Rich Szecsy knows you may not agree with him. When the president of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association addresses his peers, he hopes to provoke a lively discussion. It turns out Szecsy got the reaction he wanted when he spoke at the NRMCA International Concrete Sustainability Conference in Boston last summer.

His presentation, “When Worlds Collide: Project Specifications vs. Sustainable Initiatives,” explored how prescriptive codes and specifications often keep concrete out of the running as the sustainable construction material of choice.

At the heart of this battle is a philosophical difference. “Green building is meant to be performance-based,” Szecsy says. “We measure the effectiveness of environmentally friendly building materials by how they perform. It's a gray area, but the concrete industry, including architects and engineers, approaches it in a black and white prescriptive way.”

Concrete producers are caught in the middle. As the experts on concrete's capabilities and limitations, producers know better than anyone how their products can meet sustainable construction goals. Producers are pushing the envelope when it comes to developing green concrete technologies such as high-volume fly ash, pervious concrete, and mixes that incorporate recycled water and other materials. But they are bound by prescriptive job specifications requiring products to meet certain parameters that can work against sustainable goals.

“We still build things from the ground up, so that's where sustainability has to start,” says Szecsy. “We are bound to specifications, because that's the way we still approach construction.” This conflicts with the broad, end-result perspective of many green building proponents. However, he believes concrete producers can play a key role in bringing these two sides together.

Framing the discussion

Szecsy offers practical advice on how producers can “correctly frame the discussion about concrete as a sustainable choice for construction,” and overcome some of the most common points of resistance. It starts with honest discussions with decision makers to address their assumptions and concerns.

Engineers – Encourage them to be explicit with their specifications, rather than relying on implicit ideas about the way concrete performs. For instance, the producer needs to know if a specification calls for concrete to reach full strength within 28 days, but the plan is to release forms after three days.

Contractors – Whether they like to admit it or not, contractors must rely on the concrete producers' expertise. Talk about their expectations and what placing techniques they will use. Share your ideas about sustainable materials, and how you can help them get more business.

Architects – Recycling specifications is common and usually based on what has worked in the past. Share your own specs for specially tailored mix designs. If there is a concern about liability, remind them the concrete's performance is ultimately the producer's responsibility.

Testing labs – Even if the rest of the project team is on board with taking a different approach, the lab technician may not know about it. If results vary from what's expected, problems can arise, resulting in rejection of materials. Communication is key.

These conversations can be a challenge, especially during the time- and cost-sensitive bid process, but they are worth the effort.

What's the best way to get started? “Get a victory at the local level, celebrate it, and promote it,” Szecsy says. “Small victories are going to help us get where we want to go.”

World of Concrete Seminar

Green Building and Sustainable Design: Impacts and Challenges

Tuesday, Jan. 24, 1:30–3 p.m.

As part of the World of Concrete 2012 education program, Rich Szecsy will discuss the influence of the sustainable design movement on concrete construction, including costs, practicality, and unique challenges of green concrete. He will present case studies to illustrate the rapidly changing technologies and specifications associated with green building projects and positive and negative elements for both producers and contractors.

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