The New England Concrete Manufacturers Association (NECMA) was incorporated in 1966 as the New England Concrete Masonry Association and is based in Massachusetts. For over fifty years, NECMA has been promoting the value of concrete structural systems for their strength, durability, value, energy efficiency, low maintenance, water resistance, and ability to be formed into various shapes and sizes.
Ancient Romans were aware of concrete’s many architectural applications and used it extensively, examples of which remain to this day. One of the most impressive testaments to this material’s defiance of time is Rome’s breathtaking Pantheon, constructed approximately two thousand years ago.
The unreinforced dome of this feat of engineering was constructed from concrete, the world’s most widely used human-made material because of its unique properties. This fact comes as no surprise to NECMA.
NECMA was established to promote, “concrete masonry at the very beginning,” says Larry Nicolai, the association’s president. A conglomeration of individual concrete manufacturers in New England acknowledged, “the need to collaborate in order to affect promotion beyond what they could do as an individual company.” It has forty-two members offering services in concrete masonry units (CMUs), segmental retaining wall units (SRWs), and paving.
Its objectives are education, innovation, market research, and, “the promotion of the products that manufacturers are now producing,” says Larry. He says that, several years ago, the board of directors, “recognized the change in products that our members were manufacturing,” explaining that at one point, CMUs were used in vertical construction for single residential buildings, multiple-story apartments and condominiums, basements, and commercial buildings.
“The growth of the hardscape industry has really been significant,” he adds. Hardscape includes structures such as retaining walls, paths, driveways, and stairs that are part of landscaping. “A number of manufacturers have shifted quite a bit of their emphasis to hardscapes.”
Larry says that the growth of this sector is due to consumers – homeowners, landscape architects, and municipalities – recognizing, “what the benefits of interlocking concrete pavers, permeable pavement, and landscape retaining walls can do in terms of the esthetics, the expansion of outdoor living areas, and also the performance over other types of materials.”
Concrete products come in various shapes, sizes, finishes, textures, and colors that can be, “assembled and laid in patterns. You can integrate banding and colors and create graphics, mosaics, and zones in pavements in particular. But we’re also seeing that being done in retaining walls.” Retaining walls, which also come in various sizes, finishes, and colors, can serve a functional purpose in holding back earth and expanding usable space while providing safety to any given area by preventing earth movement.
NECMA is advancing education about the industry through its alignment with numerous vocational and trade schools and, “providing products to support the masonry programs,” says Larry. He notes that, for a long time, masonry programs consisted of concrete, masonry units, and brick in vertical applications in buildings. With a growing market interest in hardscape products, many of these schools have acted of their own accord, providing instructors with hardscape curriculums.
“As the industry is looking at the potential for growth, we recognize the need to develop a strong workforce which has interest and skills in building hardscape projects. We have committed to develop a comprehensive curriculum that would introduce the complete A to Z aspects of building pavements, retaining wall, raised patios, outdoor kitchens, natural stone walls, and veneers. It’s a major undertaking for us.”
As the Essex County Sheriff’s Department was looking for a means to educate their pre-released prisoners so that, “They could be meaningful citizens again in the community in which they resided,” says Larry. “We work with them in developing a curriculum.” Grants are approved through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, awarded by the U.S. government to various states and allocated to career and technical programs. “We’re awarding money to actually proceed with the program.”
One month into the program, there are approximately twelve prisoners engaged in the program. “It’s going extremely well, and the students are very excited and enthusiastic to learn the skills that they can then take and implement when they get back to society,” continues Larry. Other Massachusetts sheriff departments are watching the program closely. “Workforce development is such an important need… Hardscape [and] landscape construction is a wonderful trade. We know that it’s rewarding; it’s satisfying and financially can be very successful.”
But finding skilled workers is a challenge for the industry he acknowledges. “Not only for horizontal construction such as hardscapes but also for vertical construction as well. Having people willing to learn the trade, to learn the skills is very difficult. We’re competing with high technology. We’re competing with a message from politicians that unless you go to college, you’re not going to be successful. It’s a significant disservice, I think.”
“We’re not the only industry that is launching these workforce initiatives,” he adds. “If we don’t have the workers who have the skills to install our products, then our market is not going to grow. We hear it from contractors. We need help.”
As part of this educational undertaking, NECMA works in conjunction with other national associations such as the Interlocking Concrete Paving Institute (ICPI) and the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA) to enable access to some of the technical and course materials these two associations have developed for contractors and, “implementing that into the course that we are putting together,” adds Larry. “The information that we pass along to the end user is not just from an individual company. But it’s information that has been funded through research and validated by national organizations.”
The association also works in conjunction with the Massachusetts Trowel Trades Association (MTTA). Certified trowel trade instructors provide a curriculum that applies standards of the masonry industry and the department of education to further the learning experience in regional technical schools and approved apprenticeship training programs.
NECMA is also a member of the Fire Safety Construction Advisory Council which promotes the protection of lives and property. “There are some competing materials, in particular, the wood industry, that has gained considerable ground from touting their fire resistance,” explains Larry. “As a result, there have been a number of structures that have now been built with wood where previously they would have been built with CMUs.”
Larry explains that the rationale for this is that wood, drywall, and suppression systems are used to minimize fire damage and protect lives, health, and safety. “When you think of concrete, it’s really a superior material because, in itself, it does all of what other types of materials need in combination with additional materials.”
CMUs are structural and can be made into tall structures without the need for steel beam construction. Wood construction relies on drywall to suppress fires, unlike CMUs. “CMUs are fire resistant by their very nature. They’re fire resistant whether in the wall of sitting on the ground.” As for being more environmentally friendly, the industry is working on CMUs, “to improve thermal resistance and insulation.”
In addition, CMUs are produced from local materials. “They’re not harvested from forests out in the Midwest or from Canada.” They also come in various sizes, colors, and finishes and it is important to, “remind architects and engineers of the value of CMU construction. The superiority of it, particularly with fire, is what the Fire Safety Council is really all about.”
NECMA feels that it has a substantial role to play with respect to government agencies and building code stipulations. It has a program on which it has been working that is nearing completion, referred to as the Check-Off Program. Legislation that is, “passed by Congress, signed by the President and is funding that goes back into the national organization that will use that money for promotion, education, [and research].”
Both lawmakers and government officials need to be aware of the concrete products on which codes are applied, explains Larry. “Because our industry is made up of so many individual companies, we really haven’t had the united effort or the funds to really implement an effective program. This is exactly what the Check-Off Program is going to do. It will provide funds nationally [and] regionally to make the case of the value and benefits of building with CMUs… unfortunately, decisions are being made based on budget.”
He states that this is important especially when speaking about schools and children’s’ lives. With funding from the Check-Off Program, “We’re going to be able to get this to the people that are going to go to the school committees and say, stop fooling around with our children’s lives. Build with the right material.”
NECMA owns and operates the Northeast Hardscape Expo, which recently celebrated its third year. This trade show and educational forum is specifically designed for landscape and hardscape professionals. Included were demonstrations, seminars, and certification classes, for example. The expo generates funds that NECMA uses to develop educational programs for vocational schools.
Larry says that he is, “very enthusiastic about the promises in our industry in regaining the market share for CMUs and certainly expanding the use of hardscape products across all type of consumers and into the municipal and commercial market… With revenue, we can continue to re-invest in our industry, continue to hire good people to work for us and be profitable.”