5 Ways that Rogue Thatching Contractors Cut Corners to Increase Profit

The same applies in any industry...a lot of contractors cut corners to maximize their profits and unfortunately this leaves the customer in a compromised position and gives the industry a bad name. This practice is very prevalent in the thatching industry in South Africa because in the past there has been no controlling body and the thatching specifications were left to the so-called “specialist thatcher” (whether they were indeed a specialist or not). Slowly things are changing for the better – established in 1993 was a thatch association in South Africa (Thatchers Associations of South Africa or "TASA") who have in recent years set-up and strived for a standard to be laid down for the industry. All thatching contractors are encouraged to become members of the association and then go through a certification process (in conjunction with independent body South African Timber Auditing Society or "SATAS") to become fully certified members. This certification process involves a thorough examination of the whole business from monitoring construction and thatching work physically to ensure that the correct building and thatching specifications are being followed, to auditing the administration side of the business. The association has driven hard to get this process and accreditation into common practice to protect both clients and the reputation of the industry. To find out more about this process read TASA’s article Certification of Thatchers Association Members.

Despite this progress there are still contractors who choose not to follow the outlined specifications and regulations, to make more money. Generally these contractors attract clients by offering quotations which under-cut the more reputable contractors. Generally the structure and thatching seem fine when they are first finished but it will quickly become clear if corners have been cut as problems begin to arise. We have outlined a few of the common ways in which contractors cut corners in an attempt to cut their costs and increase their profit, unfortunately not taking the needs of the client or the reputation of the entire industry very seriously:

1.   Contractors use poles which are under the required thickness specification i.e., using thinner poles which initially (due to their moisture content) are fairly strong and flexible. However, 5 years down the road they start snapping, cracking and failing. 
2. Contractors use poor quality thatch. Even the so-called high quality thatches like Cape Reed and Hyparrhenia Hirta have substandard grades which come at a very cheap price. This thatch unfortunately is susceptible to rapid rotting and infestation of mites. For more information on the specifications and qualities of thatch read our article How to Choosethe Right Type of Thatch to Prolong the Life of a Thatched Roof which also covers “Choosing Quality Hyparrhenia/Cape Reed” and reasons why not all thatch is of the same quality.
3. Contractors thatch under the specified thickness and do not compact the thatch adequately. In most cases (especially if a good quality thatch has been used) this in not even noticeable to the customer until 8-10 years later when the thatch roof needs its first major maintenance and cannot be brushed because it is too thin. This is a very common problem and is generally due to one of two factors: i). The contractor purposefully used less thatch on the roof which cost them less at the time and maximized their profits, ii). The contractor subcontracted the work to an independent group of thatchers who earn more the quicker the job is finished; this generally causes the thatchers themselves to rush the job so that they maximize their individual profit.
4. Contractors lay the capping and do not cover it with membrane and a quality waterproofing material. This will cause the capping to crack as it shifts over time and constantly leak, in turn leading to high maintenance costs for the client.
5. Contractors do not recommend the use of a fire blanket. A fire blanket not only assists in protecting the roof from total disaster in the case of a fire but also dramatically reduces dust in thatch roofs (the fire blanket is not visible to the eye) – it is however an extra expense and effort in the initial stages of the construction of the roof.

A general problem that we come across time and time again is this… the entire roof is an accumulation of materials. If some of those materials have a shorter lifespan than others then the whole roof and its lifespan is compromised. For example, using the highest grade cape reed (lifespan approx. 30 years) and stitching it with cheap tarred twine (lifespan 10 years) will mean the inability to tension and compact the roof after only 10 years. The twines will snap, the roof loses compaction and then the roof rapidly deteriorates. This is not the only example of a conflict in different materials’ lifespan which is a very common problem to be tackled.

Having delved into the darker side of the thatching industry it has to be said that we are not trying to put you off thatch – thatch can be one of the most beautiful roofing materials with its flowing lines and natural look and actually the same rules apply when choosing a contractor in any area of the construction industry – do your homework – research your thatching contractor and ask them questions. Are they following the TASA guidelines and SABS thatching and building regulations? Don’t be afraid to ask the contractor questions and ask for proof of good standing and reputation (testimonials from past customers, images of similar completed jobs). Educated and confident clients make good decisions and choose reputable contractors who deliver quality structures and are a positive influence on the reputation of the thatching industry as a whole.

Links to useful resources:
“A Guide to Good Thatching Practice” - free ebook for both thatching contractors and the general public who would like to gain more information of best practice in the thatching industry.