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Upswing Expectation

Karl Watson, Jr., is 2011 National Ready Mixed Concrete Association Chairman

The way newly elected National Ready Mixed Concrete Association Chairman (NRMCA) Karl Watson, Jr., of Houston-based CEMEX, Inc., sees the industry today as twofold. Rarely have concrete products been at the focal point of such trying times, both from economic and regulatory standpoints. However, the other side of this coin is that he sees the industry as having unprecedented opportunities to promote itself in terms of sustainability.

To those ends, Watson cites the Concrete Sustainability Conference as the focal point of the association's efforts. Set to take place August 9-11 in Cambridge (Boston), Mass., at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus (the conference is held in conjunction with the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub 2011 Industry Day on August 11), the event has been gaining in popularity in recent years. Covering ground from urban heat island reduction to embodied energy to government and private initiatives, the conference agenda is impressive by anyone's standards and had become the centerpiece for the industry for promoting concrete as a sustainable. "Members of academia, government officials and engineers attend," Watson told Concrete Products. "It's topics cover low-impact development, the carbon intensity of ready mixed concrete versus competing products, life cycle, and the use of recycled materials and the costs associated with the perceived best solutions."

In addition to looking inward at the ready mixed concrete industry, Watson is proud of the role NRMCA is taking in the Concrete Joint Sustainability Initiative, created in 2008 along with Portland Cement Association, American Concrete Institute, Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute, National Concrete Masonry Association,
Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute, and several other industry partners, all of which agreed to align sustainable development activities. As a group, the organizations will concentrate on the sustainable development applications of all concrete structures, using eight specific social values that these structures provide: resource efficiency, safety/protection, financial responsibility, operational continuity, longevity/durability, byproducts reduction, esthetics and societal connectivity.

"The Initiative is two pronged: offense and defense," explains Watson. "The defense is just to be in one place with all of the research and have a common voice about what concrete and concrete products actually mean from a sustainability standpoint. But it's also a clearinghouse for promotional activities to drive demand."

Watson notes that an increased involvement of academia in concrete sustainability research is providing an unbiased perspective to support the industry's claims about its products. The work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSH), for example, is giving decision-makers an intellectual, researched argument that is superior and definitive. "If some of MIT results are in line with other research conducted by other institutions in the past, NRMCA and the larger concrete community will have third-party, independent and credible arguments that can change people's opinions and should influence decisions," he maintains. "I think the largest reason MIT was chosen by the industry as the institution with which to partner is that it is the number one engineering school, the number one economic school, and I think its reputation is beyond reproach.”

The other big undertaking of the CSH at MIT is making concrete an even more sustainable product, starting by understanding the cement structure at the atomic level—something that has never been done before. This is perhaps the most exciting portion of the study and reflects the concrete industry’s goal of ever investing in developing what already is the most sustainable building material into an even better one.

Since state DOTs are often largely influenced in their selection of building materials by initial costs, Watson is hoping that the impact of the MIT CSH research will be to get states to consider the full life cycle of construction projects. “What MIT brings is a different look, not just from a first-dollar standpoint but also from a more balanced scorecard, using the economic, social and environmental aspects—or triple bottom line," he says. "MIT is building models that can provide life-cycle assessments for sustainability, but overlaying them with life-cycle cost analyses, so that decision-makers can evaluate all important aspects when choosing materials for pavements, or structures.

"Concrete might not always win in the model, but decision-makers will at least be making informed decisions using a level playing field and considering the full life cycle, including the important operating phase. It is ironic that the operating, or use, phase is largely ignored in life-cycle assessment tools that currently exist. It is by far the greatest area of impact on the environment for both pavements and structures accounting for up to 90 percent of total emissions throughout the life of an asset.”

Watson believes there is real promise in the MIT CSH research. “The comprehensive nature of MIT’s work, and their worldwide reach, can help us change the way building decisions are made in this country. With MIT’s recognized thought leadership, we can change the dialogue from first-cost, to what is most sustainable environmentally and economically. That is critically important for us as a nation, and I believe it will benefit us as a concrete industry.”

Watson noted that a bright spot in these economic times is the Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation. As a result of the funding to the endowment of the foundation, the creation of the Hub at MIT, which is jointly underwritten by the Foundation and the Portland Cement Association, was possible.

