Installing Cabinets Before the Space is Conditioned

Cabinetmakers discuss "cover-your-rear" contract and notification practices for an install in an unconditioned building. September 19, 2009

We are about to install the cabinetry, counters, and millwork in one of the classrooms of a new school project we are doing as a mockup room. My issue is that the building is not heated and the doors are not installed. This building is just not tight yet. We are in the Northeast and it is still winter. What do you think is going to happen to this woodwork and veneer work? My guess is, nothing good. They are telling me that there is 50-55 heat and 45-50% humidity. We obviously told them that this mockup will not be covered under our warranty. I didn't see anything in the AWI specs. What are safe conditions to install these products?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor M:
I know you said you are telling them you are not guaranteeing the mockup room. My advice is to put it into writing, make sure they sign off on it and make it as ironclad as possible or you will be maintaining it until the end of time. I spent eight months as a job super on a school (for the GC) and I can absolutely guarantee you they will do everything possible (construction manager, architect, and school board ) to make you stand good for it, so cover your butt. It is not correct to install millwork in these kinds of conditions... period, end of story. If you check the spec book I am sure it will support your position. My experience is you have to use the spec book against them because you can bet they will attempt to use it against you.

From contributor S:
Since this is a commercial job, the mockup room was either 1) specified initially in the plans/specs, or 2) an afterthought once the contracts were awarded. I'd suggest you re-read the contract documents and get a firm grip on where you stand.

I agree you should cover your butt - if it is still possible to do so. None of the people you are dealing with are your friends, nor do they care what might happen to you. This is not a good time to be a nice guy.

From contributor D:
Write the conditions and have the general contractor sign off. Stated correctly, the GC will be responsible for dimensional problems in the wood products that result from improper humidity exposure during site storage and installation. I suggest you have him/her sign off if your knowledge of the situation is of any risk. Even at the stated humidity and temperature, if the building isn't closed, a spike in either state function will be reflected by your products.

From contributor M:
Did you go into this job as a prime contractor or did you bid for the GC? I have seen it done both ways. In either case, the heat and humidity conditions are usually in the domain of the construction manager. Don't install anything until you have a signed (by all parties involved) waiver absolving you of all liabilities and follow that up with an email copied to all pertinent parties. Lawyers are big on emails in these cases because of the time stamping, etc.

Remember the spec book rules, so if there are any exceptions to it, make sure you cover your butt in every way possible. Thankfully I don't have to do that job anymore, as it got to the point where I just couldn't stand to see anyone else get the shaft. Hope it works out for you.

From contributor B:
First, read the spec carefully. There should be a section called "Project Conditions." Under this section it should say - "Do not deliver or install woodwork until the building is enclosed, wet work is complete and the HVAC system is operating and maintaining temperature and relative humidity at occupancy levels during the remainder of the construction period."

If the architect is worth his salt, that's what the spec should read. Then you have something to go on. Or, if the spec refers to AWI Quality Standards, Section 1700 refers to Installation of Woodwork. Look up Section 1700-G-3 which covers site conditions, materials, and preparation. It is pretty clear.

From contributor J:
I was a part of a job once where a GC approved a tile setup for a shower entrance. We had the cabs in the room and I photographed the job as I always do. At the end, the owners and architects decided not to like the tile guy's idea and claimed he had not heard the approval the right way and were about to back-charge him for all 85 showers to change it. I was called to a meeting with the GC as the supervisor and architect had now gotten together on this. The tile guy called me in, as I had been there. I told the truth, showed the photos. The supervisor was fired, we never saw the architect again, and the tile guy got paid! I have worked for over twenty years with the tile guy and the well respected GC. Get a plan, stick to the plan, and document your path.

From contributor G:
I know this is indeed in the AWI specs, as I've had to use it for this exact instance - find it!

From contributor O:
I don't often trust the judgment of architects or GCs because they are not usually motivated beyond the money aspect. Luckily that is not all of them. From what you are saying, I would simply not install under those circumstances. Even if you have them sign off on it so they are responsible, do you want to have to fix all that might happen to the millwork? How easy will it be to get them to pay the second time around? Is the school aware of what they are asking you to do with their money? How much damage will the cabinets sustain from the other trades who will have to work around them? I have seen electricians standing on countertops with wet, muddy boots so they didn't have to go get a ladder. It is still your work that people see, and if it is all scratched, dented or delaminating, it doesn't show very well.

From contributor K:
Most of the work we do is new construction schools. I have yet to be able to wait to install a mockup until the conditions are ideal. The approvals take so long that if you were to wait, you would be left with a month to build and install the entire $500,000 project. I often speak with the project managers and negotiate a mockup of a typical upper and lower with a countertop that can be installed in the job trailer. This includes all hardware that will be used on basic cabinetry. This most often satisfies the architect. If I canít get around it this way, I have a typical job site conditions waiver that we require to be signed before we will install. If youíre new to schools, get ready for some awkward installs. Schedules change. Conditions are less than ideal. The safety requirements are stringent, pay apps are overly scrutinized, and the school opens in August (no matter what). It is a tough living but it has remained steady when so many other markets have failed. Oh yeah, if you build the mockup as a typical size, you can use the cabinets in an elevation once the project is ready to install.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all your input. Contributor K, the majority of our work for the last 5 years has been new schools, and you are right on with all the problems associated with this kind of job - it is brutal! We also do what you mentioned - a wall, a base and counter. This particular architect is a royal pain so far. We are on our third set of revisions to our submittals. In 2009 we have 3 big schools on the books so far. Looks like the fun will continue.