Impact of labor and material shortages on construction quality

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©Tomasz Zajda – stock.adobe.com

Disruptions in the supply chain affect the availability of building materials. Everything from insulation to sanitary fittings to frame wood is included sparse. Not unknown before the pandemic, labor shortages in the construction industry only worsened with the COVID-19 virus. In addition, declining birth rates, a slowdown in legal immigration and early retirement have led to a labor market crisis. But demand for new homes is at an all-time high. How will these bottlenecks and delays affect the quality of housing construction?

The prevalence of structural defects in new homes is often associated with periods of high demand. When sources of skilled labor dry up, contractors are forced to source workers from unconventional sources — sometimes the Home Depot parking lot. The same goes for building materials that are in short supply – substitutions or changes to accepted installation practices. In addition, builders are replacing conventional building products with inferior materials. Each of these factors can negatively affect build quality.

The most well-known consequence 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 due to labor shortages. But there are other consequences — some of which aren’t discovered until long after the house is sold. Forensic examinations of new homes often reveal the shortcuts taken during construction. These are quality control issues that are often not visible on the outside of a completed building. But reports of leaks or mold, for example in a new home, will trigger intrusive inspections that will uncover poor construction.

Proper construction and installation is important

Proper use of many modern building materials requires reading and understanding the manufacturer’s instructions and warnings. For example, a seal around windows must integrate with the ribs of the windows and the surrounding weather barrier to be watertight. The manufacturers of these materials provide detailed installation instructions which, if followed, usually mean a window will not leak. But sometimes the workers who install these components are not trained in these precise construction methods and “wrong” sealing materials. As a result, the water is not directed outside, but into the building.

Sealants used to seal windows must be compatible with the materials they touch. Unfortunately, some sealants are not compatible with adjacent materials and instead of providing a watertight bond, they degrade watertightness. Other sealants are not compatible with materials used to “fireproof” wall penetrations. For example, sealants that are not compatible with CPVC pipe used in sprinkler systems can damage the pipe, which will eventually lead to pipe failure.

Today it is common to design balconies on residential buildings with girders enclosed by a reveal. This looks good, but it can also trap moisture in the joists, encouraging rot. Water can penetrate into the enclosed space if the connection joint between the balcony and the building is not properly sealed.

Quality control on the construction site

Suppose this is known to the manufacturers of these products and they publish guidelines for their materials, which are incorporated into drawings and specifications by project architects. Then why do we find construction defects? The answer is that the skill level of the workers who have to install these products is insufficient and on-site quality control is non-existent or sporadic. Labor sourced from a car park is unlikely to be union trained. The building unions have well-known training programs for apprentices who can become skilled workers in various trades. This training includes instructions on how to follow manufacturer guidelines and architectural details. But union-trained workers are being shunned for reasons of cost or are simply not available in sufficient numbers.

On-site quality control—inspections by architects, superintendents, or supervisors—can reveal misapplications and on-site errors. But especially with production housing, there are simply too many places with critical installations for architects or even site managers to keep a constant eye on them. Even a tiny mistake – a joint where the sealant wasn’t fully applied – can eventually lead to internal damage. Constantly guarding untrained workers is impossible for supervisors, and architects are rarely on site to observe the installation every day.

The high demand for production cases is also enticing builders to try new designs that save time and money. Direct Applied Finish Systems (DEFS) instead of stucco. Hardboard instead of real wood paneling. Foam paneling instead of wood or concrete. These systems are of no better quality 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 complaints about defects.

Soaring house prices can be the most immediate and obvious consequence of supply chain problems and labor shortages. Still, the effects will be most noticeable in the long term, as shortcuts and mistakes during construction expose parts of a building or home to moisture intrusion or deterioration from incompatible materials. Trained skilled workers are the best insurance against mistakes that lead to construction defects and the resulting legal dispute. But craftsmen just aren’t available in sufficient numbers while we construct homes and buildings at a rate not seen in many years.

Legal disputes over construction issues usually follow several years after a hot real estate market. We’re just getting to this point. It is unfortunate because the buyers of these properties will suffer the most from leaks, rot and other failures. It’s easy to say just get more quality control, but inspectors can’t stand over one worker all day. City inspections are perfunctory, and municipalities cannot muster the number of inspectors needed to prevent construction defects in new construction.

It’s tempting to blame construction shortages on pandemic-related shortages, but a poorly trained workforce and cost-cutting substitutions have been with us for decades and will always go hand in hand with high demand for housing. Builders trying to meet this demand with solutions that don’t include robust quality control and premium materials will have a hard time avoiding claims of construction defects.

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