Builders Hurry Up and Wait on Implementing Technology
New technology is making a dramatic impact on the local construction industry, but builders are proceeding slowly with introducing it because of potential litigation, several local contractors said. The construction industry is one of those fields where materials and techniques used are frequently years behind the times. That’s because builders know the old materials that they are using will withstand the test of time, said Yehudi Gaffen, a principal of Gafcon, a San Diego-based construction management company. But developers are faced with a dilemma: If they don’t have the latest high-tech features in their projects, the buildings will be less desirable, he said. “We’re involved in building 900 F Street, a 115-unit apartment complex, and the telephone guys wanted to put in CAT-3 wiring for the phone lines because they said ‘it’s just an apartment house,'” Gaffen said. “However, CAT-5 wiring allows high-speed Internet access and video transmission, which CAT-3 doesn’t, and those are becoming very desirable features even for apartments.”
Contractors Wait For Proof Of Reliability
Gaffen and the other contractors said fear of litigation keeps new products and materials from being used until long after they have been introduced and are proven to be reliable.
“As a matter of company policy, we don’t recommend products or materials that haven’t had use for at least 10 to 15 years because of the potential for failure, like what happened 20 years ago with polybutylene plumbing,” he said. Gaffen wasn’t the only local contractor who cited the example of the plastic pipe, which was introduced in the early 1980s as an economical and easy-to-install substitute for tried-and-true copper pipe. Since then, the plastic pipe and the failures it experiences have provided ample opportunities for litigation, they said. However, some new products, such as carbon fiber-based materials used to retrofit buildings and bridges for additional strength, are being used without years of prior use in the field, said Peter Filanc, president of Oceanside-based J.R. Filanc Construction Co. Inc. That’s because of the need to increase building strength in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that damaged many buildings and bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area. The carbon fiber material isn’t totally new. It’s been used for years in the aircraft industry, so its properties are pretty well known, he said. His company is expanding the Helix Water District’s Lake Jennings water treatment facility near Lakeside. In order to lift the large concrete slabs into position, the company is using crane slings made of carbon fiber that are stronger than older slings.
Silica Dust Designed To Strengthen Concrete
It’s also using concrete made with silica dust so fine that it almost is like a gas, said Mark Filanc, executive vice president of Filanc Construction. The fine silica dust replaces sand in the concrete mixture and produces concrete that is stronger, denser and less likely to crack than traditional concrete, Mark Filanc said. “This stuff is so new, none of our local suppliers had ever used it prior to this contract,” he said. The company has also used a compound called Fibercrete. It is fiberglass fibers chopped up and added to concrete to reduce cracking and shrinking. They’re also using special epoxies to cement new concrete to existing structures. Litigation resulting from use of new construction materials that fail after a few years has been a trend for the past decade, said Rick Storms, a partner at the Downtown law firm of Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich LLP who handles construction defect lawsuits. “The major issues tend to arise because of problems with windows, roofs and foundations,” Storms said. “New types of roof shingles, which are supposed to be new and improved, but unfortunately aren’t, cause problems you don’t know about until it has been out there for a few years.”
Updated Windows Tended To Crack
Windows that leak are also the target of lawsuits against builders, he said. Many windows designed and manufactured in the 1980s had vinyl latex seals around them. They were touted as the latest and best, but tended to shrink and crack after installation, allowing water to leak into a building. “Developers and builders are not experts on some of these things, but they get sued because they are liable under California law,” Storms said. “The contractors and subcontractors are relying on the manufacturer’s representations.” The lengthy statute of limitations on construction defect lawsuits leaves many builders out on a limb, sometimes for as long as a decade, he said. Polybutylene pipe isn’t the only product that has resulted in litigation after defects show up, he said. One-step spray stucco application systems and material became popular in the early 1990s, because they needed only a one-coat application instead of the traditional three coats put on by hand over a period of several days, he said. The Metropolitan Transit Development Board’s headquarters at 12th and Imperial avenues, south of Downtown, is one of those buildings that got a coat of the new stucco material in the early 1990s, he said. Seepage of rainwater through the stucco led to mildew and mold inside the building. Litigation was recently settled, and the building will soon be getting a new coat of stucco as a result, he said.
Stronger Concrete Materials In Demand
While concrete materials have been improving, there are some areas in Southern California, such as Orange and Imperial counties, where high concentrations of chlorides and sulfides in the soil corrode concrete foundations, he said. “The builders now have to get stronger mixes with more concrete per mix and put in thicker slabs because some experts say the salts just eat the concrete away,” Storms said.
He foresaw one new construction material, sheet-metal-formed beams to replace wood studs, will probably result in less litigation in the future. That’s because the metal doesn’t warp or twist like wood sometimes does.
While the construction industry has been cautious in using new materials, it has embraced like a long-lost friend much of the new equipment being produced for construction. San Diego-based Nielsen Dillingham Builders recently used a Global Positioning Satellite system to help pour a floor for a parking structure. The building is at the Torrey View Corporate Center. They called for help from the Minegar Co. of San Diego, a subcontractor that uses Global Positioning Satellite information and lasers to help builders pour slabs with the correct grade, he said.
“The system can detect distance and height changes to within hundredths of an inch , it’s amazing,” said Tom McDonald, project superintendent with Nielsen Dillingham Builders.
Tech System Cuts Back On Workload
Two benefits to the Global Positioning Satellite are that more concrete can be poured per hour and fewer workers with shovels are needed, McDonald said. Bill Rogers, vice president of Hazard Construction Co. of San Diego, said new asphalt equipment with lasers to control the elevation of the material as it is put down is in use at his company. The personal computer is one technological advance that has been almost universally adopted by local builders. Hazard Construction Co. uses estimating and scheduling software to bid and organize its projects, Rogers said.
Nielsen Dillingham Builders uses a computer-assisted design program to help find potential snarl-ups in work scheduling, said Brian Worthington, a project executive for the company. “We look at a project with the computer program to see how we can stage the job and when we can access the site,” Worthington said. “It doesn’t correct the drawings we get from architects, but it does make logistics and scheduling easier.” Gaffen of Gafcon said his company also uses computers and software to help schedule projects. One innovation he likes is the use of Web sites to provide information for connstruction management. “All information on the project is deposited into a single Web site and all parties involved have access to it on a real-time basis so if there was a meeting and minutes were posted on the Web site, anyone who needs to know would be able to find out,” Gaffen said.