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Tackling the Main Contractors

Tackling the Main Contractors

A couple of years ago, I attended a CFA subcommittee along with technical managers from other manufacturers of floor coverings, screed boards, acoustic systems and subfloor preparation products. This might not sound like the most fun group you’d wish to meet, but it led to some fascinating conversations.

One of the most interesting topics was regarding flooring practices in Europe compared to the UK, something which I experience first-hand thanks to being part of a global company.

It would be fair to say when referring to Europe, I’m really talking about Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries as the flagbearers in terms of how flooring and construction can – and should – be done.

The flooring trades in these countries are considered as true finishing trades, with skill grading and levels that the tradesmen are proud of and even boastful about. There’s a sense of pride in work, which I feel is sometimes being lost in the UK.

“The flooring trades in [Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries] are considered as true finishing trades, with skill grading and levels that the tradesmen are proud of.”

That day, I wasn’t the youngest member of the group by any stretch, but I can only just remember when flooring contractors used to have much more control of whether they’d accept a site and its conditions, or refuse to work until everything from the main contractor was made just so.

Looking at the relevant British Standards such as BS 8203, it clearly says what should be provided and expected of site conditions and of the subfloor prior to laying flooring.

I’ve heard many anecdotes from long-time contractors of the days when they’d turn up to site, tell the main contractor ‘that’s not fit to lay’, then leave and get paid for that day! So, what’s changed and what happens differently in Europe?

One main difference is the rate of construction expected in Europe compared to the UK. In the rest of Europe, buildings are built efficiently in terms of man-hours and cost, but they’re not rushed. Certain aspects are completed and allowed to cure or settle before the next construction process is introduced. This goes on and on until finally the finishings are carried out, including the flooring. This is borne out by the fact Europe very rarely has a call for surface DPMs. They keep the building watertight, ventilated and to some degree warm, all to enable the construction materials, including floors, to dry out.

The cost of building doesn’t necessarily rise using this process, but the time waiting for the capital expenditure to yield commercial benefits – i.e. the hospitals being used, the office block being let or the apartment block being filled with occupants does.

Our conclusion was that it’s the speed of build in the UK that causes the problems and the lack of appreciation for trades. The need to get the job done rather than get a quality job done seems to stem from the time of PFI and similar initiatives, where the money spent never really existed and the properties were financed from its use over the following decades.

“Our conclusion was that it’s the speed of build in the UK that causes the problems and the lack of appreciation for trades.”

Getting a building used is then much more critical but is never going to give the highest quality finish. It’s no surprise then that moisture in buildings is always higher than that expected from the design and build team.

Buildings are rarely watertight or have anything other than warmth in the office or areas presently being worked in. Wet trades also work with little consideration of their impact on other trades (sorry plasterers and plumbers, but that is directly aimed at you).

The main gripe on sites from main contractors seems to be that flooring products aren’t working properly. Hopefully, the following comebacks will help when this is the case:

Comment: “The screed hasn’t dried in its 50 days since being laid.”

Response: “The drying rate is based on 20oC with air humidity at 65%RH or less. How many days have you had these conditions on site since the screed was laid? I’m going to insist on a surface DPM. (As an aside, discussions in the group agreed that today more than 85% of new builds will need surface DPMS).”

Comment: “I haven’t run the underfloor heating as it costs a packet and the boiler isn’t connected.”

Response: “Standards require for it to at least be commissioned to ensure the materials above it are performing. If you don’t commission then any weakness, cracks or spalling edges that happen after heating won’t be a fault of the flooring. It’ll be down to you to pay for putting it right. Furthermore, the UFH is the only way to keep warmth in the building; it isn’t a secondary source, so use it to keep your building at equilibrium, particularly during the colder months. Red rads and localised heating aren’t only ineffective but cost more in the long run, too.”

Comment: “That power float is perfect. You don’t need to do anything to it before laying the floor.”

Response: “Power floating is a hardwearing finish, ideal in warehouses etc. Owing to its tight, dense upper surface created by the floating, it’s very good at preventing things soaking in and easy to get contaminants off. That property is precisely the problem. We need to bond a DPM, primer, smoothing compound or adhesive (or all) to it, so need to have a bit of absorbency and a key, meaning preparation is required. I suggest you don’t power float in areas requiring decorative flooring as it also slows the drying down.”

Comment: “I don’t want expansion joints on the floor – the client won’t like it.”

Response: “It’s important to understand that anything I do has to mirror the building design. Buildings move and substrates move at different rates to each other, so they’ll need to be separated by flexible materials to ensure no stresses between the moving areas. If the designer is any good, then the amount of expansion joints visible could’ve been minimised. I can’t do that as a flooring contractor after the event.”

Written by Martin Cummins