Last year, the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) launched Build with Strength, a multi-million dollar coordinated industry campaign to educate the building community about the benefits of concrete and concrete products for building construction. The campaign is designed to reverse 10 years of market declines for concrete and concrete products in the low- to mid-rise building market, especially for apartments, hotels and dormitories. Communications, direct project promotion, education and building code advocacy are the key strategies behind the program.

The program is based on significant market research undertaken by NRMCA to better understand the that a great majority of the design/build community was favorable to concrete construction because of attributes like strength, durability and ease of use. However, certain misconceptions about cost and environmental impact often led decision makers to choose less safe building materials such as wood and wood products.

The mission of Build with Strength is to educate the building and design communities and policymakers on the benefits of ready mixed concrete, and encourage its use as the building material of choice for low- to mid-rise structures. No other material can replicate concrete’s advantages in terms of strength, durability, safety and ease of use.

Communications

The campaign relies on an unprecedented communications strategy that includes a Build with Strength branded web site (www.buildwithstrength.com), video content, a multi-city media tour, rapid response, advertising, social media and stakeholder engagement. Additionally, the campaign is designed to drive industry and project decision makers to resources such as the Concrete Design Center, education programs and advocacy initiatives that support concrete’s position in building codes and standards at the state and local level.

The Build with Strength campaign was launched at the 2016 International Concrete Sustainability Conference in Washington, DC, where a panel of experts including Eric Coleman, development coordinator of EYC Companies; Randy Kirchain, principal research scientist at MIT; Jon Narva, director of external relations for the National Association of State Fire Marshal and Chris Drew, director of sustainability at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, discussed the reasons for building with concrete.

“Architects must consider the full life­ cycle costs of buildings during development,” Kirchain said. “Thinking long-term ― beyond the initial phase where we look at construction and materials ― is critically important.”

“In many instances, especially during construction, wood frame buildings are more susceptible and vulnerable to fire damage than similar concrete structures,” added Narva. “Because of this, first responders approach fires in these structures differently than they would a less vulnerable concrete structure.”

“The nature of concrete in construction offers advantages beyond strength and durability,” said Coleman. “Concrete’s composition and mass means heat moves more slowly through the material, keeping buildings warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. This energy efficiency translates directly into cost-savings over the long-term.”

The Build with Strength message was taken on the road since then to promote stories of durable, resilient and eye-catching concrete building projects. The campaign makes a clear parallel between concrete construction and the dangerous trend of wooden stick built low- to mid-rise housing.

Concrete Design Center

A key strategy in the program is direct project promotion to flip projects from wood and steel to concrete. The Build with Strength team works directly with developers through the Concrete Design Center to offer free concrete project design and technical assistance to help developers select the right concrete solution for a wide variety of projects, from multi-family residential/mixed use to industrial and health care facilities. NRMCA’s expert team of engineers and architects help developers understand how concrete systems can help them build safer buildings while saving money over the long run. Services include preliminary architectural and structural design, energy analysis and cost estimating. So far the Design Center has helped flip major projects from wood frame to concrete with hundreds in the pipeline. Because NRMCA promotes ready mixed concrete solutions, the projects are ultimately built using Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs) since the system is cost competitive, energy efficient, noise reducing and fire resistant. That said, many projects are also suited for other types of concrete construction, including concrete masonry and precast concrete.

Advocacy

The building code advocacy component of the program has already been activate in several states, including Maryland and New Jersey, where the state legislatures are considering fire safety legislation that would limit wood frame construction to certain heights and areas similar to places like Chicago and New York City. For example, Sandy Springs, Georgia, passed an ordinance last year that limits wood frame buildings to three stories and 100,000 square feet.

Member Engagement

A key element of the program is to engage industry members to leverage their relationships with developers, designers and legislators. Although there are significant resources behind the program, members can help multiply the effectiveness of project promotion and advocacy. The following are two examples of how NRMCA members are engaging in the program.

Chaney Enterprises Champions Fire Safety Legislation in Maryland

NRMCA member Chaney Enterprises, along with the Maryland Ready Mixed Concrete Association (MRMCA), saw an opportunity last year. There was a large apartment fire in Rockville, MD, in 2014, similar to the ones in Edgewater, NJ, and Los Angeles. Bill Childs, president of Chaney Enterprises, and Tom Evans, Executive Director of MRMCA, met with Build with Strength team members and determined that fire safety legislation could have a big impact in the state.

Build with Strength and MRMCA shared the cost of hiring a MD lobbying consultant specifically to introduce and pass fire safety legislation. The Build with Strength team wrote legislation based on what the industry was already doing in New Jersey, which limits the size of wood buildings and requires special fire safety criteria for wood construction, which was introduced into the House and Senate.

The legislation would roll back height and area limits in the building code to more sensible levels, mandate two-hour non-combustible firewalls, provide additional sprinkler protection, and other safety measures that will allow the fire service to better deploy and ensure the safety of occupants and fire fighters. Of course the legislation was vehemently opposed by developers and the wood industry.

Although the legislation did not pass during the 2017 legislative session, a large apartment fire in College Park, MD, in April of this year has renewed interest from legislators at the state and county level to make changes to the building code. The fire not only destroyed the building, but a nearby long-term care facility had to be evacuated, and the entire University of Maryland campus was closed during the fire which smoldered for several days.

MMC Materials Leverages Developer Relationship to offer Concrete Solution

Rodney Grogan, president of MMC Materials, arranged for meetings between Build with Strength team members and key members of the executive and construction team of Arlington Properties, a national multi-family developer that MMC has done business with in the past. The concrete team gained valuable information about how Arlington is making design decisions on material selection and how MMC/NRMCA could impact change. Although Arlington Properties did not identify a project for design assistance at this first meeting, they indicated they would in the near future.

During the same trip, Mr. Grogan also introduced Golden Construction, a regional developer. The concrete team met with the president and chief estimator at Golden, and they identified Meridian on the Port in Mobile, AL, as a project they would like to see a concrete option. This 266 unit residential building is the first large scale apartment building to be constructed in Mobile since 1950.

After the meeting, the firm shared the construction drawings with NRMCA, and the team completed a concrete design solution for Meridian on the Port projects in just two weeks. The multi-family building is in design phase and is a strong candidate to flip to concrete. The reasoning behind the recommendation was strong: Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) construction would save the project eight weeks on their schedule, thousands of dollars in typical construction fees, and they would have a more durable building they could be proud of for decades to come.

Interestingly, both major developers told the team they prefer to build in concrete, but they had a preconception that it would cost significantly more. The Concrete Design Center showed them that ICF construction is very competitive with wood frame.

Next Step for Build with Strength

To truly realize the goal of reversing a decade of market share declines in low/mid-rise buildings, the Build with Strength program will need other industry partners to engage and support the program. Industry groups such as the Masonry Contractors Association of America and the Insulating Concrete Forms Manufacturers Association can partner with the Build with Strength campaign to help promote, supply and install concrete building systems. Trade shows, education programs, grass roots lobbying and training contractors to work on some of the largest projects being built across the country are just some examples of how NRMCA and MCAA can work together to increase the share of concrete products in building construction.

For more information on the Build with Strength program and NRMCA’s building promotion team, visit www.BuildwithStrength.com or contact Lionel Lemay at LLemay@nrmca.org or 847-918-7101.

Words: Lionel Lemay, Executive Vice President, Structures and Sustainability, National Ready Mixed Concrete Association
Photos: Lionel Lemay