Shop Talk: Are you ready to Step up to the Design-Build Challenge?

Masonry is more than just a trade and a building material, it can be an art form all its own. Just as an artist prepares his pallet and canvas, the masonry contractor must understand the design, assemble his team and prepare the materials in order to effectively construct the vision presented before him. The masonry team is not alone in constructing this vision, though.  

The design and incorporation of masonry must be carefully planned and orchestrated, beginning with the developer’s vision and the architects and engineers who bring these visions to life.  Each design will face its own challenges. Whether they are structural or architectural, everyone must collaborate together to complete the project, marrying the architectural design and structural integrity. At one time or another, most mason contractors are going to come across a project where they face an extreme design challenge. It could be a 30’ fireplace stack or a 30-story masonry veneer project. Whether we choose to accept this challenge depends on multiple factors. 

Be Prepared, Avoid Getting Bitten 

I think I can speak for us all when I say there have been times that we ate our lunch (aka lost our rear) on a project. It could be from underbidding, bad weather, poor communication, improper planning, purchasing problems, all of these, or a multitude of other reasons. Whatever the case, these issues can take their toll on the contractor, the project team, and the bottom line. In order to avoid this, we need to understand what we are getting into and be prepared or choose to pass on the project and let someone else take it on. 

Stepping Up to the Challenge   

Sometimes a project comes along that makes you step up and throw the gauntlet down challenging you to take it on head first, knowing that you and your team will be tested to the limit. And you accept. Such was the case with one of my more challenging projects: the Irvine Spectrum. This ambitious project was the vision of Donald Bren, a real estate developer and owner of the Irvine Company. A privately held real estate firm, the Irvine Company has developed many of the buildings within the city of Irvine, CA. Mr. Bren envisioned an expansive, high end, architecturally themed shopping center reminiscent of the Alhambra: a sprawling palace and fortress located in Granada, Spain. 

Design-Build Challenge #1 – Accurate Project Estimating and Cost Tracking 

One of the biggest challenges in a design-build project is estimating the job cost accurately.  We already knew we were going to face several challenges if we even got this project but attempting to anticipate the costs effectively took an entire team. Any time you are bidding a job, you need a good historical job cost information. If it is a project outside your normal type of work, you should assemble all your lead talent in the company to evaluate the challenges, potential pitfalls, and associated costs.   

For me, that included my partners, the superintendent, purchasing manager, and the estimator. We analyzed the potential additional cost factors, our labor pool, possible suppliers and product availability, operating and business expenses the project would incur, our projected schedule, and the profit margin. Still, there are unforeseeable expenses that must be anticipated and built into the bidding contingency. 

As a contractor, you need to look at where your company is financially, along with cash flow, labor resources, and talent pool availability. A project like this potentially requires extensive upfront design time – hand-holding the general contractor and architectural team to bring it along. Sometimes, it can take months or even years as a project is designed.  Plus, you always assume the risk of not getting the job in the end. You might also have many other projects running simultaneously and ensuring you have the proper talent to take on a job of this magnitude it is mandatory. 

Design Challenge #2 – The Material 

The developer was trying to convey the Moroccan castle theme idea to the architects with pictures. They didn’t know exactly what materials to use or how they wanted to draw it. When the architect came back with the CMU masonry sample panels designs, they also came back with an unusual color request: a color that didn’t exist.   

In southern California, we are fortunate to have two of the best block producers in the entire country.  Orco Block & Hardscape was one of the block manufacturers selected for this job and they were tasked to create this new block color. Ultimately, they partially blended two colors into the block mold simultaneously, culminating in a new variegated block color that was named the Spectrum Burst. 

The complexity of the design for this project ultimately required a staggering 224 different shapes, sizes, and colors of block. Included in that were over 80 CMU mold configurations. To achieve a consistent pattern, three different colors of block had to be pulled and blended onto each pallet before we could stock them on the scaffold.  

Each blended pallet contained 25% solid light, 25% solid dark, and 50% variegated Spectrum Burst colored block. The typical wall bond pattern was two courses of 8” high followed by one course of 4” high. The structural drawings required masonry units in widths of 2” veneer, 8”, 10”, 12”. This is how you get 224 shapes, sizes, and colors. To my knowledge, no other project to date has incorporated that many variations. 

Design Challenge #3 – Purchasing and Inventory Management 

Once the contract was signed and the project underway, keeping track of all the different block proved to be a challenge of its own. If we were missing even one piece of the 224 types of block, it could literally stop production on the job. Every  

Friday, we ran onsite block inventories to make sure we were ready for the following week. We all know that if a mason isn’t laying, you are losing valuable production time. We had times when there was a miscount, or we didn’t plan properly (yeah, it happens to all of us), so we had to move our laying crews around to keep to our aggressive production schedule. 

