Members of Brick and Allied Craft Workers Local 3 on location at The Arden in Mission Bay.
By Richard Bermack, Contributing Writer and Photographer
The Arden, a 16-story, multi-tower residential complex on Long Bridge Street, is part of the Mission Bay urban village project of Bosa Development. The interiors feature a lavish use of tile. Working on the project has been a thrill for members of Brick and Allied Craft Workers Local 3. Both their employer, D and J Tile Company, and Bosa are known for high-end finishes and high quality work. After putting on the final touches, the workers can step back and enjoy their artistic creation, imagining the pleasure it will give to generations of occupants. The project is scheduled for completion in 2016, and already all of the 267 condos have been sold. If only the workers could afford the $1.5 million price tag.
–Voices From the Union–
There’s a lot of tile work on this project: the bathroom floors and showers, the kitchen counters and backsplash, the balcony, and there’s even a lot of tile in the common areas. We have about 32 guys on the project.
It’s a lot of work, but we’re a well-tuned machine. Our guys know how to pay attention to details and work flow. We have a few “greenhorns” who are new to the trade, and we show them the way. We break it down for them, explaining the different materials and sequences from start to finish, the prep phase, the setting phase, and the finish. We teach them to be clean and make sure they treat the place as if it was their own. When completed, there are no broken tiles, everything is nicely grouted, and no setting materials on the walls. We want the place meticulous and acceptable to the new owner.
We are putting in 12 x 24 porcelain floors. They are one of the standards. They go down pretty nice, and we put in an acoustical underlayment to stop the sound from traveling to the units below. These builders are known for their high quality work and high quality finishes, so we really get to appreciate what we install.
That’s what we love about being a finishing trade, we get to see it the way it will look when the person who is going to live there walks in. We want them to appreciate the work as much as we do. This will probably be the only time I’ll get to walk around a multi-million dollar unit.
The best part is the people I work with. They’re a bunch of great guys. They’re family.
When I started it was difficult. There were not a lot of other women, and I ran into a lot of, how should I say it, “difficult people.,” But I adjusted and they learned not to bother me. Other guys were supportive, and they would have helped me out, but I wanted to prove myself. As a woman I wanted to show I could hold my own. I didn’t want to be looked down on. So I just worked hard doing my job, minded my own business, and if some guy got out of line, I checked him.
I like being a finisher. I can do whatever it takes to make the job look good. Guys will say, “Connie, I screwed this up. Can you come help me fix it?” I keep everything moving along, whatever stage it’s in. I can demo, waterproof, grout, caulk, seal the floors. Whatever they need me to do, I do it.
Every day is different. That’s what I like about the job.
This job calls for a floating mortar bed on the balcony. Floating mortar is a dying art. These days they usually just use thinset. But on this job I get to use a dry pack mortar with sanded additives. We make it by hand just like the old school. We chop it up, float it, and level it. We have to build up our own slope. We use a laser to get the elevation, one-quarter-inch-per-foot so the water will run off, but not to exceed a 2-percent grade. If it’s more than 2 percent, someone can slip. This is a balcony, not a shower.
I’ve been doing this for 20 few years, so for me it’s not too hard. We’re trying to train the youngsters so they can do it. We teach the young guys how to keep clean and neat, be punctual, and know your trade and the tools. The only real trick is experience and getting the right touch and the knowledge of what we are trying to accomplish.
This has been a great learning experience. They really take the time to teach us. The best part is the finished work. You go through all the steps, and when it’s done, it is one of the most beautiful things to see that there is.
I was doing nonunion residential for many years. This is a whole different package. Working union, it’s all about quality and appreciation: safer working conditions, a better organized jobsite, the quality of the work you get to do, and what you get out of it.
You feel like you are part of a team, along with all the other trades. You’re not just setting tile, you’re building a building. You’re a professional. It’s no longer about rushing around and slamming it down to get it done. It is about the quality of the work and the pride you get in seeing what it looks like when you’re finished.
I was born with a pointer in my hand. My dad was in the union back in the 1960s and he trained me. He was a pretty hard-core guy. We did things a lot different than now. They say it’s never as good as the old school and I’m probably part of the last generation to learn the old school. I’ve been doing this for about 30 years, and at this point I can just about set a 1/4-inch pitch with my eyes closed. Everything was mortar back then, and the materials were a lot more difficult to work with and a lot harder on your back. I can certainly remember. You started as a helper carrying the material around, and that was hard work. The new materials, you just trowel them out over a substrate and some of them, like the waterproofing, hold up a lot better.
Tile Setter and Onsite Supervisor
My job is to make sure everything gets done the right way. It takes experience and knowledge. This is my third day on this job, and I’m still getting a feeling for it.
They brought me in to help slope the balcony decks. They weren’t pitched right originally. The thresholds were a little too high by about an inch. So I have to survey every deck and mark it. Then we need to build up the elevation with a mortar bed and then set the slope. It’s extra hand work. It’s not often we’ll do that these days, usually we’ll just apply thinset and glue down the tiles.
I’ve been a supervisor for about 12 years. When I drive into San Francisco I can look around and point to just about every high-rise that I’ve worked on. They are all over. D and J is not a small company.
It’s been a life-changing experience. I’ve been given a great opportunity, and I want to make the best of it. It’s my career, not just a job. A career is something you can put your mind to. It is something you can do for the rest of your life. I have to thank the union and City Build. Before I was working delivering donuts for a bakery. Now I’m learning something new every day and learning how to do it the right way.
Today I’m learning how to apply Red Guard. It’s a waterproofing membrane you can apply over any substrate before you apply the tile. It is difficult to work with and smells horrible. You have to wear a respirator. It can cause cancer if you don’t work safely with it. It’s all about the proper PPE.
Working with tile is not just a way to make a living, it’s an art form. You have to love what you do and love the final product. There is a real beauty to tile work. It takes a lot of skill and patience to do custom work like this.
We get to use the latest technology. We have all these nice new saws and blades that make it easy to cut square and clean. This company takes good care of the equipment, and that makes our life easier. We’re lucky. I’ve worked in other shops that weren’t as well stocked, and it makes a big difference.
I take my time to cut just right. That way you get these really nice, tight-fitting miter joints that go around the lamination. Then we match the color of the glue to the stone, so when the people see the two pieces joined they look really nice. That’s what I like about doing stone and tile work.