One thing that's remarkable in listening to builders and wood flooring contractors is that, much like the proverbial pot calling the kettle black, they have many of the same complaints about each other. They can't schedule, they don't have any respect, they're disorganized, they have unreasonable demands, they just want to do it their way… the list continues. Like a marriage gone bad, often communication has broken down or barely existed to begin with. ¶ That is not the rule, however. When one wood flooring contractor was asked why the two don't get along, he answered, "What do you mean?" and explained (sincerely) that his company experiences minimal problems. There are plenty of good builder/wood flooring contractor relationships; they just require nurturing. As another contractor commented, "It's not rocket science."
It's a date
Wood flooring contractors' most pervasive complaint is scheduling. Promises made regarding time on the job site are all-too-often promises broken. But construction projects have run behind schedule since the beginning of time, many contractors point out. It's a matter of staying on top of it.
At Costen Floors in Richmond, Va., where working on 15 to 20 houses a day is the norm, scheduling is more than a full-time job, says President Ralph Costen Jr. The company employs one person for hardwood installation scheduling and one for sand and finish. Usually, the company receives a purchase order from the builder the day the foundation is laid. "When we get a P.O., that means normally about 55 working days later is when we'll book the house," Costen explains. "Two weeks before that day, our scheduler starts talking to the super about the reality of it." Frequently, the job sites are also monitored in person as multiple houses go up in the same subdivision. Smaller companies can accomplish the same thing, Costen emphasizes, with a few simple phone calls.
Tom Poulin, president of Poulin Design Remodeling in Albuquerque, N.M., sees scheduling as a constant issue for subcontractors. "A lot of them don't understand scheduling," he explains. "They're just kind of moving from job to job and doing seat-of-the-pants-type scheduling."
It would also improve the situation if the subs were always ready with materials in hand. But all too often, Poulin says, they rely on their distributors' word that materials are in and ready. Subs need to have everything necessary in their physical possession and inspect it to make sure it's acceptable product before making promises about showing up on the job.
Poulin also understands, however, that scheduling is a two-way street. "Their schedule always changes, as does ours," he says. "We have to accept some delays if our job delay causes them to have to go to another site. We have to understand that, because we're not their only customer." The key, he points out, is building a relationship with the subcontractor so that both parties understand how the process is going to work.
Frequently, that formula does the trick for wood flooring contractor Mark Williams, owner/president of Wood Floors by Williams in Kalkaska, Mich. "We have some great builders who meet our schedules; we've built relationships with them over the years," Williams says. "Those guys are great. We walk in and we've got the floor."
While walking into a job site unhampered by other trades is ideal, it's not necessarily the norm. Delays often force wood flooring contractors into uncomfortable situations, whether it's installing while four other trades are on the job or having to bump another client into a later time slot because of pressure to get the job done.
Because they (ideally) come at the end of the building process, wood flooring contractors are one of the trades that bear the brunt of pressure when a job is behind schedule. To complicate matters further, wood flooring is a relatively fussy product as far as its installation requirements. Industry standards call for a job site that has all windows and doors, the HVAC system running at living condition levels, and all wet trades, such as painting, completed.
Depending on the product, wood flooring has to patiently acclimate on the job site for a period of time. Prefinished products are especially susceptible to damage if other trades continue to be on the job site after installation. In a perfect world, ideal standards and requirements would always be met, but the reality can be tougher.
Most wood flooring contractors find themselves making a judgment call based on their own professional experience. For a company such as Virginia-based Costen Floors, which handles large volume in a market with huge swings in moisture, perfect conditions are a rare luxury. "Here, you're not going to be able to get that house air conditioned or properly controlled before a wood floor goes in for two reasons," Costen explains. "The builder isn't going to wait—it takes too long to get the power company, heating or air conditioning on the job. Number two, if I don't do it, my competitor's going to do it. That doesn't make it right, it's just a fact of life." What Costen does have control over, he explains, is making sure the builder is educated about the risks and consequences of installation under lessthan-ideal conditions. And Costen draws the line at certain conditions, such as frequent requests to install before sheetrock is in.
