News & Events
Zombie Roofs: Reasons Roof Failure Is Ignored
Across the nation, there are roofs that have turned into zombies. You know the kind — a roof that died long ago but lingers on waiting until the economy improves enough for you to accumulate the money to replace it. If you have a zombie roof, it will eat your brains because you live in fear that the next big rainstorm will bring a flurry of irate phone calls and emails. It's up to facility managers to understand the reasons for zombie roofs — the reasons roof failure is ignored.
What turns a roof into a zombie? It's easy to blame the economy for the lack of funds to replace the roof, but there may be more subtle, insidious forces at work.
One issue is denial. A zombie roof may still be a young one — failures at five years or less are not unknown. The financial decision-makers believe there is no way a five-year-old roof should need replacement. And so the zombie lies in wait, ready for the first storm to bring a shower of complaints from tenants.
Another problem is that a zombie roof may not yet be visibly decomposed and so can still pass for a living entity. As a result, the facility manager is unaware that the roof has exceeded its useful life.
Finally, there is the zombie in disguise. It's the one that has been patched, re-covered, coated and otherwise layered so much that the actual state of the roof is unknown, even though there is the zombie lurking underneath ready to surface.
Zombies give themselves away in various ways, like files full of work orders and tenant complaints. But the most accurate way to spot a zombie is to use economics.
Determine what the cost would be for a new roof on a facility and divide that by the number of years a roof is likely to last, generally 15 to 20. This number is the yearly cost of a roof. Add up all of the repair charges and the cost of repairing interior damage to the building and contents. If the first is less than the second, you have a zombie.
Incidentally, if you have to justify the cost of a roof replacement to another party, going through this exercise is a powerful argument in favor of a new roof. When the building owner or asset manager realizes it is costing more to keep the zombie in place than it would to replace it, it can help change their mind about trying to eke just one more year out of it.
Taking The High Road On Low Bids
The pressures to contain construction project costs in today’s economic environment can lead facility executives to reflexively adopt low-bid procurement. And when the project in question is a facility roof — an integral part of the facility envelope that few people see and seemingly fewer think about — awarding the contract on the basis of price becomes easier still. But a low-bid approach can lead to ongoing roof problems and significantly higher life-cycle costs. It requires careful planning for facility executives to balance the imperative to control first costs with the desire to make the best long-term investment.
Although low bids have worked for some facilities, the pitfalls are numerous. For this reason, facility executives are well advised to prepare thorough bid specifications and conduct extensive research on potential roofing contractors.
Everyone knows the time-worn adage, “You get what you pay for.” But not everyone heeds such wisdom, says Karen Warseck, president of Building Diagnostics Associates. “Success with low bids depends upon how clearly the project has been documented. If owners provide a clear set of specs, then low bidding can work.”
But there are caveats, even with clear specs.
Don’t put out a set of specs that is satisfactory for the application, only to be swayed by bidders who come back and say that they can do it for less with different products. Clearly specify the products to be used, and don’t back down from the established specifications.
As a point of fact, the two situations above are the most prominent risks when securing a low-bid contract. As owners know, corner-cutting can create early failures, but the problems with renegotiated prices aren’t as obvious. Bid solicitation can attract firms or contractors that are predatory in their pricing. Such firms offer a quote lower than the cost of the job but know that they can make up the difference in change-order costs.
The key, according to Dean Kashiwagi, assistant professor at Arizona State University, is to choose contractors on the basis of performance differences.
When contractors are willing to submit performance information, facility owners are less susceptible to the standard risks of the low-bid procurement approach. Specifically, owners can avoid bids that consider low price without also considering accuracy and performance.
“There’s no performance information in the roofing industry,” says Kashiwagi. That often leads owners to accept bids without forcing contractors to consider construction period, the price of performance, the capability of key personnel or comparison of equal services.
Also critical is checking the background of the contractors. Check the local Better Business Bureau. Check if the contractors belong to national or regional roofing associations. While this doesn’t always prove that the contractor does quality work, Warseck says, it does show that the contractor is committed to the industry and willing to pay the annual fee required by such organizations.
Dick Fricklas, a roofing consultant, also suggests checking with manufacturers. “They will provide a list of qualified and approved contractors,” he says. “And don’t forget to check for proof of insurance and previous experience with the specified roof system.”
Finally, check for licenses. “Anybody can roll around town with a torch or roll of roofing in the back of their truck,” says Warseck.
Kashiwagi agrees, saying that the current roofing environment is leading to greater numbers contractors and owners who treat construction as a commodity, rather than a service.
To help qualify contractors, Kashiwagi says, gather performance-based information, such as:
Proposed construction time.
Other pertinent considerations include asking how many additional jobs the contractor is working on. As with checking for association membership, this question doesn’t assure quality, but it can indicate how much time and resources a bidder can devote to properly plan and supervise a project.
“Get a list of projects and verify satisfaction with the owners,” Fricklas says. “But the best way [to identify quality contractors] is to have a previous and ongoing relationship with two or three contractors, ones that have done satisfactory work in the past. Restricting the bids to these old reliables probably assures not only a good job but prompt response if there is a problem down the road.”
Warseck agrees that recommendations can provide good contractors, but advises owners against blindly accepting a word-of-mouth endorsement, just as owners should not rely upon the phone book as their sole source for roofing contractors.
“I also would ask for references for jobs done by the same crew and foreman, as that will have the biggest effect on quality,” says Michelsen.
It is for this reason that Warseck warns buyers to beware of power-purchasing plans. “Often, the large roofing contractors who provide power-purchasing plans use a local crew, and facility executives have no quality controls when using local crews on such a plan,” she says.
Making Competition Work
To a certain degree, facility executives who do their homework and ask critical questions will begin to make competition work in their favor. A rigorous selection process can separate the chaff because low-quality or underperforming bidders might not want to subject themselves to the process. The net result is a more competitive group of final bidders.
Facility executives also need to consider their regional roofing seasons when soliciting bids. In Chicago, for example, executives will want to have roofing applied in summer. To obtain the most competitive prices, solicit the bids in January or February, when roofers have little work and are looking for summertime jobs. Don’t solicit bids in June, when roofers are busy. Likewise, owners in Florida shouldn’t solicit bids during the rainy season, when roofers are busiest finding and patching leaks.
Working with Kashiwagi’s model, the Dallas school system recently selected contractors for area roofing projects. The district created a shortlist of contractors as part of the bidding process. In the end, the district paid 14 percent less than their lowest-bid expectations, and the work was performed during a shorter timetable than anticipated.
Procurement based on price can work, but quality will suffer if price-consciousness isn’t mated with performance-consciousness. Much of the success of procurement rests upon the prequalification processes facility executives use. This isn’t to say that low-bid procurement cannot work, only that it requires a dedicated selection process and a fine eye for detail. Specifically, low-bid procurement can work when the owner is willing to pay the cost up front for planning and design — the better the set of documents, the better the contractor knows what is expected.
“Ultimately, owners need to decide whether they want the lowest initial-cost roof or the lowest life-cycle cost roof,” says Michelsen. “Most times, they are not the same.”