By Matthew Power. Who would have thought that Las Vegas, the home of the five-minute wedding, would become a national leader in home building quality? Blame it on the hornet's nest of lawyers swarming in nearby California. Blame it on fierce competition among some of the industry's biggest players. Whatever the motivation, the end result is the same: better built homes, shorter cycle time, and spit and polish for the industry's reputation.
Leah Bryant, president of the Vegas division of KB Home, was one of the first to embrace the NAHB Research Center's National Housing Quality Certified Trade Contractor Program.
"We've had a trade partner council for years," Bryant says. "But we realized we needed a third party to certify our program. It would give us credibility with our customers along with the insurance companies."
"We considered going to the local HBA for certification," she adds, "but we realized that might be perceived as asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Then we heard the Research Center had a QA program based on ISO 9000 practices."
The program works because it aims directly at tradespeople, although builders are direct beneficiaries.
Dean Potter, director of quality programs for the NAHB Research Center, says that selling the trades on the program takes more effort than winning builders, in part because many of them already have quality programs in place.
But, he adds, "If you ask them to describe their quality program, about 70 percent will say that they walk through and check the work, but they don't write anything down. Others do have a checklist, but it's not quality oriented. It simply notes that various things were done."
Once the trades realize their process is incomplete, Potter says, they start to listen. Then they start to see the value in becoming certified, both the tangible (pleasing the builder who wants them to get in line) and the intangible (making their company more attractive and credible).
"Don Simon Homes in Madison, Wisc., was one of our participants," Potter says. "We set up a meeting with its trade contractors and did a presentation. From that presentation a group of the trades asked us to set up a training schedule. We do 12 hours of training over three days. That allows us to meet with one group in the morning of each day, another in the afternoon. We limit it to five companies per group."
Pay to play
Of course, all of that training has a cost, as does the ongoing maintenance of the certification.
"The program is set up for the trades, but it's more effective if a builder is on board," says Bryant. "It's a lot more involved and difficult than we imagined. The companies almost have to have a dedicated QA program. It costs $5,000 to $6,000 initially to set it up, but the biggest cost is in administering the program. You have to get recertified and face an audit every year."
That cost hasn't deterred KB Home from making the new certification mandatory. And once KB did so, says Bryant, other big builders in Vegas, such as Pulte, followed suit.
"It's now company policy," she says. "All of our trades have to be certified by Dec. 31 if they want to continue to do our work."
Potter notes that the initial training cost for a small company could be as little as $1,000. Other costs are associated with the ongoing process of information gathering, audits, and random site evaluations. That's right. Random. And when the evaluator shows up on site, he's not afraid to put a trade supervisor to the test.
"For example, certification means that the guy running the job should know something," says Potter. "We may ask him about various procedures. And we have requirements for a continuous improvement process, which focuses on 'hot spots.' We may ask, 'What's your current hot spot?' and it may be something like proper gapping of roof sheathing."
The Research Center has begun to teach remote trainers who are connected with a local HBA. But those trainers can then set their own rates for training, so rates may vary.
"One of our trade contractors who went through the program just met with two builders, just to find out whether they put any value on his certification," notes Potter. "Both of them called him back a short time later offering him jobs."
"This year to date, we have had only 10 customer service claims that have gone for over 14 days unserviced," continues Bryant. "Five years ago, probably every call went 30 days. It has also reduced our bill time by having job readiness on our communities."
In other words, because each trade inspects the finished job with extra care, there's no time wasted repairing errors or finishing the last subcontractor's work.
"The slab is level," states Bryant. "All unevenness has been corrected before the tile person arrives. Then all the tile person has to do is lay his material. Those kinds of problems don't slip through with this QA program. I think we've seen a four-day improvement on our build time."
In Las Vegas, a rare alignment of powerful forces have helped accelerate the QA certification process so the program has begun to grow exponentially. What forces? You name it. Almost every obstacle facing builders--litigation, rising insurance costs, and competition from low-ball bidders--feeds into the positive impact of quality certification. Trades do the job right, insurers become more willing to back the builder, and low-ball builders who use uncertified help begin to get suspicious glances from both consumers and municipal planners.
Potter says plans are in the works for a builder QA program, but in the meantime, improving standards for the trades means the builder program won't be standing on feet of clay.
"The most important goal for us is to deliver the completed home the right way the first time," notes Bryant. "So far, we've reduced the number of trade visits to the jobsite. We have also put together a coalition of subcontractors and home builder associations, and we're working together as an industry."