Impact of Labor and Material Shortages on Construction Quality
©Tomasz Zajda – stock.adobe.com
Supply chain disruptions affect the availability of building materials. Everything from insulation to plumbing fixtures to structural lumber is rare. Well known before the pandemic, labor shortages in the construction industry have only intensified with the COVID-19 virus. Moreover, the fall in the birth rate, the slowdown in legal immigration and early retirements have created an employment crisis. But demand for new homes is at an all-time high. So how will these shortages and delays affect the quality of home construction?
The prevalence of construction defects in new homes often accompanies periods of high demand. When sources of skilled labor dry up, builders must get workers from unconventional sources, sometimes from the Home Depot parking lot. The same applies to building materials in short supply – substitutions or changes in accepted installation practices. In addition, builders are substituting lower quality materials for traditional building products. Each of these factors can negatively influence the quality of construction.
The most recognized result of material and labor shortages is the cost of new housing. Builders are raising the price of new homes to offset the cost of hard-to-obtain materials and delays caused by lack of labor. But there are other consequences, some of which may not be discovered until long after the house is sold. Forensic investigations of new homes frequently reveal shortcuts taken during construction. These are quality control issues often invisible on the exterior of a completed building. But reports of leaks or mold, for example, in a new home will trigger intrusive inspections that reveal poor construction methods.
Correct construction and installation are important
The correct application of many modern building materials requires reading and understanding the manufacturer’s instructions and warnings. For example, waterproofing around windows must be integrated with window fins and the surrounding weather barrier to be watertight. The manufacturers of these materials provide detailed installation instructions which, if followed, usually mean that a window will not leak. But sometimes the workers who install these components are not trained in these precise construction methods and “poorly run-in” sealing materials. Thus, instead of rejecting the water towards the outside, it is directed towards the building.
Sealants used to waterproof windows must be compatible with the materials they touch. Unfortunately, some sealants are not compatible with adjacent materials and instead of providing a tight seal, they degrade the seal. Other sealants are not compatible with materials used to “firestop” wall penetrations. Sealants not compatible with CPVC pipe used for sprinkler systems, for example, can degrade the pipe, eventually causing it to fail.
Today it is common to design balconies on residential buildings with support beams surrounded by a soffit. It looks good, but it can also trap moisture in the beams, which promotes rot. Water can enter the enclosed space when the joint where the balcony adjoins the building is not properly sealed.
Quality control on site
Suppose this is known to the manufacturers of these products and they publish guidelines for their materials, which are incorporated into the drawings and specifications by the project architects. So why do we find faults in the construction of buildings? The answer is that the level of training of the workers who must install these products is insufficient, and that the quality control on site is non-existent or sporadic. The workforce coming from a parking lot is probably not formed by a union. Construction unions have well-known training programs for apprentices that can produce skilled workers in various trades. This training includes instruction on following manufacturer guidelines and architectural details. But labor trained by unions is avoided to cut costs or is simply not available in sufficient numbers.
On-site quality control (inspections by architects, superintendents or supervisors) can detect misapplications and errors in the field. But especially with production housing, there are simply too many critical plant locations for architects or even supervisors to constantly monitor. Even a small mistake – a joint where the sealant was not fully applied – can eventually cause internal damage. Constant monitoring of untrained workers is impossible for supervisors, and architects are rarely on a job site to observe installation on a daily basis.
The high demand for production housing is also prompting builders to try new designs that save time and money. Direct Apply Finishing Systems (DEFS) instead of stucco. Hardboard instead of real wood covering. Foam trim instead of wood or concrete. These systems are no better than the products or systems they replace. But they cost less and take less time to install. Unfortunately, they are also often the subject of litigation for defects.
Rising home prices may be the most immediate and obvious result of supply chain issues and labor shortages. Nonetheless, the impact will be more noticeable in the long run, as shortcuts and mistakes made during construction subject parts of a building or home to moisture intrusion or degradation by incompatible materials. . A trained and skilled workforce is the best insurance against mistakes that lead to construction defects and the disputes that will inevitably follow. But craftsmen simply aren’t available in sufficient numbers as we build homes and buildings at a breakneck pace that hasn’t been seen in many years.
Disputes over construction issues generally follow a hot real estate market for several years. We have just come to this. This is unfortunate because it is the buyers of these properties who will suffer the most from leaks, rot and other failures. It’s easy to say just provide more quality control, but inspectors can’t monitor a worker all day. Municipal inspections are superficial and municipalities cannot provide the number of inspectors needed to prevent construction defects in new construction.
It’s tempting to blame construction defects on pandemic-related shortages, but poorly trained labor and cost-cutting substitutions have been with us for decades and will always accompany strong housing demand. Builders who try to meet this demand with solutions that don’t include robust quality control and quality materials will struggle to avoid construction defect claims.