“Best practices” is a term we hear a lot about, but what does it mean? The better question might be, “Whose best practices?” If you put 10 tradespeople in a room, you can get up to 10 best practices on how to do a task. ASTM standards are defined as consensus standards, but in reality there is little consensus. ASTM stands for American Society for Testing and Materials, and many committee members have never installed the assemblies where they make the rules on installation. There has been a gradual shift to marginalize members with installation experience.

Best practices can be about assembly performance or means and methods to construct that assembly. A means and methods example would be hanging drywall panels. Should you hang the panels and finish screwing off as you go, or go back to put in all the screws at one time? To me, the latter makes the most sense, as it would save a few motions. Since I am not a drywall hanger, it might be best to keep my opinion to myself.

Drywall and Plaster Best Practices?

The Carpenters’ Union held a Drywall Olympics a few years ago to validate the fastest hanger in the country. The winner of our region was—as I predicted—hanging the panels and then going back to screw them all off at one time. Then came the day of the final competition—our regional champion was off and running. 

I walked around to watch other contestants. A person from the Midwest was installing his panels in the opposite method, where he would finish screwing off each panel as he went. He seemed to be pretty fast and I was impressed that he was keeping up with our champion. As I went back and watched our person working his way to screwing off all the panels he had hung, the bell rang and the announcement was made: “Contestant Five” had just finished. Yes, he was the Midwest person and he finished first. I was in a bit of shock. I was wrong about the best practices on hanging drywall.

Some experiences with means and methods can be more personal. As an apprentice plasterer, you look to the supervisor for mentorship. My supervisor was a “pro’s pro.” He would cut-in plaster using the toe of his trowel, where I preferred to cut-in using the edge. To be a pro, a change was in order, so I switched to using the toe of my trowel. My supervisor watched me struggle with the change and then asked, “Why did you switch your technique?” I explained my desire to be the best and saw how he did it. He informed me that he once raced a plasterer for paychecks (I guess that was popular back in his day) and he lost to a person who cut-in with the edge of his trowel. His final words on the subject: “Go back to your method.”

Another Meaning

Best practice can also mean going beyond what is standard for the industry. Recently, after reviewing a lath installation, it revealed the lather was applying daubs of sealant over each fastener head used to attach the lath. The reason given was that it was a best practice. This best practice adds material cost and takes extra time. I noted the problem was that self-adhered flashing, while neatly cut and fitted, was reverse-lapped with the water-resistant barrier. In reality, water rarely is found going through the lath fastener in the field of a finished wall, while the reverse-lap is a prime cause of leaks. Is this really a good idea to ignore basics in favor of a perceived best practice? 

The reverse-lap is a common problem on façade installations. Shingle-fashion layering was once a basic in teaching, but that practice did not result in extra fees or sales, so we have moved to more complex and multiple layers of materials. Is this a good idea for our industry in the long-run as costs keep escalating and sequence of installation gets even more complex? Young people are being pushed to take extra steps to comply with someone’s imposed best practices with more expensive materials and extra labor. Since training time is limited, something has to be forsaken, and the basics of proven installations seem to be the casualty. 

The term “best practices” should be questioned and not used to ignore the fundamentals of science. Is the best practice an opinion or used to sell a product or service? It never hurts to ask why this is a best practice and ask tough questions, even in the face of research data presented that may have been done with a preconceived outcome to benefit the sponsor. I find those that try to shut down questions may be hiding the real agenda on why they are pushing best practices.