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Volume 38, Issue 4, April 2003

What Can Save This Marriage?

Top Problems Between Contract Glaziers and Architects

By Penny Beverage

out.gifIn the world of construction, architects and contract glaziers have a symbiotic

relationship—they are virtually codependents. One cannot survive without the other. On the other side of the coin, contract glaziers are subcontractors, so to find work they must make architects aware of their products to increase in their usage. Thus, a marriage is made, and, as with all marriages some disagreements arise.

Uncovering the Issues

Interviewing contract glaziers about their problems with architects is much like marriage counseling; few want to admit what the problems are, and especially not in print. However, a brave few took a few minutes from their busy schedules to talk bluntly with USGlass about some of their issues with architects.

Minneapolis-based Harmon Inc.’s director of sales and marketing Lou Podbelski was one of the brave ones. Podbelski suggested that the problem wasn’t necessarily the fault of either architects or contract glaziers, but rather a problem they are enduring together—lack of materials (as a result of budget cutbacks in a lagging economy). He noted that a good solution to this problem is for architects to select contract glaziers earlier in the process so they can provide additional input.

“Over the last five to ten years, the number-one challenge to everyone on the building team, including architects and specialty glazing contractors, has been to do more with less,” Podbelski said. “By collaborating with each other early on in the building’s design, we are better able to provide a glazing system that performs well, looks good, lasts long and can be installed on budget and on time.”

Mike Swanberg, chief operating officer for MTH Industries in Chicago, cited a different problem.

"I would say probably the number-one problem is a lack of detail—when they really don't show the building's structure anymore," he said. "I think to a large extent that may be [a result of] architects' inexperience because they're younger. They're trying to do a lot more with a lot less. You can't just pick on the architectural field for that, though—it's everywhere."

The simple solution, he said, is more on-the-job experience, which only time can solve.

Another big player in the industry, Minneapolis-based Enclos Corp., was contacted for the story, but declined comment.

“It seems like it’s kind of a dangerous area for us to get into,” quipped Jennifer Fink, marketing coordinator.

Speaking for the architects, Charles Killibrew, project manager for Pickard Chilton in New Haven, Conn., agreed that getting involved early is a major step.

“It’s a matter of knowing to [get glazing contractors] involved early,” he said. “It’s also talking with the owners and explaining the benefits of engaging exterior contractors in the process early on. We’ve had some success with prequalification scenarios and pre-bidding the exterior walls as a part of the planning stage.”

What Specs?

Smaller contract glaziers, such as Giroux Glass in Los Angeles, see more problems with specifications than anything else—both the glaziers’ own needs to meet codes, particularly weatherproofing, and architects’ lack of commitment to their original specifications.

“They’re more concerned about the aesthetics ... than the weatherproofing,” said Andy Schiller, sales estimator for Giroux Glass, “and on many occasions they know what they want the building to look like, yet they’re unwilling to accept that certain designs in certain locations require different weatherproofing.”

If, for example, a building had a corrugated metal roof and a stucco wall next to the glass window, a great deal of flashing would be required for weatherproofing, which may not be aesthetically pleasing.

To solve the problem, he suggested that architects be educated early on—preferably in their training and in continuing education efforts as well—about weatherproofing and its importance to the contract glazier’s work.

Schiller, who spends approximately 60 percent of his time with architects, said often they lay out specifications early on, but leave them behind to save a few dollars in the long run.

“[Architects] are pretty specific to what they want, but they will accept an alternate product on the job so that they can save 5 to 10 percent on the job,” Schiller said.

Cindy Workman-Snow of A-1 Glass in Englewood, Colo., agreed.

“The products that they specify are usually the better products, but then they accept the less-expensive products that don’t have the same quality,” she said. “The buck speaks.”

Workman-Snow said she often hears from architects—sometimes two to three years after a project is complete—expressing complaints about the installation.

“They just don’t know any better a lot of the time,” she said.

However, Peter Noone, senior vice president for Solomon, Cordwell & Buenz in Chicago, said the problem is usually not that the architect changes his specifications, but that the glazing contractor doesn’t live up to his expectations after bidding the job with plans to fulfill the original specifications. He did agree, though, that changing specifications is much of an issue—if not the top one—for him as it is for most of the glazing contractors interviewed for this article.

“You write a specification for a certain performance and then the low bidder comes in and may not be intending to meet that specification because they don’t think it’s valid or they think they can circumvent it in some way, and then you find out that their product can’t meet the performance requirement much later and you have to figure out something else,” Noone said.

As an architect, he said there really are only three legitimate reasons for deviating from specifications.

“Either you can’t build it as specified, the products simply aren’t available in time to meet the schedule for the project or there’s a savings you can offer the owner in either time or money,” Noone said. “Therefore, the specification needs to be doable and the architect should stick with it when possible.”

Workman-Snow said the specification problem went away in the late 1990s when the economy was strong, but has come back recently.

When asked if there is a solution in sight, she urged more education, as well.

“You get what you pay for,” she said. “If you’re going to accept a lesser product, you need to understand that the warranty won’t be there and overall it’s a substandard installation.”

Noone admitted price is a consideration, and that often architects don’t know whether the glazing contractors’ claims are substantiated.

“It’s difficult to judge. We rely on glass consultants when we have something specific in mind and glazing contractors offer something cheaper,” he said. “We can’t tell if it’s as good or not—it’s tough comparing apples to apples.”

Schiller said the specification problem has nothing to do with price, though; instead, it’s a power issue.

“A few years ago, the architects ruled the project. They determined what would be done on the job, not the contractor,” he said. “If architects specified something, they’d hold to it, but today they don’t have that strength.”

Killibrew said that how tightly architects hold to specifications also depends on the complexity and status of the job.

“Our firm works on typically higher-end projects … so fortunately we don’t always have to deal with the hassles [like these] that others may,” Killibrew said.

A Loveless Future?

While many admit there were problems—and some admitted the problems were so serious they declined to note specifics—most said the marriage could be saved with a little education. In addition, major emphasis has been placed on the architects’ involvement in the project itself; Schiller, in particular, noted that the architect needs to be an active participant in the process, not just a designer who steps aside once the marriage is underway.

“The architects have to become a little more involved in the actual construction project and not just let the contractor run it,” he said.

Top Ten Industry Challenges

When the Building Envelope Contractors Conference, organized by the Glass Association of North America, was held in Las Vegas in February, there was no shortage of discussion concerning architects. One of the presentations taking place during the BEC conference focused on the top ten industry challenges faced by glazing contractors, and of course, architects made the list not just one, but several, times. Below is that list.

  1. Building a quality workforce;
  2. Getting paid;
  3. Bad documents and killer contracts;
  4. Risk transfer or evaluation;
  5. Project management;
  6. Construction scheduling;
  7. Inadequate architectural drawings and/or details;
  8. Ramifications from the design/build process;
  9. Architects—lack of product knowledge; and
  10. Lack of commitment and dealing with poor project coordination by general contractors.

Penny Beverage is a contributing editor for USGlass magazine.