A&D Forum: Working with Flooring Contractors
Just like the beginning of any project, taking what begins as a mere idea and making it a reality is no easy task. In fact, it takes the combined efforts of multiple parties working together in order to bring that brilliant idea to fruition.
Floor Trends spoke with designers and architects—specializing in indoor, outdoor and green-focused projects—about their experiences working with flooring contractors, the challenges they faced along the way and the lessons they learned in the end.
“Some of the most successful projects have been when both the architect and contractor meet prior to installation,” says Tim Wise, RID, LEED AP BD+C, IIDA, vice president and associate principal, Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf. “A lot of times this meeting is ignored and creates a tension between the architect and contractor. Therefore it is imperative for the architect to build a relationship and make their time available to the contractor. This allows the contractor the freedom to ask questions about expectations, desired results and unforeseen conditions.”
Jim Nicolow, principal and LEED Fellow, Lord, Aeck & Sargent Architecture, echoed these sentiments. “Whenever we have the opportunity to collaborate directly [with contractors] the ultimate solution benefits from that dialogue.”
Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP, principal, Peter J. Arsenault, Architect, makes an important point: “When all parties recognize that they each have something to offer and can learn from each other, a healthy relationship of teamwork develops that creates successful projects. Contrary to some opinions, the architect and designer focus on more than just appearance and aesthetics. Rather, they look at the building owner’s needs and select floor finishes appropriate to the use of the spaces where they are installed. Often the specifics of the substrate, the installation method and the flooring material are specified based on the architect’s past experience and knowledge.”
Arsenault also notes, “Sometimes the selection is in response to an owner’s request based on their past experience of living with different flooring. The contractors and installers bring the accumulated knowledge of their own extensive past experience not only on the day-to-day installation of different flooring systems, but the things they get called back to fix when problems appear after the fact.” Arsenault is confident that “successes come about when the collective wisdom and experience of all of the parties are put into play so the best final decisions on flooring material, substrate preparation and installation can be made.”
Elena M. Pascarella, PLA, ASLA, principal landscape architect, Landscape Elements, provided a perfect example of successful teamwork. She says, “Many times contractors will prefer to use materials with which they are familiar, whereas the designer may know of some newer materials that better meet the client’s aesthetic needs and the design goals while also being more durable, easier to maintain and better meet LEED, sites and/or stormwater requirements.” She explains that she has worked with contractors on private residential and commercial projects where the contractor was receptive to recommendations for patio pavers. The contractor was unfamiliar with that specific brand of paver but reviewed online information on the paver installation. She continues, “We also had a representative from the paver company visit the site during installation to ensure that the contractor was using best practices. The end result was great and the client was very pleased.”
For Nicolow, a flooring collaboration success story that immediately sprang to mind was the experience of working with a cork flooring subcontractor on a custom flooring pattern designed for a visitor’s center in Mississippi. It was based on a Walter Anderson print of a longleaf pinecone (local artist and endemic tree species). The pattern was comprised of intersecting Fibonacci spirals, as is a pinecone, and Nicolow says, “I was worried about the complexity of the pattern and its ultimate successful execution. In the end, it not only turned out great, but I received a thank you note from the subcontractor for the opportunity to work on something so interesting.”
Tommy Linstroth, LEED AP, principal, Trident Sustainability Group, put it simply: “Clear communication early and often is crucial, along with a clean, detailed set of specifications letting everyone know what the expectations are. Fast responses to RFIs (request for information) go a long way as well.”
Celeste Allen Novak, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, principal, Celeste Allen Novak Architect PLLC, notes that she always selects materials that have sustainable properties so it has been important to include the contractors on her team in order to ensure that they are also installed within sustainability guidelines. “It is one thing to select a “green” laminate or carpet, yet another to see that it is really installed correctly,” she says.
In the spirit of “integrated project delivery,” Arsenault says, “it is always good for the architects, designers and owner to talk early in the process with the contractor and installer to confirm the project requirements, assess any anticipated complications and acknowledge the experience and expertise that each one brings.” All should expect a successful outcome but all parties involved also need to rely on the successful input and work of each other, says Arsenault.
