In the never-ending quest to increase productivity, improve safety, and eke out a bit more profit on the jobsite, concrete contractors have a new ally in hand-set formwork systems. Contractors have been setting forms by hand since there’s been concrete, but these new systems combine light weight and simplified clamps to make the job easier than ever before.
One characteristic of the newer hand-set systems is that the panels are easy for a single worker to safely carry. In general that means no panel should weigh more than 100 pounds. There are some exceptions to this rule among the various systems for larger panels or gangs but most panels easily meet that criteria.
The real beauty of the newer hand-set forms though is the simplified clamping systems. Each manufacturer’s approach is a little different but they all strive to reduce the number of different pieces needed to assemble the forms to the bare minimum. Some of the clamps can be installed just by hand, while others require only a hammer. The clamping is very intuitive so training takes a very short time and the speed with which the forms go together is truly remarkable. “We were building a water treatment plant using hand-set forms,” says Rob Webb, operations manager for Baker Concrete, “Those guys were hand-set machines. You just can’t believe how fast it all goes together.”
“We have a dedicated field service staff that assists in training, best practices, tips and tricks to be efficient with the forms,” says Garrett Holm, senior territory manager for EFCO in Seattle. “Most of the time the guys pick it up pretty quickly, kicking us off the site. It takes less than a day and they know how to use the equipment. But we also have videos for how to assemble the forms, so there are multiple options for learning best practices.”
Mike Schaeffer, vice president of Doka USA, which introduced their Frami system in 2003, says, “in a typical 8-foot tall panel you would only need 3 clamps to connect the panels compared to 16 to 18 wedge bolts. Fewer parts means fewer items to ship, fewer items to handle, and increased productivity.”
Another advantage is that most of these are reusable tie systems. “Fewer ties means fewer to handle,” says Schaeffer, “fewer to install, fewer holes to patch, no purchase of ties for every pour, and increased productivity.”
While hand-set formwork can be assembled in-place, piece-by-piece, all of the systems can also be ganged both for positioning and stripping. Workers can be moving two- or three-panel gangs by hand or building larger gangs on the ground to move by crane. All of the systems have proper tie-offs for fall protection when workers have to climb and can be set up with brackets for walkways. “Sometimes we build gangs for taller walls–it’s safer,” says Webb. “But if they’re being put up on a slab, we’re building them in place—it’s easier.”
The various hand-set systems come in different configurations but most can be used in either a vertical or horizontal orientation to form the space required. “When selecting a system,” says Steffen Pippig, U.S. sales representative for Meva, “look for features such as ease of ganging, easy to climb, transition to wood forms, pressure capacity, the type and configuration of the ties that can be used, imperial dimensions, and finish requirements.”
The flexibility of hand-set form systems allows for applications as varied as simple walls and columns to elevator cores, tanks, and pier caps. One advantage in high-rise construction is that these systems consume less space during set-up. “We’ve seen a lot of use in high-rise construction in New York City,” says Julio Pecho marketing manager for Ulma Form Works, “because the system is so compact. There are so few pieces and in these constricted areas without a lot of room to work this system is ideal.”
Weight is obviously a critical feature of the hand-set systems and this has led to a big variety in the materials used. EFCO, always known for steel forms, makes it’s hand-set forms of steel but has narrowed the panels to 2 inches to get the weight down. A unique approach from Peri is to make its DUO system from fiber-reinforced polymer, which results in the engineered plastic forms weighing only 4 pounds per square foot. Others have frames of steel or aluminum with either plywood panels or composites like Meva’s alkus panels.
One caution when selecting a system: “A good forming system is not a guaranty for success,” says Pippig. “Engineering, service, and support are equally important to the field guys.”
Cost, of course, is always an issue but with the price of labor, speed can easily overcome initial cost. “If you consider how much you’re spending on plywood and 2x4s and snap ties, by the time you’ve done that two to three times, you could have paid for a steel panel,” says Holm. “For lumber and plywood you’re spending $10 to $15 per square foot while hand-set steel forms are $20 to $25 per square foot. But if you plan on continuing to be in this business, invest in something that will last a lot longer and accommodate all your needs. Especially if you’re buying, look for a very flexible product that can accommodate many different structures.”
