This year, Northeast Solite Corporation celebrates its seventieth anniversary in the lightweight aggregate (LWA) business, as its forward-thinking innovation continues to set the gold standard, globally. Its list of illustrious achievements where its products have been used includes the roof of the U.S. Capitol, 1.2 million Solite® concrete blocks in the Freedom Tower in New York City, and the deck of the original Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland – among others.
The corporation was founded by John W. Roberts in the spring of 1947 when America was set to reinvent itself at the end of WWII. The post-war construction boom needed materials with which to erect new infrastructure and Southern Lightweight Aggregate Corporation obtained a previously expired patent for the rotary kiln process used for shale expansion. They named the product Solite®. Roberts recognized the need for a manufactured LWA to replace coal-burning boiler cinders – a byproduct of railway steam locomotives – and understood the need for both enhanced quality and predictable supply. This innovation forever changed the industry from cinder block to lightweight concrete block.
Seven months after inception, the first plant was operational in Virginia and the corporation shipped its first two railcars of Solite® to block manufacturers in Charleston, W.V. and S.C.
Over the next decade, innovation continued in the rapidly expanding post war concrete industry as did the use of Solite®. The value of replacing heavy stone or gravel with Solite® in ready mixed concrete was soon realized. Solite® made the concrete lighter and more fire resistant, while maintaining the same strength. In 1961, Northeast Solite Corporation was established in Saugerties, NY. New York City’s modern skyline gradually evolved as buildings designed by noted architects, like Paul Weidlinger and Fred Severud, towered ever higher. After 1961, much of the ‘Big Apple’ was constructed from Solite® products, including landmarks such as Lincoln Center and other buildings of the iconic skyline.
Northeast Solite Corporation Senior Vice President, Max Kalafat, explained the importance of the product. “Solite® makes concrete better. It makes it lighter and less crack-prone with a higher fire rating. I am always amused at how few Americans understand anything about the concrete industry, even though in many ways it underpins our entire society. Ask yourself, “Where would we all be without it?” In fact, I’ll wager that the most misused word in the English language is “cement”. Most folks say “wet cement” even though there is no such thing as “wet cement.” Cement is simply a gray powder. When combined with aggregate (coarse and fine) and water, we get concrete. However, cement is often the term people use when they refer to concrete products.”
Solite® is manufactured from Esopus shale, a laminated sedimentary rock found in the old Hudson River bed. The formation runs all the way up to Canada – along the west side of the river – and has the perfect chemical composition for making this revolutionary concrete aggregate. It also makes Solite® a proudly made in America product using 100 percent skilled American labor, as manufacturing happens locally at the company’s plants in Upstate New York, where shale is expanded at 2100° in 190 foot long and 12 foot wide rotary kilns.
The addition of Solite® to concrete not only makes it lighter and more versatile, but it also minimizes micro-cracking, which in turn prevents water intrusion into the exposed concrete. This prevents oxidation i.e. “rust” in metal supports and reinforcements within the body of the structure. Preventing rust is paramount, as it makes metal expand and causes concrete to disintegrate from the inside. Solite® improves concrete from the inside out by preventing the start of the chain reaction sparked by micro-cracking.
According to Max, a problem with traditional concrete in some applications is that it is very heavy. “That’s a drawback in some respects, as, when you start putting it up in the air, and across a bridge, you must figure out how to carry that dead load. As the industry leader, Northeast Solite Corporation specializes in solving this problem.”
In fact, it built its reputation for innovation by meeting customers’ unique needs. When it does not have the perfect product, it develops and manufactures to order, such as the specialized fill used under the New York Central Railroad tracks in West Point, New York.
Northeast Solite Corporation’s vision is legendary. While Solite® is its main product, the corporation also offers a comprehensive range of other industry-related solutions. Products extend into the geotechnical, performance concrete additive, soil stabilization, rooftop garden, and water filtration markets.
Amongst many other products, it developed the Solar Stud Block™ – a unique passive solar building product. A 1,600-square-foot ‘proof of concept’ Habitat for Humanity house was built in Schenectady, NY in 2011. The resulting monthly cost for temperature control was less than $100 per month.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Annapolis was the project that set Northeastern Solite up for a lifetime of success and is now one of its signature structures. The original span of the suspension bridge deck was built in 1952 (and in 2017 we are still driving on it!). After a new parallel bridge was completed in 1976, engineers closed the original span to do repairs that were necessary on the old bridge.
Engineers discovered that the lightweight Solite® concrete used in its construction where the suspension bridge crossed the main channel was, after twenty-five years, in great shape, but that the regular concrete on the approach spans was in poor repair. It became clear that Solite® was not only an excellent concrete for weight saving, but it also has excellent durability and sustainability in difficult weather conditions.
The corporation takes its environmental responsibility seriously. “As a quarry and as a facility – what we do with a burning kiln – we are monitored very closely by both the Environment Protection Agency and by the state agencies. They have very strict standards on air and water quality, and we’ve always endeavored to achieve or better these. We’re required to meet very stringent environmental standards. We have several emissions capture systems, so to speak, where we capture the dust from the firing process. Our coal also has to meet a certain quality standard because of these emissions. We’re proud of our history of complying with these. We work closely with both the EPA and the New York State DEC, and as the years have gone on, of course, the standards have increased, and we’ve invested millions of dollars in maintaining and upgrading standards, as they come along.”
Max is positive about the company’s contribution to America’s economic growth. “We see ourselves as addressing the nation’s growing need for sustainable, quality infrastructure in the following areas: roadways, bridges, buildings, health care and assisted living facilities, water filtration systems, soil stabilization, et cetera. We see ourselves playing a major role in all of these,” he says.
“The other area of expansion that we see for significant potential growth is the retirement housing industry. Every day, over ten thousand people in this country turn sixty-five. We see ourselves making a significant contribution to building facilities for our aging population, because concrete, in general, and Solite® lightweight concrete block in particular, is far superior for use in this type of construction, due to the inherent fire safety it provides. It also eliminates mold and offers better acoustics, energy savings and low maintenance. So, it provides a lot of benefits for constructing enhanced retirement living environments. Our biggest challenge in this is educating people as to the benefits of building with durable concrete products as opposed less durable and more flammable materials such as wood. Like every industry, our best sales person is an informed and educated consumer. They are the ones that drive innovation and progress. I hope this article will help to educate some of those consumers. At least the people that read this article will know the difference between cement and concrete… and that’s a good start!”
These days, it is said that only two in one hundred companies make it to their 70th year. Doing so is a testament to the products and benefits that the company provides to its customers.
“We really want to make the next seventy years worthy of the past seventy years and all the people who contributed to that over the years – the development of fire codes, new products, and new and better ways of doing things. We hope that, in the future, we can be worthy of what those before us did. That’s really our goal. As one of the larger employers in the Saugerties, NY area, we need to pass it forward, make sure that we don’t just remain static, but that we contribute even more worthwhile innovations over the next seventy years. I hope that everyone reading this article will visit us on the web at www.nesolite.com.”
Under the watchful eyes of its new Chairwoman Joan Roberts Cates (who is also daughter of its founder), its President Phil Nesmith, and the rest of the corporation’s management, manufacturing and operations teams, Northeast Solite Corporation is set to rise to even greater heights on American and international skylines.