Recently, a customer came to me with a request I hadn’t heard in a while. They wanted an integrally color-blocked single Wythe incorporated into a new project we will be constructing.

Many of our projects used this means and method a few years back, but we evolved away from that type of concrete masonry unit (CMU). Where applicable, we now use natural CMU and then apply an elastomeric coating, which not only seals and colors the block, but is a much better waterproofed product. That’s important to prevent efflorescence, a problem you see on older generations of construction.

Stephen Shanks addressed the problem in a 1992 talk to the Alabama Masonry Institute. I kept that publication around as a reference, and was glad I could pull it back out. Mr. Shanks says,

“Efflorescence results when soluble salts in masonry or mortar leak to the surface. Later, as the wall dries, the salt solution migrates to the surface and the water evaporates depositing the salt on the surface of the masonry.”

As far as contributing factors, he says salts may be

  1. present in the masonry units
  2. present in the mortar
  3. carried in to the wall by rain or groundwater

Efflorescence can be the bane of my existence or anyone’s for that matter. One can do everything right–being mindful the time of year, keeping the product dry prior to installation and ensuring the site is well drained–and still get these salts leaching out months or years after the work is completed.

While we can control this in a CMU wall using an elastomeric coating, it’s much harder to do with brick. In fact, I was in Tennessee this week checking out one of our projects from about 5 years ago and low and behold there were the salts, not on the CMU, but on the brick.

I still consider efflorescence one of the most common and unpredictable problems in construction today, where masonry is concerned. To me, the best remedy is to let it “run its course” so to speak. When it has dried on the masonry, then clean and keep this cycle going until all the salt has leached. Trust me, it will stop, but for a period will look unsightly.

Earlier this month, I wrote a post offering a few hints for those on the job search. It seems especially pertinent in these times, because we as managers are receiving more resumes than usual.

Not a week goes by that I don’t see between 3 and 5 job applications. I would say the majority of them are from graduating college seniors, folks who have worked their whole lives getting that just right degree. Their diligence from the last four years, combined with extracurricular activities, would have made them worthy candidates in good times.

I feel like I have empathy for this younger generation of job seekers, because at their age, I was in a similar situation.

At the age of 24, my fledgling home building business had gone bust. Aside from feeling depressed I was broke and without a job. I talked with my father who in turn reached out to our preacher who in turn reached out to a large construction company owner in town. I got a job. While those were stressful times, I will never forget this man’s generosity of help. Never.  It’s because of his mentoring and his hands on assistance with my job search that I was able to move on to the career I now enjoy.

I believe that as people established in our businesses, we owe it to the young folks out there to treat their resumes with respect and help them where we can. After all, someone did it for us.

As business owners and hiring managers, these are my recommendations for helping our next class of leaders:

If a letter is sincere, respond.  I tell the applicant that I wish we could make the hire, but unfortunately we cannot.

Give words of encouragement, if they are deserved. If their resume looks solid, and most of the time it does, I tell them there is the just right job out there. They will just have to be patient in finding it.

Make a suggestion for another place to seek work. I suggest they consider modifying their job search. Because of the economic cycle, perhaps they should consider something that may not fit exactly with their degree but will sustain them for the next two or three years until the economy heals.

Make time to meet them. You might be surprised how much it will benefit you as well.

We do this because we care. What if this young person was my son or daughter? How would I like someone else to react to them?

During these times, while we are all looking for those projects that are scarce, we also have an obligation to help those around us do the best that they can. Maybe next time the shoe will be on the other foot. Will you pay it forward?

A while back, I wrote a post titled, “Can Drywall Be Green?” which discussed the aftereffects of the Chinese Drywall crisis that plagued our country earlier this decade.

When it comes down to it, drywall is a convenience product. It is efficient, replacing lath and plaster and therefore saving time and money. However the emissions drywall produces–both in its creation and in shipping–are not exactly environmentally friendly. Until recently, the best way you could make drywall more green was by buying local, or looking into EcoRock (the usability and quality of which could provide another post entirely).

I’m pleased to say I recently read about a new development in “green-er” lightweight drywall in Environmental Building News. They report that multiple companies are producing a product that weighs 25-30% less the standard. While we are commercial builders, I did the math on what this means for the typical home which has an average of about 8 tons of drywall. By reducing the weight, it means  that in a typical residential building year (not like the last 4) the US would save about 400,000 gallons of oil in transportation alone.

The benefits I see include:

  • Easier installation with less fatigue.
  • Lower weight, meaning less energy to ship.
  • Increased sag resistance, allowing the same product to be used in ceilings and walls.
  • Scores and snaps more easily than standard drywall.
  • Less waste and reduced dust.

At this point, the only downsides I see are:

  • Costs slightly more, by about 5-10%, but I believe this will moderate.
  • Some reduction in sound dampening qualities.

