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How to keep contractors in businesss

Article by Kirby Perschbacher

Construction – October 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

MOVE RIGHT IN Secluded mountain home with great view.

Rustic exterior, large decks …

WHETHER YOU’LL WANT a house like that is a matter of taste. But I know I’ll love it.

As part of the construction industry, I am grateful to the clients, architects, and contractors who design and erect so many custom mountain homes. They insure that I and my colleagues will have plenty of work for generations to come.

Let’s start at the top. The cedar-shake roof is stylish — so stylish that many subdivisions have restrictive covenants which require cedar-shake shingles.

Roofs aren’t supposed to leak, and cedar shakes won’t leak if they’re oiled every year. That’s just how you’d like to spend your vacation, right? Maybe toting linseed oil and turpentine up ladders is a relaxing change of pace for a lawyer or an accountant, but I’d rather be fishing or hunting.

And if you hire the work, you’ll pay well — as you should. Oiling shakes is risky work on a roof that’s steep enough to shed the heavy snow loads in the mountains. In the trade, roof workers are not reputed to present any intellectual threat to rocket scientists — but even an itinerant nail-pounder has brains enough to charge extra for work where one bad step can put him on crutches for the rest of his life.

Roof jobs are tough for a contractor because work has to be scheduled so that the crews are productive while they’re on company time — a consideration that often escapes the public sector (for which we can be thankful — do we really want all the snoops, meddlers, and harassment specialists on the government payroll to be more productive?), but which is vital to the private enterprise which wants to stay in business.

And scheduling roof work is generally an exercise in futility, thanks to the fickle nature of Colorado weather — blizzards in June, rain in December, tank tops in February, overcoats in September, six inches of hail on a July day that dawned bright and clear. Not that I mind hailstorms — a good pounding from the sky can demolish hundreds of cedar-shake roofs.

Fortunately, most periods of intense hail are followed by a few weeks of clement weather, so that we can go out and charge people premium rush-job rates for repairing or replacing the shake roofs that were damaged or destroyed in the hailstorm.

Even better, there’s always the chance that lightning or even just a stray spark will encounter a shake roof.

Granted, the shake promoters say there are specially treated shingles able to withstand matches, torches, maybe even napalm. They’re expensive, if you can even find them (don’t hold your breath waiting for the local lumberyard to call you back after you inquire), and nobody knows how long the fire-proofing will remain potent in our arid climate and bright sunshine with more than its share of destructive ultra-violet radiation.

Once fire hits a regular shake roof, the whole house often goes up in smoke, and suddenly there’s a $200,0000 or $500,000 job to bid on.

The real expensive mountain houses may sit on narrow, constricted roads along hillsides a long way from any substantial water supply. The views are great. If you’re brave, you can watch a fire leap from shake roof to shake roof in seconds, and there’s a raging inferno long before any fire trucks can get there.

ON A PERSONAL LEVEL, we contractors certainly sympathize with the terrible losses from these fires, but when it comes to business, well, we should more often express our gratitude to the simple cedar shake. It keeps more of us working than any dozen pork-barrel projects.

Plain asphalt shingles are cheaper, take less maintenance, hold better, and last longer. Modern steel roofs are attractive and will outlast the house under them. If you’re into ostentation, slate and tile roofs function well while proclaiming your impressive net worth.

It’s amazing, when I think about it. I’ve never contributed to a candidate who promised to maintain the cedar shake in its popularity. I’ve never cut a deal with a subdivider to make cedar shakes a covenanted requirement. I’ve never asked an insurance company to continue writing policies on houses with cedar-shake roofs that should be uninsurable. I’ve never persuaded a glossy magazine to feature a shake roof over its glamorous “home of the month” that everyone will covet.

But despite how things usually work in this country, all those people, and many others, work steadfastly on behalf of the cedar shake. And as long as they do, I’ll have plenty of work. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’m just pleasantly surprised.

Move down from the roof, and the next thing you see is generally a deck.

I can always tell who will want a redwood deck. Amid the Greenpeace and “No Two Forks” stickers on their Jeep Cherokee, there will be a “Save the Redwoods” sticker. They generally seem like smart people, too, so I can’t figure out why they don’t make the connection. It’s hard to save redwoods if you persist in chopping them down to make decks.

