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November 1, 2000 7:15 AM CST

Certifying Quality

Will our customers buy it?

By

Those of you with more than one child at home understand all too well the concept of "I didn't do it." Something breaks in your house, some item is lost, lights are left on, the last piece of pie disappears from the refrigerator or juice is spilled on your carpeting. When you ask who did it...you always hear, "not me!" But yet we know someone had to do it. And if it wasn't me, then who was it? Was it you? No it wasn't me. It had to be you if it wasn't me! It couldn't possibly be me! Don't even think of looking at me. You're looking at me only because I look guilty, but I'm not, I just always have this stupid look on my face, it's inherited.

In our industry, we face the responsibility of delivering total quality projects to our customers, on each and every project, every time. In fact, we try to exceed our customers expectations every single time. I know we all believe that we deliver a quality project and construction experience every single time to our customers. So, if that's so, then why is there a quality debate? Why are many of our customers less than enthusiastic with the finished product we deliver? None of us will fess up to delivering a less than quality project, yet when our customers lose confidence in building with masonry, who's to blame? Don't look at me, I didn't do it! It must have been someone else. It must be our customers fault. Yeah, they're always expecting too much. And they change their minds all the time. They're not willing to pay a fair price! They won't give us enough lead time to build a quality project! Shoot, they let the other trades fall way behind with the schedule and then they expect us to make up the difference and make the job look good on top of it. Heck, they have no idea what a quality masonry project is, so if they get a bad job they deserve it.

Don't blame us...right? Wrong! We are all to blame.

To be sure, our customers share the blame because they really don't know masonry and masonry systems. They don't understand all of the factors that go into building a quality project, factors such as proper installation of flashing and reinforcement, avoiding efflorescence and the overall general performance of our system. How can we expect the customer to know everything about masonry if everyone in our industry doesn't know all there is about delivering a quality project? If customers are to blame, inspectors are also at fault because they do not fully understand our systems either. To be fair, the design community does not totally understand our system very well either or the unique design features that set us apart from our competitors. And even some of our work force lacks our commitment to quality as well. So who is really at fault in the quality debate?

As an industry, we unfortunately seek a quick fix solution to solve the quality debate. Some in our industry are quick to seek certification of the contractor or our workforce as the easy answer. Would certification help? Sure, however, we have far too many workers and contractors, and far too few educational outlets to achieve proper, reliable certification in the short term. And what if we required good mason contractors to become certified?

Would our customers require certified contractors to build their projects? We believe the answer to that question is no. Not as long as they continue to look for the lowest price. We believe customers would select the lowest-priced, non-certified contractor over a moderately-priced certified contractor almost every time. Why shouldn't they? As an industry, we have not given any other criteria to select a quality mason contractor than price.

Are general contractors to blame for our quality debate? Certainly, and in fact they may be one of the biggest culprits. Most general contractors have little understanding of masonry systems. Often the mason contractor is not brought into the pre-planning process early enough to avoid mistakes. During the construction process they allow other trades, such as excavation and concrete, to incur delays and then expect the mason contractor to make up the time. General contractors also make the mistake of submitting bids to customers based on a bid from an ill-equipped mason contractor. Once awarded the project, the general looks for a reputable mason to perform the work at the original low- bid. At times, generals also consider the unthinkable and try to do the masonry themselves. General contractors also share blame for the times they have retained a portion of mason contractors pay long after the mason contractor has had the project accepted. Unfortunately, this practice has steadily increased and has put many mason contractors in financial jeopardy.

In a series of interviews with masonry industry promotional directors, we sought answers to the question of whether or not our industry had real issues with quality construction and whether or not our customers would buy quality.

Masonry: Do you feel that as an industry we have a real concern with the quality of our construction or is it a perceived problem on the part of our customers?

John Chrysler: The mere fact that we are having a discussion over quality masonry construction, whether it is real or perceived, make it a real issue. If our customers feel that they are not getting a quality project, then the perception becomes reality and we lose a valued customer.

Glen Duncan: I believe that a great deal of the quality concern is more a perceived issue on the part of our customers. We have not properly educated them on what to expect from masonry. When customers inspect our finished product standing two feet in front of the wall instead of the prescribed twenty feet, of course they will have complaints. But they would have the same problem with other building materials. If we have real (not perceived) quality concerns it would be in the residential sector.

Joan Borter: We do have a problem with untrained workers because of how busy we are. We just don't have adequate time to train. The AMCA has an excellent program, but just not enough workers have gone through the program, primarily from the residential sector. As a service from the Arizona Masonry Guild, we do job site inspections and we find that we don't have too many complaints on commercial projects.

Chuck Ostrander: It really depends upon the client and their expectations. If the client is simply looking to get the lowest possible price for their job, then yes, they will almost certainly have a quality problem. If the client chooses the contractor based on other factors than just the lowest bid, then they usually have a smooth project. It is the client who believes that the best contractor to choose is the cheapest contractor. That creates problems.

