Home » Features » Versatility: The Name of the Concrete Game

Versatility: The Name of the Concrete Game

Structural steel prices have hit record highs in recent years. And when  materials skyrocket, builders look for alternatives.

Enter the concrete market. “It just so happens that concrete — regardless of steel prices — is ideal for all types of construction,” says Steve Shockley, senior superintendent for Turner Construction Company, a member of multiple AGC chapters.

Today, concrete is used almost exclusively for high-rise construction in the southeast and in Nashville, Tennessee, where one of Turner’s offices is located. Midrise buildings, especially office towers, often use a concrete podium transitioned to steel for the tower, with a slab-on-metal deck. However, the entire structure can be built with concrete exclusively.

“The design properties provide the most viable solutions for architects and engineers. And from our end, it’s a faster-start material,” Shockley says.

The versatility of materials is just one example of the many changes taking place in specialty trades like concrete and asphalt. Versatility appears to be an ongoing theme for concrete and asphalt contractors — not just in terms of materials, but also when it comes to contractors’ services, abilities, delivery methods and available technologies.

Pavement maintenance companies like Minneapolis-based Asphalt Associates are finding that they need to diversify their materials and offer both concrete and asphalt services to remain competitive.

“Most anybody who gets any size at all is going to have to offer both services, because clients want the one-stop shop as much as possible,” says Jeff Stokes, consultant to Asphalt Associates, a Louisiana AGC member.

Clients want to work with one company for as many services as possible. In the pavement world, that means companies need to be able to offer curbing, striping, removal and replacement.

Companies and property managers are also relying on contractors to serve as consultants on their projects.

“The companies and property managers are relying on contractors much more to educate them and help them become more knowledgeable,” Stokes says.

When it comes to concrete, the logistics of getting materials to a site have to be innovative and strategic. “We’re navigating around multiple existing buildings, often historic, in a congested and urban environment. Tight construction sites are a challenge,” Shockley says.

At Turner’s current project at 1200 Broadway in downtown Nashville — a 26-story cast-in-place concrete structure — the construction site has an existing shoring wall system under the road that appears to date back to 1850. Portions of the wall incorporate hand-laid battered stone, which has aged over time. “Our ability to analyze the structural integrity of a wall built in the late 19th century – and with the help of a local engineering firm, implement a modern concrete system to reinforce it – is an amazing way to preserve history,” Shockley says.

Technological advances such as 3D modeling and a greater emphasis on safety have transformed the way concrete and asphalt contractors do business.

Stewart Grauer recalls that when he first entered the construction industry in the 1980s, no one had mobile phones or desktop computers at work, and spreadsheets were all done by hand. Now, blueprints have given way to tablets on the jobsite, and contractors are using 3D digital models to help develop estimates.

“We’ve come a long way in how we do business,” says Grauer, who is vice president and concrete division manager for Sundt Construction, a member of multiple AGC chapters, in Tempe, Arizona.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) has been a game changer that has saved projects a great deal of time and money. By using BIM, which relies on 3D design and modeling software, contractors can identify in-slab conduits for electrical and plumbing systems, and coordinate pour sequences before the concrete shows up at a site.

Contractors also use apps to report on things like project management and safety inspections.

“When I started my career, the word ‘safety’ only came up when the ‘safety guy’ visited the site,” Shockley says. “Back then, we concentrated on avoiding accidents rather than actually developing approaches to the work that made it safer.”

At the start of every workday, Pandora radio plays on the sound system while while workers on Turner Construction company’s projects do stretch and flex exercises to loosen up. Following those stretches, the team reviews a safety topic and reviews any updates on project activities before getting started for the day.

“One of the biggest ‘keys to safety success’ is that all members of the jobsite understand the day’s game plan,” Shockley says.

But there’s a big difference between having a safety culture and just having a safety policy, Shockley says. “When safety is part of who you are as opposed to something you are required to do, you see a much higher success rate,” he says.

Much like safety, contractors and materials suppliers are placing a greater emphasis on eco-friendly products and practices.

Turner, for example, has established high goals for recycling materials that were once relegated to landfills. Metals, gypsum, wood, paper and cardboard are sorted on sites or shipped to a recycling facility that can sort them. Turner also uses compact fluorescent lamps for temporary lighting and photocells to reduce electrical consumption.

And as old buildings are torn down, most of the concrete gets crushed up and reused into road base or aggregates.

Meanwhile, steel is also recycled and put back into commerce.

Progressive cement plants are looking at alternative fuels to develop cement, converting materials such as wood chips, scrap tires and even walnut shells into fuel. Fly ash, as secondary byproduct of coal-fired power plants, can also go into ready mix materials.

Cement manufacturer CEMEX estimates that for 2016, 23.3 percent of the fuel it used to make cement came from alternative sources, and that 92 percent of its cement plants used alternative fuels.

Relationships between client, architect and builder have also evolved — in part because of project delivery methods.

“The silos have disappeared, and few projects of any complexity are undertaken without an aligned team, sharing the same goals and supporting one another in the achievement of those goals,”
Shockley says. That alignment, he says, has improved productivity and schedules, and produced better buildings.

Phased turnover is more prevalent today than it has ever been in the past, Shockley says. “When owners are able to occupy space prior to the completion of the entire project, that offsets the overall cost of the job,” he says.

Construction management and design-build opportunities allow companies like Sundt to have more input than they would in a pre-construction role.

“We’ve become a lot more involved in the whole process and put a lot more input ultimately into the overall process of budgeting, design, constructability and things like that,” Grauer says. “Thirty years ago, they didn’t want our opinion.”

The workforce shortage is another development that has influenced the way specialty contractors approach their work. That often means offering a training program and tapping into trade schools to look for workers. “People have to grow their own today,” Stokes says. “That’s just the reality.”

Grauer cites the statistic that the industry lost 2.4 million construction workers during the recession. Some of those workers have come back, while others have retired, and others have gone into other industries.

To address the labor shortage issue, Turner places a great deal of attention on productivity. “When the market is robust, it safeguards against the challenges created by scarce labor,” Shockley says. “When work slows, it ensures the best use of all resources to eliminate waste.”

Turner also produces a quarterly report on market conditions that analyzes data from all of the active projects in Nashville. “As a result, we constantly have our finger on the pulse of the market — enabling us to be strategic and thoughtful about what we pursue and how much we commit to,” Shockley says.

Grauer points out that most college graduates are not interested in construction, and so it’s up to contractors to market themselves to assure the industry’s future. Sundt has been working with Central Arizona College to develop a certification program for high school graduates so they can start working immediately once they complete it.

“As a society, we’re not talking enough to our kids that this can be a good career,” he says. “They say if you don’t catch these kids by fourth grade, they’re not going to consider it.”