When I wrote an article “Ten Things Architects Should Have in Their Specifications,” it created controversy. I proposed architects ask plastering contractors to provide a square foot price in advance of starting a project for the application of fiberglass mesh to cement basecoats (what is often referred to as a “crack suppression system” or “lamina.”) My reasoning was that at many pre-installation meetings for projects, the subject of cracking in stucco occasionally comes up. While no contractor can guarantee a crack-free cement plaster, the option to apply the lamina comes very close.
The process is applying a skim coat of polymer-enriched cement with a fiberglass mesh troweled in over the set brown coat. This mesh and base provides a strong, flexible and still vapor permeable layer over the cement plaster. This method is recognized by virtually every plaster bureau as the premium method to minimize crack issues. However, it is not standard and does cost money, and contractors should be fairly compensated when directed to apply the lamina. The application of the lamina can be the entire building or limited to specific walls.
Projects I have been involved with often select the option on a limited basis, such as entryways or highly visible locations. It is also good for repair of walls with securely attached plaster that has developed excessive cracks. So why so much disagreement? I guess it depends on your point of view.
Most of the plastering contractors do not like this clause because they feel it ropes them into a set cost per square foot. Some prefer to negotiate this price after the problem has occurred. They believe this puts them in a position of some kind of power if they don’t agree in advance to a set price. I disagree. On the flip side, a square foot price during initial construction is far less than re-mobilizing to the site with new scaffold, masking, covering and other items. I think contractors could establish some language to clearly state “this price is only prior to application of finish coat.”
Some architects do not like this clause because they feel that stucco, if properly done, will not crack. By having this clause, they admit stucco can crack and are agreeing to work that is substandard. Others feel they give up a tool to use on-site against the contractor. My guess is again the power issue.
At the risk of offending both architects and contractors, both are mistaken. Looking at what typically happens on high-end stucco projects that develop cracks might get you to change your mind. Often, the plastering contractor denies he did anything wrong; whether he did or not, denial is the first and natural reaction. They usually take a stand to refuse to fix the crack and remind the owner “all stucco cracks.” The architect or owner, after spending time meeting onsite, exchange harsh phone calls and possibly a threatening letter or two, which finally evokes to the “golden rule” (he who holds the gold makes the rule.) Too often, the plasterer fixes it, and gets no payment beyond what he was already due.
So, the architect or owner got his cracks fixed for free—a win for him and the building owner. But the story is not finished. Plastering contractors know the local market, players and rules of play. If patching all cracks becomes “standard operating procedure” to get paid, that word gets around fast. You are mistaken and naïve if you think prices do not increase as a result of this practice. If you wonder why your stucco bids seem too high, you may be unknowingly creating the issue.
A Better Future
If the architect implements a fair price per square foot on this crack prevention, it solves a lot of fighting and could even lower overall prices in a market. Imagine walking the project and agreeing in advance on high-visibility areas. If architects think, “I can get them patched for free,” they probably can but patching is patching and rarely looks good. Also, nothing in life is free: You pay sooner or later, and usually later is costly.
A bid and contract based on fairness will likely lead to better prices. I was a project architect and found that when I clearly demonstrated that I would treat the subcontractors fairly, I got treated fairly in return. Architects and building owners need to be fair with expectations, standards, contingencies and remedies to problems. Contractors need to provide solutions to those problems and be compensated equitably. If both sides treat each other with respect, it can be a win-win scenario, even with stucco cracks.