Lightweight Block, Heavyweight Benefits

At the Maryland Science Center, 24-inch-long lightweight concrete masonry units paid for themselves by saving masons half the labor.

By Don Eberly and Laura Drotleff

Six constructed block warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore are a testament to on-time and on-budget delivery.
Six constructed block warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore are a testament to on-time and on-budget delivery.

Six constructed block warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore are a testament to on-time and on-budget delivery. Built by St. John Properties, the buildings provided the center with a distinct advantage, both in the way they were constructed and the resources used – time, labor and materials.

The project called for six new warehouse buildings to be constructed on a section of the property approximately 300 yards from existing buildings. The warehouses were to be rented out for storage to a high-profile tenant with a strict timeline. The buildings had to go up quickly to fill the demand.

the contractor for St. Johns Properties turned to Ernest Maier, Inc., a local block, masonry and hardscaping supply company, for a solution for cost and delivery time on the Maryland Science Center project.
Six constructed block warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore are a testament to on-time and on-budget delivery.

Knowing that constructing such a large project in an expedited situation would come with its share of budget concerns, the contractor for St. Johns Properties turned to Ernest Maier, Inc., a local block, masonry and hardscaping supply company, for a solution. As a manufacturer of normal weight masonry units, Ernest Maier had already been working with Big River Industries, Inc., the nation’s largest producer of expanded clay lightweight aggregate, to develop a lightweight masonry unit called E-Lite (or extra-light), for other time-sensitive projects. Brendan Quinn, owner/president and CEO of Ernest Maier, Inc., knew that lightweight masonry block would fill the need for a fast turnaround in construction, while staying within the project’s budget.

The units contain Big River Industries’ expanded clay lightweight aggregate called Riverlite. “Lightweight block increases productivity even at the same labor pace, and workers are typically more efficient because the lighter block is less work intensive,” Quinn said.

Construction of the block warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore

 The contractor used E-lite 24-inch-long lightweight concrete masonry units (CMUs) in place of the standard weight 16-inch gray units.
The contractor used E-lite 24-inch-long lightweight concrete masonry units (CMUs) in place of the standard weight 16-inch gray units.

Get in, get out

The contractor used E-lite 24-inch-long lightweight concrete masonry units (CMUs) in place of the standard weight 16-inch gray units.
The contractor used E-lite 24-inch-long lightweight
concrete masonry units (CMUs) in place of
the standard weight 16-inch gray units.

As a result, the contractor used E-lite 24-inch-long lightweight concrete masonry units (CMUs) in place of the standard weight 16-inch gray units. In doing so, he reduced construction time and labor specific to this part of the project by 50 percent. In all, 6,600, 24-inch-long lightweight units were used for the straight walls and corridors of each of the four, 75,000-square-foot buildings at the Maryland Science Center. The mason also used several 12-inch lightweight units and a variety of normal weight material for other applications within the job.

Using lightweight block worked within the building’s budget, the mason found, and he benefited from using this alternative in several ways. In addition to getting paid by the square foot, he also made money for completing the job faster, and his crew was better off for using lighter weight units, avoiding common injuries associated with heavier block.

According to Jeff Speck, vice president of sales and marketing with Big River Industries, Inc., these are the key benefits of using lightweight masonry units, especially in large jobs like warehouse construction. “The lightweight factor helps contractors complete projects sooner so they can generate revenue from the projects earlier, which is better for the property owners as well,” he said. “In construction, we all known time is money, and if property owners can reduce the number of days it takes to construct a building, it helps them project when it can be rented and begin earning revenue.”

What makes lightweight units lighter?

The E-Lite units used for the buildings contain 60 percent Riverlite, 28 percent natural aggregates, and the rest is cement and water. The finest gradation of the expanded clay lightweight aggregate (LWA) qualifies as a reclaimed material, which is a benefit for contractors applying for LEED credits.

Together with its sister companies, Parker Block in Delaware and Skyline Brick in Virginia, the Maryland-based Ernest Maier, Inc., produces millions of units annually, ranging from standard weight to extra light. A good portion of its products contain expanded clay LWA, produced at Big River Industries, Inc.’s Southeastern facilities.

The project at the Maryland Science Center called for six new warehouse buildings to be constructed on a section of the property approximately 300 yards from existing buildings.
The project called for six new warehouse buildings to be constructed on a section of the property approximately 300 yards from existing buildings.

The quality of the expanded clay LWA results from a carefully controlled manufacturing process. “In a rotary kiln, selectively mined clay is fired in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Speck. “The clay expands, cools, and is then processed to specified grading.” The result is a high-quality, lightweight aggregate that is inert, durable, tough, stable, highly insulative, and free-draining to meet stringent structural specifications.