Ed Glock: The perception always seems to exist. I do not feel that our area has a serious quality problem compared to other segments of the country. We have many designers and customers who use masonry repeatedly. If a serious problem existed, they would be using other systems.

Lynn Nash: Absolutely. There is clearly a concern about the quality of masonry construction on our area. Even where serious quality control issues do not exist, the perception does, and perception is often reality to the construction customer.

Masonry: So if it is not a perceived problem but a real problem, how did it become a problem?

JC: There are several key factors for the cause of the quality debate that we are having. First of all, there are mason contractors that are attempting construction projects that do not have the expertise to construct. But the allure of larger, bigger profits is too great to pass up. So they take the job and make mistakes. Another factor is design. I see constant situations where the design has too many flaws, and it's one giant quality mistake waiting to happen. Another factor is the general contractor who often puts the mason contractor into extremely difficult conditions to perform his service effectively, whether it be shortening up the amount of time he has on the job, correcting mistakes that other trades caused to the masonry, or some other unforeseen changes that the mason must contend with. Lastly, it's often times the inspector who does not understand the ASTM Standards for our products and really don't know how to conduct a proper inspection.

GD: Quality concerns would be primarily in the residential market. And it became a problem primarily due to the rapid growth in construction and the high demand for labor. Fortunately in Texas we have ample bodies to put on jobs. Unfortunately, they haven't received the same quality training that the commercial masons received. Another factor is the overabundance of production builders pushing for faster installation - at the expense of quality. In fact, most of our complaints come as a result of production builders.

JB: Some of the problems are workmanship. For example, the worker that washes the project does not wash the wall properly. Some of the problems are education. For example, the customer that inspects the wall from 12 inches away instead of the prescribed twenty feet. Some of the problems are aesthetics. For what ever reason, if the customer doesn't feel that they are getting a quality project, then we, as an industry, have a problem.

CO: The problem exists for one clear reason, price. Price means everything in the bidding process. Where price is not the only determining factor on jobs, you will rarely have a quality concern.

EG: The majority of the problems exist because certain contractors will not take good solid training programs seriously. Fortunately, this does not seem to be the case in my area. This year we have 130 apprentices actively employed by our contractors, a significant increase compared to seven or eight years ago.

LN: The contractor selection process is often at fault. If general contractors are awarded projects because they have the lowest price, they, in turn, are forced to award sub-contracts to contractors with the lowest priced proposal. That's how the GC got low in the first place. The "low-bid" selection process too often awards work entirely on the issue of price and does not take into consideration other critical qualifications.

Masonry: What can we do about the quality concerns?

JC: First of all educating the inspector is one of the quickest ways to address quality issues. The inspector has the power to insist that mistakes are avoided and that good projects are not red tagged. They just need proper education. Educating designers and owners about quality masonry is what I believe to be one of the most rational solutions. However, an educated customer is always preferred above all else. If they understand quality, then they can ensure for themselves a quality project. Obviously, educating mason contractors and the masons themselves about quality masonry construction is preferable, but one that will take a great deal of time and industry resources to implement. Education is one answer that is already underway.

GD: Better training of our workforce. We must resist the temptation to shortcut our quality training for the sake of getting a worker on the wall producing. One of the advantages of our system over other competitive systems is the unique design capabilities of masonry. We can build an architects dream. If we shortcut our training, it will come at the cost of delivering those dreams, simply because our craftsmen won't have the skills.

JB: As an industry we just need to do a little better job of educating both our workforce and our customers. Educate the public on what to expect from masonry and not to expect a perfect piece of masonry. It would help to have some form of continuing education for our workforce and the contractors. Simply because we have done things the same for years doesn't mean that its always the best way to do things today.

CO: We need to educate the customer and contractors. The customer has to realize that if they get a bid that is twenty-five percent less than the next lowest bid, a mistake was clearly made in the forming of that contractor's bid. They can't accept that bid and expect the job to operate and run smoothly. Customers need to know what to ask for. One item that is often overlooked is the sample panel. A customer could learn a lot about the craftsmanship they will receive from the sample panel. They also need to have all of the important information on the drawings. A lot of contractors look to the drawings for all their information for the bid. Scope drawings produce scope pricing (if you don't show it - you don't get it)!

EG: One serious problem we have in St. Louis involves testing - either poor tests, or misunderstanding of test results. In order to address this issue, we hold monthly seminars for contractors, architects, engineers, and code officials to educate them on proper testing procedures, and how to identify poorly conducted tests. Our only way to battle these types of quality concerns is to involve educating all parties.