In addition to the research being done at MIT, Watson is especially excited about the work being done at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at University of California, Berkeley, concerning ways to reduce urban heat islands. The term "urban heat island" describes built-up areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas. The annual mean air temperature of a city with 1 million people or more can be 1.8°–5.4°F (or 1°–3°C) warmer than its surroundings. In the evening, the difference can be as high as 22°F (12°C). Heat islands can affect communities by increasing summertime peak energy demand, air conditioning costs, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, heat-related illness mortality, and water quality.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has concluded—and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has been promoting—that dramatic environmental benefits can be achieved by simply lightening horizontal urban surfaces exposed to the sun. Pavements and roofs comprise more than 60 percent of urban surfaces (roofs 20 to 25 percent, pavements about 40 percent). Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory estimates that permanently retrofitting urban roofs and pavements in the tropical and temperate regions of the world with solar-reflective materials, such as concrete, would offset 44 billion metric tons of emitted CO2. Said another way, this would be the equivalent of taking all the cars in the world off the road for 11 years. Watson believes this is a great opportunity for ready mixed concrete producers to generate more business and calls the reduction of urban heat islands, through the expanded use of concrete, a great opportunity for the industry to create demand.

"In Florida, the city of Miami adopted a new building ordinance that takes these concepts into account," Watson says. "The ordinance stipulates in any new commercial construction, all horizontal surfaces exposed to the sun need to have an SRI [Solar Reflective Index] of 0.6 or above for roofs, and pavements to have an SRI of 0.3 or above. There are multiple ways to achieve the pavement outcome. You can build covered parking, plant trees to shade the parking lots, modify asphalt, or place standard concrete. With so many options, it does not mandate concrete but the natural advantages of concrete finally give our industry a slight edge.”

Since the 2008 introduction of the NRMCA Green-Star Program, designed by the Environmental Task Group of the Operations, Environmental and Safety Committee as a means to support environmental excellence, the association has certified nearly 200 plants, with another 60 or so expected in 2011. Taking plant certification to the next level, in February, NRMCA introduced Sustainable Concrete Plant Certification (, which includes quantitative, performance-based metrics to provide producers with specific guidance to assess their production practices and implement sustainability strategies that will ultimately lower their overall footprint.

To certify, plant personnel will use a document titled "Sustainable Concrete Plant Guidelines," which rates a plant’s level of sustainability within different credit categories, with the objective of reducing carbon footprint, energy consumption, water use and waste; increasing recycled content; and improving human health and social concerns. Plants can achieve between 0 and 100 points depending on how many sustainability credits are achieved and their level of performance within each credit. The certification is valid for two years, after which a plant must re-certify. Plant personnel can use the Guidelines to implement new sustainable practices or improve on existing practices, with the objective of re-certifying at a higher level to demonstrate continuous improvement in the manufacturing process. The Guidelines were developed through the generous financial support of the RMC Research and Education Foundation.

"It's a little like Green-Star Plus," explains Watson. "What we're finding is that unless there's a reason to be certified, if the certification becomes part of the specifications, then speed of adoption is slower. It really is up to the individual company's belief in sustainability and their desire to get certified that's going to drive the adoption of this certification. There's not a business reason to do it just yet. Until you marry business necessity with environmental sustainability, you don't really get a big jump in these things."

In addition, NRMCA recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) in an effort to work jointly with ready mixed production facilities to aid in the development of sustainable environmental initiatives at their facilities. Although plants are typically small in size and do not have expansive tracks of land to dedicate to conservation, every initiative benefiting habitat and wildlife has value, according to the joint letter. "It can represent a stopover for migratory birds, a food source for pollinators, an opportunity to increase diversity," it continues. WHC developed a biodiversity toolkit specifically designed for the ready mixed industry to engage in habitat projects and further their sustainability mission. "A lot of the larger NRMCA companies have a great number of quarries, and so we've introduced the two groups," Watson says.

With some new ideas from the Concrete Joint Sustainability Initiative and a refocused NRMCA, Watson believes the industry is in a prime position to not simply ride the economic cycle back up, but to create opportunities in demand by concentrating on new markets. "Right now, we have a severe demand problem, he says. "Our industry is so dependent on housing. When housing is up, we're all champs; when it's down, we're all chumps. It's a roller coaster that you have little control over.

"But what we do have control over are the steps we are taking with research [MIT] and our promotional efforts —changing the demand equation to where more concrete is used in highway paving, streets and local roads, concrete parking lots, and building structures. Our success in increasing our products’ use in those segments over the next 10 to 20 years is going to define whether or not we're successful or not as an industry. Through this last up cycle, which started around 1994, we rode the roller coaster all the way to the top, but we really didn’t change the underlying demand equation. We didn’t increase our products' use in those four critical areas. We thought we were doing well, but we were really just along for the ride. In this industry, there will certainly be another 'up' and another 'down.’ We just can’t find ourselves in this situation."

