“This is one of the premier projects going on right now in Southern California,” said Don Richardson of San Fernando-based builder Bernards. Richardson is senior superintendent of the Pacific City project, a 516-unit luxury apartment development in Huntington Beach. “It’s been going really well,” Richard said. It’s very expensive, he notes, and “it’s getting a lot of notice,” not just for its ocean views, but also for the way it’s being constructed.
“The general contractor requested we make the change from conventional shear panels to Smart Components,” explained Fred Hovenier, president of Laurence Hovenier, Inc., the framing company on the Pacific City job. Hovenier has done multiple projects over the past few years using the proprietary engineered shear wall system, including a different project with Bernards. Both contractor and framer are sold on the product.
Richardson said he and Hovenier were unsure about the framing method when they started their previous project, a large mixed-use retail and apartment building in downtown Los Angeles. “Since we’d never worked with it before, we were very skeptical,” Richardson recalled. By the time the project was finished, he said, their perspectives on the new approach had changed. “It was fantastic,” Richardson said. “It’s much cheaper. It’s much faster. It’s more flexible.”
One product = many solutions
Cheaper, faster, more flexible framing of the Pacific City project has had dramatic results. The architect and builder were both taken aback by Bernards’ progress reports.
Steve Stroder of California TrusFrame, the component manufacturer supplying Smart Components for Pacific City, explained that component shear walls speed up a project because they keep builders from redeploying framers. Instead of a crew sheathing one side of a wall and moving on, only to return to sheath the other side after pipes, wires and ducts have been run, framers installing Smart Components finish their part of the project in one pass.
The architect and builder “didn’t realize how fast the framing was going to go when we used the Smart Components and we premanufactured all the walls,” Richardson said. “They were surprised.” And thrilled. “On a project like this,” Hovenier explained, Smart Components can reduce build times by as much as two weeks per building. “If you’re looking at a hundred million dollar project and you can bring it in two weeks early, that’s a lot.” A lot of savings in terms of financing, as the construction loan can be repaid, and a lot of earnings in terms of rent, as the building owner can begin welcoming tenants.
Of course, speed alone can be a significant benefit, independent of material cost savings. It’s one of the critical factors that drives building product innovation in that, along with cost, a potential improvement in field-labor efficiency and a corresponding reduction in build time is a persuasive reason to consider changing methods or trying new products.
Both time and cost savings do have offsets, Richardson pointed out. For a start, the up-front cost of a product like Smart Components calls for up-front effort. Richardson and Hovenier had to win over Pacific City’s owner, architect and structural engineer. Repeating the benefits of efficiency, in terms of time and materials, was key. “We told them how much faster it was going to be,” Richardson said, and they reminded everyone that material waste-savings was no small consideration.
“It saves on waste,” Hovenier itterated. “A lot—a lot!—on waste.” Again, that factor alone can make componentized shear walls a cost-effective option. Less waste means all-around savings throughout the construction process—a great advantage, particularly for a city project like this one, even though, Hovenier says, it’s hard to put a number on.
“This is a LEED Silver project,” Richardson explained. By eliminating plywood, the change to Smart Components was a logical addition to the originally-planned componentization, a basic green building strategy in that components minimize the need for on-site cutting and material handling. A Smart Component doesn’t come at the cost of LEED credit, Richardson notes. “Actually,” he said, “they get LEED points for it.”
Specialty product = go-to supplier
In introducing the product to the California market, Stroder has learned to concentrate on identifying the right customers and the right projects to benefit from the solutions a unique product like this offers. “We have done a great deal of single-family homes in the past,” he said, but that approach “didn’t seem like it was taking hold very well.” The cost in that scenario, he found, was prohibitive.
Switching focus has boosted sales. Commercial projects are a slam dunk for Smart Components, Stroder explains, and they generate a spill-over effect. They allow building designers to “pull a tremendous amount of steel out of the project and we’re able to do the whole project with wood walls and wood truss components.” Product momentum, Stroder has found, has had more to do with satisfied users than marketing. Word-of-mouth endorsements from framers and contractors, impressed by labor savings and reduced project timelines, have been very beneficial.
“We have suggested it,” Richardson confirms. In addition to Pacific City, Richardson says he’s pitched the product for other projects, introducing it to other contractors he works with. “There’s a lot of framers that are familiar with it,” Richardson said. “They’ve heard of it, but they haven’t worked with it.”
Working with the product is key—the most convincing advocates are the people in the right place to not only offer testimonials to their friends and colleagues, but also provide feedback to the manufacturers who are in a position to improve the product. “We have some excellent framers that have really stepped up,” Stroder said. “Their feedback and patience as we refined this product was invaluable.”
Finding a Niche = Building a Network
A persuasive product pitch both acknowledges limits and conveys benefits. Hovenier, for example, says he’s choosy about making product suggestions. He’ll recommend using Smart Components in a project design, he said, “if it’s early enough. It depends on the project and it depends who the engineer of record is. Some engineers, it’s a waste of time to bring it up because they’re not going to [design for shear resistance] with wood.”
“The architects and structural engineers so far haven’t really grasped the use of [Smart Components],” Richardson reflected. “I think they will.” The same is true, he says, of other general contractors like him. “Everybody’s a little skeptical to try something new, but once they’ve used it—and they see how it’s used and how much easier it is on them—then it helps them,” Richardson explains.
There’s a parallel development on the design side. Specifying a Smart Component, Richardson said, “does three-quarters of the work for the engineer.” As with any structural component, the engineering is built in to the product, saving time and effort—and therefore money—for both designers and builders.
It might still be small, but Smart Components have a growing network of success stories and advocates. Every time he completes a Smart Component project, Richardson says, he’s convinced someone else. “When we get done with it, the architect and structural engineer say, ‘We have to use this on our next design. This is much better.’”
A product that can make a project go more smoothly has a versatility that can apply in diverse scenarios. Smart Components, for example, can be designed into a project late, as they were with Pacific City. Richardson sees them as an ideal way to reduce the time and materials involved in shear wall installation overall, even though he says they’re not great for interior walls, around elevators or in walls with lots of plumbing, because a Smart Component can’t be cut to accommodate pipes or wires. And while there has been a learning curve in taking the product to market, it’s now one that arcs across the country.
“I think we took the approach early on of trying to get out and convert projects,” Stroder recalled. “Then we started trying to get our products spec’d in to the job. We’ve now taken that route in a very strong way.” The new push has involved building a team to work directly with engineers—both in California and on the East Coast.
“I would liken it to the early years of roof trusses,” Stroder reflected. “Roof trusses had a pretty slow start at the beginning and there were a lot of things we needed to learn.” From improving production processes and quality to finding the best ways to ship product and train installers, Smart Component manufacturers have already mastered lessons that can lead to expanding market share. Just like the pioneers of roof truss technology, they’re finding that presenting solutions to the age-old challenges of construction (namely, highly-engineered, labor-saving, efficient-to-install products) means satisfied framers, builders and owners—a base of repeat customers who know their CM is a partner adding value to their project.