He continues, “Like most aspects of a building project, whether new construction or renovation, there are a lot of people, materials and money involved and this applies to a flooring installation as well. Communicating with each other in the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect is the best way to keep expectations in line on all fronts.”
Anthony Offak, RA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, architect, Albert Kahn Associates, added, “As projects become more fast-paced, and experience leaves the industry, I think it is imperative that all of the project teams work closer together and look out for each other while trying to give the client the final product they desire.”
In the end, Offak tells each team he works with “we are all human and mistakes will be made, however we need to realize that each of us want this to be a successful project, make money (not lose it) and get future work.” He continues, “This means we need to take our blinders off regarding if something is their problem or another’s, and speak up so we can make the best possible project together.”
“One of the biggest challenges we face is that there often is no opportunity for dialogue with the manufacturer or installer during the design phase, as the product may not even have been selected until the submittal phase (i.e., many of our clients require that we not sole-source products, which can be especially challenging with finishes),” expressed Nicolow. “We’re also contractually one-step removed from the subcontractors.”
Pascarella stressed the importance of having a strong working relationship with a contractor as well as a client. “It’s easier to build contractor relationships in private sector work. The public bid process makes the contractor-designer relationship more of a challenge due to the nature of the process. Also, many times there is a construction manager who serves as the client’s direct contact for project construction administration—this places a middle-man between the contractor and designer.”
In these situations, Pascarella looks to consult during the design phases of work with various construction contractors and other design colleagues about the products that are being considered for specification on a project. She says, “In this way, we obtain a consensus from a number of individuals as to the best products for that particular project.”
Offak cautioned how having a team that isn’t unified can result in not delivering the desired final product. He recalls a project that had an addition with a stained concrete slab. In this case, the problem stemmed from the joint filler used between the expansion joints not being grey, which did not match the existing conditions of red. “Due to this being a project that did not allow me to visit the site, we had to rely on existing drawings and specifications from the previous expansion that the owner provided to us,” said Offak.
He continued, “We matched the drawings and specifications, including the joint filler, however the owner rejected it because it didn’t match the existing red joint filler that the addition was abutting. Only after we had to pay for—and replace everything—did we realize that the color changed in the shop drawings of the previous expansion, and was never corrected on the as-built drawings/specs that we received. This could have been avoided had the flooring contractor or construction manager (CM) done a casual observation to the existing slab—then they would have noticed the color and could have brought up the fact it was different before the initial installation.”
Without a common consensus or clear idea between all parties involved, projects can quickly go awry. Therefore expectations must be initially set and then met in the end.
“Before any flooring install should happen, a pre-installation meeting should take place,” reiterated Wise. “Drawings communicate a certain amount of information and can lead to confusion if there are discrepancies with the specifications. The pre-install meeting allows these ambiguities to be discussed and a clear path set for all involved. Open communication and clear expectations allow for an environment that fosters a good outcome.”
Nicolow agreed. “It’s important to have more dialogue during design, as well as routine implementation of a pre-installation meeting to manage expectations and identify and/or solve any challenges before the work begins.”
Novak provided some additional insight. Before a project begins, she recommends some questions to ask:
- Will it be installed in a high traffic area?
- Does the material need to meet ADA requirements?
- How does it respond to areas of high moisture?
- Will it work with any proposed drains? (Novak’s example came down to the tiles being too large for a more conventional drain)
- How long will it take to arrive on-site and how will this fit into the schedule?
- What are the components that make it sustainable?”
Pascarella recommends designers and contractors keep the lines of communication open. However, keep in mind the third-party element of product representative. She says, “It is important that the designer carefully review product information and communicate with product representatives before specifying products. Designers must consider all possible adverse conditions that might affect the product being specified and ask the “tough” questions of the product rep.”
Novak concludes with the importance behind questioning the lifecycle of a material and that “one must drill into the details that also include the maintenance and end-of-life material disposal of any surface.”
She said, “I also want to make clear that the “team” to meet with may include the subcontractors (in my case, the plumbers, tile installers, etc.) as well as the contractors. It’s amazing how decentralized a construction project can become even with the best of contractors heading the team. Since the architect can’t draw every detail or be at the site 24/7, the intent of the design and the buy-in from subcontractors is critical to a successful project. Engaging the construction team as part of the design and sustainability initiatives leads to success.”