Recent developments regarding balcony handrails (tempered vs. laminated, captured vs. point-supported, etc.) led to a news story by Toronto media about poor long-term performance of exterior walls in condos. Deb Levy’s 11/20 blog post had some scathing critiques of the processes involved in executing condo projects — justifiably so, based on what I learned from working on five condo projects during my career. A few lessons to share from that…
First, RADAR UP! If you ever relied on gut feel, intuition or whatever you call your business acumen, working on a condo project provides a perfect opportunity to bring it into play, to the fullest extent possible. If there ever was a time that something that didn’t feel right then later actually turned out that way, use that past experience as a guide, especially with condos.
Secondly, consideration should be given to who the owner, architect and general contractor are going to be, and what experience they’ve had in condo projects in the past. If they have a history of delivering good, quality condo projects, that should be an indicator of what will be expected on this next project. With a little digging, it’s not hard to find other glazing subs who may have worked for these entities on past condo projects. A phone call or two will help put your mind at ease or raise flags, which can then be the basis for what you do next.
The quality of the contract documents, drawings and specifications, should also be considered. A tight spec can lead to a tight wall, literally and figuratively. A loose spec can leave a lot to interpretation, resulting in loose construction. For example, the specifications should require a performance mockup, especially on a brand new wall system. In the case of an existing wall system, is there a history of a previous mockup, involving the same vendors and installers, that met or exceeded the performance criteria for the current project. Is there a rigorous field testing requirement?
Granted, these increase the cost of the job. But in 10-15 years, if the mockup and field tests were successfully completed, would that not be an indicator of how well the quality of the overall installation was executed? That might be useful in arguing about the quality of the installation if the need ever arose after the job is in the history books.
Architects who hire reputable consultants are another good indicator of the level of quality the curtainwall is expected to meet for the project. And if the GC is going to hire a consultant, the more eyes, the better. Who the consultants are and their reputations is also a harbinger of what to expect during the project.
No doubt, everybody wants the best wall they can get. But the reality in construction is that, “money talks, everybody else walks.” However the budget is initially established, this may drive the initial selection of a wall system (or vendors or glazing subs) that may not lead to the best wall being built. How many times is a job budgeted by architects or GCs on the low side? On condo work, that’s dangerous territory. In the course of performing “value engineering,” reducing the wall cost has a tradeoff, and it might just be in the quality of the wall finally selected and installed.
C’mon, everybody knows you get what you pay for. When this occurs, “VE” should mean “value eradication,” as the quality is often what’s sacrificed on this altar. I would argue that a budget, regardless of whoever might have established it, and for whatever reason, is not representative of what it really costs to do condo work. If the owner can’t justify an increase of the curtainwall budget, what does that tell you?
Bonding companies probably have some requirements about being notified before bidding a condo project. The bonding company obviously will want to know the amount of the bid, where the work is, how much your contract is, etc. They could be a good resource to share what they know about the players (owners, architects, etc.), and the due diligence they will require before they’ll sign on to provide a payment and performance bond.
If you do go after this type of work, go in with good, quality vendors whose reputation is spotless, who stand behind their work, who’ve been doing it a long time, and in all likelihood will be around for as long a period of time as you want your company to be. Good vendors may cost a little more, but their reputation, and hopefully your past successes with them on projects, is another confidence-builder going in.
The decision ultimately to be made by the glazing sub is not an easy one. It should and does demand a lot of careful, prudent, and deliberate thought and consideration. If boiled down into one question: “is this project worth the risk?” If they (the project decision makers) want a lesser quality, lower-performance wall, but given the litigious nature of condo work, is this project really worth that risk? Granted, there will always be some glazing sub that will underbid the work. But did you really want that job at that price? And reputations are made, substantiated or broken over a lot of different projects, and condos are some of the most demanding our industry faces.
Sometimes the best jobs are the ones you don’t get or take just to stay busy. Tread carefully, and know when to dive in, and when not to even put the toe in the water. I know of several vendors that won’t go near condo work. Apparently, there are some architectural firms with the same fear and loathing of it.
Anybody remember the closing line of the watch room from the TV show, Hill Street Blues: “Let’s be careful out there….” In relation to condo work, that’s certainly the case.