Up in Michigan, Williams says his company usually manages to approach the necessary conditions. There's a fine line between servicing a client's demands and going ahead with a floor in risky job-site conditions. "We don't want to jeopardize quality just because the builder's doing more than he or she should be on the job," Williams says. "Sometimes to satisfy that requirement, I simply have to back away."
When wood flooring contractors feel they have no choice but to proceed on a job with treacherous conditions, they also have the option of having the builder sign a waiver stating that the builder understands the risks and will not hold the wood floor company liable for future problems. Although waivers may protect contractors to a degree, they don't protect them from future headaches such as a reinstall or the bad reputation that stems from failed floors.
The best approach is to not let the problem get that far. Builder education is a first step. Many general contractors are simply ignorant of the requirements necessary for proper wood floor installation. Williams uses literature available from the NWFA to help educate his clients, and he says they "really appreciate it."
The contract is another way to delineate the agreed-upon conditions for floor installation. Some builders go so far as to list the number of days available to each trade and describe which trades are allowed on the job site while the wood floors are done (ideally, none).
Educated builders understand that the demands made by the wood floor contractor are done in the best interest of the entire project. "I believe that a builder has an obligation to his subs," says Tom Avgerakis, president/owner of Thomas Avgerakis Highland Homes in Lake Oswego, Ore. "When a builder calls someone to come to the site, it should truly be ready for him."
Headaches involving builder work is what spurred Joe Weinmann, owner of Floor One in Ramsey, Minn., to concentrate his business on remodeling work instead. "They have their way, and we have ours," Weinmann says. "They want to save money, and we want to do it right." Weinmann now focuses on remodeling and works for only one builder, who he says will "do everything to do it right."
Having the right climate conditions and clearing out other trades aren't the only concerns with having a job site ready for installation. Another is general job-site clutter. "Lots of times you're spending two hours cleaning before you can even do your job," Weinmann says. "That's saving money for the builder; it's two hours they don't have to pay for their labor." Simple courtesy, he adds, implies a clean job site upon arrival, and likewise, Weinmann doesn't leave a trail of used abrasives and trash when he's done on the job.
Dollars and sense
Eventually, of course, many disputes come down to money. During his career as a framing subcontractor, it was not getting paid by a builder that drove Avgerakis to become a full-time builder himself. "I'd worked for one builder for three years; toward the end he was holding back money on every job and saying he'd make it up to me on the next job. It was just a bunch of stories."
Lessons learned as a subcontractor taught Avgerakis a lot about the sort of builder he wanted to be. "My philosophy is the builder pays himself last. That's not a philosophy that's followed," he explains. Normally, "the builder pays himself first and with whatever's left, he tries to figure out a way to wheel-and-deal the subs."
Wood flooring contractors are not totally without recourse. Some savvy subcontractors take advantage of lien laws as a matter of routine business. Laws and procedures vary from state to state, but in many states, subs must send a letter within a certain period of time after material delivery to claim lien rights. That standard letter can be enough to put its sender at the top of the pile of bills to be paid.
A little respect
Working with builders may not always be easy, but some contractors need an attitude adjustment, Costen says. "First of all, the builder is our customer—I think we lose sight of that sometimes," he says. Costen considers most of his builders not only clients, but friends.
That philosphy is also vital to Avgerakis. Working as a sub, he often felt disrepected and "very dispensable." That's not the case now that the tables have turned. Many of his subs have worked with him since he started the business. "You cannot build top-quality homes with strangers," he says. "You have to have a team you can depend on, that's loyal to you—people who inject their own personal passions and feelings into the project."
That pays dividends in myriad ways. Open communication is more likely. Subcontractors feel freer to suggest design changes or a more efficient way than the one specified by the architect. They're more likely to inform the builder about changes requested by the home owner or architect. And subs who are respected and paid on time are more likely to go the extra mile when necessary to get the job done.
Poulin suggests that the builder-subcontractor relationship is much like a marriage—the two parties should accept that they're in it together and work out solutions together. He relies on his subs to back him up when something goes wrong. "I think it's important to treat warranty and customer service as Number One," he says. "If they receive a request from us, they need to handle it immediately. Our mission statement is complete customer satisfaction, and we can't provide that without them."