Pippig agrees, “Rental or purchase of snap-tie systems are typically less than for clamp systems but don’t get fooled by a low rental rate–if you are reusing the system four times per month a system with reusable ties breaks even just because of the cost of snap ties and that’s not taking into account the labor savings and finish issues.”
Brittny Kubi, product manager for Peri, says “We have heard from customers that the need for carpenters and skilled labor is much lower with the hand-set system which is very important as skilled labor is increasingly hard to find. Additionally, with the lightweight nature of the system and components, proven safety accessories, and reduction in jobsite noise due to innovative connections, hand-set forms provide a safer and healthier work environment, which is No. 1.”
The systems are similar but unique. Here is a brief review of each. We are including only those systems that are light enough for easy carrying and that incorporate some sort of simplified clamping system. The original hand-set systems from companies like Ellis, Gates, Patent, Symons, or SureBuilt were a big advance over job-built wood forms, and still are, but don’t have the simplified connection hardware of the newer systems with resuable ties.
Aluma Lite System: The form facing is a composite wood technology with a form face made with composite outer layers and birch plywood inner layers, which gives the system durability with a smooth finish and the best weight-to-strength ratio. All steel parts are galvanized to further increase durability. The system handles 1,500 psf pour pressure for walls and 2,000 psf when used as column forms. Panels weigh 6.75 pounds per square foot and are typically 3 feet wide at heights of 9, 6, 4, and 3 feet. There are two types of clamps to increase efficiency.
Doka Frami Xlife: This is a complete modular system for walls, foundations, and columns in imperial dimensions. The Frami Xlife panels are lightweight and easy to handle, so they can be erected very quickly by hand, without the use of a crane although they can also be ganged. A 3x4-foot panel weighs 95 pounds. The modular design, with five panel widths and four panel heights, makes this system adaptable to all jobsite requirements. Panels are steel framed with plastic-enhanced form panels and connect with the Frami clamp that requires only a hammer to install.
EFCO Hand-E-Form: All-steel forms are EFCO’s specialty and their hand-set forms are no exception. But at 6 pounds/square foot all but the largest can be handled by a single worker. The panels connect with EFCO plate clamps that join panels tightly with only a hammer to leave a nearly invisible joint on the concrete surface. The special spreader ties install near the panel joints and connect with a reusable pin; ties have a safe working load of 4,800 pounds and . An aligner clamp using a cam action lever, is used to attach steel or wood aligners between panels.
Meva MevaLite: Modular system with a standard 3x6-foot panel that weighs only 86 pounds, although panels come in 3-, 4-, 6-, and 9-foot heights and are powder-coated aluminum frames with alkus panels that provide 1,350 psf load capacity. This formwork works with all common reusable tie systems (through-rod w/ PVC sleeve, taper tie, shebolt, steel setting cone) and has integrated tie-offs. Panels connect with the lightweight Meva clamps that connect quickly with hammer and have no loose parts. Width is set at 4¼ inch which makes transition to wood panels simple. Easy attachment of accessories such as alignment rails, braces, and walkway brackets.
Peri Duo: Introduced to the U.S. in 2016, this unique fiber reinforced polymer (FRP) formwork system weighs only 4 pounds/square foot, the typical panels are 3x4.5 feet but are strong enough to easily gang into larger sections. The same forms can be used for walls, columns, and suspended slabs. The Duo system is simple to assemble with a lever-like coupler that requires no tools (not even a hammer). The panels have an allowable concrete pressure of 1,050 psf for walls and 1,650 psf for columns. “Many perceive the DUO system as a ‘plastic’ system that would not be durable,” says Kubie, “but this is something we are proving day after day. We provide recommended DUO release agents and offer a special DUO stripping bar.”
Ulma Megalite: Lightweight, medium-duty handset panel formwork in imperial measurements for concrete walls, columns, and pilasters in building construction and civil engineering projects. Made of steel frames with plywood faces. This system can handle formwork pressures up to 1250 psf and requires only two rows of tie rods in heights up to 8 feet. Panels come in heights of 8, 6, and 4 feet and can be combined in perpendicular connections for walls There is a lifting hook for ganged forms, Connected with the MEGALITE Clamp.