For developers, builders and contractors the labor shortage is significant: The construction industry lost 1.5 million jobs during the recession. Today, only about half of those jobs have been filled. The diminished workforce helps explain the project delays and rising costs associated with home construction today, according to Robert Dietz, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders.
“We have a labor shortage,” Dietz says. “It has been the top business challenge for the last three years and will likely continue to be so.”
You’ve probably seen the effects of the shortage firsthand. It’s a difficult situation with no easy answers. For example, one worrisome trend is the rising average age of construction workers, now inching up towards the mid-40s. An aging workforce means fewer young people are entering the trades.
To address the labor and experience shortfall, the industry has responded in a variety of ways, from higher wages to aggressive worker training initiatives.
This installment of Code Counts examines one industry response: Simplifying a common building practice with a code-compliant, worker-friendly alternative.
In structures with fire walls and multifamily stairwell applications, load-bearing partition walls are major design elements that often require fire- and acoustic-rated wall assemblies, as well as a floor-to-wall connection details that maintain the continuity of the fire rating.
Traditional shaft wall construction is a comparatively complex construction process. Fire tape, H-studs, C-channels, breakaway clips and two layers of fire-rated gypsum are typical construction components. Many framers view shaft walls as difficult to build and often charge more per square foot to assemble them, according to Wayne Baker, chief operating officer of Fleming Homes of Raleigh, N.C.
Another wall design option allows for faster, simpler installs using a different approach. For this reason, some architects, homebuilders and framing contractors have turned to wall assemblies that eliminate shaft liner type gypsum and the associated hardware. A lighter-weight assembly can then be platform-built (horizontally), an easier way for framers to build, requiring less stooping and reaching. Once the assembly is finished, the framing crew tilts it up vertically and secures it to the building framework.
A UL-approved assembly, UL BXUV.U350, is being specified more frequently for interior, load-bearing walls separating living units. The U350 wall represents a lighter, more streamlined wall assembly option for town home and multi-family applications requiring a two-hour rated continuous separation wall.
Supporting U350 construction is a type of code-compliant oriented strand board (OSB) panel sheathing, like LP® FlameBlock®. The weight of the assembly is reduced by utilizing the fire-resistant OSB in combination with standard, Type X gypsum to reduce the overall amount of gypsum, as compared to a typical shaft liner separation wall (a single 10-foot by 2-foot by 1-inch thick drywall panel weighs just over 50 pounds). Code compliance of the sheathing is supported by an International Code Council code report and certified test results:
The panel also offers full standard structural load/span and shear values for each thickness category. It installs with standard tools, methods and fasteners.
UL U350 wall assemblies that utilize the fire-resistant OSB panels represent a more builder-friendly construction solution. “It doesn’t require a carpenter’s level of ability or years of installation experience to build U350 wall assemblies,” observes Joe Noernberg, an account manager with building products manufacturer LP Corporation.
For example, the U350 assembly with OSB sheathing recently supported the construction of a townhouse community for Habitat for Humanity. The volunteer, largely inexperienced workforce were able to build U350 assemblies “… probably a month or two faster than a shaft wall assembly,” says Sean Allen, director of construction and real estate for the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. This version of the U350 assembly eliminates the need for a 1-inch-thick gypsum panel and associated hardware, speeding construction. Local code officials had no problem approving the UL-listed assembly.
Noernberg sees a lighter-weight party wall option as a benefit for a labor-challenged construction industry. “The labor shortage is a big issue in the Denver market. It’s really slowing the pace of construction,” Noernberg says. “We’re also losing a lot of experienced framers and carpenters to retirement. That’s a lot of know-how walking out the door. Anything you can do to help speed up and simplify construction helps.”
The response to the construction industry’s labor shortages must take many forms. One expected outcome is an increased reliance on building material innovation to help offset a diminished labor force and experience base. Code officials should anticipate that architects and homebuilders might in the future specify code-compliant alternative construction methods to help meet market demand without compromising structural quality, safety and performance.
To learn more, visit ICC-ES Evaluation Report ESR-1365.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of LP and do not necessarily reflect those of the International Code Council, or Hanley Wood.
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