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From Ice Age to Today: An Ever Evolving Construction Industry

By Brad Kellen for WSCAI Community Associations Journal


Human beings have been building shelters for eons. In 2010, according to the Daily Mail in England, the remains of a shelter estimated to be 10,500 years old was discovered. The remains of the structure were estimated to be so old that it would have been built when the land mass of modern day Britain was still part of continental Europe when the last ice age had just recently come to an end. Archeologists surmise that the structure was a hunter’s lodge that was used over a period of centuries to protect the owners from the frigid temperatures of the time. Housing today is affected by a multitude of factors. I would like to touch on a few of the more notable issues:


Construction Materials

10,000 years ago the selection of building materials was limited to what one could find in the immediate area of the construction site. Today, generally, the opposite is true. Materials are sourced from all over the world and synthesized into an ever-changing array of products for the construction industry. The number of material choices available for every aspect of the construction process can be overwhelming to the novice and even some professionals. Take paint, for example. Sounds like a rather simple material until you consider all of the variables to choose from when planning for a project including but not limited to: primers (i.e., proper preparation and bonding of the paint to the substrate), water based vs. oil, epoxy (i.e., two part), low temperature (paintable down to 35 degrees Fahrenheit), UV stability, green ingredients, powder coating (for metal), electrostatic (for metal), brush vs. roller vs. spray, cure times (dependent on temperature and humidity), sheen (finish) and of course, color. Color can be a very contentious and difficult issue to agree on. In a way I am thankful that I am color blind and have no comment.


Upgrades

As with construction materials, there are a multitude of possible upgrades to consider when taking on a construction project. For instance windows, like paint, sound like a rather simple choice until you start to contemplate the options. First of all there are the frames. You may choose from vinyl, aluminum with a thermal break, fiberglass and wood (price ascending in basically that order). The window frames can come with or without a flange for installation. Secondly there is operation. Would you like sliding? Double or single hung? Awning? Casement? Thirdly, the glass standard is double glazed. You may choose triple glazed for sound attenuation or you may also choose to have one pane of the glazing of a double pane window slightly thicker than the other pane so they vibrate at different frequencies, which also results in sound attenuation. Fourth, what would you like between the panes of glass? Argon gas perhaps for greater insulation value? Window tinting is a possibility. Tempered glass is required for safety in a number of window locations including (but not limited to) windows in or adjacent to doors, windows within shower walls, etc. Frosted glass for privacy is also a possibility and don’t forget grids.


Codes

Building codes are constantly being revised and updated. The Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666, gave rise to the first significant building construction regulation. Subsequently, fires in many large American cities resulted in the development of building regulations and codes. The intent of codes is to provide a basic guideline for building designers and remodelers to deliver minimum standards for safety, health, and general welfare including structural integrity, mechanical integrity (including sanitation, water supply, light, and ventilation), means of egress, fire prevention/control, and energy conservation. Today most municipalities in the United States utilize the Uniform Building Code (UBC) or the International Building Code (IBC). In addition to the UBC or IBC, some municipalities choose to build upon these basic codes with additional codes of their own. Seattle, for example, utilizes the IBC and state codes and supplements them with their own additional, more stringent codes.


Economy

The construction business is cyclical. The recession of 2008 hit the construction industry hard. Construction had been booming. Over the years that followed, many contractors had to scale back their crews considerably, while others simply shut their doors or went bankrupt. Competition for the work that remained was intense. Many contractors cut their margins to the bone just to keep their key people employed and maintain cash flow. For the most part, new construction ceased. In the construction defect world that I work in, we saw many new construction contractors attempt to bid our work. This situation may appear to be advantageous for the person or entity looking for a contractor. However, there were and still are several issues that the consumer should consider and be aware of when assessing bid proposals. The real risk is that contractors may attempt to make up for a low bid by cutting corners, increasing the cost and number of change orders, and billing for extras. Competing contractors who don’t understand the low-bid landscape or construction defect repair work, run the risk of going out of business or at least making things very difficult for their clients.


Since 2008 the economy has steadily improved. However, even as the number of construction projects has increased dramatically, often, unrealistically low contractor bidding has remained. As a result, it is difficult for the consumer to be able to compare contractors’ bids. The bottom line is that the lowest bid on a project may not be the best path forward in terms of ultimate cost and quality of work.


In addition to the issues mentioned above, there is design. The devil is definitely in the details. I bid on projects every day where work was improperly performed. Either by lack of proper design, lack of knowledge on the part of the technician performing the work or insufficient oversight. Improperly installed windows and doors. Wrongly installed flashings or the complete lack thereof. Inappropriately installed guardrails. These flaws and a host of others allow water infiltration into the structure. The result of improperly performed construction details cannot be overstated. Improper detailing has the potential to cause hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in damage. In some cases, such as improperly installed guard rails, there are serious life safety concerns. It is crucial to have a thoroughly considered and detailed design plan in place prior to the commencement of any project be it new construction, remodeling or construction defect repair. It is equally important that the teams that are chosen to implement the work understand the design, how it is intended to perform and how to sequence their work. Until recently municipal building inspectors were solely concerned with looking for life safety design and implementation. Thanks to the hard work of WSCAI and others, laws have recently been passed that empower building inspectors to review building envelope installations. This is definitely a step in the right direction. However, building inspectors cannot see everything and it is critically important that the design intent is transferred from the designer to the individual performing the work.


Given the vast array of choices and considerations required to bring a construction project to a successful conclusion, the advantage of having a construction consultant as an advocate, especially on a larger project, becomes obvious. Many consultants in the greater Seattle area are WSCAI members. You may find their contact information on the WSCAI website. Construction today is a bit more challenging than it was 10,000 years ago. I would highly recommend engaging one of these companies if your association is considering a construction project of any significant size.


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