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Emphasizing Fundamentals

PC-chairmans-report200x133Donna Reuter is 2011 Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute Chairman

To begin a profile of the chair of any association related to the concrete products industry with mention of the sagging economy and how the industry is learning to do more with less seems like a broken record—the message keeps repeating from one report to the next. Still, this recessed world is the only one in which Oldcastle Precast–Building Systems Division's Donna Reuter can work in her newly acquired position as chairman of the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI).

By planning in advance for scaled-back budgets from 2009 to 2011, PCI anticipated where its own financial shortfalls were likely to be and where cutbacks would be required. But as 2011 came, the Institute saw somewhat less of a shortfall than originally anticipated. Reuter notes that some previously deferred programs have been re-activated as the group lays the groundwork for better business in the years to come.

"The way PCI works is that its dues revenue stream is a year behind our industry's level of activity. The producers are in the process of sending in their sales declarations right now," she explained to Concrete Products in late March. "Those are based on sales for precast concrete structures in 2010. We'll use those numbers to develop our budget for FY2011 and 2012. So, as the producers recover, PCI's revenue stream won't yield that recovery until a year later. However, we made some tough decisions early on to build up sufficient reserves to carry us through the next several years. As an Institute, we're actually in really good shape, although we are still diligent in managing costs.

"Nobody knows when the recovery is going to come. Everyone we talk to and every report we look at say something different. Some of them are showing a very strong recovery by 2013, which seems almost too good to be true. We're being very conservative and are still watching all of our expenses. We've added back some programs at the request of our producer members. We're trying to manage things as best we can."

Reuter said there is no prescribed list of programs that PCI would like to bring back or expand should money become available as business improves, but during the budgeting process every year a cost-benefit analysis of every major program is performed. "We reduced staff in 2009 in anticipation of the current conditions, so we also need to be aware of both the dollar cost of certain programs and the man-hours each program takes up in considering whether to bring something back," Reuter says. "We don't have a list that says a certain program comes first or second.

"One thing that we did bring back because so many members requested it is our Ascent magazine. It's a really nice piece and serves as our main publication for architects and building owners. Another item we had discontinued was a hard-copy directory for members. We tried to make everybody go green and published the directory online, but our members told us they liked going to their bookshelf and pulling out a hard copy. We're bringing the printed version back for 2011."

PCI does not let strict cost controls get in the way of responding to important events. In the past, it has set aside funds to send exploratory teams to conduct engineering investigations after particularly catastrophic events, such as earthquakes, anywhere in the world. According to Reuter, PCI sent such a team to Chile following the major earthquake there in February 2010.  Now, one year later, the PCI executive committee decided to dispatch another team to New Zealand after the devastating earthquakes there last February. The team left in late March and will be wrapping up its field work in early April.

"We haven't yet committed to send a team to Japan. We always wait for the situation to stabilize, and right now, that has yet to happen in Japan," Reuter notes. "The team that went to Chile in early 2010 presented a summary report at our convention where they highlighted their findings. Their full report is currently being reviewing by our Technical Activities Council, and once that's reviewed, it will be available to our members."

Reuter says that the down economy has afforded the precast concrete structures industry a unique opportunity to learn to operate more efficiently and get creative in finding new business, so that the industry can avoid simply riding on recurring waves of economic cycles. "From my perspective as both a producer and an officer of the Institute, I think there are positives that will come out of this down economy for our industry," she affirms. "When the construction climate is red hot and there's more than enough work for everyone, we tend to get a little sloppy. On the contrary, when every penny counts, we tend to get more creative, moving out of our comfort zone to something that's more challenging. In the plants, we look at processes because we have no choice but to become more efficient. And we take a harder look at quality, and those two things help us be more competitive.

"This type of thinking doesn't take place often enough when the economy is smoking. Part of the reason is that we often don't have time during a boom. At that point, it's not a matter of survival like it is now, when there are so many sharks fighting over small morsels. Although one of our primary markets, namely parking garages, has been hit very hard, PCI and its member companies are developing other markets for their products and services, such as military and high-speed rail. This has required some producers to expand into new product lines. We also see growth in what we call total precast systems, where all major building components, including the structural frame and architectural cladding, are integratively designed with precast concrete. This has important benefits relating to sustainable design, which is itself a rapidly growing area. In the long run, I think that's going to be good for the industry because once we get engineers and architects building with precast, they will immediately see the benefits, and it won't be such a challenge to convince people to build that way."

One of Reuter's primary areas of focus during her one-year term will be increasing the number of volunteers in PCI's extensive committee structure. "One of my main initiatives for this year is to increase participation on the part of our members," she says. "We actually have really good participation from our members, but it tends to come from a core group of companies. There are companies that don't really participate beyond the certification process, and we're personally inviting people from these firms that have not been involved to participate on committees. A personal invitation is usually the best way to get a response.

"The unique thing about PCI is that besides representation from every sector of our industry, we also have academic members that participate and do a lot of the volunteer work. If it weren't for all our volunteers, we would be very limited as to what we could accomplish. We have a staff of only about 25 people.  Although many of them are highly qualified professional engineers, they couldn't possibly do the work of the Institute alone. Instead they leverage their expertise, acting as leaders and facilitators to guide our committees and motivate volunteers. Much of the 'heavy lifting' for PCI programs is done by our volunteers. For example, we just published our new Design Handbook, which is the world-standard design manual for precast concrete structures. Each of its chapters was drafted by a committee of volunteers."