Since the developments on this product change are so new, I don’t have any results to report…yet. I can promise that we will be investigating lightweight drywall as we bid future projects. If you have experience with these products, it would be great if you would share in the comments section.

In the meantime, it’s nice to know that more environmentally friendly products are being researched and entering the market.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Times are getting better, but still tough.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal compared job seekers now–often isolated and searching online–to those who were looking for work during the Depression.

In the 1930s, folks were more likely to call  in favors to friends and family or knock door to door asking for work. Ironically, 27.5% of external hires made now come from referrals, even in our more connected world.

Perhaps we would be wise to focus more on personal relationships and less on the keyboard.

That said, the web is an excellent portal. I get 4 to 5 inquiries a week from our site and I try to read each one. I know behind each resume is a real human being who needs a job.

If you are on the job hunt, can I advise you to be…

Flexible. Focus on getting a job. Once you have a job it is always seems easier to find another position. Look beyond your field for the next two or three years.

Sincere.  When resumes come in, I try to envision the kind of person who sent it. Is he/she sincere? Was there an effort to get to know us? I try to respond to each inquiry individually, and I feel a larger motivation to respond to those that are personalized as opposed to mass mailing.

Present. Ask to stop by. Even if I can’t offer you a job at the moment, talking in person might give me some thoughts on other places for you to inquire. The more you ask and connect, the higher you likelihood of getting hired.

Healthy. Maintain your eating and exercise routines. Get out there and do some volunteer work. It never hurts to look around and be able to count your blessings.

Encouraged. I do think there are the right jobs out there. Just like 1938, it’s often about being in the right place at the right time.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

For the past couple of years, we’ve started a blog for each of our large projects. The premise  is simple: once a week, a designated person from the field office sends digital images and brief descriptions to our home office. We manage that information, and on Tuesdays post to each project’s page.

So, why do we go to the trouble? I’ll give you three good reasons.

Our Customers. The folks we have the privilege to work with aren’t always near their construction sites. The blogs give a visual check-in for them. They’re also great bragging tools. We’ve found our customer relationships often like to share their blog site with their team or with their own prospects.

Our Communities. A construction site is a living, growing thing. As projects move along, the community has a right to see progress–at a safe distance. I’d like to give everyone in the community a hardhat tour of the places we are building, but being more realistic, project blogs give them a front row seat complete with commentary.

Our People. Listed last, but certainly not counted least, is our Stewart Perry team. Since our business spreads across the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, it’s virtually impossible for each team member to visit each site. Project blogs let them participate and give them a sense of pride in all our work.

Would a blog be a good way to chronicle work on your next site? We’ve found project blogs an invaluable tool for building, maintaining and improving relationships.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Have you heard of “locavores?” These folks are interested in eating food that is produced within a 100-mile radius of their home. The idea is to minimize fossil fuels from shipping and nutrition lost from farm to table.

We like to consider ourselves a small part of the locavore movement. We started three years back with a few tomato plants, and our garden has grown gradually each year.

Produce now includes cantaloupe, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and more. We keep a box of these fresh vegetables on the kitchen table so folks can take what they need for their families.

It only seemed natural that our next step should be fruit.

Last week, we planted peach, plum, pear, apple and fig trees along our drive, just above our woodworking barn. As they mature, the trees will make our entry a little nicer and provide additional fresh treats for our team, our neighbors and visitors.

As for being local, the origin on these trees is just that. We were glad to team with Maple Valley Nursery, a Birmingham original with values similar to our own, to source our trees.

What are you doing to make your life more localized? Do you partner with local businesses like your own? We’ve found the benefits ripe for our picking.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

On Tuesday, I posted about our local partner Superior Mechanical and their use of Lean, a system that fuels efficiency. The Lean Enterprise Institute summarize well by saying, “The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.

I was intrigued by what Lean was doing for Superior and how it might have applications to our work, so I asked our CFO Del Allen to take an exploration trip. He visited Basic Lean, home of Lean training and implementation consultants, located in Midway, Kentucky. He then crossed into Indiana to see the system in action at Jasper Engines.

He came back with notes on the 7 wastes of Lean, which I think are helpful to all:

Over-Production– More product is produced than can be purchased.
Inventory-Extras beyond raw materials, works in progress or finished goods.
Transportation-Product movement increases risk of damage/loss/delay.
Motion-Unnecessary worker movement.
Waiting-Time a stationary product is waiting to be worked on.
Defects-Mistakes mean reworking…and extra costs.
Over-Processing-More work is done than required.

I asked him for a few observations on how Lean might apply to the corporate and construction world, and he shared great takeaways.

 Lean is embraced by upper management. At Jasper Engines, everyone from CEO to cleaning crew is held accountable for productivity and waste. For Lean to work, it needs to be system-wide. No exceptions.

Lean is process-oriented. People adjust to processes rather than vice versa. Your company should have time tested systems in place, and your team should follow them exactly.

