A case history
Manufactured roof-trusses. Integrated circuit boards. Pre-assembled door and frame units. Those are a few examples of what might be called “unitized systems.” In each case, a number of separate components have been factory-assembled into a single unit, ready to be installed quickly and easily. With unitized systems, a job gets done much faster, costs are lower, and skilled workers are freed to focus on the more challenging tasks. Additionally, where quality is crucial, unitized systems can cut the risk of costly errors to near zero.
In masonry, the flashing job for exterior cavity walls would seem to cry out for systematization. After all, it employs a list of parts that can include membrane flashing, termination bar, drip-edge, mortar-capture devices, etc. Each requires separate installation, with a risk of error at every step. So it’s a bit surprising that no unitized flashing systems existed until late 2005. That’s when Mortar Net USA, of Gary, Ind., solved the riddle of bringing all those components together into a single, easily handled unit. Today, its patented product – which it claims can save half or more of the time and labor of installing separate components – is being used in buildings nationwide.
This system, called TotalFlash, remains the only “all-in-one” product on the market. This article describes how and why one group of East Coast professionals decided to adopt that unitized system for their large, multi-family residential project.
Jack Conrad, a masonry contractor, owns Oak Tree Building Group, in Frederick, Md. Conrad is an old-fashioned artisan with 30 years in the construction industry, yet he’s constantly on the lookout for new ideas. Especially ideas that may help him reduce his time and labor costs or boost the quality of his jobs.
In mid-2008, Conrad’s firm won the masonry contract for The Reserve at Tyson’s Corner. Located in an upscale area of Virginia just outside the nation’s capitol, it is a $50-million, 322,000-square-foot, residential building to be built over a two-story underground garage. The project’s award-winning architects, SK&I Architectural Design Group of Bethesda, Md., had specified a comprehensive array of flashing details for the exterior brick cavity walls: Self-adhered flashing membrane of rubberized asphalt bonded onto a cross-laminated polyethylene film … termination bar … stainless steel drip-edge. The firm also specified a mortar-capturing device.
At a trade show a few months earlier, Conrad had stumbled across the first unitized flashing system he’d ever seen. It contained all the elements specified for the Tyson’s Corner job, plus a few more – all of them neatly factory-assembled onto handy 51/2-foot panels of 40-mil flexible flashing that included a 6-inch “automatic” lap-joint. “This product just jumped out at me,” Conrad said. “All the puzzle pieces involved in flashing were combined into one component. You even got the adhesives and the screws in the same carton.”
Conrad dug deeper into this new product – the TotalFlash system. He quizzed the manufacturer, ordered samples to test, and obtained a list of other projects where it had been installed. Among these was the 26-story Asbury Towers in Asbury Park, N.J., where the architects had tested TotalFlash strenuously before specifying it as part of a total recladding for the building’s moisture-damaged exterior walls.
Conrad quickly became sold on the unitized flashing system. “TotalFlash would cost more up front than buying all the separate components,” he said, “but it could cut our installation time and labor costs quite a bit. We also wouldn’t have to run around hunting for all those different parts, or wait for separate parts to be delivered. Installation seemed nearly foolproof, too. To me, it looked like a perfect solution.”
So when the Tyson’s Corner project came along, Conrad shared his research with the architects and the general contractor (WCS Construction, of Washington, D.C.). He asked them to consider substituting the unitized flashing system for the separate components in the specifications. Dave Kutchma, senior project manager for WCS, and Rod Gamby, SK&I’s construction administrator, were both impressed by the innovative flashing system. So was Chris Akkerman, who represented the project’s owner, Simpson Housing of Denver, Colo.
But then Gamby found a problem. His firm’s design contained an unbroken, 22-foot vertical elevation in one section of the building. He explained, “We weren’t sure the mortar-capturing component of TotalFlash could maintain water-flowage past all the mortar that might fall into that 22-foot cavity, which was just one inch wide.” With the masonry soon to begin, SK&I decided to stick with the original flashing specs. Conrad was disappointed, but rather than viewing it as a turndown, he saw it merely as a lack of sufficient data about the unitized system.
He contacted the manufacturer again, this time asking for specific information about TotalFlash’s ability to maintain drainage despite large accumulations of mortar droppings. Earl Bickett, general manager of Mortar Net USA, found himself in the odd position of pitting TotalFlash – his company’s newest product – against Mortar Net, its oldest, which had been the mortar-capturing element specified for the job. Still, he felt sure TotalFlash was the superior solution in this case.
Bickett sent a letter describing the key design differences between the two products. He explained that TotalFlash’s thinner, no-clog mesh drainage element created a continuous drainage plane from the cavity through the mortar bed, and then to the integrated Weep Tabs for expulsion to the building’s exterior. His letter concluded, “TotalFlash has nearly double the mortar collection capacity of Mortar Net, at approximately 114 cubic inches per lineal foot.”
Bickett also sent Conrad a point-by-point comparison of TotalFlash versus each of the specified flashing details. Conrad passed the fresh data along to the project’s three key executives for their evaluations. It convinced Kutchma that the new product would perform well in the 22-foot elevation. And since his firm had a reputation for bringing jobs in under budget and ahead of schedule, he was eager to use the unitized system. “My general superintendent assured me it would be much quicker and easier to install, and simpler to inspect,” he later reported. “It practically installs itself, and without all the measuring and cutting of conventional flashing. Furthermore, the built-in lap joints would give us a more predictable consistency.”
Akkerman, of Simpson Housing, concurred. The product’s redundant protections against wall failures or mold growth contribute to a building’s longevity, a major consideration for owners he said. SK&I’s Gamby also recognized the benefits of the new flashing concept. A believer in maximum moisture control, he said: “Too often, the best flashing details are ‘value-engineered’ out.” His only reservation was focused on the 22-foot vertical section. But after analyzing all the data and discussing it with colleagues, Gamby approved the unitized system.
Conrad was impressed. “Many architects wouldn’t even consider such a major change in their specs,” he said, “but these people looked hard at it, and saw it met their quality standards.”
At press time, Conrad’s installation of TotalFlash had just begun. He says it’s producing exactly the results he expected. “My men got the hang of it right away, and now they’re installing it at high speed. It would be awfully hard to make a mistake with this system. When I look down that neat row of flashing panels, I know we made the right choice.”
Mortar Net’s Bickett admits there are projects, or parts of projects, where the old separate-components solution can still make good sense. “However,” he adds, “it’s growing increasingly difficult for builders to pass up the chance to save half – or more – of their usual time and labor costs, get the job done faster, and enjoy the complete, consistent protection delivered by an all-in-one flashing system.”
The poet Alexander Pope once advised: “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” The unitized flashing system is no longer new; it has been tried and tested in countless buildings. Now we’ll see whether – and how rapidly – a 5,000-year-old industry will decide to lay the old aside.
Gregg Hodgson is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of business and industrial topics.