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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.


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.


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.


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

Recessions don’t have many redeeming qualities, but they do create opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Let me explain myself with an example. During our current economic downturn, commercial and retail spaces have often been leasing at reduced rates. Many of the prime locations already have been scooped up by opportunistic businesses.

There still are good options. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Time is Ripe for Negotiation,” annual leases for U.S. office properties averaged $23.20 a square foot during the fourth quarter of 2010, down from $25.02 in 2008. Meanwhile, despite the discounts, office vacancies have increased to 13.4 percent from 11.8 percent.

Trends are similar in the retail and industrial sectors.

  • Retail property leases averaged $15.56 per square foot during the fourth quarter of 2010, down from $17.51 in 2008.
  • Retail vacancies rose to 7.3 percent from 6.6 percent.
  • Industrial property leases dropped from $6.28 a square foot in 2008 to $5.47 last year.
  • Industrial vacancies bumped up to 10.2 percent from 8.8.

Having more available space on the market combined with lower rates means this is an excellent time to negotiate with landlords. They would prefer to lease part of the space rather than let the entire building sit empty.

This is also a good opportunity to right-size. We’re increasingly seeing retail boxes get smaller in an attempt to be more effective and profitable.


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

In short, sometimes.

Last week, I was reading an article in Engineering News Record titled, “When Does It Pay to Use Innovative Concrete Construction Products?” The piece details a study by the Construction Industry Institute where three recent innovations in concrete were investigated, comparing them to traditional counterparts. The article explains the “why” behind their conclusions, but here’s the executive summary:

Modular formwork involves substantially more labor, which is usually cost prohibitive.

Self-consolidating concrete is a toss up. Labor costs are lower, but they might not offset the signifcantly higher material price.

High-strength rebar is a win over traditional steel enforcement.

I’ve been through several decades of innovations and can tell you that some have proven their worth and others are show.

For example, one of the challenges we have experienced in formed concrete work–especially the more complicated pieces–is the quantity of rebar in the design and getting concrete properly placed among this amount of rebar. Having less rebar makes this an easier task to accomplish properly.

As for high strength rebar, reducing the quantity of steel  involves less production and freight, leaving a smaller carbon footprint.

To me, there is never a large win in cost, sustainability or reduced carbon. The key is small wins multiplied many times over.


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

Last week, I was having a conversation about pricing on an HVAC system with Heath Cather in our office. Why had the mechanical engineer chosen hot gas reheat? It’s more expensive and sometimes unnecessary, I offered.

He mentioned a trend he’s noticed. With all the mold law suits lately, we are seeing recommendations for a sure bet against moisture: hot gas reheat.

What is hot gas re-heat?

With this system, you have two coils in the air handling unit. The air first travels across a cooling coil which de- humidifies, then it crosses the hot gas coil that raises the air temp back up 15-20 degrees to further dehumidify and render the air neutral, eliminating over-cooling.  Once the thermostat calls for cooling, the hot gas drops out in order to lower the space temp.

Why are we seeing more use of hot gas reheat?

I talked with a mechanical contractor relationship of ours for details. This is what he told me:

Recent requirements to introduce large amounts of outside air into the workplace can result in the rise of the  indoor humidity level in the space. People want to combat this by purchasing a unit with excessive cooling tonnage, a “bigger is better” mentality. The over-powered unit causes the system to short cycle, not running long enough to de-humidify. We’re left with excess moisture, which can lead to mold.

Thoughts on combating the moisture with hot gas reheat:

  • Energy code limits the use of electric re-heat to 42,000 btu and below.
  • With hot gas reheat, the average 5-ton unit sees a price increase between $2,800 and 3,000, rising significantly as the tonnage increases.
  • If the space is cooling, it is de-humidifying, whether humidistat is calling or not.
  • Humidity control from a properly sized unit can lead to energy savings. Lower humidity in summer will make you feel more comfortable at 75-77 degrees, while if the humidity is high , 70-71 degrees may not seem comfortable. The opposite is true for winter operation.


Hot gas is more expensive. A standard  and properly sized system has been proven to be just as effective in humidity removal and comfort control.
Know what you’re building and communicate it. What will the building be used for, and are there special climate issues involved? This is another reason design build works for many clients.
Application is key. HVAC is not a one size fits all discipline.From a contractors stand point, we see the addition of hot gas reheat on the increase and the majority of the time justified.  However one should stop and evaluate: do we really need this, or is it just insurance for a 3rd party?


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

When we built our corporate campus a few years back, we were thinking about how to create a better workplace for our folks.

Our goal was to create an environment  to promote teamwork, break down cylinders and be fun. To accomplish this, I considered multiple designs:

–minimum walls and many open work areas, our customer CKP has found successful

–many workstations for management and support staff as well

–only one wall separating desks from each other, with the remaining space open to a common area

We ended up building the perfect space for us. Our offices do have walls, but there is glass across the front to keep them open. We placed our focus on common areas, like our huge work station where we all meet up to look at plans.

