Doing More With Less

A clear vision of what has to be accomplished, coupled with a resolve to find creative solutions, is helping the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute


A clear vision of what has to be accomplished, coupled with a resolve to find creative solutions, is helping the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI) weather today’s stormy construction economy, according to its new chairman.

PCI’s 2010 chairman, James E. Sorensen, who is C.E.O. of EnCon United in Denver, last month elucidated the basis of successful institute efforts to prosper in the face of hardship. Without undermining any of the many difficult personal sacrifices that have been made, Sorensen notes, we were fortunate to have had deep financial reserves, critical long-term relationships, and a number of fortuitous coincidences to help mitigate the consequences of the economic conditions.

As early as 2008, PCI began aggressively planning for restricted budgets in 2009 through 2011. Enabled by a significant staff reduction in mid-2009 and modifications to its business operations, PCI last year generated its largest cash surplus in recent history. This established a readiness to use the present disaster to our advantage, Sorensen tells Concrete Products.

The institute continues to offer a near-full calendar of activity. The high point of 2010 will be its hosting of the quadrennial fib Congress in Washington D.C., May 29-June 2.


Staged every four years at different locations worldwide, the International Federation for Structural Concrete Û or fib, an acronym for f»d»ration internationale du b»ton Û will be held at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Md., just outside Washington. The first fib Congress held in the U.S. and the largest PCI-sponsored event, it is open to all interested participants.

PCI aims to maximize opportunities offered on that occasion, creating a more comprehensive program by combining its own annual convention and the National Bridge Conference with the fib Congress. In the endeavor, PCI is partnering with a variety of national associations, including the American Concrete Institute, American Segmental Bridge Institute, Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute, International Concrete Repair Institute, Post-Tensioning Institute, National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, Portland Cement Association, International Prestressed Hollowcore Association, and Federal Highway Administration. Attendees will include government agency engineers and code writers, educators and students, consulting engineers, architects, and researchers.

A meeting of this scale is quite an undertaking, Sorensen observes. In the past, we’ve had our conferences in the fall, but we have accelerated that schedule in 2010 to facilitate the collaboration. The result will be a lot more attendees than we would have at our regular convention, so in the middle of the greatest downturn in memory, we will have the most well-attended event we’ve ever sponsored. That’s helpful in this economy.

A large number of technical papers will complement a full exhibit. As a package, it’s a technical blockbuster, Sorensen affirms. We will have 120 educational sessions, including 500 technical presentations, for delegates from 50 countries. We will offer six technical tracks, plus six educational tracks; and, the exhibit hall will be twice the size of any we’ve had in the past, with more than 100 exhibitors. In terms of content, it is without question the most comprehensive meeting of its kind in our industry’s history.


Despite this activity, PCI will operate within significant constraints in 2010. The time for fiscal discipline is upon us, says Sorensen. At PCI, our dues are based on the prior year’s member revenue. In 2009, we were coming off a 2008 that was spectacular for the prestressing industry. This year, our members are coming off an anemic 2009, and PCI dues therefore will be lower in 2010. With a more limited budget in 2010, my concern has been that we would have some bickering over priorities, but we just are not seeing it. Instead, we have an amazing amount of cooperation and collaboration. It is pretty much business as usual, despite the fact that our staff is a third smaller than it was two years ago.

One way that producer members will respond to staff cutbacks at PCI is with increased volunteerism. Already, Sorensen sees members rising to the challenge. Volunteerism is at the very core of PCI, he tells Concrete Products. PCI was founded in the early ’50s by U.S. concrete producers and steel suppliers united by a common interest in applying European prestressing technologies in the domestic construction industry. The leadership and pioneering spirit of those people motivates us today.

The institute is a collaborative effort of mostly volunteers Û production, construction, technical and business professionals Û who work tirelessly to fully develop all the associated technologies. Recognizing that this technology cannot reach its fullest potential without belonging to the public domain, we have never lost our understanding that working together as a group, without self-interest, made PCI Û and will continue to allow us to prosper.

Yet, economic conditions burdening the industry and the country at large register also at PCI. We all are cognizant of the financial constraints that our institute, our industry, and our country face in 2010, Sorensen emphasizes. I remind our members that 2010 and 2011 are not just about getting through the recession together, but coming out the other side ahead of the competition.

That’s a big job, since a technical institute like PCI must provide the same or even more support to members in a troubled economy. It’s been amazing to see how our staff in Chicago has stepped up to the challenge, Sorensen asserts. And, part of their ability to do that lies in the phenomenal commitment of our members to provide volunteers for every opportunity we have encountered.

We were thinking our membership might decline as a result of the economic downturn, Sorensen notes. In fact, we are finding that businesses recognize the need for PCI certification. We have added new members who want to broaden the scope of potential jobs open to them by attaining PCI certification, typically a requirement for qualification on projects, especially government work.


Thinking creatively and collaboratively, PCI has identified opportunities to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and provide more flexibility, relying on outsourcing in some cases and, in others, on bringing outsourced efforts in house. For example, amid 2009 cutbacks, PCI added a new sales manager, responsible for generating revenue via sponsorships, exhibit space, and special events, plus advertising in the Institute’s three major publications: PCI Journal, a technical resource; Ascent, targeting architects and building owners; and, Aspire, which addresses bridge owners and engineers.