Familiarizing with the process by studying Big River Industries’ Q-Lite units, Ernest Maier, developed its E-Lite block to provide customers with a unique approach to time-, labor- and cost-savings. “The lightweight units have better thermal properties, saving property owners money on heating and cooling,” Speck said. “Additionally, they have superior fire resistance, providing more structural stability, which is an improvement over regular weight material; and, they’re safer to handle.”

The rear of the warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.
Six constructed block warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore are a testament to on-time and on-budget delivery.

Productivity is critical

Despite all the benefits using lightweight block offers, most construction projects are ruled by the budget and the bottom line, according to Quinn. “Even though it makes complete sense to use a lighter weight option, it is tough to persuade some architects and contractors to do it because of the upfront price tag,” he said. “But, the savings is realized in the end.”

In masonry construction, the cost of labor has evolved, with legal labor in the $12-13 per hour range and up. Inflation rates can cause contractors to refrain from spending more for materials.

In all, 6,600, 24-inch-long lightweight units were used for the straight walls and corridors of each of the four, 75,000-square-foot buildings at the Maryland Science Center.
In all, 6,600, 24-inch-long lightweight units were used for the straight walls and corridors of each of the four, 75,000-square-foot buildings at the Maryland Science Center.

“But, with labor costing at least 50 percent of many masonry unit projects, the 50-percent labor savings that is attainable by using 24-inch-long lightweight units more than pays for the additional upfront product cost,” Quinn said. “Block is only 10 percent of what makes up many masonry contracts. For instance, with a $2-million project, the cost of the block could be approximately $200,000. Labor makes up 50 percent of the costs. If you can take a variable cost like that and improve it, the overall cost of the project will go down.”

In the case of the Maryland Science Center warehouses, the mason was handling 24-inch-long units, which weigh the equivalent of 16-inch-long normal weight units. He gained 50 percent more wall area by placing the same number of units, at the same labor pace. To assist in pre-planning the upfront product costs versus ROI, Quinn provided detailed spreadsheets to the project planners, providing line item descriptions for the costs and savings they would realize by using the lightweight alternative. From there, he worked with the Maryland Science Center warehouse project team on a strategy to keep costs aligned with the budget.

Front view of the warehouses at the Maryland Science Center
In all, 6,600, 24-inch-long lightweight units were used for the straight walls and corridors of each of the four, 75,000-square-foot buildings at the Maryland Science Center.

Learning not taken lightly

Though the technical components of using lightweight block are easier because it weighs less, the longer units did cause a slight learning curve for the mason on the Maryland Science Center site. The cores of the 24-inch units are larger, because they are longer; filling the cores requires more grout. Thus, the mason came up with a way to reduce the grout volume.

Ernest Maier offers classroom education at its Maryland facility, to advance learning about lightweight concrete masonry and the related benefits and applications for architects and contractors nationwide. This education will include masonry techniques for lightweight block, such as grouting for larger sized units and other matters.

One of the reasons Ernest Maier’s E-Lite block was chosen in the Maryland Science Center project was for its familiarity with the masonry industry and needs in the area. The business also earned one of the highest honors with a visit from President Barack Obama, who was touring manufacturers’ facilities at the time to generate growing interest in the construction industry. Quinn believes that providing education and awareness about new products, related techniques and industry topics is paramount to success.

CMU construction of the warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore are a testament to on-time and on-budget delivery.
Six constructed block warehouses at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore are a testament to on-time and on-budget delivery.

Safety and savings hand-in-hand

According to Speck, aside from the 50-percent labor savings that the 24-inch-long lightweight units can provide, using them also takes safety programs and corporate accountability to another level. “If employers treat masons well, as the productive members of the company who they are, using lightweight block is a long-term investment in the ethical treatment of employees,” he said.

By thinking in terms of money that can be saved from having fewer back injuries and workers’ compensation claims, contractors stand the chance of decreasing significant relational costs of projects. “A contractor once told me that one back injury costs his company more money than the difference in the price of normal weight block versus lightweight block. That savings would buy lightweight block for two years,” said Speck.

When it comes to initial product selections, preliminary costs, and the possible eventual outcomes surrounding masonry projects such as this one, thinking long-term might very well yield the highest level of profitability.


Don Eberly is the president and CEO of Eberly & Collard Public Relations, a national firm specializing in research, writing and integrated marketing for design, build and construction companies. Laura Drotleff is a researcher and writer for the firm.

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