For this edition, we sat down with Christopher Walker, vice president of the northeast region for David Allen Company, Inc. Walker, who currently serves as the first vice president of the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), was named the NTCA Tile Person of the Year in 2017 and will assume the role of president in 2019. He serves as chairman of both the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A-108 Committee and the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for International Standards Organization (ISO) T-189. Walker also sits on the board of directors for Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC) of Virginia and has been a voting member of the TCNA Handbook and NTCA Reference Manual for many years.
How did you first get involved in the tile industry?
Walker: I took a part-time job that became a career. I have often referred to it as my accidental profession. I’m not sure someone wakes up one day and decides that tile is their life’s ambition unless they are born into it through a family business. I left school in the Midwest for what was supposed to be a semester or two to work and travel in New York City area. It took a few years, but I eventually decided to head back to school in Westchester, NY. Once enrolled, I set my schedule up to go to school full-time and work part-time as a laborer with a tile company in NYC. It did not take long for that to become a full-time career in tile, and since then, it is all I have ever done.
Has the tile industry changed much since you first started?
Walker: Completely. Other than some natural stone lobbies, we did miles of mosaics, 4 1/4-, 6- and 8-inch tile. It wasn’t always interesting, but it was the prevalent material being used in most of the commercial core toilet rooms at the time. We were happy if the architect threw in an accent liner or feature color to make the installation a little more exciting. Dry-set modified mortar used at the original World Trade Center legitimized the use of dry-set mortar thinset installations. By the mid 80s, about 70% of floors we set were thinset. The other 30% were thick-set. At that time, a tile “mechanic” knew how to pull floor mud and the newer inexperienced tile “setter” had not yet mastered that skill. Today, thick-set installations are the exception — probably less than 5% of our work. This has made tile installations more accessible for many applications, but has also required a multitude of intermediate products and procedures to fix some of the things that thick-set installations offered. Many of today’s tile installations are not truly going over a substrate properly prepared for thinset tile installations. Today, there are specialty tiles for every room in a house. Tile is being incorporated into unique residential and commercial applications. The amount of choices are practically unlimited with beautiful finishes. Many digitally printed products are practically indistinguishable from natural stone. Tile, as a product category, is as strong as it ever has been and is growing in the types of applications used to showcase creative opportunities using tile. Of course, beautiful tile materials have been available throughout history. I have had the opportunity to see first-hand, installations that are literally thousands of years old. I did not understand the beauty and history of the art form that had occurred for millennia before. Fortunately, I now am exposed to beautiful products available from around the world.
Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Walker: I remember we received a contract to perform historic restoration of some of the wall materials at Grand Central Station. It required we use historically similar material and methods to the original installation. Burlap and Keene’s cement were used to cast wall panels to match the existing materials. While doing that work, we were asked to look at another piece of work that allowed us to go up all through the balconies and catwalks leading to a hatch, which let us inside the largest Tiffany clock in the world. We then went through another hatch which allowed us to go out on the roof. I then climbed out on the famous statue of Mercury. There I was standing far out on the wing of Mercury looking down Park Avenue South. I remember appreciating the moment, being glad for the confluence of events that brought me there and thinking to myself, “What’s a kid from Iowa doing standing on Mercury’s wing in the middle of New York City?” It was a moment for me and I remember it vividly and have thought of it often as a fun memory. Contrast to that was one of my first “opportunities” to supervise. Literally walking back and forth through the three 1.6-mile-long tubes of the Holland Tunnel in the middle of the winter, working nights, freezing, counting tiles that “looked new” because the previous superintendent had lost track of the extra work. One of my least favorite tile memories.
What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?
Walker: It seems counterintuitive, but one of the hardest things for the craftsperson today is to stand firm with the expectation of getting paid for all of the work we do to achieve a proper installation. We are so often asked to do things that compromise the quality of the finished product or to work over improperly prepared substrates. It’s common for us to do preparation work that we know is required for the longevity of the project. But for some reason, we often have a hard time asking to be paid for required extra preparation. Including costs for unsolicited work in a competitive bid assures you will not get the project. However, in many cases, the extra work is the difference between getting a project just installed and installing it correctly. There’s no reason to be shy about expecting to be paid for that preparation and expertise required for a proper installation. It takes a while to be confident enough in our work and knowledge of the trade to explain these requirements to a client in a way that helps them understand that it’s for the benefit of the project, not solely for the benefit of our pockets, although both should be the result. Profit is not a dirty word. It’s why we do what we do.
What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Walker: Some of the most successful people I’ve seen in this industry are the ones who are truly interested and explaining why quality matters to clients when they get the opportunity to present the information. They painstakingly break out all of the products and services that they are going to use in order to deliver high-quality result. Unfortunately, when bidding to commercial projects, we often don’t get the opportunity to prepare or educate owners and general contractors why it makes a difference. We are simply asked to provide the lowest price. This will always underserve all of us who care about doing the job correctly. Competing to see how cheaply you can do a project is a surefire way to deliver dissatisfaction to either the client or yourself. Usually both.
If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Walker: I would say to anyone interested in sustaining themselves in this as a career to not under value your service. It is truly an artistic craft that takes years to master. No one is immediately good at this; it takes lots of knowledge, understanding and care. There are projects that require only speed. That is a whole other set of skills unique to a small percentage of installers. Few can do that well, while delivering a high-quality product. For millennia, the artistry of tile and mosaics has been recognized as a level of craftsmanship that’s unique to few trades. It’s not for everyone, but there is true art in the tile profession that comes from meticulous attention to detail. Some of the greatest personal satisfaction from this profession is the fact that quality control is right at the end of each installers’ trowel. We get to make a choice on what type of product we deliver. That is a level of control not everyone gets to have in their work. We can step back and appreciate our contribution to whatever part of an installation we have participated in. Even if your role is on the administrative side as mine has become. I am blessed and fortunate to have been able to participate in some really beautiful installations in famous and significant projects while working with some terrific people in the last 20+ years.
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