• Field Notes 27.11.2012 1 Comment

    Last week, while completing an estimate on a fairly large curtainwall project, I was reminded of an experience that has stuck with me for more than 25 years, regarding the importance of ethics in business.  My employer at the time had a project with a granite-clad steel truss with punched opening windows.  These were only two of the thirty-one glazing systems involved in the project, but they covered floors seven through 40 on a 50-story high-rise office building.

    Shortly before Thanksgiving that year, we needed to place a one million pound order for hot rolled steel tubes.  We had recently completed the mock-up, and it was time to gear up for the job order.  The steel obviously was going to be one of the major purchase orders (with more than a week spent doing the take-off).  When the sizes and quantities were finally ready, we called six or seven of the more reputable vendors we typically dealt with to get quotes.

    Never having officially been a salesperson, I don’t know what it’s like to earn a living strictly off commissions, but I have to believe when someone calls with a million-pound order for ANY commodity, they’d have my attention.  That was the case, here, too:  several expressions dealing with the religious nature of feces were heard when we told them how much steel we were planning to buy.  One vendor’s comment has stuck with me:  “This could make for a VERY Merry Christmas.”  I can imagine!

    Steel prices were about $0.35/lb at the time, as I recall, so the total order was around $350,000.  So, we put some ground rules together.  One, we were only going to go out for bid one time, we weren’t going to shop the number, using someone else’s quote to get a different vendor to lower their quote, and we needed pricing back as soon as we could get it.  We were going to immediately evaluate the bids and issue a purchase order within two to three days after receiving quotes.  We issued a deadline and we gave them sequencing instructions (we couldn’t take it all at once, etc.).

    As it turned out, I don’t think there was a nickel’s difference in the price per pound between the high and low quote.  The cost was extended out to four decimal places ––no more than $50,000 separating low and high.  We knew by way of the quotes several of the vendors had gone to the same mills, so the only difference was either their overhead and/or profit.

    So, obviously, someone did have a very Merry Christmas, and everybody else was left with Christmas stockings filled by someone else, or not at all.  What made this experience more memorable, and the reason it’s stuck with me all these years was what happened once we let all the high vendors know they weren’t getting the order.

    One of the higher priced vendors called back immediately and said he’d do whatever was needed to get the order.  I apologized, and said I couldn’t do that.  He asked “why not?” After telling all the vendors we were not shopping prices, that we were going to move immediately, and then letting everyone else know (including the low vendor, too) how we were going, he expected us to change course.  Not going to happen. I told him if I did that, any credibility the company had would be shot to Hades, and no one would ever believe us again on any orders of any size.

    He didn’t care, he was prepared to do whatever it took to get the order. Regardless what lines needed to be crossed, he’d move heaven and earth to get the order. I told him if I let him re-price his quote, all of the high bidders should be given the same chance. Of course, he wasn’t in favor of that.  Obviously, had the budget been blown (it hadn’t), we would have put it back out for pricing. Not to mention what the low guy would have thought if we started shopping the numbers again.

    Typically, estimates are basically converted to the project budget when the job is sold.  Sometimes, actual pricing comes in lower than what was carried in the estimate.  Sometimes it’s not, and you have to scramble, figure out how to get it back down within budget.  And vendors can help only so much.

    I could not get the guy off our backs about this.  When I told him he was nearer the high side than the low side, he wanted to know by how much.  That wasn’t going to happen, either.   The vendors by going to basically the same mill all knew what each other was paying for raw material, but it would not have been copacetic to give out what their prices were to their competitors.

    What we’re talking about here is how honestly we all deal with each other in the business world.  I was in a meeting with my boss at the time and a GC when the question of my boss’ honesty was put on the table by the GC. The GC didn’t like the price and thought my boss was being overly aggressive in the estimate for change orders.  My boss’s response was classic:  “I’m reasonably honest, but I’m no more honest than you are.”

    GCs sometimes may play this game, using one subcontractor’s price to get the sub he prefers into a job at a lower number, but it’s not ethical.  More times than not, there’s a good reason your price is not as low as someone else’s.  What did you get in your price that they might have missed?  Is your overhead the same as theirs?  Taking a job at someone else’s number is a risky proposition at best.

    And it’s not any more ethical to shop prices among subs than at any other level in the game than another.  In some respects, it’s almost like price-fixing on the part of the entity that stands to benefit the most from a lower price, rather than the suppliers (glazing subs or material suppliers) on the other side being in collusion in rigging the pricing to a certain level.  Maybe it’s the “golden” rule:  since the GC (or owner or whoever’s paying the bill) has the gold, they make the rules.

    As to the vendor wanting to get another shot at revising his quote:  it didn’t happen.  When he hung up with me, he called that same boss.  And when I walked my boss through it, he backed me up.  The vendor was called and told he wasn’t getting the chance to change his quote.

    I don’t know who first said it, but honesty is really the best policy, in dealing with both suppliers and customers.   While no one is thrilled to loose a job to a lower number, it beats getting a job with a really stupid number any day.  I’m not so naïve to think that there aren’t snakes in the grass; the snakes eventually reveal themselves for what they are, and my memory chip still works pretty good remembering who they are.

    I trust you and yours had a happy Thanksgiving.

  • Field Notes 08.11.2012 1 Comment

    I hope by the time you read this, you will have voted.  And, all the political ads will have been pulled; the Facebook endorsements and hate emails will have stopped.  And that it’ll be at least 3.5 years before we see another political ad. Can I at least hope?

