Technology under pressure

So is technology a boomer or a bust?

Homeowners are lining up at the big-box stores to take advantage of the latest flooring sales. In a few weeks, some percentage of those once-enthusiastic redecorators will be lining up again — this time to abashedly ask a professional to help them recover.

THE WORD “AMATEUR” may be the key. How far back do you go? Ground-breaking U.S architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956 created one of his most famous home designs, Kentuck Knob, near Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Wright incorporated hot-water, in-floor radiant heating in the home, not a new technology at the time, but a technology that has remained without repair since its installation.

Another kind of technology is a gadget with a limited lifetime and a trip to the landfill. “Smart” phones, televisions and an array of kitchen gadgets fit that bill.

Back in the ‘80s, the newest technology included the PC — the personal computer, with designs being presented by Microsoft and Apple, among others. Those modern wonders had a whopping 64k removable drive and could deliver data over a telephone line at 300 baud.

It was not long before Apple introduced its Macintosh, along with a suite of programs, along with QuarkXpress, called it “desktop publishing,” and amateur night in media was born. Anybody could be a publisher, including illiterates, juveniles and poseurs. The First Amendment and the then-newly formed Charter of Rights and Freedoms saw to it that nobody needed any sense to publish. The digital world of desktop publishing soon provided eager markets for digital imaging, and the first digital cameras came along, as did “processing” programs for images, soon to be dominated by Photoshop and Adobe’s own subsequent suite of DTP programs to include Illustrator, InDesign, and so on… Soon, the professionals had to step aside, along with their sets of protocols, and let the kids drive.

Photo was followed by video, and print was supplanted by “digital.” Print, after all, costs more than most Instagram pros’ allowance. Clearly, the world of the professional is under fire, and good enough is the enemy of best.

THERE IS AN ARGUMENT TO BE MADE that the floorcovering industry is suffering more than its share at the hands of modern technology. According to Chris Maskell, c.e.o. of the National Floor Covering Association, construction projects across Canada are booming, yet the general contractors are using old scheduling protocols while the demand for new technologies has extended the time necessary for proper installation. According to Maskell, adhesives are the unsung heroes of flooring installation. They connect the slab to the floor in a critical and irreplaceable marriage. However, a common problem has evolved, and new, non-VOC (volatile organic compound) adhesives cannot combat moisture the way the “old” adhesives did, and improper application can result in a moisture-related breakdown of the adhesive into a slippery goop.

Essentially, says Maskell, “green” technology leads to adhesive breakdown because of moisture. Maskell points out that VOCs are chemicals in adhesives formerly made from bitumen or petroleum – the black mastic of days gone by. Federal regulations demanded the replacement of VOCs with non-VOC products in order for builders to win contracts under the LEED system.

According to Maskell, the LEED system, for all its good intentions, demanded actions that led to unintended consequences.

For example, products needed to be produced within 500 miles of the job site on the one hand, while points were also scored for using bamboo flooring instead of wood because bamboo is more renewable. Clearly, bamboo is rare in industrial quantities growing in Canada, so specifiers find themselves in a quandary of making up lost points, sometimes at the expense of function.

An unintended benefit of the mastic was that it had a moisture barrier built-in. People didn’t notice that as a quality, Maskell says, until the industry ran into adhesion problems with products designed to be used at a specific moisture content or less, and the contractors were demanding that flooring be installed over concrete that was cured, but not dried. The distinction was not obvious to the contractors, but it is obvious to flooring professionals.

The fact is, Maskell says, what once was provided by the contents of one can now requires three or four different products. The general contractors, Maskell says, really don’t know very much of what is going on. The same is true of specifiers. The products being specified are much more complex, yet much less strong. This has led to a paradigm shift in which the industry is demanding schedules to accelerate, so they allow for shorter lead times in an environment where a concrete slab may take weeks or even months to get “up to spec.”

Add to that an increasingly litigious environment and the cost of time and money, and the general contractors and builders started demanding that the flooring installers bear the entire responsibility for installation on schedule, on the one hand, and accountability for material failure on the other.

Essentially, green adhesive products cost more, do not work as quickly and are not as strong, leading to the obvious conclusion that flooring professionals will be pressured by amateurs that can “get the job done more quickly,” by general contractors that want to release tied-up money months before the specified adhesives can be properly installed and by follow-up trades that want access to the site so they can get paid, as well.

Are there any options? Sure, and they are evolving, as well. As far as flooring specs and applications, continue to watch Coverings magazine as we provide that data as it becomes available. Maskell and the NFCA are creating standards and specs you can use to educate your customers and use as guidelines that can illuminate the legal and fiscal pinch-points before they bite. As Maskell says, transparency kills corruption.

As far as the future of construction, Maskell says don’t expect costs to go down. For better or worse, green is here to stay. We simply need to adjust to accommodate it.

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