Likewise, the subcontractor needs support from the builder.
"A lot of times to a builder, the sub is sacrificeable," Avgerakis says. "If there's a problem on the site, they say 'Hey, just blame it on the sub, not the builder.' I've never approached it that way—the buck stops with me, and it all boils down to mutual respect."
For the forthright opinions straight from the wood flooring contractor and builder, keep reading.
The Contractor's Turn: Sweet Vengeance
By Chuck Crispin; Legendary Hardwood Floors; Terre Haute, Ind.
When I was asked to write an article about builders, I agreed immediately. My first thought was, "Sweet Vengeance! The day of righteous reckoning has finally arrived." Then I found out that it was supposed to be a serious appraisal of why the builder-wood flooring contractor relationship seems so dysfunctional. "You mean why they hate each other?" I asked. "Isn't hate a little strong?" the editor wondered. "Loath, despise and revile might be a little strong, but there is something healthy about a little hatred, especially if it has been fine-tuned over a period of decades," I said.
Let's begin with the psychological profile of the animal in question. Although there are many different types of builders, most display a number of the traits that have been identified in popular psychology as "Type A" behaviors. Type A personalities are aggressive, purposive and single-minded. They are the if-I-want-your-opinion-I'll-tell-you-what-it-is, just-get-it-done-by-yesterday-and-I'll-pay-you tomorrow masters of the universe. On the negative side, they tend to draw criticism for being self-centered, shortsighted and second-guessing. That comes with the territory and can be forgivable when the megalomania is offset by a modicum of competency. But the building trade's competency spectrum is perilously broad.
After careful observation, I have identified three basic builder types: Napoleons, Bill Clintonians and Phil Jacksonians.
After careful observation, I have identified three basic builder types: Napoleons, Bill Clintonians and Phil Jacksonians. Napoleon-style builders fancy they will one day rule the world, and their projects all fall neatly into the scope of building an empire. They are fierce generals. Every project is a battlefield; every subcontractor is an officer commanding a squadron of soldiers whose mission is to capture another piece of territory for the empire. Napoleons compensate for their shortcomings with ruthlessness and determination that makes them highly respected in the business community. They are always willing to sacrifice a regiment or two to achieve an objective. If you are a hardwood flooring professional doing business with a Napoleon, you would be wise to hire a lawyer. Getting paid for your work can be like laying siege to a fortified city. Napoleon will not accept being second to anyone in scheduling, and the grandeur of his enterprise entitles him to discounts and allowances that are exacted during the course of battle as back-charges if they are not offered as homage when the contract is signed.
A few years ago we did several jobs for a local contractor-developer who was in the middle stages of building his empire. We would show up on the agreed date, only to find that the concrete for the driveway and sidewalks was being poured that day, or the drywall crew was still there, etc. Napoleon would explain that I had misunderstood the date and that I was to show up in one week at 7 a.m. sharp or risk losing all future projects. One week later, we would arrive only to find the roofers tearing off the front section of the home. Napoleon would insist that we start, even though it looked like rain. When we went inside, the carpenters were busy putting in the door jambs and baseboards where we were supposed to be doing floors, and the kitchen people were setting the island and cabinets that were supposed to go in when we were done. In all, there were 14 people working in the house and five working on top of the house, and they were all in an ugly mood from stumbling over each other's drop cords and stealing each other's power sources and tripping the lone breaker that ran from a utility pole out by the Porta-Potty through the muck created by the landscapers. A small stream was coursing through the basement where the plumber had rigged an open pipe for the drywallers and tilesetters.
We were about to leave when Napoleon raced up in his shiny new truck and informed me that he had deadlines to meet and I was under contract. If we were not compliant, we would not only forfeit his business, we would be blackballed from getting work from his fellow commanders in the local homebuilders association. I did the only thing I could do—I wrote him a check in the amount of his deposit and took his wood over to a job for Bill Clinton. As luck would have it, I was right on time for his project.
The Bill Clintonian-type builder is more genial if a little less successful than Napoleon. Clintonians are wonkish. They distinguish themselves by gaining an intimate knowledge of the various crafts that comprise their trade. Many are accomplished tradesmen themselves. The Clintonians are generally the best custom home builders. They niggle and pick, but their customers generally love them and their subs are usually gregarious.
