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If you were to drive down the gravel construction roads in most of Birmingham, Ala.'s large single-family home developments, you'd notice workers using concrete blocks to build basements, an uncommon sight these days.

When concrete block producers and masonry contractors face very strong demand and practically full production capacity, they tend to focus their promotion efforts on the commercial and institutional markets. But the residential market in Birmingham is different. Masonry contractors still construct most foundations in this upbeat Southern city. And it's a trend the local Alabama Concrete Industry Association (ACIA) Promotion Committee, led by the dynamic Grady Gunn of Superock and Mike Hornsby of Couch Industries, is working hard to maintain.

These Birmingham-area concrete block producers are renewing the battle for a greater share of the above-grade residential market by bringing home their message block by block.

To start their new promotional effort, nine committee members from the ACIA spent 3 days touring the central Florida market. The task force returned to Birmingham with insights into how to develop a total promotion package.

The ACIA committee conducted four focus groups of potential custom homebuyers resulting in these insights:

  • Potential homebuyers had practically no perception of the potential benefits of concrete masonry as an above-grade building material.
  • Most attendees reacted negatively when the focus group leader offered the suggestion of above-grade block wall systems.

If you were to drive down the gravel construction roads in most of Birmingham, Ala.'s large single-family home developments, you'd notice workers using concrete blocks to build basements, an uncommon sight these days.

When concrete block producers and masonry contractors face very strong demand and practically full production capacity, they tend to focus their promotion efforts on the commercial and institutional markets. But the residential market in Birmingham is different. Masonry contractors still construct most foundations in this upbeat Southern city. And it's a trend the local Alabama Concrete Industry Association (ACIA) Promotion Committee, led by the dynamic Grady Gunn of Superock and Mike Hornsby of Couch Industries, is working hard to maintain.

These Birmingham-area concrete block producers are renewing the battle for a greater share of the above-grade residential market by bringing home their message block by block.

To start their new promotional effort, nine committee members from the ACIA spent 3 days touring the central Florida market. The task force returned to Birmingham with insights into how to develop a total promotion package.

The ACIA committee conducted four focus groups of potential custom homebuyers resulting in these insights:

  • Potential homebuyers had practically no perception of the potential benefits of concrete masonry as an above-grade building material.
  • Most attendees reacted negatively when the focus group leader offered the suggestion of above-grade block wall systems.
  • But when the group leader showed the interviewees pictures of homes built with block but faced with siding, stucco, or brick, there was a general agreement that they should take another look at the building system.

It was apparent to Gunn that his promotion committee needed to create a local example of how block could look, even before talking about other advantages such as safe rooms or energy efficiency.

The committee since has convinced Danny Buchanan, president of Buchanan Custom Homes, Trussville, Ala., to construct a masonry home from the ground up. The custom home will be completed in time for a parade of homes event next year. Both producers will provide material to the project, which will also feature concrete sidewalks and driveways.

Other members of the Alabama Masonry Institute are working hard to ensure a strong industry to build the structures. John Sorrell, ACIA's marketing director, began ACIA's effort to convince masonry contractors that mason recruitment and training is the key to long-term success.

Formalized apprentice training programs are practically nonexistent throughout the state. But with the aging of the work force, and the anticipated increase in the sales of masonry units, contractors are beginning to recognize the need for a more formalized effort to recruit and train more masons.

As a good start, Sorrell has helped organize apprentice-training sessions in several cities this year, including Birmingham and Mobile. QMplus, a masonry industry task force, led by both producers and contractors, was formed to address the shortage of quality trained labor. It has adopted a statewide approach to mason recruitment, training, retention, and marketing of the reality that masons can make a good living.

One successful QMplus program has been the creation of a mason peer-influence group. Contractors can nominate deserving youth to the SuperTeam. In return, SuperTeam members carry the message of success to potential mason apprentice candidates, apprentices, and community leaders.

QMplus activity also focuses on high school vocational programs through regional luncheon meetings and forums to educate counselors about the economic opportunities the masonry industry offers graduates.

This article also includes reports on the nationwide trend of using block for above-grade residential work and the marketing challenge involved, and about a "concrete brick" used in place of clay brick for home building.