FCI 2016 Installer Forum: Sharing Flooring Installation Stories
Welcome to our annual Installer Forum, where we ask our readers and other professional installers to share their views on the state of the industry—what they love about the trade, what they dislike about it and what they’d like to change if they could. We also give them space to share a favorite installation story where they overcame a set of challenges to complete the job on time and to the customer’s satisfaction.
Garrett Maki, West Coast operations for MasterCraft Floors, said he loves pointing out buildings and projects he’s worked on as he drives by in Las Vegas. “I love being able to point at a project and go, ‘Oh, we did all the flooring in that building.’ It’s a great feeling.”
David Gross, an instructor for INSTALL in New Jersey, said one of his favorite aspects of the job is the variety of projects that come in. “It’s a different set of circumstances each time. That keeps it fresh and keeps you on your toes.”
Bill Hennessey, a long-time installer for Consolidated Carpet, said he enjoys the camaraderie when working with good mechanics. “INSTALL helps bring in some decent guys. We get a lot of big jobs and we’re all kept pretty busy.”
One aspect of the job that Mike Masterson of MJM Flooring enjoys is spending time with his sons. “I’ve had my two boys work with me for the last few years and jokingly tell my work associates that I want my sons to hate my profession and stay in college. Of course I am joking, but there is some truth to it. Actually, I’ve had them [work with me] on some outrageous custom projects, including lots of mega-yachts and some really cool commercial projects.
“I took one of my sons out to do a 2,500 sq. ft. custom three-color Amtico project in the Bahamas. The client gave me the freedom to design what I thought would look best. This month, I get to go back and do the remaining 6,000 sq. ft.”
Maki noted that tight deadlines are an unfortunate reality of the job. “We’re the last trade in, so we’re always crunched at the end of every job. It doesn’t matter who messed up at the start of the job; we’re always paying for it at the end.”
Gross also wishes other trades were more respectful of the requirements of flooring installation. “You face crunched timeframes, and often enter a job where there’s a lack of HVAC in the building, dirty work environments and other trades in the way. But these obstacles are out of the hands of the installer, so it’s just something we have to deal with.”
He added that there’s often a marked difference between the top tier and second tier of installers. “Every contractor has their first-string guys. However, when they have to put installers on the job beyond that first string, that’s when big problems happen. Our niche at INSTALL is that our second-tier guys are just as professional as our first-tier guys.”
Hennessey said when schedules are too tight it can cause compromises in the quality of the work. “When you have jobs with a very aggressive schedule, it makes it hard to do quality work. And I’m not just talking about flooring—all the trades face this and have to figure it out.”
Maki said the biggest issue facing the industry is the skilled labor shortage. “That’s where INSTALL has taken charge with its training. However, there needs to be better education of architects, designers and end-users so they can understand why INSTALL is at such a high level of quality. I can talk about the benefits of INSTALL all day, but they’re the ones who need to get it written into the specifications.”
The best way to court the A&D community and end-users is through lunch-and-learn sessions, Maki added. “The more we get the word out there, the more it’s going to be picked up on. Manufacturers also need to push from their end. They can’t just say that anyone can install their materials.”
Roland Thompson, president of the Delmarva chapter of the International Certified Floorcovering Installers Association (CFI), said the trade has to get better at promoting itself. “We’re not reaching in the right areas and promoting the trade as a way to make a nice income. If you get your training and certifications and you take pride in your work, you can make a good living. We’re not projecting that as well as the other trades do.”
He added that everyone in the industry needs to find common ground. “Until the mills, the distributors, the retailers and the mechanics all realize we’re on the same team and that we all need each other, it’s going to be very difficult to change things.”
Joe McGinnis of Complete Carpet & Flooring Installations proposes that a numbered ranking system be developed so consumers and clients know the quality of installer they are selecting. “Testing can evaluate and rank the installers. To make it simple, let’s say it’s on a one to 10 scale. Each number could represent a level of experience. For example, 1: Van Detailer, 2: Tool Delivery Specialist, 3: Meticulous Rip-up Surgeon, 4: Tack Strip-ist, all the way up to 10: Master Mechanic.”
Where this system differs from the many certifications already available is that the number is tied to a pay grade, and manufacturers can make warranty adjustments based on how high the installer ranks, he suggests.
“This gives the customer the ability to choose the quality of the installer they want for their flooring. Customers would be aware of the lack of experience of ‘hack’ installers, and that would give those installers incentive to learn. Over time, the quality of installs would improve substantially,” McGinnis said.
Hennessey said the experienced professionals in the field need to dedicate time to training their apprentices. “You need to get them accustomed to working on the job, not just doing rip-ups and deliveries. I’ve worked with so many different foremen over the years, and I took something from each of them to find my own way. I try to be that way with the younger guys. I want to be that mentor, because they want to learn and they want to know they can ask questions.”