Lean theory would work well for construction project managers. We hope to use the ideology to eliminate waste with our subcontractors, saving everyone time. For example, we are perfecting our pre-project meeting procedures, establishing a precise order for subcontractor visits.

We’ve already seen benefits of Lean by eliminating duplicated efforts and unnecessary report filing in our accounting department.  How could Lean work for your business?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Recently, our friends at Superior Mechanical were kind enough to give me a tour the new half-billion dollar Children’s Hospital expansion here Birmingham. I was interested to see how they are integrating Lean construction initiatives with their BIM work to be more efficient, and save their ultimate customer time and money.

As background, Lean is a system that seeks to streamline practices and eliminate wasted effort. The idea is to create more value with fewer resources. The system is process-oriented, with the goal of entirely eliminating excess—be it physical or in the form of time.

While Lean technology has been applied to manufacturing for several decades, Superior is using it to make them be more efficient in construction. Rodney King, their Lean Coordinator, explained the efforts.

Superior has made perfecting processes their goal. Errors are identified and the procedure is refined until mistakes evolve out. The emphasis is on the series of tasks rather than the individuals performing them, systematizing delivery.

No more creating a new mold with every project. The system becomes the skill.

Rodney gave me the example of their pre-fab shop. It was created so that many standard assemblies–like plumbing systems–can be put together in a warehouse before installing on site. The benefits are multiple:

Speed. All the tools needed are at arm’s reach. Also, with repetition, the labor becomes more time and cost efficient.

Safety. While plumbers onsite might have to work on a ladder, the tasks are at chest-level in the prefab shop.

Lower waste. Excess product that might get thrown out on the job site is set aside for another use. This is better for landfills and the bottom line.

We are evaluating lean ourselves. In fact, we’re planning a post later this week about our CFO’s visit to Basic Lean. For us, I can see the potential. While it’s not always easy to change mindsets and habits, I believe there are some wins out there in the construction industry. As Rodney said, it’s about small incremental successes over time. I agree.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email


In this economy, do you feel like you have to be in 1000 different places at once? If a customer or prospective customer has an opportunity, you want to be there, always staying close. But never too close.  I know the feeling.

Image: Business Management

The good news is, being out of sight no longer means you have to be out of mind.

With today’s networking tools and social media options, it is easier than ever to stay connected to customer relationships.

That’s important, because a well-maintained positive relationship can decide whether a current customer stays or goes elsewhere.

Relationships can also be the reason a potential prospect selects a new partner.

I feel like we are passionate about helping our customers (and others) and I want to stay closely connected to them, but I want to do it in ways that are most effective. Here is what has worked for me:

● I try to figure out how many times a customer wishes to receive contact from me. Once a week, once a month, once a quarter?

● I determine what time of the day and week they prefer to receive contact. I’ve found some people like to receive non-urgent communication over the weekend, so they can look at it first thing Monday morning before diving into the work week.

● I use different forms of communication, mixing up emails with phone calls and personal letters.

● I send articles that pertain to the interests of a particular customer.

Most important, I try to help the customer become more successful by connecting them with opportunities and projects.

I do all this because I genuinely like our customers. We try to work with customers who are, first of all, decent individuals who stand for the same character issues in life that we stand for and who represent quality organizations.

To me, if you help others first, all other things being equal,  then something good will come back to you.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

A while back, I mentioned our desire to explore Building Information Modeling (BIM), a database which catalogs a structure throughout its life cycle in real time 3D. We felt the system would provide a value-add large enough to merit hiring someone to manage our efforts. I’m pleased to say we found the right fit.

William Byrd, a graduate of Auburn University’s Building Science program, has a long history with modeling technology. His father, the manager of a steel manufacturing company, brought home drawings of machine parts that his shop was building.

William learned the basics on their home computer, and found a passion that led him to complete his senior thesis in Construction Information Technology using BIM.

I asked him to put together a list of what BIM can do for a construction company in terms of customer benefits. Here are the areas he thinks will be most useful:

Presentation. Owners, investors and contractors can see their building taken from a 2-dimensional plane to a model. They can now “walk through” a structure that has yet to be built.

Collaboration. For architects, general contractors and owners, working together on a model gets a conversation flowing. Through BIM, all parties can begin their partnership earlier. This saves time in the long run by avoiding costly changes or mistakes.

Forecasting problems. Constructing the building virtually can aid in finding problems in the design or the constructability of a project.

Record Keeping. With a complete model, an owner can see what exactly is hidden behind a wall or a concrete slab. In renovations or repairs, this can be invaluable.

It is our belief that BIM will drive efficiency in the construction industry in the same way that AutoCAD (and equivalents) revolutionized how drawings are completed by architects and engineers.  We’re confident it will give us the edge in both negotiated and hard bid work. We’re pleased to be early adopters.

I will ask William to check in occasionally, sharing thoughts on BIM upgrades and tips from along the trail. We look forward to sharing our experience.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email
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