Architectural millwork: Specifiers and contractors have many choices, but have to be careful about moisture issues

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

Specification writers have special challenges in developing architectural millwork contract documentation because of the complex variables in materials, technologies and quality grades – and deferring applications and environmental/building certification standards.

Pat French, senior specification representative with Upper Canada Forest Products, outlined some of the variables and explained the reason that specification writers must, indeed, be quite specific in their wording in a presentation to the Ottawa Chapter of Construction Specifications Canada (CSC) last Thursday.

“You don’t want contractors making substitutions” with materials that may be unsuitable for the project, he said, as he outlined documentation from the Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Association of Canada (AWMAC) quality standards manual, the North American Architectural Woodwork Standards, 3.1 (NAAWS).

French gave his presentation at the LTR Industries millwork factory in Ottawa, supported by technical observations from his colleague James Blake and LTR’s general manager Derek Bones.

After the talk, Bones took CSC members on a tour through the millwork shop to demonstrate the manufacturing process for a diversity of products.

Challenges (and opportunities) include trade-offs between price and quality/function and the required application.

For example, the Allied Properties REIT offices at 134 Peter St. in Toronto qualified for LEED credits even though the wood used for the millwork was Red Grandis Eucalyptus sourced from South America.

“There is no regional credit but it is supplied from a source that provides transparency in its practices,” he said.  Architectural millwork products also qualify for the WELL Building Standards.

French said different substrates and decorative hardwood plywood types have different aesthetics, prices, and applications, making for a great variety in options – often with trade-offs in quality, delivery time, and cost.

He indicated that moisture presents special challenges both in the installation and use of millwork products, and LTR’s David Bones backed him up with examples of projects where expensive rework was required because the millwork was installed before the building was ready.

If the structure isn’t complete enough that moisture and temperature can be controlled within the building when the millwork is installed, there are often problems with the final result – meaning contractors asked to install materials in these circumstances should ask for waiver of responsibility.

Conversely, different coatings and standards are available and it is possible to over-specify for moisture resistance by requesting “marine grade” materials, when a much less expensive moisture resistance standard will be appropriate for most applications (unless of course you are really working in a water/marine environment).

A thoughtful and consultative approach based on value engineering can often help, by keeping costs under control and yet maintaining the project’s required quality.

Different quality grades and materials can be used in different places; for example the front entrance of a high-visibility and important area might require a higher millwork materials grade than the rear entrance. Exotic and specialized woods from overseas may provide an exceptional finished project, or less expensive regionally sourced materials could provide entirely satisfactory results.

One approach to ensure that the work turns out right is to request manufacturers’ samples from before firming up the specifications and order – an approach that will help to deliver the work in a manner that meets the desired results.

As he showed the specification writers through the LTR plant, Bones said the business is thriving from a diversity of orders – ranging from Parliament Hill to residential condominiums – and the company is preparing to expand its facility with shovels to go in the ground this fall. The hold-up is the City of Ottawa’s slow building permit approval process.

He said the industry’s costs are rising and revenue margins are becoming more challenging, largely because of increasing labour costs (which now are approaching about 50 per cent of the manufacturing cost). The solution, in part, is improving technology, and he demonstrated how computerized cutting equipment reduces wood waste, ensures consistent quality, and speeds up the work process. Yet craftspeople are still needed to operate the equipment, verify the work is right, and ensure the finishes are correct.

French said AMWAC offers a Guarantee and Inspection Service (GIS) which involves three phases – reviewing shop documents, reviewing samples or prototype units and finally inspecting the woodwork project once it has been installed on site. He said the inspection cost would be in the range of $1,500 for up to a $100,000 millwork project. Larger project GIS costs are calculated on the value of the woodwork contract. The higher the value, the less of a percentage the GIS will cost.

He also encouraged specification writers to review the AWMAC quality and standards manual, available as a free download in PDF format at www.on.awmac.com).

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