The Three E’s of a Subcontract

By Malcolm “Mudduckk” Campbell

This is a brief post about best practices for the flooring installation subcontractor. While it is targeted for the flooring sub, the work of a subcontract is project based so anyone who works on a project basis should find the Three E’s useful for their practice.

Engagement. Engagement is the sum total of all the activities which precede setting tile, foremost of which is negotiating for an acceptable substrate. Substrate is a catchall term for any surface to be tiled; the slab, the sub-floor, the wall board, or the wonder board. Typically the substrate is put in place by someone other than the tiler or it is simply part of the existing situation put in place a long time ago.

Tile setters are paid for laying tile. While prices paid for tilework vary little, the condition of substrates vary widely from poor to good. Prices paid are based on a normal uncomplicated situation. An acceptable substrate is a given.

Substrate condition can be a significant factor on installer productivity. And while many a lay person and construction professional alike may think the tile guy will provide all surface preparation necessary to make the substrate acceptable for installation, it simply is not a reasonable expectation.

Here’s why. Tile installation is a commodity service, hence prices paid equals cost of effort. There is no profit in the work. The market has seen to that. Substrate condition represents an uncontrollable risk for the sub. Would you willingly absorb a risky situation sight unseen? Would you buy a stock or real estate without investigating the potential investment? Would you if you understood the range of potential payoffs held no possibility of profit beyond covering your wages? The rational individual would not, so why would someone come to expect tile layers – people who work on their hands and knees for not more than a day’s pay – to absorb the cost to fix the shoddy work of others?
Customer engagement is key. And while the approach I describe next is geared toward engaging with the commercial construction professional, it applies to a wide range of situations. Your customer has their own pressures. Principally the construction schedule. If you let your customer know first and foremost that you are preserving their schedule, you will be granted a wide range of latitude in negotiating for acceptable substrate. Indeed, more often than not you will get paid to fix the work of others, or others will be made to fix their own work.
Here’s how you do engagement.
1. Inspect the substrate, and make a list of the unacceptable situations. (anything which if you approached it with a normal installation method would result in your work being rejected)
2. Submit the list to your customer indicating that you are accepting the substrate except for the itemized situations, and that you are proceeding with the work in all areas except the unacceptable areas in order to preserve the construction schedule.
3. Keep a copy for yourself and request your customer sign it prior to proceeding with the work.
I use a standard form for engagement called the substrate acceptance report. It is found here. I ask all my subs to use it so I can help them recover any costs which may be associated with substrate repair.
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Malcolm “Mudduckk” Campbell is a tile installer in Toledo, Ohio. Tilers play in the mud! Toledo is home of the Mud Hens minor league baseball, sometimes call the Mud Ducks. So you know a tile setter from Toledo would have to go by the nickname “Mudduckk.”  In fact, there could be many Mudduckks in Toledo, but only one of them is tops in Google Search. That one is Malcolm. Got Tile? Google: Mudduckk!

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