Specify concrete with a conscience
A concrete idea is considered a reliable thought just as the phrase “cast in concrete” is an expression denoting permanency. The material from which these expressions are derived and that is used to build your reputation can only live up to its quotable status if its mix design contains an elusive element of the human moral code … conscience.
The lack of conscience causes the brain’s gears to wear and eventually slip into behavior that is characterized as antisocial or even sociopathic. In our industry, this moral slippage causes intentional production of inferior concrete products, resulting in job site failures and destruction of your unblemished design and building reputations. This action, to my mind, is closely aligned to the deviant behavior exhibited by our less fortunate and incarcerated brethren. Let’s call these unprincipled concrete product producers Concrepaths, from the Latin concretus from which the word concrete was derived.
It is said that forewarned is forearmed. So, just who is this disreputable character? What is his method of operation or “MO” as the cops call it, and how do we defend against him? An early English criminologist named Lombroso concocted a physical profile of lawbreakers to help citizens recognize potential criminals. His study concluded that among other characteristics a combination of close set beady eyes, low foreheads, and large noses were indications of criminal potential. His theory was quickly debunked when it was noted that over half of the British Parliament at the time fit his description.
Unfortunately, there are no distinguishing physical characteristics of a Concrepath, but their behavior is as consistent as a burglar casing a bank. I will try to be a bit more helpful as I describe how to spot one and the financial repercussions from using one. In most cases:
1. A Concrepath will submit an unrealistically low bid late in the bidding process or, and more often, offers his bid after the contract has actually been awarded to the general contractor. In the later case, the contractor already has used the fair price of a legitimate precast subcontractor to obtain the architectural precast and cast stone portion of the job. He is then approached by the Concrepath with a bid so low that greed begins to conquer conscience. The contractor who has promised the precast work to the initial low bidder now demands a substantial price reduction. (You see, any money saved at this point is extra profit for the contractor. The owner of the project will receive none of the projected savings.) The legitimate precaster has been down this road before and will quite likely take a retaliatory action that will severely damage the entire construction team; he will let the Concrepath have the job.
2. After his tantalizing price snatches the work from the certified plant, the Concrepath becomes critically late with shop drawings and just as behind with deliveries because his plant has oversold its capacity with other unbelievably cheap work. The job site is at a standstill until the precast arrives. Masons and erection crews are idle, deadlines for completion are evaporating, and occupancy revenue becomes as elusive as a winning lottery ticket. Time being money, everyone is losing but the Concrepath.
3. He finally delivers the precast and it is hurriedly erected to make up for lost time. No one pre-checks the cast stone as it “has always been good in the past.” It is discovered well into the erection process that the concrete is substandard. Edges are chipped, color is inconsistent, the finish is not to spec., and extensive cracking closely resembles the blood vessels that have varicosed the contractor’s overstressed eyes. Does he proceed then patch and rub, or rip the precast from the structure and wait for new product from a certified supplier? A less larcenous conscience would dictate switching back to the certified precaster, biting the financial bullet, and producing a quality job. Most principled contractors heed their moral code at this point. For others, greed has now been reinforced and justified by the urgency of completion. A new unspoken philosophy begins to emerge. “Let the lawyers sort it out. Keep building!”
4. In the end, the Concrepath absolves himself of any responsibility for the poor quality precast; declares that the product was fine when it left the shop. “Job site handling is the problem and the other trades must have cracked the corners and blemished the finish,” he spouts. But, “just so there are no hard feelings” he knocks a small portion off the cost. All injured parties acquiesce to the “gesture of good will” because, as the Concrepath knows, a lawsuit is risky and too expensive for the amount of retribution involved. The contractor is now faced with repair and refinishing costs which will probably exceed the initial savings. The architect hangs his head in disgust and embarrassment. And for the loss of long-term durability and costs of continual maintenance? Well, the owner will just have to eat these – forever.
5. The Concrepath moves on to the next victim project.
Concrepaths are not the only beneficiaries when conscience kneels to greed. Patch and repair organizations such as the highly respected Metro Precast & Stone Services in Virginia make a keen living from the privateering of profit-hungry contractors and their Concrepath compatriots. Metro’s President, Kiley Marcoe, said that about 60 percent of his onsite repair work could be avoided by simply hiring a precaster who has high casting and finishing standards. “Inadequate mold preparation is the main cause of most casting defects,” he says. “In the casting area, poor training and lack of experienced supervision does result in substandard precast, but the absence of conscientious post casting activities, such as inspection and finishing, accounts for the lion’s share of defects.”
An actual case in point, said Marcoe, is two very large, competing companies that produce approximately the same square footage of precast per year. One employs 20 finishing technicians and the other has only two. Very rarely does he send crews onsite to repair the work of the first plant, but at $80-$120 per hour for repair and refinishing costs, Metro’s work load remains lucrative and constant because of plants like the second one that attach very little importance to post casting inspection and repair. Cast and Ship is the mantra of an accomplished Concrepath. Form Preparation, Cast, Inspect, Final Finish, and Ship is the SOP of a certified plant. “Most of the work I do can be performed by the precaster at his own shop before product is shipped,” Marcoe said.
As a 20-year veteran of architectural precast concrete, architectural cast stone, concrete underground drainage structures, concrete pipe, and prestressed concrete organizations, I have witnessed an inordinate share of unconscionable attempts by Concrepaths to dupe you into believing that the quality of their products is as incredible as the price they are charging. Since there is no high security cage of spot-welded #8 bars in which we can imprison these scurrilous souls, reputable concrete-related trade associations have created an artificial conscience called Plant Certification to which I have alluded throughout this article. As crafty as they are, even Concrepaths cannot fake legitimacy if plant certification inspections are performed properly.
The Architectural Precast Association (APA) has perfected an inspection system for architectural precast concrete, architectural cast stone, and glass fiber reinforced concrete production facilities that unveils manufacturing shortcuts that serve as avenues used by Concrepaths to, let’s just say the words, cheat you. Tenured architectural concrete producers who know the twists and turns Concrepaths take wrote the APA inspection program. Their single motivation in constructing such an awesome system of checks and balances was quite simply to maintain the reputation of their product. They felt that one inferior precast job gives the entire industry a black eye. This is altruism at its finest. The APA makes no profit from the inspections and provides certification to non-members at a reasonable fee as well. Since the inspections are performed at cost there is never an excuse for even the smallest producer not to have a current inspection certificate for you to see. You should require proof of this certificate and specify APA-certified plants for all your jobs. After doing so, your conscience can rest easy knowing that the product you have specified has had its conscience verified.
APA members must continue to undergo rigorous, unannounced inspections twice per year by APA selected inspectors who are professional engineers and have a minimum of 10 years precast experience. The APA is the only organization in the country dedicated solely to architectural precast products that requires this high frequency of inspections. Pretenders inspect but once every two years and inform the plants of the date they are coming. While there is a choice of two highly regarded certification programs, APA specializes in architectural precast and cast stone, which tips the scales in their favor.
Make no mistake about this: the manufacture of architectural precast and architectural cast stone is an art form and must be produced by people skilled in finish and color. By specifying a legitimate certified plant, you can virtually eliminate Concrepath corruption. And, you can rest easy knowing that the producer of your project has his conscience cast deeply in the concrete.
Fred McGee has been the executive director of the Architectural Precast Association for the last 17 years and is president of McGee and Associates, Inc., a trade association management firm in Ft. Myers, Fla., that specializes in the management of concrete-related trade associations.