Reuter adds that later this year, PCI will publish a new hollow core manual, drafted entirely by volunteers with no paid consultants. "PCI manuals are gospel as far as reference material goes. Anybody who wants to know anything about precast concrete structures, that's where they go," she confirms.

Another project under way at PCI is a detailed life-cycle assessment (LCA) for structures, a joint effort of PCI's Sustainability Committee and its Research & Development Committee. This project is only one indication of a major focus among PCI members on sustainability over the past several years. "We started tracking LEED projects five or six years ago, and we've seen the number of LEED projects go way up year over year. But explaining the potential of precast concrete to deliver LEED points on a project is only the external side of sustainability," she says. "Producers also want to become greener in their own plants, so we're rolling out our Sustainable Plant Program. It's a voluntary effort, beyond certification, that provides guidelines and a self-audit to help plants make their processes more efficient and sustainable. If we're greener in our plants, it obviously contributes to life-cycle performance."

"Our Sustainability Committee oversees and champions all sustainability initiatives and projects. But I think over time, you're going to be able to draw a parallel between what's happening with sustainability and what happened with safety 10-15 years ago. Safety programs were originally the responsibility of the safety manager. But over the years, they moved to ownership by all employees and have become intertwined with everything that we do—a living, breathing program. Now, safety is everybody's responsibility. I think you're going to see the same thing happen with sustainability. As the years go by, you won't need a separate committee because all of the committees at PCI are going to weave sustainability into their thinking and sustainability will become ingrained in the process."

Regarding the Architecture 2030 "2030 Challenge for Products," Reuter is cautious. "The 2030 Challenge offers some admirable goals, but before setting goals for our industry, we've got to get a better understanding of where we are today and where we see avenues for improvement. To jump ahead with specific goals when we don't have enough information would be 'greenwashing,' and PCI is dead set against greenwashing. Our LCA project will go a long way to providing the information we need to set intelligent goals, as will a major effort at MIT relating to concrete.

"What we do know now is that the great majority of the energy impact and carbon footprint of a building—some studies say more than 80 percent—comes from operation over its lifetime, not from the materials used to build it initially. This is a huge opportunity for precast concrete, because we offer a complete building system, not just a material. As a result, we can engineer structures with extremely high energy performance that require minimal maintenance. This has a huge impact over the life of a structure."  

With New England and Florida recently adopting new bridge girder profiles in an effort to save money on certain types of projects, PCI has been tracking many precast/ prestressed innovations of late that seem to be catering to a new standard for transportation and building contracts. "There are a couple of new bridge sections, including the New England bulb tee, that have subtle differences but improve performance," Reuter says. "There is also a new beam section that was developed by the PCI Northeast Committee called the NEXT Beam. Several projects designed with the NEXT beam have already been produced and installed. So, that seems to be catching on as well."

Developed by a consortium of engineers from all six New England states and New York, as well as the Northeast region of PCI, the NEXT Beam is efficiently designed to minimize labor at both the manufacturing plant and the job site. The elimination of draped (harped) strands is a significant benefit during fabrication, says PCI. The abutted top flanges serve as deck forming in the field, which saves significant time during construction and makes for a much safer project. In addition, the DOT bridge offices of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland are open to its use, making it attractive for design/build projects. Taking a cue from its neighbors, the Pennsylvania DOT has accepted an alternate version of the NEXT beam that uses smaller-diameter prestressing strand. A list of PCI-certified producers currently manufacturing the NEXT Beam can be found at

Reuter also mentioned that recent activities have centered around Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC). The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation has selected several state DOTs to assist in delivering ABC projects, and intends to use the lessons learned to minimize construction delays and offer a tangible benefit to affected communities. "ABC lends itself well to precast components that can be manufactured off site, trucked in, and installed quickly," she says. "There's also a directive from FHWA called 'Every Day Counts' to get these accelerated construction technologies into the marketplace faster, and precast structural elements can shorten product delivery times and make a meaningful change in the delivery system."

Reuter explains that although her term as PCI chair is short, one aspect of association life she would like to see improved is communication between the association and its members, and between the Institute and the outside world. "I like going back to fundamentals, and communication is a fundamental for any association. PCI does a really good job in the area of communication, but there's always room for improvement," she explains. "We've recently added a communications manager, Whitney Stephens, to the PCI staff. We restructured a bit so that we were able to add this position, and I'm already seeing better communications with blast emails, newsletters and more to keep people in the loop on what's going on."

She adds that part of reaching to the outside world includes participation in the Concrete Joint Sustainability Initiative (JSI), meetings of which are attended regularly by PCI President James Toscas. JSI is an industry coalition dedicated to educating associations, their members and the public about the role and responsibilities of concrete in sustainable development.

And the good news for Reuter and her Oldcastle Building Systems Division is that she is seeing "glimmers of hope that business is getting better. There is more work, but it's in pocket areas. I cover Maine to North Carolina, but there are certain hot spots, one of them being right here near my plant in Selkirk, N.Y., just north of Albany in the town of Malta, N.Y., Global Foundries just built a big chip plant, and that has spurred a lot of development in the area—condos, apartments, hotels, retail, restaurants. It's spotty, but there is definitely more activity, more bidding. Another plus is that we're actually building hotels again, which we haven't done for a while. There was one year where we actually didn't build a single hotel. Right now, we have four hotels on the books."