Messing with Mother Nature can be dangerous. That's probably the main reason why Gary Fry and his team of craftsmen at Sun Precast in Beaver Springs, Pa., take their jobs so seriously. For more than 30 years, Sun Precast has provided cast stone elements for many of the major masonry projects on the East Coast.

Through their work, they have transformed basic concrete into construction elements that exceed the performance requirements of many natural stones, without sacrificing beauty. Sun and the more than 40 cast stone producers across U.S. don't simulate stone—they make building elements.

For Fry, this distinction is important. He witnessed the use of his product on a long list of successful projects. “Every time I see a project, the role that cast stone has played in it evokes a sense of pride,” says Fry. And from the contractor-turned-producer, that's high praise.

Looking forward to what he describes as his hope for an active retirement, Fry has great expectations that cast stone will continue to prosper and play a key part in the building market. And he has been a key person in an important effort that has transformed an 80-year-old trade association into a 21st century information provider.

When The Cast Stone Institute (CSI) was formed in 1927, its main mission was to promote using a new building material and help develop a standard. Now the group's mission is to provide expert counsel to the architectural and engineering communities on the proper uses of cast stone. Key to this task has been the refocus from product assurance to producer performance.

“We must commit to make the process fair, consistent, and clearly responsive to the needs of our customers,” says Fry. “Certification is a mechanism to allow verification of compliance with performance criteria that addresses the needs and concerns of our customers, specifically builders and designers.”

Thousands of elements

The move to producer certification is important for the cast stone industry. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cast stone elements on the market today. As such, cast stone production is a labor-intensive activity. Producers employ form-makers, carpenters, and finishers who possess the skills of an artesian craftsman.

Meeting a growing demand for their product in the repair, renovation, and new construction markets, CSI members now ship their products far beyond normal geographic boundaries. It's not usual to ship hundreds of miles. ”With a widespread customer base, it's important that specifiers be guaranteed a fair, consistent method to select their product,” says Fry.

A new producer often thinks cast stone production is an easy task. Such start-ups often find initial success in offering one style of element for a local project. But when that same producer tries to expand, the real challenge begins.

“Creating a product that meets the ASTM specification, conforms to an architect's dimensional requirements, has consistent color and texture, and is priced within the owner's budget is more difficult than most new producers think,” says Tom Lepisto of Hoyle Stone Products in Mitchellville, Md. In his more than 20 years in the business, Lepisto has witnessed the start-up and failure of several producers. “The failure of a producer, whether a member of CSI or not, casts problems for all of us,” he says.