How to Find and Make the Most of Scarce Materials

Check out these tips for being supply-savvy when shortages strike.

In some cases, there's no avoiding extended job times and higher prices when shortages hit the building-materials market, but contractors aren't entirely powerless in the face of market forces. Here are some tips for getting what you need to get your jobs done.

Get In With the Dealers

A solid relationship with a reputable materials dealer is invaluable, but that doesn't mean you should forget all the other dealers in your area. It's always good to have backup sources.

Keep an eye on some of the more unconventional supply outlets, such as salvage yards and recycling centers. And organizations such as Habitat for Humanity sell building materials and sizable scraps left over from their jobs.

Explore Alternative Methods

Sometimes you can stretch the materials you have or that are available by altering your building methods. By framing studs at 24 inches on-center instead of 16 inches, right-sizing headers, using a single top plate and employing other "optimal value" framing techniques, you can quickly save enough lumber for another entire job. Those framing techniques are part of what is called value engineering, and to be most effective it has to be considered very early on in the job, preferably in the early design stages.

Another strategy for dealing with shortages is to use modular and panelized components. If you go with a modular or panelized vendor, the vendor has to buy the material, build the components off site, truck them to the site and guarantee the cost upfront.

Other techniques to consider:

  • Employ designed dimensions that optimize material use and minimize waste (e.g., wall sections in units of 4 feet to maximize sheet-lumber dimensions).
  • Use frost-protected shallow foundations, which can use up to 20 percent less concrete than traditional slabs.
  • Right-size HVAC equipment using Manual J heat-loss calculations.
  • Optimize duct runs using Manual D (which can sometimes actually result in the use of more material, but less energy is wasted).
  • Devise a waste-reduction plan in which many scrap materials will be used on the job or recycled, as opposed to going to a landfill.

Consider Alternative Materials

Consider oriented strand board instead of plywood, and in the event of cement shortages, look into concrete additives such as fly ash and alternative aggregate materials such as rice hulls.

You can also offer decorative concrete finishes for flooring options; if used on top of a frost-protected shallow foundation, no lumber would be required for the floor structure. And air-admittance valves can reduce the amount of PVC required in plumbing installations.

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