    Regardless of who wins, can we all just agree that in a democracy, the people choose who our next president is.  And that the choice has been made. Just don’t blame me, I probably voted for the looser.  If you didn’t pick the winner, join the club, there were up to 49.9 percent others who didn’t pick the winner either.  The next four years, the winner shall be President of these United States.  Can we all have just a little respect for the office regardless of who occupies it?  And, agree that this democracy process generally works?  If your guy didn’t win – wait four years.  We get to do it all over again.  Love it or leave it, but ain’t it great?

    In the same way choosing a president impacts the economy and daily life long after the election, selecting curtain wall anchors and embeds usually sets the precedent for how the job will go.

    Someone once explained that if on any window or curtain wall project you could save 25 percent on an anchor design or the typical way in which anchoring the curtain wall was accomplished, you’d surely win the next job.  It was cheaper to add more material to the anchor design if it could be offset by faster installation, since the field labor savings helped offset the costs.

    Besides structural silicone glazing, unitized walls have driven much of the innovation regarding how walls are connected to buildings.

    The first jobs I worked on were stick curtain walls.  Two steel plates were bolted to the aluminum mullions and headed / threaded bolts were embedded in the concrete.  Steel clip angles were attached to those embed bolts (usually to the face of the concrete spandrel beam) and then welded to the plates on the side of the mullions.

    On the first unitized wall I ever worked on, we put steel plates into the face of the concrete spandrel beams, and welded two shelf angles for every unit to those plates, then thru-bolted the unitized wall panels to the clips through the sill intermediate horizontals.  The reasoning for this approach was that the depth of the spandrel beam was almost as tall as the spandrel panel, thus denying any access to the sides of the mullions.

    And then the world got fancy.  Aluminum extrusions, by utilizing higher strength alloys such as 6005 and 6061, could be fabricated to allow for all manner of adjustments, in/out, usually by slotting the base anchor plate, and jacking screws allowing for up/down final adjustments.  There are all sorts of variation on this theme.  The anchor plates could be mounted on the face of a slab, or recessed into block-outs in the top of the slab, never being seen in the final installation.

    One of the largest contributors to the overall design variability in anchors and embeds has been the advancement in embeds, most notably the development of hot rolled steel sections used in concrete construction.  Such sections allow adjustment in the direction of their length; the bolts come in a variety of diameters and lengths, and are generally more forgiving in terms of placement tolerances.

    While most of this subject deals with concrete embeds, steel anchors welded or otherwise attached to a steel structural member carry equally weighted concerns.  But a misplaced steel anchor on a steel frame can be more easily moved or replaced than their concrete counterparts, by means of grinding off welds, removing bolts, etc, and relocating the anchor to the correct location.  Not so with concrete embeds.

    Most concrete frames will allow the use of steel anchors embedded in the concrete or in precast concrete panels.  In steel structural frames, the use of embeds is usually limited to the composite concrete deck slabs.  If the embed can’t go in the composite deck slab, embeds usually won’t be required, but connection directly to the steel frame is likely to change the whole anchor design.

    When dealing with concrete, embeds are usually the first materials delivered to the project.  They are required when the slabs or structures are poured, usually months in advance of the curtain wall or window so they get some immediate attention in terms of shop drawings, structural calculations, and material purchasing.  Because of this lead time, there’s not a lot of leeway to play with in terms of their design and execution.  It has to be done right and completed rather quickly.

    So as prominent as they are to good anchor design and execution, there’s a lot that goes into embeds. The load imposed on the embed, the strength of the concrete the embed is placed in to resist that loading, the design of the embed itself, the associated material and labor costs all go toward determining if a proposed design is correct.  Although the labor cost for placing embeds in formwork prior to the concrete pour is usually borne by the general contractor, it too plays a role if the GC doesn’t buy into the “means and methods” of doing so.

    There’s nothing worse than embed problems when it’s time to actually install a wall.  I once worked on a composite deck project where the embeds pulled out of the concrete at about 1/8 of their design strength.  Turns out the concrete in the corrugated decking was left exposed after it was poured, it rained, and the concrete basically turned to sand.  Every embed was tested, a lot of concrete was torn out and replaced to fix this problem.  A lot of cost and delay to the schedule were incurred.

    The same contractor told my employer at the time that they could locate the edge of slab and finished floor datum to within 1/8” of nominal.  As the industry standard is generally +/-1” (and is often specified) in or out, up or down, left or right, holding 1/8” was music to our ears.  When some of the slab and embed locations came in out of tolerance by as much as 4”, we had to scramble with redesigned anchors, new materials, and delays while the new anchors were fabricated.  Needless to say, there was a lot of discussion about who was responsible to pay for all of this added effort in time, material, and resources.  This job ended up at the courthouse – never fun for anyone.

    And there’s always one or two embeds that somehow don’t make it into the forms prior to the concrete being poured.  Field fixes are not easily dealt with, and can delay erection two to three days, again waiting for redesigned anchors and fabrication.

    In determining an anchoring scheme, involve field personnel and get their buy-in since they’re the ones who will actually work with it.  Be prepared for missing embeds, or embeds that are placed outside of the +/-1” location tolerance.  And if given the luxury, impress upon the general contractor and the subcontractor putting the embeds in the concrete how much accuracy and thoroughness matter in getting ALL embeds in, and in the proper location.

    The bottom line is the crunch is on when it comes to embeds, or any anchor scheme for that matter, because their delivery is so far in advance of when the wall itself is delivered to the site.  And, you only have one chance in a very small schedule-driven window to get it right.  But when it is done correctly, the whole job will benefit from it.  If you can’t set anchors efficiently, then the rest of the job will be staggered to follow that.  No way around it:  set off on the right course with good solid embed and anchor design and execution, and the entire job will go smoother.

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