As you drive up to this new concrete plant just outside Coralville, Iowa, you sense something different. First, the enclosed structure is in an industrial park just off of I-80. It’s one of about a half dozen manufacturers. Second, the noises emanating from the structure don’t sound like those you’d hear from a concrete plant.
Even when the plant is running at capacity, the noise of the interstate seems greater than the manufacturing activity. In fact, the only sign that this business may be involved in concrete production are the three trailers loaded with insulated concrete wall panels waiting for transport to a project near Chicago.
For Scott Long, CEO and chief operating officer of Zero Energy Systems, this description of his firm’s concrete plant as a manufacturing operation is exactly what he planned. For decades, Long has been urging precast concrete producers to transform their operations from batching to manufacturing.
Long’s current venture represents a new approach to marketing and producing insulated concrete wall panels. And it seems that his launch may have come at the right time, as green building, especially with its emphasis on energy efficiency, is maturing into a potentially untapped growth market for concrete producers.
Green light for growth
Sometime this spring, the design/construction community will learn of the final results of the World Green Building Trends 2016 report by Dodge Data & Analytics. There was encouraging news when the preliminary results of this important survey were presented at the 2015 Greenbuild International Summit in Washington, D.C.
The prelease announcement stated the number of green building projects continues to double every three years. The strongest acceleration was in emerging economies. More importantly, the findings suggest clients and tenants worldwide are increasingly demanding sustainability in their structures. They also reaffirm 2008 and 2012 research that the rate of green building starts continues to double every three years.
Dodge Data & Analytics surveyed more than 1,000 architects, engineers, contractors, owners, specialists, and consultants in 69 countries to understand their current green building project involvement and expectations for 2018 in preparing the 2016 report. In addition to expanding the sample size by more than 25% over the 2012 study, architect and contractor participation increased substantially across more countries.
“The greater engagement by practitioners reflects the current green building environment,” says Stephen Jones, senior director of Industry Insights, Dodge Data & Analytics. “Their responses demonstrate that sustainability continues to have a transforming effect on design and construction professionals globally.”
The 2016 survey also offers data on potential barriers to green building development. The findings suggested initial cost may not be as high of a hurdle as it was several years ago. Owners and architects are beginning to realize that erecting green buildings may not be more expensive. Only half noted higher perceived costs as the top barrier to green building, a notable decline from 80% in 2008 and 76% in 2012. This is good news for concrete producers marketing energy-efficient wall systems.
More stringent trends on codes
Experts hope that adopting the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) will make compliance easier for new homes that are inspected for an Energy Ratings Index under the Home Energy Rating System. Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says using the 2015 IECC would make new American homes about 1% more energy-efficient than homes built to the 2012 IECC. While the increase in energy efficiency from the 2012 to the 2015 editions of the IECC is comparatively small, many states continue to reference the 2009, 2006, or even an earlier code. If they adopt the 2015 version, the increase in energy efficiency could be as much as 30%.
Code developers are also working to strengthen standards in commercial construction. Spurred by the increasing interest for energy-efficient buildings, design engineers are working to develop more comprehensive codes and standards that focus on performance. In early 2015, several leading associations that develop codes and standards to create green buildings agreed to collaborate to align the International Green Construction Code (IgCC), ANSI/ASHRAE/IES/USGBC Standard 189.1 and the LEED green building program. Code officials, architects, engineers, and contractors welcome the initiative.
The cooperating sponsors in developing the IgCC are ASHRAE, the American Institute of Architects, the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, and the U.S. Green Building Council. The sponsors have agreed to collaborate on developing the next edition of the IgCC, ASHRAE Standard 189.1, and the USGBC LEED green building program. The agreement will help standardize using materials and techniques in construction.
When the agreement was signed, leaders thought, “In just a few years we progressed from developing the first model code for green buildings to a new cooperative document that will make it easier for owners, designers, builders, and code officials to deliver sustainable, high-performing buildings,” says International Code Council CEO Dominic Sims, CBO.
