Strength and Safety

The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) has a history going back almost ninety years and continues to build on its past as it advocates the many benefits of concrete in the building industry for today. This membership organization is the leading supporter of the concrete sector and works in conjunction with state associations on issues such as regulation.
NRMCA was created in Pittsburgh in July of 1930, about two decades after ready mixed concrete was introduced to the marketplace. It is helmed by President Robert A. Garbini to educate others about ready mixed concrete and acts on behalf of members as their voice in Washington.

The industry is ever-changing, and the association has adapted with it: from hosting forums about quality control and plant operations and concrete testing in the 1930s to the widespread use of concrete during the Second World War, the rise of concrete production in the 1970s and the formation of the Ready Mixed Concrete (RMC) Research Foundation in the 1990s. The association has also been a long-time sponsor of trade shows, and last year’s ConExpo/ConAgg saw the introduction of a new entity: Build with Strength.

Build with Strength is a coalition of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association with a mission “to educate the building and design communities and policymakers on the advantages of ready mixed concrete and encourage its use as the building material of choice for low- to mid-rise structures.” While other materials, such as wood, are used in construction, none come close to concrete when it comes to sheer strength and safety, says Kevin Lawlor, a spokesperson for the Build with Strength coalition.

The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association and Build with Strength conducted significant research and investigated trends in the sector and amassed a wealth of information to launch a successful education and advocacy campaign on behalf of the NRMCA. It has worked with the NRMCA on a range of public relations and communications issues and collaborated to endorse the positive attributes of concrete, such as its ease of use, durability and longevity. The focus of the organization’s efforts is in the low to mid-rise residential market.

“What a lot of folks in the NRMCA saw was wood products and combustible materials becoming a product of choice in the low to mid-rise residential construction market, and knowing that they had a safer, more durable product, wanted to do something about promoting the product in the space so that we could convince more people to build with concrete for all the benefits that it brings to the table,” says Lawlor, “so they came to us.”

Although there are general codes used when building structures with wood or concrete, regulations vary widely in the United States from one county to another and between states, cities and municipalities. In some places, the use of wood has been banned in residential construction because of the fire risks in higher population densities.

Much of the work of Build with Strength involves education and clearing up any confusion surrounding the merits of concrete construction. Many builders, for instance, still have the preconception that building with wood is cheaper than concrete. Frequently, concrete is considerably less expensive and outperforms wood, especially when considering the long-term and the entire life cycle of a building. Concrete is safer and more durable than wood as it is not prone to rotting, water damage or highly destructive damage caused by termites, or other insects or vermin. For residents of a low to mid-rise building, concrete blocks unwanted noise better than wood. And from an owner’s perspective, structures made with concrete boast superior energy savings and cost less to heat in winter and cool in summer than their wooden counterparts.

In the low to mid-rise market, developers build a structure with the primary goal of selling it before it is even occupied while keeping their first costs as low as possible. Thanks to the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association and Build with Strength, both consumers and building managers are putting pressures on developers to buy products that will last, “and we are promoting those. It’s not just concrete.” The coalition works with industries such as steel, another non-combustible product, in educating consumers about better ways to build. “Instead of building quickly and cheaply, we should be worried about building safely and with durability in mind.”

Build with Strength is active across America and brings together like-minded organizations from the Red Cross to fire safety professionals, insurance professionals, engineers and developers. Recently, the organization’s representatives traveled to meet with representatives from the Los Angeles City Council to discuss the reasons for using concrete. The organization is also active on the East Coast in New Jersey, Maryland and Florida and in the Midwest where it just promoted a project in Kansas City, Missouri. ‘2nd + Delaware’ is a loft apartment community built with concrete and insulated concrete forms.

“Wherever there is an opportunity for us to promote and educate people about the benefits of concrete, we are going to be there,” comments Lawlor.

While wood remains a good building material for garages and other smaller structures, there are potential risks that come with low to mid-rise market. Build with Strength produces educational and advocacy materials and identifies target audiences like developers, engineers, architects and elected officials. It will also send information that is relevant to a particular market. On some occasions, the organization will reach out to a community where there has been a low to midrise apartment fire and let them know how they can rebuild stronger and safer using concrete.

In June, the tallest wooden structure in the United States was approved for construction by the City of Portland and the State of Oregon. The 145-foot tall, 90,000-square-foot, mixed-use Framework building passed its structural and safety tests. The tower will be made with glue-laminated (glulam) and cross-laminated timber (CLT) and should be completed by winter of 2018. It will considerably exceed the past U.S. codes which did not permit wooden structures to be more than eighty-five feet high. The wooden building is set to retail spaces, offices and apartments. As one of two winners of the three-million-dollar U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize, the Framework building is being touted for its environmental aspects.

All this is concerning to Build with Strength. “That’s a product that we don’t think is safe and where the majority of Americans would not really want to live in a high-rise because of the dangers it promotes,” states Lawlor. “Although it’s not built, I would tell the people who are developing the twelve-story building in Portland that they should consider concrete construction if they are at all concerned or worried about the safety of the residents of the building, the safety of the firefighters who may one day have to enter it and the community at large.”

Tragically, there is a precedent when it comes to risks associated with mid and high-rise wooden structures, including the devastating fire in Edgewater, New Jersey. On January 21, 2015, an inferno consumed a whole apartment complex for two days. Thankfully, none of the lives of the complex’s five hundred residents were lost, yet questions arose immediately.

“Even though the apartment complex was equipped with sprinklers, the place literally burned to the ground,” said Edgewater Mayor Joseph McPartland at the time. Lightweight, engineered wooden trusses fueled the fire, which soon spread throughout the entire building. Ominously, the same apartment complex was also consumed by fire fifteen years earlier, while still under construction.

“These fires should cause state lawmakers and members of the building code community to pause and consider the consequences when analyzing regulations and legislation that permits the use of vulnerable construction methods,” said Lawlor in a release earlier this year regarding an examination into state building codes for wood-frame apartment buildings. “Fortunately, no one was killed in these fires, but as long as the regulatory environment authorizes this type of development, the threat will remain. It’s up to state lawmakers to protect their constituents.”

In a five-alarm fire which ravaged an apartment house under construction in Prince George’s County, Maryland, over two hundred firefighters were required. The fire caused an estimated $39 million in damages. A nearby seniors’ apartment had to be evacuated and the University of Maryland closed due to clouds of black smoke. The seven-story structure was being built with considerable amounts of wood and hollows within the building contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

“Some of these things burn for days; there is so much wood in them,” he says. “So no matter what stage of construction a building is in when it burns down, there is definitely a risk to the community and certainly a risk to first responders.”

Free services such as project design, choosing the appropriate concrete solution and other technical assistance are available through the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association’s design center. “We’d really like to see architects, engineers, developers, investors, other communities we are trying to reach out to use Built with Strength and the building Design Center for the NRMCA as a resource as they develop these projects,” states Lawlor. “We don’t want people to continue with the idea that concrete is too expensive or concrete won’t have ease-of-use or something like that. We can help people build stronger, more durable, aesthetically pleasing buildings with concrete. If they are aware of us and they work with us, I’m sure they’ll find the same thing.”



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