Because every color was custom and some of the colors were blended, we had to devise a new way to order and track our inventory.  In the past, we would just place verbal orders to the block producer but in this case, we created special order forms to email or fax and tracked the block through a series of excel spreadsheets. We tried to place all orders weeks in advance to ensure we always had the correct block on hand. There were nearly one hundred thousand blocks needed for this job, and because each piece was custom, we had to be very diligent in having enough material on the job at all times.  

Once the orders were received, each pallet had to be managed and, in many cases, blended by the tenders onsite to ensure the configurations were stocked in the right location and ready for the masons. Remember, our material suppliers are an integral part of our success. We could not have completed this project without the team at Orco Block and Hardscape. They stepped up to help even when we dropped the ball. It is truly a team effort on every project. 

Design Challenge #4 – Weather 

Inclement weather is not always predictable, even in southern California. Rain, in particular, can affect many aspects of a project negatively. It slows things down from days of lost production, upsets schedule deadlines, and can ruin material if not properly stored on the jobsite. If the moisture content is too high in the block, you have to wait and let the block dry out for a few days.  

We were building during a very wet winter. The general contractor anticipated rain days but had not anticipated such extreme weather nor the costs associated with cleanup to that degree. We ended up sealing both sides of the interior and exterior walls to protect them before the roof system could be installed. 

Many times, we had to stop production and cover all the material in preparation for the impending rain. We had to cover the block that was not laid as well as cover the walls that were laid. Because of the high color pigmentation, we ran a greater risk of efflorescence, even with the block producer adding an efflorescence control admixture to the block.   

Water had gotten into the masonry, so we had to devise a way to cover the tops of the walls using tarps going up over the rebar; something we had never done before. There are too many times to count where we had to find new solutions to problems, but this is part of what makes construction fun. We were very fortunate that the general contractor and developer helped absorb some of the efflorescence cleaning costs, because, as you know, this isn’t always the case. 

Design Challenge #5 – Mid-Project Addendums and Design Changes 

When an addendum or a revised set of plans are issued, it is imperative that the estimator and/or project manager review those plans immediately with a fine-toothed comb. Many times, the changes are not identified or clouded by the architect or engineer.  If your team does not identify the changes soon enough, especially changes that added details or in our case a new configuration of block, it can cost you money, delay the project, or shut the job down.  

On top of that, new configurations and block styles can be a source of frustration and additional cost for you and the block producers. Each block on this job was custom, so adding changes midway through a project created stress on all parties involved, as we were all trying to stay within budget and meet scheduling deadlines. Nobody wants to tear out an embed or a piece of wall because we missed a change in the drawings, but it happens. 

Design Challenge #6 – Communication  

Keeping an open line of communication with the architects and engineers, the general contractor, and the other major subcontractors are essential to completing a project like this. Both structural and architectural challenges must be addressed with care. Sometimes, the architects don’t see the financial and scheduling effects that design or plan changes can have on the subcontractor and their team. Engineers are focused on structural stability and they may engineer a wall with too much rebar to fit in the block cell.  

As a mason contractor, we always want to promote and encourage masonry on projects. It’s how we stay in business and keep the trade alive. It is up to us to work together with the architects and engineers, collaborating on changes as a team to avoid mistakes. If we don’t, then we run the risk of pushing architects and engineers away from incorporating masonry into their designs.  With so many other design options available such as steel stud, tilt-up, or glass, it is paramount that we communicate effectively with designers to keep masonry at the forefront of architectural design.   

The Result 

After months of preplanning and construction, overcoming countless design challenges, we completed the Irvine Spectrum project on schedule and within budget (i.e. we made money).  While it was one of the most demanding projects I had encountered up until that time, it was also one of the most rewarding.   

This project demonstrated how when we step up to the challenge, we can achieve greatness if we all work together, communicate effectively, and keep our eye on the end goal. The beauty and architectural grandeur of the Irvine Spectrum lives on today with additional phases completed in the years after our portion was finished. 

The Takeaway 

As masons, we want to keep masonry as a mainstay in architectural design.  As contractors, it is paramount that we evaluate our abilities and bid these types of projects with the utmost scrutiny and attention to potential challenges. As an industry, we need to continue to embrace new technology such as 3-D BIM modeling, robotics, and green and sustainable resources to expand the masonry trade. Design challenges are going to happen with every job, we need to be prepared and willing to embrace these challenges with a positive attitude. This is how we keep masonry special and promote it as the number one design option in construction.  

About Joel: Joel Guth is an Inventor and Business/Safety consultant. The founder of and past president of iQ Power Tools. A third-generation mason by trade and contractor for 30+ years, Since 1995, Joel has been a student of job site safety, always looking to find ways to improve efficiency and safety together with a focus on silica awareness.   

Words: Joel Guth and Stephanie Civello  

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About Joel: Joel Guth is an Inventor and Business/Safety consultant. The founder of and past president of iQ Power Tools. A third-generation mason by trade and contractor for 30+ years, Since 1995, Joel has been a student of job site safety, always looking to find ways to improve efficiency and safety together with a focus on silica awareness.