Carl Carlsson of Calumet Flexicore Corp, Hammond, Ind., and other members of the Multifamily Construction Advisory Committee of Illinois have proven the value of a united industry message of concrete's performance values and benefits directed to community leaders and key government officials. Armed with practical and focused reasons for the ways in which concrete construction techniques improve communities with better codes and higher living standards, these decision-makers can thwart those builders and profiteers who often seek concessions by trying to lower community construction requirements.

A small but growing group of producers is noticing that when the business cycle slows down, one very negative effect of the high business volume could be shrinkage of true market growth. One reason for a decline in market share is changing codes and standards.

It's ironic that in the current vibrant construction market, specifiers and zoning officials are willing to alter traditional construction standards that helped start the boom. Code revisions are a national trend. Since these rules often determine what materials will be used, producers ultimately thrive or fail based on what changes take place.

Throughout 1999, thousands of construction experts have been drafting a new International Building Code, scheduled for release in January 2000. It is destined to replace the three current major building codes and standards now in use around the country. Many watchers feel that delegates have softened requirements and broadened interpretations. Concrete industry representatives who have served on IBC code subcommittees believe the new code lowers the bar for standards and effectively wipes out standards that once recognized concrete's qualities.

According to Wally Prebis of the Colorado Prestressers Association, four trends are weakening concrete's dominant position and are influencing the code-specifying community:

  • Community officials are more permissive in allowing contractors to use alternative materials when the builder or developer complains of excessive time delays and/or high initial costs.
  • Code enforcement agents are accepting wood-frame structures equipped with sprinkler systems and fire-detection systems as equivalent tradeoffs when codes specify noncombustible concrete floors and walls in structures.
  • Since construction practices are monitored locally, products can be introduced into communities with weak building codes and standards through negotiation and lobbying. Once introduced, their use can expand without adequate testing.
  • In this age of specialization, many zoning officials, fire marshals, and even elected officials have little experience with building materials. Yet by using their positions, these agents can legislate a material preference.

Concrete promoters can't rest on the material's long, documented service record. A few proactive builder and developer organizations have strongly lobbied for minimum construction standards and also cheaper materials and methods to enhance their profit margins. Alternative building materials have benefited from the concrete industry's product fragmentation.

In 1979 Ed Gregory, a Chicago-based concrete marketing consultant, and Ostrander, executive director of a northern Illinois masonry marketing association, convinced Chicago-area prestressed concrete and masonry block producers and masonry block contractors of the need for a proactive and united marketing effort under the banner of the MCAC. "Not only did we want to halt concrete's decline in the Chicago area's new construction markets, we set a goal to actually grow it," says Gregory.

Over the years, MCAC committee members have come to include precast hollowcore slab producers, brick and block manufacturers, masonry contractors, concrete and masonry industry associations, and labor organizations. In more than 20 years, the coalition group has become a strong influence in local construction. The MCAC spreads the message that communities benefit from the construction of quality concrete housing that is fire-safe, sound-resistant, and durable.

MCAC has worked to influence code and standards using a wide range of marketing activities:

  • Presenting technical seminars to educate building, fire, and elected officials on concrete and masonry construction methods and how they relate to building codes.
  • Testifying at zoning and municipal meetings and lobbying officials to upgrade building codes and standards to higher performance levels
  • Distributing literature and studies about local markets and projects to document concrete and masonry methods to public officials
  • Advertising and promoting fire- and sound-resistant construction to community residents
  • Providing recognition of and support to communities that upgrade their codes and standards

These efforts have paid off with tangible results. Municipal officials can also realize tangible results from stricter building codes.

Attention is given to serious concerns about a diminishing roll for concrete in fire-resistant construction as IBC provisions adopt the least restrictive requirements from other model building codes. Two specific code changes involve sprinkler trade-offs and height and area allowables.

Keywords: Calumet Flexicore, fire, code, Multifamily Construction Advisory Committee of Illinois, MCAC, Illinois Masonry Institute Promotion Trust, safe, International Building Code, IBC, Colorado Prestressers Association, sprinkler, Tinley Park, trade-off, height, area