The worst thing about dealing with a Clintonian is the slew of interminable conferences and consultations. No one person's expertise is sufficient to make a decision. Everything must be reviewed and approved by all players, from the architect and engineer to the home owner and designer and all affected trades. With flooring, this can mean everyone from the plumber, electrician, HVAC man, painter, carpenter and cabinetmaker to the door supplier, tile contractor and AV consultant. Clintonians are notorious wafflers. Because they need everyone's love and approval, they seek to defer decisions until they gain a consensus. They agonize over species selections, pattern recommendations, adhesive specifications, stain variations, gloss options and a dozen other things. Personal foibles include $200 haircuts and bald-faced lying, but they revel in accomplishment and are the most likely to showcase your work and call you for the next job. They tend to be insecure about their place in the community, and their loyalties are often compromised.
Phil Jacksonians are the brilliant philosophical coach-type builders who draft their team and send them into the arena. They are the darlings of the construction trade. They leave the nuts and bolts to the mechanics. Their job is to identify and recruit championship talent and to instill the confidence necessary to win the ring. Sound too good to be true? Actually, a few do exist. If you are a player with Michael Jordan-like capabilities, you may get to play as much as you want and take outrageous shots without fear of reprimand. But if you have clay feet like most mere mortals, plan on getting sidelined when you drop the ball. Jacksonians do not deal well with loss of any kind. They are disciplinarians who exact harsh penalties from players who disappoint. If you miss a call, don't bother trying to explain that your cell phone was dead—Phil has already moved someone else into the forward position. Jacksonians are more concerned with building a dynasty than an empire. They are natural elitists who like being on the sidelines, out of harm's way.
No matter what kind of builder you are dealing with, most sources of conflict can be lodged in three courts of experience — kind of like the district, circuit, and supreme courts of contracting.
The district court deals with issues of general professional competency and communication. We expect to have to educate home owners about our practices. But when dealing with builders, we expect them to know when it is time to install the hardwood floors. We take it for granted that we are not to be summoned before the drywall has been primed and cured or the doors and windows are installed. We think they should at least catch on by the fifth or sixth time.
There are certain red flags that builders send you when you know you are about to be sucker-punched.
The circuit court addresses promises, as in matters of honesty and courtesy. There are certain red flags that builders send you when you know you are about to be sucker-punched. The flag favored by the Clintonian builder is: "At the end of this job, I'm going to throw a big party and invite all the tradesmen to celebrate." Meaning: He is about to ask you to do something extraordinary. My advice is, don't do it. If that doesn't work, he will fly his second favorite: "You are going to get a lot of work out of this job." What you are more likely to hear from Napoleon is: "I'll make it up to you on the next one." The Jacksonian says: "You're going to get a nice bonus on this." Which brings us to matters of money.
The supreme court of contractor complaints is finance. Builders are notoriously difficult to squeeze a dollar out of. When you go for your deposit, they tell you they are not a bank, and that you should go get a construction loan and bill them when you've completed the project. If you want to watch a banker laugh, try that one! After they whittle your bill down, they wrangle with you on the size and schedule of payments. Napoleons are particularly vicious about paying for anything not delivered. The reason for this is that the home is being paid for by the next customer (the first draw on the project was spent on a boat, new truck or a much-needed cruise). Clintonians are usually easier to deal with early, but tend to be unsympathetic when you are 99 percent complete and have been waiting four months for the tile guy to finish so you can install a special custom threshold. At this point he is holding payment and using the proceeds to pay off the mortgage on his cabin in the Adirondacks. Jacksonians are exempt from petty penny-pinching. They don't mind paying for talent and seldom quibble over reasonable terms. But the memory of their good conduct is long and carefully balanced against your performance. If the performance is less than impeccable, expect the axe—Phil didn't build his dynasty on the backs of incompetents.
Of course, none of any of this applies to my good friend Jack Campbell, a builder who is in a class by himself (although I suspect some of the credit should go to his wife, Christine, a past president of the NWFA). The floor is yours, Jack.