With all that research done our end, it was interesting to run across a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “Designs to Make you Work Harder.”  How others approach the subject of workplace design?

Four design firms were challenged to create the ideal 15×15 ft mid-level executive’s office with no budget restraints. In the process, they learned a lot about workplace trends.

What’s in:

  • glass–shows openness and lets people see the executive at work
  • separate work zones–separates tasks and encourages collaboration
  • integration of technology–wireless friendly

What’s out:

  • status symbol executive desks
  • “ego walls” filled with trophies/awards
  • tons of storage space (paperless trends have eliminated the need)

Interestingly, these thoughts seem to fall right in line with green building and LEED guidelines–more light, openness and sustainability. I had to feel proud that even though our LEED certified place was concepted a few years back, it seems right on point with what’s happening today. What has worked for your team?


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

It seems like so far this year, we’ve had three seasons: Winter, then Tornado Season and now Hot Summer. It feels like we skipped Spring entirely.

For the last couple of weeks, temperatures in the Southeast–and across the country–have been unbelievably hot, which puts additional stresses on ready mix concrete pours.

Temperature, wind and humidity all can have a negative effect on concrete work. Planning ahead to deal with the extreme conditions can make the difference between a good pour and one with long term issues.

I asked our Vice President, Clinton Smith, to join me in sharing a few thoughts for making a good concrete pour in bad weather. Whether you are the banker, owner or the chief, here are a few thoughts to consider:

Prep Work

  • Ensure there are enough concrete finishers on the job. A slab that gets ahead of the finishers by setting up too quickly and is an ugly sight.
  • Plan an early morning or evening pour. In particularly hot spots out West, we have started at midnight and use ice water in the mix.
  • Schedule concrete trucks to avoid waiting time. This will keep the concrete from going into set mode too soon.
  • Consider modifying the concrete mix to include chemical set retarders and water reducers if other actions are not enough.


  • Start curing the concrete as soon as finishing is complete. Windbreaks, sunshades or water misting will hold water in longer to continue the hydrating process, which leads to stronger concrete.
  • Saw cut slabs immediately after finishing the concrete to control where cracking might occur. All concrete will crack, it’s just a matter of where.


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

It’s no secret that the aftermath of the Recession continues to take a toll on the construction industry. Last week, as I listened to more struggling economic news, I must admit that I thought to myself, “How much longer?”

I have seen several of my competitors – companies I have bid against for the past 30 years – go out of business. It’s been difficult to watch.

Lucky for me, we have people around here who pick each other up. A day or so after my low point, our CFO told me he thinks things are gradually getting better. Here are a few thoughts for an improved outlook:

Think like a golfer. To me, the downturn might be like a golf handicap: you work hard, a few changes start to occur and then one day things are better.

Don’t trust the status quo. They say that housing always leads us into a recession and always leads us out, but it has become obvious that will not happen this time. There’s no need to wait around for things to happen as they have in the past. Be innovative. Be the catalyst for change.

Play up what works. In times like these, I feel it is important to focus more on the bottom line than on the revenue. Instead of taking an elaborate project outside your normal realm, concentrate on projects that you do best. This will enable you to offer value to customers in terms of quality service and quick delivery.

Like most companies, we have taken a financial hit recently, but we’ve still turned a profit every year. We’ve done it by working smart and staying within what we do best, commercial building construction. By focusing on your strengths, you CAN overcome the weakness of the current economy.


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

On a couple of our projects recently, we needed retaining walls built in “cut earth sections” as opposed to “fill earth sections”. In these projects we needed top down construction and a method that afforded easy accessibility and we were dealing with earth that would only be “cut” and not “filled.”

The alternative? What you see on some interstates today, a “Soil Nail” system.  It is economical compared to other top down systems and more flexible in construction technique.

Soil Nailing” has been around since the early ’70s, first developed in France, and has grown to be a standard for stabilization where ground conditions are right for the application, the water table is manageable and where tight access may pose a challenge to other systems.

Installing soil nails is a multiple-step process involving rebar or hollow threaded bars, head plates, a flexible reinforced mesh followed by shotcrete.

We recently used a soil nail system on a new project for United States Steel and in a project of ours located in Gastonia, North Carolina.  Cost-effective, offered a smaller right-of-way and had less of an environmental impact in an area where this is of concern.

Is a Soil Nail Wall a good fit for your development? Take the following into consideration:

  • Soil nail walls can be built to follow unique-shaped walls.
  • Equipment used is portable and can fit in tight spaces.
  • Is usually more cost-effective than other methods meeting similar demands.
  • Has less impact environmentally than other methods.
  • Soil Nail walls cannot be used where groundwater is a problem.
  • Soil on the jobsites must be able to stand unsupported while the Soil Nail Wall is being installed.
  • Sites with soil that has low shear strength or lack cohesion cannot use a Soil Nail Wall.
  •  If a site has poor drainage or is prone to freeze-thaw cycles, Soil Nail walls may not be an effective alternative.


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