BUT I’M JUST A HOUSE-BUILDER, not a planet-saver. Redwood resists rot and weathering; on the basis of its inherent character, redwood is by far the best material if you insist on erecting a frame and platform outdoors.

Even redwood does deteriorate, though; most decks last about 10 years before they need to be replaced. During that decade, the deck requires regular and frequent maintenance. Nails and screws loosen with time, wood splinters, and so forth, until somebody gets hurt. Hope it’s a good friend who won’t sue you if you’ve been neglecting deck maintenance because you mistakenly believed that your vacation home should be care-free.

Face it. Decks were invented for wooden ships, which had big crews of sailors who had to be kept busy when the sails didn’t need to be furled. Decks are historically a make-work project to enhance maritime discipline. If you need to keep yourself and your family busy, a deck makes a lot of sense. Idle hands lead to idle thoughts, and an idle mind is the devil’s workshop,etc., and so decks certainly could promote Traditional Family Values.

One attraction of decks is that they’re easy to clean. Just sweep, and the debris falls through the cracks to join the dead weeds, twigs, construction scraps (including split shakes) and other kindling down below. And all that deck wood sits right overhead, ready to catch fire as soon as the flames get high enough.

Maybe you’re so efficient at being a health fascist that no glowing cigarette butt will ever fall through the cracks in your deck at one of your parties, and maybe your gas grill eliminates the possibility of a hot chunk of charcoal (or mesquite) taking the same route.

But fire is a real possibility if you don’t keep the under-deck area clear of organic matter, and it’s something most people don’t think about.

If you’d rather spend more time relaxing and less time maintaining, and you still want to enjoy outdoor eating and partying, consider a patio. They’re not in vogue right now, perhaps because people think of drab suburban concrete slabs when they think of patios, but flagstone, bricks, or paving blocks can be attractive and interesting.

They also take about a tenth as much maintenance as a wooden deck, and they can’t be ignited by anything this side of an H-bomb.

But patios won’t fit everywhere, especially on steep hillsides. On many sites, decks are indeed the best course. But even then, why build 2,000 square feet of deck to maintain? Keep it a prudent size — 500 square feet at most — and you’ll have more time to enjoy it.

BEHIND THE DECK, you’ll often find cedar siding. From my standpoint of my business, cedar siding is another fine product which:

1. Requires plenty of maintenance. That’s good for me, because you’ll either hire one of my colleagues to maintain it, thereby putting money in the right pockets, or you’ll maintain it yourself — and when you’re working on your house, you won’t be competing with me for campsites or fishing holes.

2. Doesn’t last very long even with maintenance. My air-nailers save considerable labor, but they’re expensive machines. Siding-replacement jobs help me pay them off quickly.

3. Presents a substantial fire hazard. I’ve already explained those benefits.

Brick and stone are expensive; I can understand why people shy away from masonry. Metal siding often looks cheap, even if it isn’t. But stucco costs less than siding, takes less maintenance, endures well, and won’t burn. It can come in almost any color, and it will fit in well almost anywhere.

However, stucco is not in style these days. Every time I extol the virtues of stucco to a client, I hear that they really prefer “the look” of wood. This is America, they’re the people writing the checks, and so I heed them. And every time I hear the phrase “the look,” my cash register rings.

There’s a lot more I could say about insane floor plans and antiquated building codes that needlessly inflate construction costs, and bizarre pipe runs that guarantee plumbing problems, and how people refuse to realize how many more cable routes will be needed as houses become more electronic. I could also say plenty about how people apparently work at not having a productive relationship with their contractor on the biggest investment of their lives.

But in general, most of this blind desire to be stylish just guarantees more work for me, my colleagues and my competitors. So, please don’t consider this a complaint. I do pretty well with things the way they are. Consider it more a question as to why things are the way they are.

Kirby Perschbacher is a principal in Cut No Slak Construction, Inc., general contractors in Salida. He collaborated on this piece with Ed Quillen, a principal in Central Colorado Publishing Co.

An abridged version was published in the March, 1993, edition of Snow Country magazine; it inspired a passionate complaint from a wood-products industry spokesman, who has been quiet of late. That may be because cedar-shake roofs from Los Angeles to Boulder have been going up in smoke; some jurisdictions are now considering a ban on shake roofs.