One area Watson is particularly interested in throwing a great deal of promotional effort behind is concrete parking lots. "Outside of some major urban centers like Houston, where concrete is very prevalent, everything is asphalt," he explains." With ACI 330R-08 as a design guide and the price of liquid asphalt oil where it is now and where it's going to be in the next 10 years, we're actually competitive on a first-cost basis. The old prevailing view of engineers is that if they were going to build a parking lot, they would choose asphalt because they believe concrete is prohibitively expensive. But we can show, through the use of ACI 330 as the design guide, that concrete is very competitive on a first-cost basis and, in many cases, less expensive. The way concrete parking lots are being designed and built now is based on a historical mistake that has never been fixed."

NRMCA currently has six resource directors across the country promoting concrete parking lots and is increasing the number of demand-driven and -centered webinars and education efforts. Recently, Lowe's adopted ACI-330 as its design guide for all of its stores. In fact, the organization is insisting corporately that their design engineers must include concrete as one of two pavement options. "That's a huge win. The association and CEMEX were the drivers of that. Hopefully, that will lead to other big companies following Lowe's lead, which often happens," Watson adds. "Right now, it's all about increasing demand. For us, the way we get our members out of this economic storm is to do something to accelerate demand faster than just waiting for housing to come back. The association, like its members, had a significant reduction in force as a result of the economy. But the one thing we didn't cut back on in any form is in our promotional efforts."

Two of the major roadblocks that could stand in the way of concrete producers making the type of comeback they expect they will in the next few years come courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has proposed regulations regarding labeling fly ash as a hazardous waste and amendments to the National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) involving air pollutants at cement production facilities that could potentially force the shutdown of dozens of U.S. plants demand needs will likely be accelerating.

"Fly ash really is our issue, whereas NESHAP is more PCA's, but we're secondarily affected," Watson says. "The ready mixed concrete industry is the largest user of fly ash from a beneficial standpoint, so we've been out in front saying, 'No.' We have a well-organized grassroots ability to get letters and phone calls to Congressmen. Obviously, we've sent letters to the EPA with [NRMCA President] Robert Garbini testifying before the House Small Business Committee against the issue. Our approach is to use sound technical research to counter the unfounded emotional attacks. We continue to be a leader on the organizing task force to oppose the labeling by EPA.

"We also got MIT to write [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson on the negative effects of classifying fly ash as a hazardous waste from an infrastructure standpoint and thefuture needs of the country. They're talking at cross purposes if you say, 'We want to be more sustainable, which fly ash is, but we're reclassifying it as a hazardous waste.' If fly ash used in concrete were to be classified as a hazardous waste, you can only imagine how difficult it would be to transport, store and explain its use.

CEMEX, INC. at a glance

CEMEX, Inc., the U.S. operating arm of global Monterrey, Mexico-based CEMEX S.A.B. de C.V., is the largest supplier of cement and ready mixed nationwide, as well as an important producer of aggregates, concrete block, and other building materials. In the U.S., CEMEX has a balanced and vertically integrated business portfolio, strategically positioned in high-growth regions of the country. CEMEX owns and operates 14 U.S. cement facilities wielding a total production capacity of 14.7 million metric tons/year. Additionally, it holds a minority stake in four other cement plants and owns 350 ready mixed operations, and 140-plus aggregate plants. The parent company is the world's largest supplier of ready mixed concrete.

To meet strong regional cement demand, CEMEX constructed a second kiln at its Balcones plant in New Braunfels, Texas; the plant was commissioned in 2008. The new kiln is designed to increase the facility’s total production capacity to approximately 2.4 million short tons/year. Though cement production doubled, the operation’s emissions actually decreased, as existing equipment was replaced with state-of-the-art technology to protect the environment and maintain current emissions levels.

In an effort to better care for the air, water and land, company officials note, CEMEX is committed to exploring the use of alternative raw materials and fuels, as well as recycling and reusing waste materials. Accordingly, petroleum coke or tire-derived fuel has been substituted for coal. By retrofitting cement plants to handle alternative fuels, the producer has improved its operating flexibility and reduced vulnerability to potential energy price spikes. As a result, CEMEX's stateside plants are regularly awarded Energy Star status by the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy, and the company has been named Energy Star Partner of the Year in 2009 and 2010.