We all know the construction industry stinks right now. For most contractors, this is the worst construction market in their lifetime. The stock market has rebounded, the big banks are making money again, and everyone seems to be breathing a sigh of relief—except for those in the construction business who continue to hold their collective breath waiting for the other shoe to drop.
We've all heard the scary stories: Half the concrete contractors in the U.S. will go under, commercial building construction is nowhere close to the bottom, equipment manufacturers are declaring bankruptcy. Yet everyone looks for a glimmer of hope: Construction material prices are stabilizing, residential construction shows signs of rebounding, public works construction is responding to the federal stimulus money, but when will the commercial concrete construction industry come back? According to the Portland Cement Association (PCA), Skokie, Ill., not until at least 2012. Now a new cloud is forming on the horizon: Potential designation of fly ash as a hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But have hope! The concrete industry has many brilliant people, innovative materials and methods, and forward-thinking associations. Here are five reasons we feel the concrete business will come back strong—and before you know it.
The supply of cement and other binders is plentiful.
Since the days of cement and concrete allocation, only three or four years ago, the U.S. domestic cement manufacturing capacity has increased significantly with new plants coming on line. Three years ago, the PCA report, “The 2006 Critical Trends in the North American Cement Industry,” showed that in response to the shortages, half of the U.S. cement manufacturers moderately increased production, while another 22.5% greatly increased production. The result will be a plentiful supply of cement when the demand starts to rise, which it will. Even PCA's economist Ed Sullivan predicts that cement consumption will increase 5% in 2010 and 17% in 2011 in response to an overall 15% increase in construction spending in 2011. But imported cement in 2011 will be only about 6% of the total. All of this should serve to keep prices stable and low.
That said, the EPA ruling on fly ash could change the picture by greatly reducing or eliminating fly ash in concrete. Fly ash was expected to offset nearly 22% of cement consumption in 2010. If it is labeled as a hazardous material, this is unlikely to happen. One casualty could be Ceratech, a rapid-set material based on fly ash that has seen a lot of use as a repair material. Because it incorporates mostly industrial byproducts, its environmental impact, or carbon footprint, is virtually zero.
Another new binder is Calera, the brainstorm of Brent Constantz, who pioneered medical cements used for bone fractures. With financing from Sun Microsystems founder and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Calera developed a technique to create cementitious products that combine flue gas from coal-fired power plants with seawater. The result is a carbonate material that serves as an SCM and can even be used to manufacture synthetic aggregates. This material won't impact the concrete industry in the near future, but its eventual promise is great.
The cement intensity of commercial and residential projects is increasing.
Building codes for high-rise structures have started to demand concrete cores, stairwells, and elevator shafts. The task force that examined the performance of stair and elevator shaft enclosures at the World Trade Center in New York City, recommended more stairwells and the use of materials “that provide greater resistance to impact” in high-rise buildings. In low-rise structures and residential buildings, the International Code Council, Washington, D.C., and the National Storm Shelter Association, Lubbock, Texas, recently introduced new guidelines for residential safe rooms for protection against natural disasters. All of these requirements lead to concrete as the logical material of choice.
A tool for furthering the use of concrete in building construction is PCA's “2009 High Performance Building Code Requirements for Sustainability.” This document offers step-by-step language that can be used to amend the International Building Code and the International Residential Code. These guidelines can be adopted into law by local jurisdictions to increase building sustainability using concrete. PCA's director of codes and standards Stephen Szoke says, “We need to make buildings better—they must be more durable and disaster resistant. Why invest all this money in energy efficiency if the investment can be wiped out in a fire, flood, wind event, or other disaster? Are buildings still green if you have to replace them after a disaster or in less than 50 years?”