Quick Take:

Lee Brokaw has worked in construction for 42 years, 36 as a licensed contractor, and is highly critical of the building happening in downtown Santa Cruz. “For me, it makes no sense to build anything that won’t last 100 years,” he writes. He thinks contractors are building too quickly and worries they are not using high-quality materials.

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I have spent the past 36 years as a contractor, which gives me informed insight about construction projects that comes with experience. I can say honestly, I am worried about what is happening in downtown Santa Cruz.

Here’s why. There are multiple ways to think about a building project. The metaphor I like is simple: Imagine the building process as a three-legged stool. If any one leg fails, the stool will fall over.

On a project, the legs are:

  • Quality/safety: Safety flows from quality; it’s a subset.
  • Speed: Speed inherently leads to errors and omissions.
  • Cost: Cheap materials lead to low quality, yet the building is sold at market rate, with lesser value.

For me, it makes no sense to build anything that won’t last 100 years. The speed of construction I see downtown and the use of materials I would not use make me question the quality of construction, how long these buildings will last and how safe they will be.

Here’s why: The lowest bidder usually wins the contract. The only way to make a profit is to build as fast as possible and cut every corner.

Most flaws in construction show up down the road in small ways: sheetrock cracks, stucco cracks, peeling paint, sagging doors, windows that stick or leak, waterproofing that finally fails. Specifically on the project going up at Laurel and Front streets, I have concerns about the dangling piece of waterproofing on the Laurel Street side. It’s torn and not interwoven with companion waterproofing. It’s not been addressed for weeks, months. I look at that and I ask, what else is wrong, that I can’t see?

What a difference a year has made for local grapes.
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Another misconception about construction is that if you build more, with “the economy of scale,” the cost will go down.

For some manufacturing, an assembly line speeds up manufacturing. Construction does not follow that model.

Construction materials are purchased in a marketplace that is finite: There are only so many trees for lumber, only so many precursors from which to make paint, pipes, concrete or wires.

Government regulations affect changes to materials, which increases cost. This includes reformulations of paint to remove volatile organics — the “get the lead out of paint.” This also happened when plumbers were required to stop using solder with lead on copper pipes. Another example: The new formula for pressure-treated wood requires stainless steel fasteners to prevent corrosion.

Construction methods are adjusted by engineers and building codes, especially after earthquakes. The mandated changes to previously normal construction often cause price increases.

It also takes people power to make a building complete. No one works for free. The laborer can do only so much in a day. Labor costs rise, not necessarily in cost per hour, but in hours needed at that point in time.

Trucking and fuel cost money. Most big trucks are diesel. The new laws of California mandate cleaner diesel engines. Trucks that had been used for years had to be replaced. The future of new diesel motors is finite, as they are to be illegal by 2036 and all trucks will be zero-emissions by 2042.

From my view of construction, the greenest building is one that is already built and gets a makeover to become more useful. Reusing existing walls, roof framing, foundation, with modifications, make a reduced carbon footprint. The alternative is cutting down more forests, mining more precursors for cement, baking them at high temperatures, and trucking the materials to a concrete plant. All involve increased costs.

I live in a house built in 1919. It’s been remodeled, but it looks 1919-charming and its framing was a tree growing over 100 years ago. It is a green building because of its durability and longevity. It has provided shelter for 37,960 days without a tree being cut.

Santa Cruzan Lee Brokaw has been a licensed contractor for 36 years.
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

I’m concerned that public money is being funneled to projects that are not durable and or well-built and won’t pass the 100-years test. Two months ago, I offered my opinion to the city’s building department on what, in my view, is substandard shear wall nailing at the future 65-unit apartment complex at the Red Church (Cedar and Center streets). The response? “If the engineer signs off, that’s good enough.”

The building department inspects according to the code. Few outside the trades are aware that the code is the minimum. For buildings to last, more attention to quality and safety is required than just the minimum. The code is a subset of standards for any quality builder.

In sum, housing is expensive. Building to last takes care and attention and doing more than the minimum.

I fear that is not happening downtown and we will pay a great price later.

Lee Brokaw has a master’s degree in physical organic chemistry from the University of California Berkeley. After a few years in the pharmaceutical industry, he entered the trades. He has been a licensed contractor for 36 years and has not had a single case of construction litigation.