Shortly after Dale Puskas, vice president–California/Nevada of Basalite Concrete Products, took over as National Concrete Masonry Association chairman, he put forth his goals and visions for his term as well as the organization’s future, and it was a heftier task than he’d imagined. “During my involvement with NCMA, I cannot remember a time when we had so many initiatives as important to our industry as we have right now,” he told the membership at its annual convention in Palm Springs, Calif. “Between our challenges with maintaining and growing market share against competitive systems, the impact of recent economic downturns and consolidation of membership, the impact of government regulations and organizational succession planning as new leaders begin to emerge in our industry, I’d say that we have a very full plate.”
And for Puskas, much of the activity in the masonry industry is being sparked by positive measures. “I get my gauge anytime we have any kind of national gathering, where we get people from all over the country, and you can see a definite sense of optimism everywhere—some better than others,” he tells Concrete Products. “If you look at certain markets that were very depressed—California was definitely one of them—we’re starting to see noticeable improvement. Last year  was a very good one for California, and there are pockets around the country where producers are saying the same thing. In general, people are feeling optimism that isn’t unfounded; they’re actually seeing an increase to their business—not nearly to the levels of 2006-07, but there is certainly measured growth.”
But Puskas sees the key to significant jumps in sales being tied to concrete masonry producers discovering and promoting new markets for their products as well as expanding their offerings. “In the products we support through the association, masonry has been there forever, literally; we’ve got a good handle on that. At the same time, we’ve made major strides in supporting products that our members manufacture, specifically segmental retaining wall and articulated concrete block systems. We brought the manufactured stone veneer guys into the association since they are a complementary concrete material, and we knew that we could help them grow their markets. Manufacturing stone products is a different process, but as masonry declined, our members began to look at product lines they weren’t in before the downturn, and now that things are improving, those new products are bolstering their business.”
A year ago, in the wake of devastating tornado events throughout the Midwest—particularly in Oklahoma and Kansas, where dozens were killed—renewed discussions and interest on how homeowners and builders could better protect structures in the path of future destructive storms was the subject of nationwide discussion throughout the construction industry about resilient design. Many in the concrete industries anticipated a change in building codes and a boost in business as a result, but Puskas says that hasn’t happened thus far. “I don’t think the sales have occurred yet,” he explains. “Along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts where hurricanes occur, we’ve seen changes in codes and standards in the building industry that have been going on for the last decade or so. The Florida market continues to be a strong market for CMU between hurricane and insects.
“Hurricane Sandy’s impact in the Northeast has brought to light the need for better policies related to resiliency, including stronger and more durable structures. The push for immediate reconstruction following events such as Sandy, unfortunately, is not conducive to accomplish resilient objectives in the short term. However, I believe that the evolution will come and sooner rather than later.”
“In the Midwest, tornados are a factor and have this ability to show up wherever they want to, but they haven’t really hit major metropolitan areas until more recently, and that has brought a huge awareness,” he continues. “Destruction of property and loss of life get everybody’s attention, and there are new design standards implemented. The ‘safe room’ concept is quickly becoming a ‘safe wing’ concept. As we build or retrofit schools, for example, designers are looking at large built areas that they can move the entire school population into, instead of crowding them into a smaller traditional storm shelter. Masonry should be a major part of that, and our members are focused on it. The association is aligning resources to assist the members with, not just codes and standards, but also the resilient building designs that they’re going to need to go in with to promote masonry in that application.”
Puskas adds that another major focal point of NCMA continues to be green building, and it’s the association’s mission to back performance claims with actual research. “The technologies that are out there are pretty well known,” he explains. “Low- or no-carbon cement processes are still in the development stages, as are sequestering technologies. In general, when we view CMU as a wall system, one of the things we need to be able to measure is the carbon impact as compared to competitive wall systems. For example, it takes a lot of energy when steel is manufactured. From a whole building perspective, we need to understand the amount of energy used in a concrete masonry system compared to steel frame, cast-in-place, tilt-up concrete and even wood. To that end, we’ve discussed an analysis measuring the carbon footprint of a concrete masonry building compared to one constructed with competitive materials. We think the results are going to surprise some people.
“Let’s also look at durability. The infrastructure of the original federal highway system was concrete, and some of those roads are still in play to this day, with minor repairs. To me that’s a testament to the durability of the materials. If we compromise on materials used in specific applications, say schools, the question becomes, do you want a durable school or a replaceable school?
“As an industry, we need to do what is necessary to re-establish concrete masonry as a primary building material. This includes developing a closer relationship with the masonry contractors; establishing the tools necessary to support masonry as a sustainable material, including Environmental Product Declarations and Health Product Declarations; research to reduce cement content without compromising performance through introduction of alternative materials in the CMU wall system; the BIM-M [Building Information Modeling for Masonry] initiative and other digital design tools that make it easier to design with masonry; a reconnection with the architectural, engineering and construction management programs at the university level; and continuing to support other products that we can run on our machines such as segmental retaining wall and articulated concrete block.”
