Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rants on Construction

I haven't written anything about construction for a while, and the work I've been doing on a house for ourselves has reminded me of some of my old rants that have built up over the years.  So I've decided to dump them here for whoever may find them.

Unlike a lot of construction people, I have nothing particular against do-it-yourselfers, mainly because that is how I started out.  All we could afford in a house was a "fixer-upper" and we could not afford to hire the fixing.  I didn't know much when we started, but a combination of boning up on how to do what needed doing and practice with the tools eventually put me in a new line of work.

One of the things I have learned over these years is that there is not much in new construction or in remodeling that could be called "rocket science"--and in fact, if there was, most of the people in the field would have to find another way to make a living.  And the work they do is not secret lore that you cannot find anywhere.  The information is out there if you dig around--in fact, thanks to the Internet, it is more accessible than ever.

 One of the biggest problems in homebuilding is that most of the people on the jobsite do not understand any trade but their own, and a surprising number of them don't even know as much as they should about their own trade.  Here's a quote from Fine Homebuilding from November 2007:  "As an electrical contractor, I've hired many union and nonunion electricians over the years, and most were horribly misinformed about the electrical trade and the building codes."  And I would add that the electricians are not any worse than the other trades.  Multiply that by all the different trades that work on any given house, and the potential for problems in new houses is even worse than in cars.

But aren't these people licensed for their trade?  Well, that varies-- from trade to trade, and from location to location--as to what "licensing" means.  Some trades are not licensed at all (painters, drywallers, flooring installers, for just a few).  Framing carpenters are almost never licensed (and maybe should be).  Mostly, the mechanical trades--plumbing, electrical, and heating--are "licensed".  But that may only mean the "contractor of record" (the guy whose name is on the truck) has a license to be in that trade; it is entirely possible that the guy on the site is not licensed at all, and unless the company is small, the license holder may never show his face on that particular job! 

All too often, "licensing" serves mainly to limit entry to the field, and mainly benefits the established contractors.  (And the local government that collects the license fees.)  And since entry is limited, there is less competition, and homeowners pay higher prices to get their work done.  And in some places I have worked, electricians were not licensed by the local government--if they claimed to have a "license" it came from the electricians' union.

I mentioned above that most construction workers don't know much about any trade but their own.  This is a continuing source of problems in building houses, starting with the framers:  They don't know what the drywallers need for backing for the sheetrock, for one example.  So, the drywallers and the trim carpenters hate the framers, because the shortcuts the framers take make things harder for the later trades.  Then the electricians and plumbers come in; not understanding framing, they make holes in the framing for their work that may weaken the structure later, if in the wrong place or too large.

To add to all of this, most of the people I've known in construction were trying to go through their whole working career doing the things they learned at the beginning.  It is like pulling teeth to get them to learn anything new.  All too many of them can't make heads or tails of written instructions that come with a product that's new to them.  That's a major reason why there has been so little change in the way houses are built.

But what about the building inspectors, the government employees who are supposed to check the work?  Again, that varies from place to place.  I know of rural areas that had no county inspectors as late as 1990, and there may still be some left.  In one area where I worked, the county inspectors were paid the same hourly wage as a carpenter's helper--and they were supposed to know everything in construction?  They did not, and an awful lot got by them.  They seemed to know a few things to look for, and got drilled on the latest code changes.  But if you had a technical question up front, you had to go in and talk to the superintendent, the only man in the department who really knew much.  And if you wanted to slip something through, just schedule the inspection for a Friday, the busiest day of the week--everybody wanted their inspections on Friday!  To be fair, I have seen some good inspectors, mostly in urban areas.  The locality where I learned wiring had hired a private firm to handle electrical inspections for the entire county, and they were very good at it; and if you had a question about how to resolve a problem, you could call early in the morning before they left for their rounds and work it out in advance.  But in practice, a lot of work was done that they never saw.  As the first one I met said to me, "The way the law is written, if you replace one outlet, you're supposed to call us in to inspect it--we know how many of those we see."  He understood that few people would call and pay $15 (back then) if they replaced a 50 cent outlet.

The real key, whether you are a "pro" (which all too often just means someone is dumb enough to pay you for doing it) or a "do-it-yourself" person:  take the trouble to learn what you are doing before you dig in.  The information is out there for 95-99% of what gets done on a house.  I have seen (and had to clean up after) dumb things done by both homeowners and professional tradespeople.  So do your homework.  Learn how to do it right--the information is out there.  And then do a good job on whatever it is.

1 comment:

ded said...

I know this was a rant, but from a notoriously uninformed do-it-yourselfer, this made me smile. I dread the day somebody comes after me to examine my "work".

I did hire an electrician for the last electrical job, though. Some wisdom comes with age, eh? He complained specifically about the manner our breaker box was wired, and I paid him to do what he felt needed to be done.