The Builder's Turn: It Isn't So Complicated
By Jack Campbell; Campbell & Co. Construction; Novato, Calif.
Dealing with the general contractor on new construction projects carries with it both rewards and problems. The largest single reward for a subcontractor is repeat business with a client you know and understand. The problems usually can be eliminated by good communication and professional behavior.
"I got to the job and there were globs of sheetrock paste and paint all over the floor. Some of the windows weren't even installed. My wood was in the garage. The furnace wasn't hooked up and it was 35 degrees in the house." Somewhere in the above statement is probably one of the typical problems flooring contractors experience. Whose fault is this? Well, after 25 years as a general contractor, I have to say it's primarily the flooring contractor's.
The GC should not be required to have all of the specific needs for 10 to 20 subcontractors memorized.
New construction means delays, problems and changes for everyone involved, including the general contractor, owner and all of the 10 to 20 subcontractors. Clear and constant communication is a necessity in this building environment. All subcontractors have their own unique requirements—by code or craft—to be able to complete a professional job. The GC should not be required to have all of the specific needs for 10 to 20 subcontractors memorized. It's the professional subcontractor's responsibility to communicate his needs to the general or his foreman. From a GC's point of view, many subcontractors are notoriously bad at doing this. In California, code requires that the electrician must have a roof on a house before he can install one wire. The fire sprinkler subcontractor needs all recessed can lights prior to his arrival. The plumber does his work in the walls before any other subcontractor. Many cabinetmakers and finish carpenters require that the HVAC systems be operating before they start their work. The list goes on and on. GC's frequently find that the sub who shows up and wants everything ready precisely to his requirements is usually the sub who never communicates his needs and acts like an offended prima donna when everything is not to his exacting specifications.
The professional stands out dramatically. Written or verbal notice of his requirements is received well in advance. He takes the time to explain the reasons, so the GC or foreman actually understands why he has to meet these criteria. One plumber we use supplies a chart to be filled in exactly specifying the heights of all shower heads and tub valves, along with the finish wall thickness for all tile or stone walls. This allows all valves to end up flush and at the heights preferred by the owners—the first time out. Phone calls and site visits well in advance of the scheduled job are the norm for a professional. At that time, the sub is able to see the site conditions and overall situation for himself. He is then able to aid the job site foreman in preparing to meet his needs. The professional flooring contractor then checks the moisture and the condition of the subfloor, finds an area to have his wood acclimate, and determines the date the furnace and air conditioning will be operating. Problems and solutions can be discussed in a relaxed atmosphere, not the day of installation in a panic situation. It's also good to follow up these meetings with a simple fax.
New construction is not that different than remodeling an occupied home. You communicate your site requirements in both situations, but the specifics are different. With the home owner, you review the moving of furniture, the dumping of rugs and tack strips, handling existing baseboards, leaving the HVAC on if they're at work, handling dust and noise, etc. With new construction, you're dealing with the HVAC being turned on, the job site closed in, the subfloor being clean, all wet work including painting and taping being completed, etc. A printed sheet should be given in both situations as a reference. Remember, this is not what your customers do for a living. They should not be expected to figure it all out for themselves. You are the professional they hired, and they are relying on your skill and knowledge.
One of the key elements to your success is to do a walkthrough the day after the last coat is applied, before any other workers get back on the floor. This walk-through with you and the customer makes the condition of the floor clear to all concerned, and any subsequent damage is not attributed to you.
The general contractor is your customer. Remember to discuss maintenance with him just as you would a home owner. Leave behind a mop kit. Go a step further and leave the foreman a roll of red rosin paper to protect the floor when his men go back on it to install baseboards and other finish work. Explain how long he can leave the paper down while preventing UV discoloration. Explain the use of tape on the floor, so he doesn't pull up the new finish. Show up when you promise to. Complete the job when you promise to. Take all of your trash with you and clean up when you're done. The job site may not be neat, but the GC is not looking to you to add to the mess. Do these things every time you work for the same contractor, and do it all with an attitude of cooperation, helpfulness and professional behavior. Remember, job site requirements for a flooring contractor are not unique or extraordinary; how you communicate them is.