CHECK-OFF IN LIMBO
The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation passed the concrete masonry industry’s check-off bill (S.429) by voice vote in April, the legislation garnering consideration for possible avenues to the full Senate. The bill would authorize a Department of Commerce-sanctioned stakeholder committee to explore a market development, research and education program funded through a levy on concrete masonry unit sales.
An identical House version of the bill (H.R.1563) enjoys about 250 bipartisan co-sponsors but was not reported out of the House Energy & Commerce Committee before Congress recessed for the November elections. A strong concrete masonry industry effort to sign co-sponsors continues to improve opportunities for the bill to find a path to passage during the lame-duck session at the end of the year.
“If implemented, the industry estimates that the CMU check-off program could generate $10 million annually, with an assessment of just $.01/block,” Dale Puskas affirms. “This is more than is currently allocated through the masonry promotion programs of NCMA and all state associations combined, and I believe that these resources will be critical to our success as an industry to gain market share against some very well-funded competitive building systems. Once the bill is passed, there will be a significant amount of work to be done to get the referendum in front of our industry and ultimately get the national and regional boards in place. However, we have been concentrating on the task at hand—that being Congressional authorization to gain access to a funding mechanism already provided to other commodity building products.”
PRODUCT CATEGORY RULES
After resolving public comments, NCMA is finalizing a linchpin of forthcoming Environmental Product Declarations (EPD): the Product Category Rule (PCR) for “Manufactured Concrete and Concrete Masonry Products.” The PCR provides EPD preparation requirements for a variety of products, including concrete masonry and segmental retaining wall units. In turn, EPD requirements or incentives are emerging in project specifications or contracts as green building rating systems drive such documentation. NCMA has engaged ASTM International for the PCR development.
“As an industry, we are very supportive of the PCR/EPD process,” explains Puskas. “The impact to the industry to date has been primarily in the more progressively sustainable markets—such as the West Coast, Chicago, and the Northeast—but it’s spreading rapidly. I’m very pleased that, as an industry association, we are near the leading edge of this curve and have a Concrete Masonry PCR in place to support the nation’s producers.”
“Basically what we did was take the concrete PCR and made modifications to it to accommodate our process, from cradle to gate. A lot of the comments were hashed out during the concrete side of things, so I never really saw much controversy at all with ours.”
For Puskas, an essential part of building up masonry’s market share is about making the product part of the conversation again to younger generations of architects and others who have a hand in building design and material selection. “For masonry, what’s happened is—and it’s indicative of a much deeper issue—we took our eye off the ball, and we missed educating about a generation and a half of specifiers coming through schools,” he explains. “Now, we’re being forced to go further up the ladder to displace some of the materials they learned to use as designers when they were in the education process.
“Basalite’s state association, the Concrete Masonry Association of California and Nevada, has done a great job with our Design Award process. It’s a testament to how to use concrete masonry to complement other materials, how to bring together a building functionally and aesthetically. We don’t usually see all-masonry buildings winning awards; you see masonry being used where it performs best—durability, thermal mass, aesthetic qualities—and being combined with other materials, such as glass, wood, steel and concrete. Those are some of the most beautiful designs because it brings all of those elements together.
“The NCMA Foundation supports a significant number of design competitions and provides money for research projects at universities. Our industry is an aging one, whether it’s our producers or masons—the average age of masons continue to rise. Even professors who teach masonry are moving up the ladder and toward retirement, and we are working on ways to train the group behind them. In talking about the Check-Off Program, I think an educational component will be critical. I envision this type of education as a plug-and-play. Maybe professors fit it into a course and it becomes a piece of that course or it becomes a full, stand-alone course. It needs to be modular enough and digital to make it easy for them to incorporate that training into their already crowded curriculum.”
A relatively new NCMA program is the Young Professionals Group, an effort to engage younger industry employees and help them to find a role in the association. “This group continues to grow within NCMA and as of the Annual Meeting was up to 46 members,” Puskas says. “I’ve issued the challenge to the rest of the Association to continue to assimilate this group in to leadership positions. They are the future leaders, and there is no time like the present to infuse their new energy and ideas into our industry.”
Puskas believes that a key to streamlining the industry and making it more universally considered for building projects is to ensure that the design and construction management tools for the future adequately incorporate the range of solutions provided by masonry and recognize its attributes. “One complication in that process is that concrete masonry grew up locally,” he states. “The shapes and dimensions are usually common, but wall thicknesses and nomenclature are different regionally. For example, in the East, certain block shapes are called H-Block and A-Block; in California, we call them Double Open-End Standards and Open-End Standards. Just those nuances of being able to standardize across the industry a core group of products in the design software is a huge challenge for us.
“We need to have a lot of practical industry input. If you come at it from only the academic side, I think we’re going to miss the mark. I encourage industry contribution. With the move toward design-build, where a lot of BIM technology is used, the general contractors or design-build firms aren’t primary in masonry; they were primary in other materials or trades, and we need to make it easier to incorporate CMU into their critical path.”
