By Eric Carleton, P.E.
The current economy appears to show a positive construction market and increasing need for precast products. Many NPCA Producer members have said they are at production levels not seen in decades.
Though this is a good thing for the industry and while this situation may lead to high production, a commodity market also may result in reduced profits overall.
One of the best ways to break out of this cycle is to expand your precast market through specified precast products, including products used in projects normally supplied by alternative industries or products in unique applications.
Applications that have been reserved traditionally for cast-in-place concrete offer a primary opportunity for precast concrete to gain market share.
- Jointed precast concrete paving slabs.
- Prefabricated bridge elements and systems for accelerated bridge construction.
- Retaining wall systems such as large block walls that meet ASTM C1776, “Standard Specification for Wet-Cast Precast Modular Retaining Wall Units.”
- Residential foundation and basement wall systems.
All of these precast products have broken into the cast-in-place market with successful installations and case history data. However, cast in place remains more prevalent than these precast options, and current specifications may limit precast market share growth in these areas.
Another new precast opportunity is utilizing precast products for applications other than their original purpose. This requires some “imagineering.” Look for imaginative thinkers and problem-solvers with a strong connection to – and understanding of – your local design and construction community.
Examples include using precast concrete retaining wall blocks in staggered rows to make amphitheater seating and employing unique formliners to transform standard manholes into decorative planters or trash receptacles.
Regardless of the approach, getting more precast concrete specified and increasing precast concrete’s market share requires diligence, persistence and collaboration.
Understand all the players that can shape a project specification. Design engineers of record (EOR) have a strong influence on the products that are specified on projects they manage. However, many times the engineer is not the person making the final decision on product use. Often of equal importance is the project owner.
Though it may seem obvious, it’s important to know who makes the final decision.
For public works projects, owners could be DOTs, municipalities or other jurisdictions. Often, a design engineer is restricted to use only products or processes included within a jurisdiction’s written standards.
If the developer has agreed to use your precast concrete curbs in a new subdivision, the project engineer won’t be able to make the call to specify the fast-installing, highly durable curbing but must instead defer to city street standards. The developer and engineer may be great advocates for precast, but promoting and selling the precast advantage will need to be done at the city engineer’s office. Depending on the size of the municipality, the city engineer may be responsible only for the sewer system while the county road superintendent may be responsible for road maintenance and standards. Be aware of who ultimately makes decisions in these key areas to streamline your efforts.
In this case, revising an existing standard often will require time, patience and persistence. If done well, the process pays off financially, gaining you new contacts and growing business relationships within the process.
Specific materials, material standards and requirements often are not specified. This is an open invitation for precast. A stormwater storage facility certainly will have hydraulic design requirements but may not have material or construction requirements. Materials for city park benches and public restroom facilities might be decided solely by the landscape architect based on their preference and past experience with a particular material.
In these cases, the person signing the plans will make the call.
Finally, consider the project’s installer or contractor. Many precast producers have established relationships with contractors because they typically purchase the precast products. However, the contractor’s influence usually comes near the end of the specification and design development process. This may lead to a specification or project requirement revision after a bid is awarded.
This process is commonly called “value engineering.” Most value engineering options require the contractor to do some work on the submittal; show the alternative is equivalent with respect to function, durability and maintenance to the original specified product; and show the proposed alternative will provide substantial savings, which would be shared equally by the owner and contractor. This method provides no guarantee of specification revision and acceptance and sometimes can create animosity from the EOR wondering why the alternative option wasn’t presented to them earlier. This dynamic could change if the driving force behind the value-engineered proposal would come directly from the contractor.
Typically, private works projects afford a precaster greater input on project specifications. Often, a contractor exerts greater influence on a project’s final design and specifications. While public works project specifications often reflect function, durability, low maintenance, long term value and low risk, private works often rely more heavily on acceptance, function, speed and cost – not necessarily in that order. Fortunately, precast concrete solutions answer the developer’s needs.
The owner finances private works projects, so that person makes the final call on materials. It is important to maintain good relationships with an owner’s EOR and contractor since they can advocate for precast, write precast into the specification or promote precast to the applicable authority if the private works project has overlap with governmental or other permits.
Earlier is Always Better
The earlier a precast solution is incorporated into the project plan and specification development timeline, the better the odds of it being accepted. Design engineers are busy people. Their primary asset is time and, specifically, billable hours.
Sometimes a design engineer’s estimated billable hours have been exhausted before a project’s design phase is completed. However, if you believe your precast option is too good not to be considered, submit a written project addendum to the EOR and include a plan drawing, if necessary. This will save the clerical staff, specification writers and CAD team time and expense and expedite your precast specification to the bidders in time for bidding revisions.
Be part of project design right from the start. Meet with owners, engineers or contractors and share your ideas early. This may be done through lunch-and-learn meetings, phone calls and trade shows sponsored by local engineering associations. Another way to reach this audience is to join local engineering associations such as ASCE, ACEC, NSPE or to become active in contractor associations such as NUCA, AGC or road builders’ associations. By attending their events, you’ll get to network with design engineers and build a rapport that could lead to a partnership.
Also, consider subscribing to project lead services such as Dodge Reports or Construct Connect, which can help you know what questions to ask.
Getting more precast specified requires a commitment to be proactive on a personal and financial level. Be innovative and think of new markets or applications for your precast operation, learn the market and find out who the players and decision-makers are, and most importantly, get out and meet people. PI
Eric Carleton, P.E., served as NPCA’s director of codes and standards.