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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
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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.

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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

As the economy continues to improve, construction demand is slowly increasing. As a result, the demand for construction materials is also increasing and one has to assume those costs will continue to go up throughout 2011.

Recently, I was talking with one of our fabricators who supplies steel for projects throughout the nation and he told me he has seen more orders this year than in any of the past three years. He also said steel is going up nearly every day, be it because of demand or the futures market or scarcity of the product. This, of course, is impacting construction costs.

This got me to thinking about what the cost of other construction materials may look like going forward this year and into 2012. I did a little research, and here are my findings:

Cement and Concrete: The Recession had a significant impact on this industry. Because of reduced demand, 14 cement plants closed in 2009 and several others suspended planned expansions. But after a flat 2010, demand is expected to rise 1.4 percent this year and 4.0 percent next year.

Copper: Building construction accounts for nearly half of all copper consumption, and the demand today is far less than it was five years ago. Production is forecast to decline by 1.8 percent this year. But the demand should increase as the construction industry improves, which could result in copper shortfalls in 2012 and a spike in prices.

Drywall: New residential construction accounts for half of all drywall consumption, and residential demand remains low. The price for gypsum, the primary component in drywall board, rose slightly in 2010 but began 2011 heading downward.

Lumber: Prices dipped late last year, but we’re still up nearly 5 percent over 2009. Demand is not expected to increase significantly this year, however, as long as new residential construction remains flat.

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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

While I think our economy continues to heal from what we are seeing the next 12 to 18 months will see more failures of the weak in commercial real estate and the construction industry.  2012 will be a tough year on the sureties and surety credit will even be harder to obtain over the next couple of years.

Many years ago when we were getting started, it was another tough time for surety credit and I will never forget those times.   The surety industry talks about the three “C’s” to obtain bonding capacity:  Capital. Capacity. Character. To me it was more like Capital. Capital and more Capital were the three “C’s”.

I believe there should be an “E” added in for Experience. If I were a surety, I would take less capital if there was a healthy dose of “experience” mixed in, but this is hard to list on a financial balance sheet. To me no substitute for the experience of hard knocks.

Beyond the Three C’s

I asked our surety manager, Ms. Sandi Benford of Berkley Surety Group, what she looks for in a good credit risk (beyond the three C’s and other underwriting). Here is what she had to say:

  • A contractor that is able and willing to communicate the good and the not so good. No Surprises.
  • A company that is able to forecast with accuracy. Being honest with oneself.  If there is a problem on the horizon have at least some semblance of an action plan.
  • If the company is experiencing ongoing losses, does upper management act with personal responsibility equability considering others in the company?

Thoughts and Comments?

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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.

We were asked recently to help one of our customers with a damaged concrete sidewalk. Sounds simple enough, but it wasn’t just any sidewalk. This one was elevated and it was absolutely necessary for this office facility that the sidewalk remain navigable for the tenants through out the repair process.

In years past, if someone wanted to change the appearance of a concrete surface or repair it, we would have had to cut out the entire floor and replace it, incurring great expense along the away. But new technology called micro-topping has made it significantly easier and less cost prohibitive to make such alterations. That’s the route we chose for this project.

The troweled-on, cementitious topping is paper-thin, yet bonds to most any substrate, from concrete and asphalt to wood. Because it is not confined to the color limitations of chemical stains, micro-topping allows for bright designs to be placed into an existing floor of a different color.

Even if the world is not your canvas, your floor can be.


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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.

This week, several of our team attended a workshop led by Matthew Offenberg, a recognized expert in the field of pervious concrete. The discussion centered on the design and function of pervious concrete pavements, new developments in the technology and some of the challenges in implementing it. I found it interesting that the workshop was held here in Birmingham, an area known for its impermeable clay soils.

Our company has experience with pervious pavements in coastal areas with sandy, drainable soils. We will install our first pervious concrete parking lot in this area this month. Apparently, we aren’t the only ones expanding our use of this sustainable method. Factors that have contributed to the spread of the pervious industry to areas not originally thought to be candidates include:

Increased land values. The growing scarcity of suitable building sites have pushed developers and planners to squeeze more out of the site, and getting rid of the detention ponds creates more space.

Availability of materials. Readily accessible and relatively inexpensive crushed stone makes the addition of a “drainable layer” under paving easier in areas similar to Birmingham.

Industry growth. We now have more qualified suppliers and contractors, training programs and continuing education programs. This provides more resources and experience to draw.

As these and other sustainable technologies become tested by time and experience, their popularity will grow. In this instance, sustainable has become practical, and we consider that a success. Here are some pros and cons regarding the implementation and use of pervious concrete:

POSITIVE

  • Allows drainage of storm water directly into sub-soils
  • Omits the need for expensive retention/detention ponds, saving valuable land space for other uses
  • Structurally self-supporting water storage units can be placed under pervious concrete for irrigation use
  • Can be placed over tree root systems allowing for limited space traffic use
  • Can be placed in run-off buffer zones expanding traffic use space
  • Omits need for extensive storm drainage pipe systems as well as curb and gutter
  • No reinforcement required

NEGATIVE

  • Periodic cleaning required to maintain porosity, but minimal maintenance otherwise
  • Relative weakness does not allow for heavy truck traffic
  • Some raveling may occur over time, especially along edges—may require regular concrete ribbon along edges
  • 6” minimum thickness for light duty traffic
  • Requires substantial porous substrate for positive drainage
  • Must be kept covered and barricaded for a minimum of seven days after initial installation
  • Freeze/thaw spalling can develop in northern climates where there are extreme cold temperatures.

For us, the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to pervious concrete in the right applications—it maybe something to consider when you’re planning your next project. It’s a good option for the environment and an overall value-add.