Much of the staff reduction took place on the publication side, Sorensen reports, as the frequency of PCI Journal was cut to quarterly from every other month. In addition, a less ambitious schedule for several routine technical publication updates has been adopted. Nonetheless, Sorensen is looking forward to the upcoming release of the seventh edition of the PCI Design Handbook, the core design manual of the precast concrete structures industry and a related seminar series.

Fortuitously, PCI’s substantial office lease in the Chicago Loop came up for renewal in late 2009. By moving to a better office space in the same area, the institute achieved a 40 percent reduction in rent, enhanced cash flow and an improved work environment, Sorensen says.

Concurrent with the reduced frequency of printed material, PCI has advanced online with an improved web site. We are shifting a lot more material to digital format to enhance its availability and reduce its cost, Sorensen notes. This is especially important for the design and education communities. While our website is a key delivery conduit, however, it can’t replace a magazine of the aesthetic quality of Ascent, so we will work to provide both.


Last year in these pages, 2009 PCI Chairman Tom McEvoy articulated eight strategies that will guide the Institute’s direction [see Strategic Moves, April 2009, or visit]. The economic downturn has not diminished that process.

Nothing material has been set aside, Sorensen explains. If you look at the eight strategies, they address what PCI’s been doing for a long time. They all have at their core the concept of constant improvement, that is, (1) giving more value to members, (2) improving the certification process, (3) ensuring an increasingly high level of product quality, (4) marketing efforts to bring more market share to PCI members, (5) maintaining contacts in the research community to keep technical aspects growing, (6) expanding the educational programs and resources we offer, (7) continuing initiatives in sustainability of precast/prestressed products, and (8) sustained influence on the codes, standards and regulations impacting the construction industry.

Each one of those strategies centers on a core PCI activity, and that’s not going to change, the chairman affirms. In light of our budget reduction, we have studied a number of ways to maintain effectiveness in each of those areas.

In particular, the environmental sustainabililty of manufactured concrete products is a preeminent concern; and, PCI is proactive in conducting research to accurately document and articulate precast’s ÎgreenÌ advantages. We are seeing many more projects seeking LEED certification, Sorensen asserts. In view of growing demand related to eco-friendly construction, a lot of consideration is being given to innovative products now available, such as insulated wall panels; more documentation about how our product gets to the job site; and, use of reclaimed materials like fly ash in our mixes.

We introduced our Sustainable Plant Program to demonstrate our commitment to air and water quality and to improved energy conservation. The concern with sustainability constitutes a new market influence; and, at the rate it’s going, it will stop being a separate consideration and start being part of the body of codes that we have to address with our products. There is no question that this already is happening.


In its mission to promote precast quality, PCI works actively with regional precast/prestressed concrete groups, plus national and international concrete associations, as evidenced by widespread collaboration for the fib Congress. Recently, PCI also joined with the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) to promulgate a philosophy of quality certification articulated in a new AISC/PCI White Paper on Quality Systems in the Construction Industry, describing 12 attributes of any institute providing quality certification. Accordingly, the document details a dozen prerequisite features, including Industry Standing, Clearly Stated Purpose, Broad Professional Involvement, Governance and Consensus, Research, Validation, Dissemination, Certification of Personnel, Certification of Fabrication Process, Independent Audits, Feedback and Recourse, and Continuing Commitment.

Two subcommittees of the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials Û AASHTO Highway Subcommittee on Materials, and AASHTO Highway Subcommittee on Bridges and Structures Û endorsed the white paper’s underlying concept, i.e., institutes that control the body of knowledge for a given sector are in the best position to operate a quality-assurance system in that area by offering national industry certification programs.

Further advancing industry expertise, PCI dispatched a research team to earthquake-stricken Chile. Additionally, in cooperation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), it recently authorized a new study on progressive collapse of structures. Prevention of Disproportionate Structural Collapse will address development of procedures and computational methodologies for assessment of overall structural robustness, providing measurement tools required for the development of performance-based provisions in U.S. codes and standards.

This new project speaks to the nature of what PCI does in conducting practical research with immediate benefit to the built environment, Sorensen emphasizes. It follows on the heels of game-changing programs in seismic design and blast resistance.


But PCI tackles not just hard engineering. Last October saw the annual PCI Productivity Tour. Two full buses carrying more than 80 representatives from PCI operations nationwide, including Hawaii, toured several precast plants in Virginia. Participants on the tour came away from each facility with new perspectives on production, safety, and lean manufacturing techniques.

One of the tour highlights was an Ideas That Pay Off contest. Tour participants shared 23 different ideas they use in their plants to help improve productivity, eliminate waste, or improve safety. The group also heard presentations on implementing and sustaining lean principles in precast operations, as well as new Occupational Safety and Health Administration practices.

Among PCI member companies that opened their doors and hosted tours of their Virginia facilities were Bayshore Concrete Products Corp. in Cape Charles, Atlantic Metrocast in Portsmouth, Coastal Precast Systems Inc. in Chesapeake, Shockey Precast Group in Fredericksburg, and Tindall Corp. in Petersburg.