Fortunately for producers, the DOE’s Building Energy Codes Program has supported developing, adopting, and implementing market-based model energy codes without waiting for local and political approval. Producers who have participated on federal projects have had the chance to create green buildings with high-performance requirements by specifying the most stringent energy conservation requirements.
DOE has helped projects achieve the twin goals of increasing cost-effective minimum requirements in the codes themselves and increasing compliance rates after codes are adopted. Also, the federal government references the most recent model energy codes in establishing requirements for federal buildings, ensuring that these facilities lead by example. And many of these projects have included insulated concrete wall panels.
Manufacturer first, producer second
Scott Long is one concrete producer who believes that the green building design and code development effort to increase performance standards for structures can benefit the precast concrete industry. “Insulated concrete wall panels offer designers and owners a cost-effective building product with long-term service life,” says Long, reflecting his commitment to more resilient construction.
Long’s quest has been a decade-long effort. He founded T-Mass Systems Inc. in 1997 to create for concrete producers a better manufacturing platform for insulated wall panels. His plan was to bring European plant designs using computer-automated machinery to North America. “My father and I had seen how efficiencies gained in producing insulated concrete wall panels more effectively had helped them become the primary building material in Europe,” he says.
For a few years, Long worked on the appropriate proper design and engineering strategies to accommodate the architectural designs common in the U.S. The company then began to license aspects of this technology to select precast producers.
Noting the marketing opportunity, Dow Building Solutions, the supplier of STYROFOAM for the THERMOMASS Building System, helps make the opportunity into a national effort. In 2001, T-Mass Systems agreed with Dow to license this technology and provide national marketing under the name STYROFOAM T-Mass Technology.
In supporting licensees, Long saw opportunity for concrete insulated wall panels when a producer would focus entirely on the product and invest in the technology that could allow efficient production. He recognized that by standardizing the panel offerings, plant productivity would increase, resulting in lower product costs.
To take advantage of the design community’s interest in green building techniques, producers must rethink how they have traditionally approached their customers. Insulated concrete wall panels can’t be successful as a custom-built product. “Walls are being built every day, and production capacity must be expanded to accommodate the fast-track projects now commonly bid,” says Long.
In 2007, Long teamed with Manoj Krishan to develop a strategy to manufacture high-performance insulated concrete wall panels. The approach differed greatly from legacy precast concrete operations. The key is the departure from a design/build approach to projects requiring a unique engineering/production set-up for each project. Long’s model simulates the success that occurs in marketing roof trusses.
“We anticipated that by creating regional manufacturing facilities which offer a wide range of standardized products that can fit the vast majority of wall design requirements, we could grow in the emerging market,” he says.
With this new strategy, the team began raising money in 2009. Investors responded and they secured the funding needed for Plant 1 in Iowa in 2011.
Construction began in 2012 and was complete in early 2014. In 2015, the plant initiated certification through the National Precast Concrete Association’s inspection program. Plans include operations in southeastern Texas, Southern California, and possibly the Southeast.
Standardization in action
Long and Krishan’s new company, Zero Energy Systems, embodies its founders’ passion for efficiency. The plant layout is based on manufacturing a standard product. Yet the process enables workers to quickly reconfigure wall panels to a wide range of sizes. Workers can even customize a limited set of architectural features.
The producer doesn’t market its final product as architectural in nature but the process delivers a final product with tighter construction tolerances. The producer takes pride in the quality of the panel edges. The process results in tighter alignment and fast installation.
The producer also focuses on increasing material quality to create more energy-efficient walls. Long laments the lack of consensus-developed standards for the materials used in fabricating the panels, resulting in specifiers with no objective methods with which to compare insulated concrete wall panel offerings from different producers.
Zero Energy System’s team hopes that by offering tightened product tolerances, consistent surface texture, and standardized product quality, designers can easily include their products in more types of structures.
Rick Yelton is editor at large at World of concrete-Informa Exhibitions and is the former editor-in-chief of TCP. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.