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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.

Last week, I received a call from a long-term customer asking us to get involved with a new civil project. The catch? It starts in 10 days. Wow—that’s a nice problem to have these days. The site is full of challenges we like: wetlands, a stream relocation, a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) interface along a major interstate, a new 4-lane public bridge, underground storm water retention and a 800’ long by 25’ high segmental retaining wall.

In regards to the segmental retaining walls, we have had our share of successes and not-so-successes. Here is what we have learned:

Make design the core of your project. All walls that retain earth, even the smallest, should be built using engineered drawings. These should be prepared by a designer who has experience with the wall systems and the site-specific conditions.

Test to give the designer the best starting point. Proper testing is specific to the area of the site where the wall is going to be constructed, prolific enough to provide a complete analysis of the area from one end of the wall to the other, and give an engineer the data that he needs to properly design the wall.

Work together. Successful wall projects have a cohesive team of professionals including the civil engineer, wall designer and geotechnical engineer. Everyone should review and coordinate with each other’s work. It is important to look beyond the design of the wall itself, to the global stability of the soils and slopes that the wall is sitting on. Consider storm water drainage effects, methods for installing fences, guardrails and landscaping and other features beyond the scope of the wall.

We have learned from experience that it is a lot cheaper to resolve conflicts before construction starts, when you’re dealing with lines on paper. A wise engineer once told me, “Whenever there is a design change during construction the cost will always go up.” I’ve found that to be true. We’re planning ahead on this job, trying to foresee difficulties before they cost us time and money.


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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.

Every once in a while, our team takes a bit of time away from the busy schedules we all maintain for a get together. It’s not a big time commitment, but it gives us an opportunity to catch up with folks who may be in and out of the office a good bit. Today, we all had lunch.

It’s always encouraging to me when, after we’ve had some laughs about little league and vacation, the conversation moves toward team building. This is a particularly sharing group—if they’ve had a success, they want everyone else to know how so the success can spread. As I’ve said before, the sum of our work is far greater than the parts.

Here’s what came out of lunch today:

  • Today, retaining customers is more vital than ever.
  • We are in the service business, but we are also in the “experience business.” Conscious or not, our customers will rate their experience as good, bad or indifferent with every sale.
  • Make no mistake about it, cost is important more than ever. But if cost is the same, the experience factor is the new competitive differentiator.
  • Our customers are loyal to us when they receive value beyond the ordinary buy and sell.
  • The more extraordinary the value, the greater the loyalty.
  • It’s important to determine what the “value lever” for each of our individual customers. We’ve got customers who like a routine. Some want fast answers while others are looking for a personal touch. Most appreciate problem solving beyond the transaction. Whatever the individual value leveler, identify it and work to fulfill it.
  • Stay in touch. Communicate. Communicate in different ways: a short note, an e-mail, a phone call or a value suggestion is often appreciated. Smaller, more frequent connects will lead to longer relationships and loyalty.

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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.

The short answer: To me, nobody knows.

If we compare the normal demand for commercial projects in the United States to our current climate, the market is down 30-50 percent. The laws of supply and demand tell us commodities prices should decrease in order to level things out. The opposite is happening. On average, we are paying more for materials then we were last year. But why? Some may blame globalization, but I’m not so sure I agree.

I think it has more to do with manipulation of the futures market and the operation of hedge funds. These interfere with “normal” or what used to be a matter of supply and demand. In 2004 and 2005, steel prices rose 50-60 percent after being flat for many years. It got to the point that it was embarrassing. On long-term projects, I would have to go back to the owner and tell them of increased cost for no change in scope.

Then there was the asphalt. I remember being on vacation and meeting with someone from Wall Street. He was blaming rising prices on increased oil use in India and China, but I think this was faulty logic. Hedge funds and various other investment vehicles were driving the price of oil up.

The increases we have seen in the last two or three quarters are far less dramatic, but they do spike. It makes it really tough on our customers. During the last 12 months, average reduction in commercial construction has been in the 35 percent range. However, construction material prices rose almost 3 percent in February. Lumber went up nearly 8 percent in January and was almost 18 percent over the year before. All commodities including steel, copper and brass have increased while demand is decreasing substantially.

Now people are blaming China again. There are many myths about China and I am not sure what to believe. Their gross domestic product has increased while their energy consumption decreased. I’m just not sure how that can happen.

I will say over the last several weeks of bids, the prices have remained relatively benign, which is a good thing. Maybe we are getting back to core factors of supply and demand. I hope so, at least for a while—for our business, but more so for our customers.

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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.

We try to keep our finger on the pulse of best management practices for today’s construction. To us, that happens when quality means/methods balance with an eye toward the environment. Pervious concrete can do both.

Pervious concrete is a wonderful concoction that holds up structurally and is porous enough that water can seep through it and flow back into the aquifer. It has polymers that glue the aggregate together, simultaneously allowing open cells to be formed in the concrete. The top inch filters out particulars such as oil and grease and the storm water flows through.

We had our first encounter with pervious concrete 5 years ago on one of our Florida projects. Since then, we have used it on several more sites. Here’s what we have learned from our experience:

● The product works better on sandy soil, which affords good drainage.

● Some pervious pavements fail because of insufficient drainage, especially in climates that experience heavy winter freezes that harden the ground.

● Shale aggregates in the concrete can break under freeze/thaw conditions, clogging the water flow.

● The selection of aggregate in the sub-base is important, and the curing process is crucial. A seven-day, wet-curing period is what we have learned works best.

Pervious concrete is a Best Management Practice recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. While it is a little more expensive than traditional concrete, additional cost will be balanced by the reduction or elimination of traditional storm water management systems like retention ponds and sewer tie-ins.

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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.