We’ve all heard industry pros say, “I’ve been doing it this way for 30 years.” But has it been 30 years of blissful ignorance or 30 years of useful lessons learned?
Sometimes, a comfort level with the way we’ve always done things can make us less alert to the changes — environmental regulations, material modifications, shifts in technology — and other influences that might make our once-superior process less effective today. In a business where projects are too-often siloed, specialty teams can find themselves working at cross-purposes, doing only what they know instead of collaborating with project partners to achieve expected outcomes.
A Faceted Lens
There are three core components to every construction or repair job: 1) design, 2) the material chosen for the design and 3) the process for installing or assembling the material to achieve the design. Think of each component as a facet of a prism, and then use the prism as a lens to bring the total project into focus.
Do the teams on the project grasp the fundamental principles of good design? Can the integrity of the design be ensured with the selected materials? Have the installers taken time to determine the best application methods for the project and setting? Once you have used this lens to evaluate the teams, you can then measure their work against the merciless yardstick of time.
Open communication among specialty teams keeps any one group from making decisions in a vacuum. © Getty Images / vm
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Following are examples in which teams that are too set in their ways can undermine the success of a project.
1) Fundamentals of Good Design — Forgotten
One of the most functional features of a well-designed stone windowsill is the quarter-inch groove. For thousands of years, stonemasons understood that a critical part of keeping the inside of a building dry is managing the water on the outside. Basically, if it doesn’t get wet, it doesn’t leak.
On a traditional stone windowsill, the stone is angled away from the building and extended beyond the brick façade. Just several inches away from the front edge of the stone is the quarter-inch-wide groove. Because water has surface tension, the rain flowing across the top of the stone and down the face wants to move along the underside of the stone toward the building. That trajectory is stopped by the groove on the edge of the overhang, which causes the water to drop away from the building.
It’s a simple but brilliant example of good design and engineering; however, about a half-century ago, trend-makers decided they didn't like the look of the extended sill, so the groove was eliminated. Today, while teams working on restoration projects understand the need for the slope on the top side of the stone, they don’t have the grounding in good design to recognize the purpose and value of that antiquated groove. So they don’t bother to add it to replacement stones.
If asked why the groove is no longer used, a “seasoned” designer might shrug and say, "We’ve been doing it this way for the last 30 years,” without any sense that including the groove would make the restored home not only historically correct, but safer from water damage.
2) When Tried-and-True is Through
Not knowing how the change of a single component can impact the whole system is detrimental to a project. A prime example involves the devolution of asphalt mastic. There was a time when asphalt mastic was vital to making roofing and waterproofing systems watertight. It could be used on a roof or below-grade for waterproofing. It would stick to anything. It would stay flexible. And it seemed to last forever. That’s just not the case anymore.
Asphalt mastic is not a particularly bad material; it’s just not the same product it was in the past. With the advent of the EPA and the subsequent removal of components from construction materials, such as asbestos and volatile organic compounds (VOC), the performance and longevity of asphalt mastic has declined. The new generation of mastics dries out, cracks and loses adhesion far sooner than earlier models.
Instead, there are products today based on new technologies — like silyl terminated polyether (STPE) — that have significant performance advantages, with a nominal difference in installed cost to that of asphalt mastic. What has been the go-to product for 30 years is now one that reduces the overall performance of any roofing or waterproofing system.
3) Best Practice Gone Bust
An example of ignorance to the impact of installation methods on the longevity of a system comes from a friend who used to be a third-generation roofer. He had grown up working on roofing crews with his family’s company well into adulthood. One of their big customers was a school district for which he personally installed numerous roofs. He and his brothers eventually decided that it was time to get out of the roofing industry, and they all started new careers.
Coincidentally, my friend was later hired as the maintenance director for the same school district. Over time, he started to notice that the roofs he had installed had begun to leak and fail. Upon examination, he realized that the processes they had used to install the roof — which they thought were best practices — were causing the roofs to fail prematurely. Roofs that should have had a normal life expectancy of 20 years or more were failing at 10.
Prior to becoming the director, he had been completely unaware of these roof failures, because the leaks took almost 10 years to appear, and his family company was never notified of the problems. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Many companies that specialize in new construction are unaware of how their installation methods affect the long-term performance of the systems they are producing. So just because the method has been used for decades doesn’t guarantee it will result in a roofing or waterproofing system that meets the long-term performance expectations.
The design-bid-build process is great for getting the best deal on the individual components of a project, but achieving desired outcomes requires communication among partnering teams and an openness to solutions outside our usual repertoire. So if an industry veteran says, “I've been doing it this way for 30 years,” and he can’t tell you why, it may be time to rethink that relationship.