Concrete Construction's recently held its Annual Industry Roundtable Discussion prior to the opening of the American Society of Concrete Contractor's (ASCC) Annual Conference, Sept. 11–14 in San Antonio. Despite the impending threat of Hurricane Ike, a group of industry leaders gathered to examine a host of issues facing the concrete industry today, including surviving in today's economy, diversification, crew productivity, and more.
Tim Gregorski: How are you preparing for the economy in 2009, and where do you think the economy and the industry are headed?
Nathan Somero: I think the elections are going to have a lot to do with the economy. We are coming into slower times, but it is a blessing to us, it gives us an opportunity to regroup instead of running with extra weight. We can scale down and get ready for the next jump, whenever that may be.
Paul Albanelli: Never before have I felt the political landscape as having more effect on the business climate than what we've seen in Michigan in the last five or six years. We have a legislature that is absolutely inept and thinks they can tax their way out of a poor economic climate by ‘investing' in our future. What Michigan is experiencing is damn near a depression, not just the recession the rest of the country is feeling. Our new business tax structure is not working as companies are looking at Michigan and either leaving or deciding it's not the place they want towant to come and do business. So, I agree with Nathan, the political climate and the outcome of this year's election is going to be huge. When you hear politicians talk about investing in our future, turn and run, it only means more taxes.
Gregorski: Are contractors cutting back on expenses?
Michael Riggs: We are scaling back at this point and time. The slowdown for 2008 and 2009, we were looking at the PCA (Portland Cement Association) forecast, it's scary when they are reporting some areas will not comeback until 2010. We're just getting ready to weather the storm. The residential market in our area [Phoenix] is dead. It's down almost 55% from where it was previously.
Joe Nasvik: Has everyone seen Ed Sullivan's [chief economist for the PCA] report?
The last one was scary as hell; he didn't mend squares with anyone. The report revealed a bad economy for construction in 2009, mostly a bad economy for 2010, and slow recoveries in 2011. I read the report; part of me said this is not good politically to circulate in an industry looking for signs of hope. On the other hand, if you're a company in this business, you don't want to be led into making business decisions that will condemn you in the future, you want to make realistic moves. I decided on my own that he's pretty honest about this situation and companies ought to be looking at it really seriously.
Clark Branum: One of the things we've found in our area [Seattle] is that commercial work has stayed steady even though a lot of the residential work has dropped off. I've been involved in a few projects with Disney, and in talking with them, they have a lot of ambitious plans for additions to the parks. The entertainment industry is still spending money as casinos are being built. Others are still doing aggressive projects like the Venetian Group—they are building a casino in Singapore. We benefit from some of that work, not a lot of it but a portion of it.
Gregorski: Are contractors diversifying their business and if so, in what areas?
Branum: It's all kinds of concrete including structural but there is a certain amount of decorative, sure. But that's one place [decorative concrete] we haven't seen much of a slow down. Really, we've seen the residential marketplace get hit hardest. One of the things that came up in the DCC [American Society of Concrete Contractor's Decorative Concrete Council] meeting—in fact Joe brought it up—is that a lot of small contractors are going to have to diversify their business in order to survive. Decorative concrete is one area they are expanding.
Riggs: The contractors constructing tilt-up buildings for a while moved into a different area of the industry when those boxes went away, the same with the housing guys. The problem is they are in over their heads as structural work or architectural concrete is more technical and labor intensive compared to material intensive. Then it drives prices down, and owners expect that lower price and the rest of us have to deal with that again.
Branum: One advantage for larger contractors—guys that are doing structural commercial work including tilt-up buildings, slabs, and panel pours—they may be in the position where there may be 5000 to 10,000 square feet of stain in that building. Instead of subbing it out to a smaller contractor, you may train a crew within your own company and not sub it out. At a company I worked at in Seattle as a project manager, we did exactly that. We did all the commercial pours, all the tilt pours, but we also did 40 or 50 decorative projects a year that were attached to our jobs. Whenever we had 5000- or 10,000-foot stain or residential space that needed an overlay, we did it ourselves. That was great for us because we had complete control finishing the slab, how the sections were cured, how it was sawcut, everything.
Gregorski: Specifically, what projects are lucrative from your perspective?