LN: The frequency and quality of onsite inspection needs to be increased. The first inspection should not be conducted when the job is ninety-percent complete. Inspections should be conducted throughout the entire process to catch problems before they become major. Tough and fair inspection practice is good for professional masonry contractors because it weeds out the poor performers. We need to stress to masonry contractors that we are our own worst enemy when we allow work to be completed unsatisfactorily. That's an invitation for the customer to try an alternate building system on the next project. In North Carolina, we are promoting "turnkey/lump sum" masonry bidding specifications for public projects that, by law, require an award to the low bidder. There is a positive correlation between "lump-sum" work and quality construction completed on schedule.

Masonry: Is certification a plausible solution?

JC: It depends how you define certification. If you mean sending a bunch of mason contractors to a class and then give them a certificate of completion and call them certified mason contractors, then that clearly will not solve the problem. If you make the mason contractor go through a very extensive educational process, ensure that the contractors have key factors in a reputable certification program such as: bond capability, a strong safety program, continuing employee education and a history of quality completed on projects. Then add to that the backing of a national association like the Mason Contractors Association of America to implement a test and certification, then that should work.

GD: I don't know. I believe that certification is too big to implement at the present time. Who will do the certification, how will we educate everyone and what about the legal ramifications? This seems just too much to contemplate considering our customers are not calling for certification. Generally, quality concerns usually point to improperly trained workers. Since certification necessitates educating the workforce, won't it mean that if we provide stronger training then the need for certification would be eliminated?

JB: I see some sort of certification being an advantage. I just don't see how it can be accomplished. We need a tie-in to both the contractor and worker as well. But there are so many issues. How can we implement it nationally? If we can have certification with teeth to it, then is it worth pursuing?

CO: Absolutely not. Certification is a term that has been used for a fast fix for those who think it will create a quality project. Certification exists in certain areas of the country, and customers will still select the lowest bid. The low-bid is too much of an attraction that often pulls customers away from quality of work. There are an awful lot of specialty trades within masonry. Will each specialty trade have a certification, and if so, the cost could be astronomical for contractors who specialize in many trades?

EG: The only way certification would work is if there were a continual program established for continuing education. A contractor should not just be able to take a test and do nothing else to show competence to maintain certification. The program would also have to gain acceptance among the customer community. I feel it would also be key to continue to educate the customer about what a quality project involves.

LN: That question is debated quite a bit. I think if a workable certification program is created, and everyone (particularly the customer) buys into it, then I feel it could work. Architects have told me that if a program existed "that had teeth," they would include a specification requiring a certified contractor. Owners and specification writers would need to be convinced that certification would be a true indication of qualification and skills to properly perform.

Masonry: Is the industry capable of implementing certification?

JC: I believe that once we have an expanded educational outlet where contractors and their employees can receive training, we will have the capability.

GD: First of all, the mason contractors would have to want certification and most important the customer would have to spec it. Without both, it won't work. However, if both factors are there, then I believe we would need some outside organization to implement it to give it credibility. Lastly, we simply don't have enough educational outlets to train everyone. At least not now!

JB: We would need a strong chapter network to implement the program much like AIA or CSI, where the local chapter ensures that the educational programs are attended in order to pass the test. It would be virtually impossible without a strong network of educational outlets. I believe that the customers would want to see that our workforce is more thoroughly trained in all aspects of our craft. As an industry, there is a push to short-cut training and that is a mistake. We are in danger of losing the art of masonry, which sells masonry to the architect. I believe that craftsmanship would need to be a critical part of certification for it to be of value to the customer.

CO: It would be extremely difficult to implement, and I do not feel the industry is ready for something as large as certification.

EG: I do not feel the industry is capable of implementing it. A program this large would take many years to develop and implement. There would have to be quite a bit more educational offerings to make it work.

LN: In order for the industry to implement a successful program, everyone in the industry would have to be willing to accept it. This is clearly not the case. Masonry contractors, suppliers and construction customers do not wholeheartedly support the idea, and therefore, any present effort to create such a certification would fail.

Masonry: Will our customers buy certification?

JC: That's the million dollar question. My gut feeling is that at the present time, they won't. Not with the pressure to look strictly at the lowest bidder. And if we force quality mason contractors through a costly and extensive certification program, the difference in price between reputable mason contractors and the lowest bidder will continue to get worse. Of course, I say this knowing that there are times when a reputable mason contractor is also the lowest bidder.

GD: Right now, I don't think that the customer would buy it since they are in the mode of simply buying the lowest price. In fact, I believe that our customers believe that all mason contractors are created equal and that price is the only way to differentiate between them, so why not take the lowest price? I feel that we need to educate our customers on the benefits of hiring a quality mason contractor. After all, we know that hiring a quality contractor can save the customer money in the long run. Unfortunately, that's a tough sales job to make to the customer.

JB: I think that the time may be right for customers to buy into certification as long as the certification has merit. Unfortunately, unless we develop a certification program that our customers believe in - it won't work - and we will only succeed in making reputable mason contractors add greater expenses to their bottom line by adhering to a certification program.

