at the same time.”

    

It’s certainly reasonable to try to garner efficiencies in the field. Most wall and ceiling firms strive to improve their processes and assembly designs so they can work better—and faster.

    

Even so, it’s a given that flexibility must be factored into the construction schedule.

    

“We commit to multiple budgets on our scopes,” says Allen of Compass Construction. “And we give them a heads-up if we’re asked to do more.”

    

If all else fails in getting GCs to show reason, then some AWCI member contractors are parting ways with the GCs they have worked for. Such “firings” of GC firms happen from time to time.

    

“I’m a New Yorker, and I’m not afraid of having adult conversations,” Zaretzky says. “GCs are buying a project. They’re buying a schedule. I might not be popular sometimes, but that’s why I choose to be very selective in who we work for.”

    

It may be an awkward conversation to have, but sometimes it must be done. But here’s an idea for a conversation that’s not awkward at all: A pep talk for the crews, encouraging them and motivating them to hustle.

    

“I tell the crews to be proud,” Weeks says. “I’ll say, ‘You’re out in public. People drive by and see you working in the hot and the cold. It’s tough work, and not everybody’s built for it. But you are. So, take pride in what you do.’ And you know, they do work faster.”



Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. You can reach him at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

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