Maki recalls completing a renovation and tower addition at a casino in California. “They booted off a contractor before us who wasn’t performing, and called us at 5 p.m. and said, ‘Can you be here tomorrow?’ We had guys there the next day—it was a six-hour drive. After we completed the renovation, we were awarded the tower addition.”
David Garden of Installation Services LLC was able to perform a difficult and intricate hand-sewing job that earned him respect from the client—and new business. “I have a unique ability with woven carpets and I received a call one day from a local wholesaler who specialized in this type of clientele. A decorator whom I had not previously worked with wanted to meet with me.
“I met her at a mansion that was still under construction. The client wanted a front set of steps to look like one of the old hotels in New York, based on a picture clipped from a magazine. She showed me a winding staircase with rounded edges using a waterfall installation method.
“The trick was in the carpet, which was as close of a match to the picture as they could find. Of course, this was a face-to-face Wilton. The only way to waterfall this around a curved staircase would be to hand-sew.
“I have always had trouble turning down hero makers, which are the installs that are so difficult that nobody else can do them. This install had everything for me. The hand-sewing aspect meant the curved steps would take a half-a-day a piece, minimum. (I built in a day per step for the bottom four.) The entire install included the steps and a 900 sq. ft. master bedroom closet, which featured an Axminster. It took two weeks.
“The decorator who paid me to do this install has given me a lot of work since that day, the most recent one being the basement in that very house.”
Gross recalls quick thinking on a hospital job that was headed for catastrophe. “After completing one-third of the job we realized a design flaw made the whole floor out of level. We had to go back and rip out what we had done and level the floor from one side to the other. We were already on a crazy timeline, and this additional work wasn’t part of the first bid or the original scope. It required us to double the manpower—we went from 16 to 32 guys. We managed to get it done.”
Thompson shared anecdotes from when he used to perform installations for the TV shows Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Restaurant: Impossible. “Doing installations for TV shows is a completely different beast. On Extreme Makeover, we knew ahead of time what we needed to do and often got to do a jobsite visit first. However, for Restaurant: Impossible, we never knew what we were getting into until the day we showed up.
“An example of that would be when we walked onto a site and found out there was water leaking from the kitchen into the space where we were supposed to be putting in luxury vinyl plank. You have to think of solutions quickly, because you’re working with all these other trades and everyone has to have their stuff done in less than 48 hours.”
Dwayne Pruitt of Pruitt’s Flooring recalls three stories where the knowledge he learned through CFI certification made him the go-to expert. “One time, we had a job at the HQ of an aircraft manufacturer. Apparently there was a side-match issue, so we went out there and started checking the direction of the carpet. As I walk around it, the pattern on it is changing. ‘I don’t think it’s a color issue,’ I say, because if it was a true side-match it should look the same from all angles.
“I open the door to a meeting room because I wanted to see the carpet from a different angle. A man comes out and says, ‘You’re looking at our carpet?’ ‘Yeah, I think it’s something that can be fixed—this a lighting issue,’ I responded. Then I did something that [CFI founder] Jim Walker had taught me. I drew out six intersecting lines on a piece of paper, held it up to his face and asked, ‘Which line is darker?’ When you turned the paper, the next line looked darker, and when you turn the paper some more, the next line looked darker. It’s not the color of the ink; it’s the light reflecting differently depending on the angle.
“The guy starts scratching his head and tells us to do what we need to do. Someone asks me, ‘Do you know who that was?’ I watch him walk into a corner office. ‘No,’ I say. ‘That’s the CEO!’ I’m told. When he’s scratching his head, I could tell he was thinking: ‘I have all of these engineers here but this carpet-layer knew more about lighting and color than any of them.’”
He also remembers having to fix carpet in a movie theater that was wavy and crooked. “The owner was not sure what he was going to do. He called me up and said, ‘Our installers don’t know how to straighten this out.’ Using methods that CFI taught me, I was able to complete the job.”
Pruitt finishes up with a story about installing woven carpet on stairs. “We went to install it, made the first cut and noticed it was skewed and bowed. Actually, it was so far out of tolerance it was ridiculous. So we ended up using a deadman, stacked up some buckets of glue and put down three power stretchers going in both directions. We left it that way for the weekend, and then the carpet was finally straight enough to install.”
One of Hennessey’s favorite memories is installing the floor for the set of NBC’s Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special. “We had to drop lines from the ceiling because the design went from the ceiling to the floor, with all these curves. There were four or five different colors and layouts that required cutting and seaming together and making arcs. When we were done, the job looked beautiful. Now they have a nice floor that is a shrine to their history, with their memorabilia up on the walls. It was nice being involved with something I’d watched for years as a kid.”