Back in the early ’80s, I was cutting my teeth in the stucco industry. It was in Tucson, Ariz., where stucco was king; EIFS, the relative newcomer, a close second. Back then, it was the cladding du jour, the go-to for all the buildings. A building could be made “distinct” by adding pop-outs, lots of pop-outs. It was no “walk in the park” working the walls, but in retrospect it was a very profitable and rewarding career. It was because of my choice to be a plasterer that I am where I am today.
In my storied career, I have seen building cladding fads come and go: glass, metal, wood, brick, all gaining momentum but eventually, the tide turned back to stucco and EIFS. Today, we are seeing an increase in the selection of engineered metal and glass facades and a more aggressive decline in the selection of stucco. I still believe stucco remains one of the most affordable and versatile claddings for all types of construction. After all, with its versatility and affordable cost (compared to other engineered claddings) and our current construction uptick, one would think the plastering trade would be prospering, growing and attracting the multitudes. It is my opinion that this is not the case and in reality, stucco is just maintaining a status quo. So, it begs the question why?
Is Weather the Culprit?
Now, I must admit that in the southwest, for six to eight months, the hotbox summertime takes a toll on the body and minds of our plasterers. It is just plain difficult to apply stucco in extremely hot temperatures. One must have experience dancing in the devil’s heat to ensure a good stucco cladding application. In fact, all through the Sunbelt states—where stucco is very popular—this hot-boxing effect exists. (Same dance with some humidity variations; taxing the bodies of the applicators; challenging their abilities to apply stucco.) But, I don’t think excessive heat is the reason for stucco just maintaining a status quo.
And what about the other side of the thermal coin, such as the states north of the Mason-Dixon line, where temperatures are mostly shivering cold? Back in the ’80s and ’90s, I was surprised to see stucco gaining popularity in these areas. Skilled craftsmen and women rallied behind the cladding and helped to grow the stucco market albeit for very short application seasons. I suppose that just like anywhere else, it was aesthetically popular and versatile, ergo desired. But similar to the Sunbelt states, stucco is not taking the leaps in preference it once did. No, I don’t believe the cold is the reason for stucco just maintaining the status quo.
From Northern California to the Canadian border, stucco has been a very popular cladding choice. It was successfully installed for years in this rainy, mostly always-moist, environment. Here, the art of tenting a building was perfected so stucco could be installed during the rains. Some really hot wet weather and cold wet weather added challenges to the wroughting of the cement cladding. Nevertheless, not the reason for stucco just maintaining a status quo.
Wet cement is a very burdensome product to manipulate. It contains heavy elements like sand, cement, and water that when combined, place a heavy load on the applicators. Despite this heavy load, a skilled plasterer makes application look as easy as putting on a pair of pants. They have mastered the ability to move this heavy, wet, plastic mix that would rather splash to the ground from a mixer to a relatively flat surface, than the exterior walls. I have many (old) friends suffering from joint pain and overall body aches from slinging the mud. It is just plain old hard work being a plasterer. Still, even this is not the reason for stucco just maintaining a status quo.
Stick to the Stuff You Know
If I were to focus on a “best reason why” our plastering trade is just maintaining a status quo, I would place the spotlight on the constant downward pressure developers, and builders, are placing on the trade. The price to apply a square yard of plaster has not increased comparatively, in relation to the current economies of construction. In the stucco heyday, the builders reviewed bids to select the most competent, not just take the lowest bid.
Today, the “lowest-bid-gets-the-job” selection process places undeserving stress on contractors to just come out of the gate cheap. Interestingly enough, the buildings aren’t getting cheaper to build and surely don’t have a cheaper sales price reflecting the cheaper application price spiral. Following in the downward whirlpool are the wages a man or woman earns to sling mud. And shoveled into the mix is the willingness for survival (I’m sure) of the manufacturers and material suppliers to keep lowering their prices. For the labor burden put on an applicator, cheaper is not better. So, the inquiring minds, the thinkers, the best-of-the-best wander to greener pastures or retirement. Their knowledge is passed on by those left, not through a formal training but rather by word of mouth. Remember the Gorilla story?
I believe in our current environment there are increasingly unfounded perceptions that stucco is a troublesome cladding. It is not the applicators, because heck, anyone can apply stucco, moreover the perception is directed at the actual stucco cladding. Therein lies a real danger. More and more we are seeing enhanced stucco assemblies, engineered with double-sheathed foam sandwiches over vapor impermeable building wraps with high-performance drainage cavity components and product additives to supposedly eliminate labor steps. Yeesh, can we just stop the madness?
Just like a soupy stucco mix, a watered-down version of skilled craftsmen and the knowledge they carry, lends to weak stucco. This is the chink in the armor that allows stucco “issues” to become more prevalent. I saw a great T-shirt that had printed on the back: “Skilled Labor isn’t Cheap and Cheap Labor isn’t Skilled.” What a very simple premise, an understanding of the very basics of quality construction. Unlike products like computers, automobiles and high-tech gadgets, plaster application cannot be improved solely by advanced product technology.
Quality stucco claddings still rely on a blend of the toils of the body and application knowledge. I believe if we can reestablish a truly trained and knowledgeable workforce, we have the courage to provide service at a fair price, we provide plasterers a living wage and if the crick doesn’t rise, then, we can grow our plaster trade.