Launch Slideshow

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Stairways to Profits

Stairways to Profits

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    Castcon-Stone uses self-designed and locally fabricated forms to cast their precast stairs.

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    Key to the Castcon's success is the 2003 plant upgrade that enables co-owners Laura Huch Kerckhoff, president, (left) and Sandra Ussia, vice president, an opportunity to fully incorporate lean management into the operation.

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    New Building Requirements in New York City

Today, the producer is primarily focused on the commercial stairway market. It offers architects eight standard stair system designs to go along with the producer's full design capabilities. “We have a staff totally focused on stair design, which we supplement with some talented precast-design engineers,” says Huch Kerckhoff.

The company president has been satisfied to see how fast the market was developed for its exclusive Total Precast Stair Tower System. Along with the benefits of offering a model that allows the production team some standardization, customers have accepted the concept. Components can be plant-assembled for shipment, or erectors can do it at the site. General contractors are pleased that the system includes electrical embedments and accommodation for other trades.

This feature allows the producer to compete against steel stairs. This market niche has national appeal. “We've received more and more inquiries from steel frame suppliers and erectors. Generally, once steel suppliers or erectors have installed one of these systems, they become devotees,” says Sandra Ussia, the vice president who directs the producer's finances and IT. In fact, the market is so strong, Huch Kerckhoff has added more sales staff.

An evolving product

Casting stairs is not an easy job. Tread and riser combinations, as well as overall stair tower designs, change for every job. While many job requirements appear similar, none are the same.

But one aspect of the stair casting process is the same. Stairs are often the welcoming point for the building, so they must look pleasing. Castcon takes an architectural precast approach to the finished product. Over the years, the producer has used all sorts of pigments, special stones, and finishing techniques to create a building's focal point.

Along with colors and surface textures, architects are constantly challenging the producer with shapes. There are also regional preferences to consider. Stairs in the Northeast are generally enclosed to protect them from snow buildup. But in the Mid-Atlantic and South, they are generally outside and decorative.

Precast stairs are often the first thing on the project to provide access to workers. So the producer began offering Castcon Construction Covers for temporary cover during the construction phase. These non-slip temporary vinyl covers eliminate punch list issues.

Kerckhoff believes stair design will change dramatically in the next few years. She already has seen a highly detailed and analytical approach from architects and engineers to the stair tower design, assuring that all codes are met or exceeded. “Our products and services are constantly evolving to meet these needs,” she says. This will only increase as some of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommendations from the post-9/11 reviews enter the new versions of NFPA 101 and 5000.

Castcon engineers have experienced this change. They have provided elements for many of the new buildings in New York City. “Stair design is to be a central part of efforts in revising New York's quirky codes to be more like international standards,” says Huch Kerckhoff. “NYC is able to move at a faster pace on this than the national codes can.” (See sidebar on the right.)

Strong process

To be successful in this custom-built product market, manufacturing capabilities must be efficient. Castcon has embraced lean management, allowing it to quickly adapt to the rapidly changing specifications. “We use a lot of visual communication in both quality and production, and mobile work stations, as well as mobile forms,” says Huch Kerckhoff.

Many revisions cause frequent form changes. Since the producer creates the design, they can quickly alert casting crews of formwork changes. The producer currently designs and builds all of its steel forms, allowing flexibility in stair form design and lead times.

It's all just another step in the right direction.