CO: No. The bottom line is what the customer is after. They will go with the lowest bid in most cases. Certification may be a part of specs, but will it be enforced?

EG: Low-bid still seems to rule. Certification does not seem to mean a lot. I feel that customers are preferring to use design/build solutions. I feel that this is a direction that we, as an industry, will need to strive toward in the very near future. The design/build process is not nearly as flawed as the low-bid process. Low bid has inherent problems.

LN: The only way certification will work is if the construction customer is educated on the reason why they need to use a certified masonry contractor. Customers need to be able to identify cons savings with certified contractors. If it mean ultimately getting their building quicker with fewer problems, they might accept slightly higher priced certified contractors.

Masonry: What about licensing, will that address quality?

JC: Licensing is like certification. It would take an exorbitant amount of time to implement. The unfortunate thing is that it's a state issue. You would have to go state by state to get licensing implemented, and you might have to fight organizations that may be opposed to mason contractors becoming licensed.

GD: Undoubtedly, licensing will go a long way towards addressing quality, especially in the residential segment. I don't think that I can identify a quality residential mason contractor, and I have been in this industry for twenty years! How can our customers select a quality residential mason contractor? Regulating the residential mason contractors will ease the guessing game of selecting a quality mason contractor. Unfortunately, licensing is a battle that we must fight state by state.

JB: We have State licensing through our Registrar of Contractors. Unfortunately, non-licensed contractors also operate in the state. That's where most of the quality issues are coming from.

EG: I think that licensing would be more acceptable to our customers as long as the state is regulating the license. Clearly, if anyone can get a license by filling out a form and paying a fee, it will not mean a lot.

LN: A lobbyist and former legislator from our area told me that without a clear consensus from the industry itself, licensing would never pass in North Carolina. That is clearly not the case, and I believe his reasoning is sound, so I do not think licensing is presently a plausible alternative.

Masonry: Will our industry's customers eventually select the most qualified contractor even if their price is higher?

JC: I believe that the designers want quality and expect quality. I think that our educational efforts need to be directed to the end user. I believe that as an industry, we have been out-marketed by our competition, but if our focus changes as to how we market our systems, eventually, I believe they will select quality.

GD: I believe that eventually they will. What is slowly beginning to help is the hard work of the local masonry marketing councils and promotion. However, for us to get our customers to select quality over price, we need to sharpen our marketing approach to be more than advertising pretty pictures. Sharp people are marketing against us and they aren't just using pretty pictures. Look at the U.S. Gypsum people. They are attacking masonry in virtually every issue of Architectural Magazine, and they hardly have a picture of their product. In fact, they have pictures of our products. We need to do a better job of educating our customer. After all, I believe that masonry is what they really want, we just haven't convinced them that they simply can't live without it.

JB: In some respects, I believe that some of the more educated customers strongly factor quality into their equation of which contractors get a project. Unfortunately, as an industry we have a long way to go to educate all the other customers who look exclusively at price.

CO: I think the temptation to save money will pull customers away from selecting the most qualified contractor. If they selected the most qualified contractor every time, the industry would have very few quality issues.

EG: As I stated earlier, low-bid currently rules. I feel eventually we will get to the best qualified contractor, but in a completely different scenario. That scenario will be design/build.

LN: Many already do, some never will, but if we can convince the customer that they will save money in the long run by selecting the right contractor, they will choose wiser. Until we can do that, "low bid" will continue to be the rule of the day.

According to customer focus groups that the Mason Contractors Association of America conducted during the past year, construction customers are starved for knowledge on how quality masonry is installed. They look for easy to understand educational materials on critical phases of a masonry project. They want to know where most masonry failures occur, what to watch for, and how can the problem be avoided. They want us to teach them the critical factors of masonry construction. Then armed with proper education on masonry systems, customers can insure for themselves that their projects will be built with quality. Knowing how a quality project looks, they then can take a more interested role in selecting a quality contractor as well. They seek an understanding of what to look for in a quality mason contractor. Is the contractor honorable? Do they conduct safety programs, do they attend code and standard seminars or other continuing educational programs? Does the contractor stay current on all of the trends in constructing quality masonry systems? In short, our customers ask us to provide a profile of a quality mason contractor. Once we provide that to them, then they can ask the question themselves of their potential mason contractor. They will then in fact become masonry's greatest allies, the educated consumer. We just need to do a better job of teaching them. After all, masonry is what they really want, we should not make it hard for them to choose us.


About the Author

Masonry, the official publication of the Mason Contractors Association of America, covers every aspect of the mason contractor profession - equipment and techniques, building codes and standards, business planning, promoting your business, legal issues and more. Read or subscribe to Masonry magazine at www.masonrymagazine.com.

 

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