Albanelli: Look at the money being poured into the university systems. The University of Michigan is spending a billion dollars and that's all going toward construction. There is money out there, you just have to find it. The federal government is spending an incredible amount of money; its tough work but they pay their bills and they pay on time.
Riggs: There is big money in local schools districts. In our area [Phoenix], they are building schools all the time: new high schools, junior high schools, college additions, and many are going with concrete floors as finished floor surfaces. There are decorative opportunities there for coatings, stains, and overlays, but the most predominant one I have seen lately is ground and polished floors. A lot of these schools find that ground and polished floors, up to 800 grit, are going to actually sustain the wear from the kids better than just about anything, and it requires a lot less maintenance.
Gregorski: Are any of you been involved in pervious concrete?
Riggs: I spoke with an ASCC member who said they were having problems with pervious in a Denver neighborhood. They were getting a lot of damage and plastic shrinkage cracks; problems you wouldn't think would be associated with pervious concrete. But they have done something on their own to counter some of the damage, including using fiber and different admixtures. It's interesting because they are trying to get pervious pavement to hold up in the Denver climate. Everyone has seen the Safeway store where the pervious parking lot has been ripped out and replaced with mostly asphalt because the pervious parking lot failed. One of the biggest challenges with pervious is that you cannot run PSI testing on it. The only test you can run is a unit weight test.
You're just measuring the weight of your material as you're placing it. You can do a wet unit weight test and a dry unit weight test, but you have to know what you're doing. You have to make sure the supplier is dialed in, and you have to make sure your aggregates are correct and that they don't change from the east side of town to the west side of town. You have to really pay attention to the details, such as overworking a placement, which can cause more damage. I think it's going to be a great product but it takes a lot of attention. Using a hydration stabilizer admixture, and combined with fiber reinforcement can help, too. One thing they do that I thought was really interesting is that they caulk the joints. Now what kind of sense does that make? He says it is not related to moisture at all; it's related to keeping the joints clean—a joint stabilization filler. What happens over time is rocks and debris collect in the joints, and they start to spall the joints. It's just for joint protection to keep rocks and dirt out.
Jay Allen: Comparing pervious versus asphalt in your market, are you competitive?
Riggs: If you're comparing pervious to asphalt straight, no. But you have to look at the whole infrastructure, and that makes selling pervious parking projects easier. Consider how many underground stormwater containment tanks, catch basins, and retention basins you are going to be able to eliminate by using pervious. Using pervious, you may be able to put a Wendy's in the corner of a shopping center where there may have been a retention pond otherwise.
Allen: You can take out that retention pond and add 10,000 square feet to a building, what is that worth to retail?
Riggs: Exactly, that's what's going to drive the pervious market more than anything. You're also helping achieve LEED certification by taking care of stormwater pollution, stormwater management, and reducing the development footprint. As far as the SRI [solar reflective index] for pervious, it's lower because the pervious is just taking in light, however, you don't have the thermal mass so it cools off at night. There are benefits to pervious, the developer is able to utilize the green aspect of pervious concrete to help with his marketing efforts.
Gregorski: Is anyone using BIM?
Chris Plue: We use BIM extensively. It allows us to find the omissions and conflicts in the drawing prior to construction.
Nasvik: Do you use BIM in house or do you buy the service?
Plue: We do it in house and we do it very inexpensively, however, you can outsource it. Currently, we build a model as a part of building the estimate. The next step for this technology is to use it as a tool for verifying in-place work and generating job cost updates.
Gregorski: If you were to explain the benefits of BIM to a contractor who is not currently using it, how would you do that?
Plue: One major benefit is conflict detection. Once all the designers and subcontractors are on board, the job tends to run smoothly because there are minimal conflicts and dimensional errors.
John Ylinen: What happens on thethe cost side occurs at the front end of the job. Let's say it's a brick building, and the owner says ‘I don't know if I could afford brick, but I want this instead.' BIM can automatically update from the brick material to a new material, at the same time it updates the price immediately.
Riggs: Do you have to manually input the prices for the materials or is it in the software?
Ylinen: It will all be in the software. We put it in initially, especially for cost modeling-type situations, and all those differences can be updated. Whether it is taxes, union labor, all those parameters at the push of a button.