Even the most safety-minded professional occasionally makes a mistake. Mistakes with a hammer can result in smashed fingers, but barring some sort of singularly weird miscue, at least the digits are still physically attached to the host body. Mistakes on a table saw are far less forgiving. I have four contractor friends—–missing a total of 7.25 fingers—–who can attest to this.
SawStop is a company that recognized this problem. They have developed a series of construction saws whose blades cleverly stop when they come in contact with human skin. And I don’t mean stop like "whoa, wait a minute, let’s think about this" stop—–I mean STOP stop.
How quickly does the blade stop? Well, it takes a fifth of a second to even say the word "stop." This doesn’t sound like much, but a fifth of a second in the presence of a wildly rotating saw blade translates into your pinky flying across the room, end over end, like a tiny football. A SawStop blade stops in five milliseconds, which is way shorter than a fifth of a second.
How do SawStops do it? Something about electrical currents and a chunk of aluminum that shoots kamikaze-style into the whirring blade, sacrificing itself so that your fingers can live another day. The company’s website has a great little testimonial photo gallery of some of the folks who have already been saved—–holding their fingers out, proudly displaying the exact same grain-of-rice-sized nick. Sure, the brake cartridge costs $69 to replace, but that seems like a bargain compared to a lost finger.
Well-run job sites resemble an episode of The New Yankee Workshop. Poorly run job sites resemble the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan. You want something closer to the former. Once you’ve made your contractor shortlist, set up a couple job-site tours. Check out the orderliness of the site and how well crafted the work is—–take along your architect if you’d like a professional opinion. Look for a centrally located table with an updated copy of the construction documents bolted down on it like the Magna Carta. Look for tidy sawdust piles in the corner, awaiting proper disposal. Look for beer cans in the sawdust piles.
See if the contractors are okay with using an American Institute of Architects contract. For residential projects, I recommend A105 "Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Contractor" in conjunction with A205 "General Conditions of the Contract." (They are meant to go together.) You can get these fair-minded and highly understandable documents from your architect or local AIA chapter. They have enough detail to be meaningful, but not so much that you immediately fall asleep and drool on them.
Many construction projects start strong and then stall out. Sometimes appearances are deceiving, and nonobvious work is indeed happening behind the scenes. Sometimes appearances reflect the truth, however, and the contractor has sneakily moved on to another job for a spell, knowing he has you financially locked up and helpless. A schedule should anchor regular owner-architect-contractor meetings and will help you track your project's progress. If she hems and haws and makes excuses when you request one, give her the stink eye and walk away.
Dan Maginn is an AIA-member architect who lives and carpools to work with his wife, Keri, in Kansas City. Although he and his partners at El Dorado Inc. are extremely interested in promoting sustainable design on all scales, he does not consider himself to be an "eco-warrior." Instead he prefers the term "eco-tainment specialist"