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Prescription for Performance

Breckenridge Material leverages technical capabilities to gain a seat at design team table.

As the leader in one of few major markets not controlled by integrated operators, St. Louis-based Breckenridge Material Co. is on the path to becoming a regional ready mixed producer, with scale and technical competency to pace larger metro area peers.


Now under fourth generation management, the family-owned producer has extended a market radius to more than 100 miles beyond its home turf, running 250 mixers across more than 30 Missouri and Illinois plants, many acquired during the past decade. It has concurrently beefed up technical services with the opening of a Missouri Department of Transportation-certified testing lab, the first for a ready mixed producer, and embraced the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association’s Prescriptive to Performance (P2P) initiative.

Ironically, the project Breckenridge Material CEO Nathan McKean told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was “hands down” the most challenging in the company’s 87-year history was the ultimate exercise in prescriptive methods. Yet the St. Louis Art Museum East Building, opened in June 2013, likely wouldn’t exhibit one of the best examples of self-consolidating concrete absent a P2P-driven producer.

Breckenridge Material delivered SCC forming the museum’s massive ceiling, a grid of 698 coffers, 9- x 4-ft. with 12-in. solid cross section—all bearing on concrete shear walls and columns. Architectural cast-in-place at its finest, the ceiling becomes part of the show in a wing dedicated to contemporary art. Lead designer, David Chipperfield Architects of London, stipulated that St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Companies Inc. attain concrete surfaces with “near drywall” smoothness, color uniformity and a 52 percent light reflectance factor. That target was determined as part of an East Building illumination scheme blending skylights and recessed fixtures above coffer beams.

“We were the only producer capable of achieving the architect and contactor specifications for the ceiling mix production and pours,” notes Breckenridge Material Senior Vice President Jeff Whidden. “Ceiling construction took place in 11 pours over a five-month period. On all pours, we limited ourselves to 8-yard loads, each truck delivering one load only in order to attain the utmost consistency.”
Expectations were clear, he adds: Trucks were loaded and staged so they would arrive at the site on four-minute intervals, mixes pumped 2 yd./minute. Slumps were checked at the plant and site, with a ±1-inch tolerance in advance of a spread measurement at the pump, the target 34 in. Failure at any one point meant the load was rejected. Of the approximately 200 trucks on the 11 ceiling pours, no loads failed the stringent requirements.

“The architect and contractor approached the job knowing you only have one shot at placement,” Whidden recalls. “We put in place an inspection process for each truck to ensure drum interiors were free of debris and contaminants. Mixes were inspected at every transfer point—plant, pump and end of hose. Our quality control staff and contractor and architect representatives inspected most all of the ceiling mixes. The delivery schedule was set with a 30-minute, plant-to-site truck target time. The ceiling pours were typically completed in 90 minutes.”

Chipperfield Architects and McCarthy representatives also determined that the coffer ceiling beams would carry epoxy-coated rebar and warrant single-use of Peri form board to maintain finish consistency, eliminate camber and spalling, and impart hard 90-degree effect on the grids’ most visible portions.

“At one point in the specification phase, the word ‘flawless’ came up for the coffer finish. American Concrete Institute guidelines for architectural cast-in-place do not define that level of quality,” says Adam Knoebel, vice president of operations for McCarthy, an ENR 400 general contractor that performs its own concrete work. “Concrete team members agreed instead that the coffers would have no bug holes, patching be limited to one square foot per 1,000 square feet of surface, and the finished structure would be as close to dry wall in appearance as possible.

“That meant no cold or vertical joints, and joints from one pour to the next placed over a wall or out of view from the museum floor. The architect had final say on the surfaces, inspecting the face of every beam prior to indicating acceptance.”

Precision Practice
The St. Louis Art Museum East Building is McCarthy Building Companies’ largest SCC application on a building contract since its crews began placing the material in 2000. Details on the concrete methods throughout the contract were added to McCarthy KnowledgeBuilder, a company-wide online reference source of best practices, idea sharing and trouble-shooting. 

“We had very seasoned concrete supervisors and carpenters, some with more than 20 years of experience in formwork and challenging pours. The goal was consistency in finish and color, top to bottom, and along the base of the coffers. Breckenridge saved the day with a delivery and production process to meet the quality expectations, as high as they were,” says Knoebel. “Every time we have a signature concrete project, we learn a lot about the properties of special materials like self-consolidating mixes, along with the planning and execution skills required for success. The technology of self-consolidating concrete has come a long way. The levels of quality we attained at the museum expansion give us greater confidence to recommend SCC on appropriate jobs where conventional mixes are specified.”

McCarthy and Breckenridge Material staff developed the museum’s SCC design over a July 2010–April 2011 window, testing dozens of Peri board mockups and mixtures for finish quality. During the preparation phase, the contractor also gauged mixes’ maximum travel or flow distance at 100 ft., configuring the ceiling pours so that the pump hose could remain stationary or be moved once or twice only. The pours spanned beams contained in up to 3,500 sq. ft. of horizontal deck area. 

Mindful of the mix performance and finished surface quality parameters, Jeff Whidden and his technical staff finalized an SCC mix design using Grace Adva 140M and Adva Cast 575 mid range and high range water reducers, respectively; a Buzzi-Unicem Type I/II portland cement supplemented with slag and fly ash; grades of fine and coarse aggregates from local sources; and, a Davis titanium dioxide pigment netting color and brightness characteristics aiding in the achievement of the light reflectance target. 

“The St. Louis Art Musuem expansion is our best example of product quality and technical leadership. We aim to be the market’s biggest and the best ready mixed producer,” notes Whidden. “We know what it costs to have a technical staff. Contractors find that low price will not support the expertise and level of quality they are looking for from a concrete supplier.”

Whidden joined Breckenridge Material shortly after the MoDOT lab certification and has doubled the technical staff since. He arrived in St. Louis from Los Angeles, where he had served as vice president of Sales and Technical Services for iCrete LLC. Prior to the mix design and materials optimization specialist, he was vice president of Sales & Marketing, North America, and subsequently general manager of New Mexico operations for Lafarge. 

At Breckenridge Material, he has sought to brand and customize concrete, and assure designers that a ready mixed producer with scale and technical resources belongs at the project table early on—equipped to offer something beyond a standard mix pulled from a library. The St. Louis Art Museum East Building, which required 1,600 yd. of the premium SCC mixes, plus 20,000 yd. of more standard column and slab mixes, is sure to instill confidence in prospects open to Breckenridge Material’s case for performance versus prescriptive specifications.