BASALITE CONCRETE PRODUCTS LLC : At-A-Glance
Acquired by Pacific Coast Building Products in 1979, Dixon, Calif.-based Basalite has become one of the largest suppliers of concrete masonry products in Western North America. Product lines include structural block, interlocking paving stones, wall systems, retaining walls, ornamental and garden products, and a full range of packaged concrete/mortar products.
The use of Basalite concrete masonry units has grown rapidly in demand over the past 20-plus years, due not only to the building boom in northern California, but also as result of advances in building design and changes in architectural preference. Today, Basalite Concrete Products manufactures hundreds of types and styles of concrete structural block. The company presents a complete offering of custom colors, shapes, and sizes in most product lines and often works with architects to create effects that showcase the building’s design. The full line and custom options are available to builders and developers.
NATIONAL CONCRETE MASONRY ASSOCIATION : At-A-Glance
The National Concrete Masonry Association is the national trade association representing the producers and suppliers of concrete masonry products, including concrete block, manufactured stone veneer, segmental retaining walls and articulating concrete block. For nearly a century, NCMA has engaged in a range of technical, research, education, marketing, certification, communications, and government relations activities, offering a variety of technical services and design aids through publications, computer programs, slide presentations, and technical training.
The NCMA Education and Research Foundation supports the concrete masonry industry by serving as a research and education affiliate. Every year, it identifies and funds new grants intended to support industry advancements in various areas. During the past three years, the foundation has approved about $1 million in new grants and scholarships.
NCMA’s Research and Development Laboratory is a world-class facility, dedicated to scientific testing and research of concrete masonry and hardscape products and systems. The laboratory features a new concrete unit production line, capable of simulating several methodologies in use at modern operations.
Robert Thomas is NCMA president. The Association office is located just east of Washington-Dulles International Airport at 13750 Sunrise Valley Drive, Herndon, VA 20171, tel.: 703/713-1900; e-mail: [email protected]; website: www.ncma.org.
Basalite Concrete Products, LLC
IMMEDIATE PAST CHAIRMAN (2013)
Executive Vice President
Johnson Concrete Company
Salisbury, North Carolina
Mutual Materials Company
SUNSHINE STATE LAW MAKES CENTS ONE BLOCK AT A TIME
Florida Governor Rick Scott signed off on a bill this year that creates the Concrete Masonry Education Council, allowing hte industry to implement a voluntary penny a block assessment as a direct support organization under the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The act positions concrete masonry producers to contribute voluntary assessments in a fund supporting workforce development, research, education, and promotion of concrete masonry within the Sunshine State.
“Our construction market is poised for growth. As a result of overwhelming support of this initiative by our block producers, this program will enable us to ensure that designers understand how to take advantage of concrete masonry’s attributes and that they have an adequate supply of craft workers,” affirms Masonry Association of Florida Executive Director Pat McLaughlin.
“To the best of our knowledge, Florida is the only state association to push such an initiative, and it is a voluntary assessment,” adds 2014 NCMA Chairman Dale Puskas. “In addition to lobbying for their own state initiative, the producers in Flordia have been very supportive of the national concrete masonry check-off program. In fact, more than 93 percent of the state’s representatives in the U.S. Congress have signed ontot he national bill. These numbers were generated by industry influence and leadership, specifically from Florida.”
NCMA, ICPI firm up 2015 ICON-Xchange
Concrete masonry and hardscape unit producers, along with machinery, equipment and industry service providers can mark their calendars for the National Concrete Masonry Association’s 2015 ICON-Xchange, February 18-19, at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa in San Antonio, Texas.
The Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute will also participate, holding its annual meeting in conjunction with the trade event and convention format NCMA debuted earlier this year in Palm Springs, Calif. The ICON-Xchange B2B, featuring 25-minute, one-on-one appointments in hotel suites, returns with expanded hours to meet all participants’ scheduling requirements. Also on February 19 will be the Marketplace, a premier event for suppliers to network with customers and prospects and for all attendees to gain insight on industry topics and trends at a centrally located Knowledge Bar. ICPI will hold its Annual Meeting February 15-17, leading into the ICON-Xchange events. The NCMA Annual Convention will run February 20-22.
“The 2014 event was an extremely successful first-time venture into this format,” says 2014 NCMA Chairman Dale Puskas. “If you can imagine a classroom setting using hotel rooms, where teams came together, both producers and vendors, in which you were in there for a half hour. They had to get through as much focused business as possible in that timeframe, which was great. Then there was the Marketplace the next day where any follow-up questions could be dealt with.
“Now in 2015, with the ICPI element, we’re going to lengthen that B2B event to a day and a half, with a half a day of marketplace. We were pleased with our inaugural event and are anticipating regular growth through the next several years as we improve the offerings for our industry to gather together to do business with each other.”
As a vice president at Basalite Concrete Products, Puskas says his company took full advantage of the 2014 ICON Xchange networking opportunities: “As a producer, Basalite assembled a team of key managers and met team-on-team with more than a dozen vendors. Since both sides had the ability to choose their audience, we met with some vendors that we generally don’t meet with in a regular trade show setting. Some of these meetings were most enlightening, as we learned about technologies that we had never seen before.”