Consultants are important components of your business.
By Sue Marquette Poremba
The role of the consultant is thought to be important by some, pointless by others. Still, how many times have you heard someone say he should have hired a consultant to help guide him through a decision-making process?
The Internet has given a country full of do-it-yourselfers a healthy shot of newfound confidence when it comes to tackling business’s unfamiliar territories. Unfortunately, this can lead to a lot of wasted time, effort and money. Determining when you need a consultant can do wonders to boost your business’s success and your back-office knowhow.
Why do we need consultants?
“Throughout the design community, engineers across the nation don’t understand masonry,” says Rashod Johnson, founder and president of The Roderick Group in Chicago. “They think they understand it, because they think the materials are similar to concrete. But the fact is, it’s a completely different material. It’s designed differently; it’s installed differently.”
Johnson, who is an engineer by training, says engineers don’t fully understand masonry because it isn’t studied in most engineering curriculums. For that reason, when masonry is used in a project, the designers default to the material they know.
“Any contractor who has been doing masonry work knows it’s a different ball game,” Johnson says. “When they get their plans and it looks more like concrete than masonry, chances are good they’ll need a consultant.”
The role of a consultant, Johnson says, is to act as an intermediary between the designer and the contractor. “[The consultant is] an independent third party who knows the industry. In many cases, the design engineer will listen to another engineer before he listens to the contractor.”
While an engineering background is common for those who decide to become consultants, it isn’t a requirement. Jerry Painter of Painter Masonry Consultants in Gainesville, Fla., for example, is a third-generation mason and was a bricklayer for many years.
“I’m not an engineer, so I can’t do any engineering,” he says. “But I can put together the people who have that experience. I try to deal specifically with workmanship issues.”
A consultant often will specialize in a particular area, according to Raymond Miller, a consultant based on Lake Oswego, Ore.
“Some consultants will specialize in earthquakes,” Miller says, “Or, they’ll only do housing. I know consultants who do nothing but retaining walls.”
The main point is, a consultant is supposed to know more about a particular area than the average contractor or architect. He is hired to bring unique skills. Whether an engineer or a tradesman, the consultant is brought into the job when a problem comes up that the contractors or designers are unable to solve.
First things, first
When Painter is called to a job, he says his first goal is to identify the situation at hand. “You listen to them to get their take on the problem, and then you determine if what you see matches their perception. Sometimes you have to make sure the masonry work meets code. Mostly, I’m expressing my opinion on what I have found and make recommendations based on that.”
Most of the time, the problem stems not from the masonry, but from a misunderstanding of the material, improper installation, or basic human error. Consultants, Painter says, provide the checks and balances in masonry.
“Masonry tends to be seriously over-designed, which adds cost to the system,” he says. “The reason it’s over-designed is to give the designer a degree of comfort.” It also allows for the possibility that mistakes will be made during the building process.
A consultant can provide an objective point of view, while also providing a level of knowledge likely not possessed by those involved in the job.
“When you’ve got a guy who’s been working on the job day after day, he may not be able to see a problem,” Painter says. “Another issue is being too close to the job. You may know the answer, but no one believes you because you have a vested interested in the result.”
While a consultant comes in to evaluate a situation, he is not usually brought into a project for guidance during the design or building stage.
“We’re the fire fighters,” says Johnson. “We’re problem solvers. In most cases, I’ve found that we’re the go-between. The masonry consultant speaks contractor language and engineer language. Contractors and engineers usually talk two completely different languages, so when they talk to each other, they have no clue what the other is saying. We’re almost like translators.”
When to ask for help
When a consultant should be brought into a job really depends on who is asking for the consulting. According to Johnson, the contractor should call in a consultant when the architect or engineer doesn’t understand masonry, or the architect or engineer is no longer willing to negotiate with the contractor.
“If the discussions are broken down to ‘my way or the highway,'” Johnson says, “the contractor might want to get an opinion from someone with enough experience in masonry to give an alternative suggestion.”
An architect or engineer may decide to call a consultant when he recognizes masonry is different from other materials he uses, and admits he doesn’t know enough about masonry to give the design details enough justice.
Another advantage to hiring a masonry consultant is that the consultant is the person who not only knows current codes, but also knows when the codes are changing.
“Code is changed every three years,” says Johnson. “Nine times out of 10, the average architect is not going to know what those changes are and how it is going to affect his design. But a consultant who has been in the process of helping to develop the codes will have a good handle on what they are and how it will affect the design.
“Code is a live safety document,” Painter continues. “Even though masonry has been around forever and has been done essentially the same way since the beginning, the codes are always changing. Someone has to keep up with all that information.”
He also points out that ever-changing technologies will not only do a better job at assuring contractors and designers are following regulations, it may deter those who try to cut corners.
“With forensics and cheaper infrared cameras and radars, work will be looked at much closer,” Painter says.
Field testing, or inspection, is another important area that may require the use of a consultant. An inspector is brought in from an independent testing lab, typically by the building owner or the architect to examine the job.
“Most engineering offices don’t have testing equipment in them,” Miller explains, “so the person from the test lab will go in and test the site.”
The inspector may take test cylinders of the grout or other materials to test the strength or make sure it meets the specifications laid out by the architect or engineer. Local governments also can request an inspector visit sites within its jurisdiction. He would be considered a consultant, as well, with a specialty in testing masonry construction.
“The field inspector is a knowledgeable set of eyes, on the field, looking to see that the construction is going per the plans and specifications,” Miller says.
Whereas a consultant is usually brought in as a problem solver, the field inspector is more like a warranty for the owner, showing that he is getting the construction he paid for. When the inspector is on site, he will, for example, check to assure materials are up to code while he is taking samples.
“Code, remember, is the minimum criteria,” says Miller. “You may have something better than the code that’s required. The inspector will pick that up.”
There also can be structural observation, which is done by a design consultant during critical stages of a project. After the observation, the consultant files a report based on what was seen. If there are any problems, the consultant typically goes to the general contractor before he moves on to the next phase, so the problem can be corrected.
Most states have laws requiring a consultant to be brought into a project if the construction is larger than a pre-set square footage or span.
What the consultant is inspecting depends on the job. Johnson likes to walk the site and observe everything that is happening, and then he will discuss the problem at hand. Most consultants agree that they’re almost always called into a job too late. Often, the consultant is the last resort before the problem is turned over to lawyers for litigation.
“My goal as a consultant is to avoid litigation,” says Johnson. “By the time the problem reaches the attorneys, everyone has lost. There is no solution that is going to be a compromise anymore.”
In a perfect world, he adds, the consultant would be brought in during the design phase to assure the design is right from the beginning, not after construction has begun. Or, Painter adds, if you aren’t going to bring the consultant in at the beginning of the project, he should be called the moment someone notices and identifies a problem, rather than trying to rectify or ignore the problem.
Painter says consultants face two basic issues when dealing with contractors and designers. “It’s either a lack of knowledge or a lack of care,” he says. “One of them I can fix; the other I can’t.”
“Consultants aren’t the enemy,” Johnson says. “They aren’t hired guns. A good consultant will tell you what you need to hear. They’ll let you know when you’ve done well and when you haven’t done well.”
Sue Marquette Poremba is a freelance writer based in central Pennsylvania.