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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.

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.

Follow-up

  • 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.

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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, I came across this post about failures of leadership. To me, Leadership is much more than following a set of rules or what someone has written in a book. Ideally it is instinctual and second-nature for one in the leadership role to not only guide, but also to learn.

Failure is certainly a very good learning experience for all involved. Have been broke financially a couple of times and once near bankruptcy I certainly learned more from these experiences than any successes, small or large. To me, it is all about what one does afterwards, as this is how one is judged in the long run.

My post,”Admitting Mistakes are Keys to Success” discussed this very notion. Abraham Lincoln and Bill Gates both failed at their first business ventures several times and yet they were able to move on and become the leaders that they are now known as.

There is a quote by David Feherty that rings true for these thoughts: “It’s how you deal with failure that determines how you achieve success.”

A few simple things I’ve learned from my challenges and “not so successes”…

  • Stand out: Do what you do best and let the world know. We utilize social media a great deal and simple marketing to differentiate ourselves from the competition.
  • Innovate: Set yourself apart. Have you done something new in your industry? Are you known for certain areas of expertise?
  • Move Faster: To me, erring on the side of being proactive is better than letting your competitor beat you to it. Act so you don’t have to react.
  • Dominate the Field: Focus on what you do and do it better than anyone else.
  • Employees: Show respect and treat your team as you would want to be treated. They are your best assets to your company.
  • Desire Excellence: It can be contagious.

The road to excellence starts with the smallest details. Overlook them to your detriment. Customers would rather deal with a quality company, that’s a fact. Balanced correctly, the two will make you a better company. But as I stated previously, if you don’t do it, someone else will.

What are your thoughts on learning from failures or mistakes? Do any stand out as learning experiences?

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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 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

The clickety-clack noise a train makes when traveling down the tracks can be a soothing sound. But hearing that same noise while driving on the interstate is annoying. For me, it’s partly because it gets me to thinking about how the road was paved and how the breaks in the pavement are slowly, but steadily having a negative effect on the fuel efficiency of the thousands of vehicles passing over it every day.

Pavement smoothness is a key factor in improving fuel efficiency, especially for heavy trucks. The smoother the pavement, the less energy (fuel) is needed to propel the truck down the road. Every crack and dip in the surface creates a small amount of resistance, requiring an equal increase in force to keep the truck traveling at the same speed.

Even the type of surface can make a difference. Asphalt is more flexible than concrete. So when it flexes as the truck is rolling, there’s more energy of that truck put into the pavement and less propelling it forward. This impacts fuel economy and results in more carbon emissions. Fuel economy can be improved by simply increasing density of the asphalt by as little as 1%.

Obviously, each individual incident of resistance is miniscule, but it adds up over the course of millions of miles. A study published in 2006 by the National Research Council Canada found that trucks traveling on rigid pavements consumed an average of 3.8 percent less fuel than those on flexible surfaces. As fuel prices steadily grow, it’s important to find ways to assist drivers in easy-to-manage ways.

This is another example of how, in the long haul, even slight changes in design can make a big difference.

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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

ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) is an organization that can have a substantial impact on construction projects, yet quite a few folks are not familiar with it. ASTM was founded in 1898 for the development and delivery of voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide variety of materials, systems and services.

ASTM’s construction standards are generally recognized as the benchmark by which materials are tested. They cover basics such as wood, stone, concrete, geotechnical engineering and much more. In many projects, these standards can be the deciding factor in whether the job proceeds, so it’s important to get to know them.

Unfortunately, people do not respect the ASTM standards until it’s too late. Even though the building owner may not ultimately be responsible for low results on strength tests, he or she will be affected if a job is delayed significantly because of it.

We prefer “Design-Build” projects as we can utilize these ASTM standards and are prepared before we reach problems during a project. We work with architects directly on behalf of our client and this helps to alleviate any problems before they arise thanks to our knowledge of ASTM standards and past experiences.

Therefore, it is wise to be respectful of ASTM. These technical committees meet twice a year, so keep track of any changes in standards. It might not seem like the most interesting material to monitor, but it could be the most important.

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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

Imagine attending a conference and being introduced to a prospective client. This person asks about your company and professional background. Instead of replying to the prospect you say, “Let my friend Dave here tell you all about us.” And then you walk away without speaking a word.

It is extremely unlikely that this potential client would end up hiring you. But in a way, that is what many companies try to do when they use canned programs to implement their customer relationship management.

I don’t believe it is possible for anybody else to tell your story the way you can. Others might be able to provide the basic details, but in order to truly explain your company’s character and culture it needs to come directly from you.

There is ample evidence that executives in the commercial construction and design industry are hesitant to enter into unknown business relationships.

According to a nationwide survey I read recently in Construction Executive magazine, 83 percent of respondents said their primary source of business is a combination of repeat clients, referrals and networking. Yet amazingly, 33 percent said they do nothing to nurture existing business relationships.

What’s going to happen if your competition makes the effort to cultivate business relationships with a personal touch, and you simply rely on canned programs? Sure it takes a lot more time and work to do it on your own.

Success is never easy, but if you don’t take the initiative, someone else will.

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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


Thanks to several social media tools, I have been able to stay connected with increased frequency than before web 2.0.  A couple of years ago we started using several  of these  and the effectiveness of helping with relationships has been very encouraging.  I can count on a brief exchange with someone due to my blog posts, as you see here, on Facebook or on Twitter.  On the other hand, I will say that social media can be a detriment to your time management efforts.

The internet is a large and highly populated space and it is easy to get lost or chasing rabbit trails. I compare it to someone looking into a refrigerator when one is hungry, but not really sure what they want, yet they open the door to see if anything has changed. Some would compare it to insanity; doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time.

But through the use of Social Media, companies can now focus their attention on specific audiences much easier and start topics of conversation with just a sentence.  In addition, you can make people feel more important by personalizing the messages sent.  I enjoy reaching out to old friends to check on their well-being as well as business acquaintances, as I believe that this is a lost aspect of business today.

I believe that the economy is getting better and to me, it more important than ever before to be sure that you’re strengthening and maintaining relationships with your clients and associates in the most efficient ways across multiple platforms.

Listed below are some other blog posts to help you on your way:

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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

Are You Saying Thank You Enough?

As the year comes to a close, I wonder what it would be like if more of us said thank you to each other.  Not just at the end of the year, but throughout the year…

I can count on my two hands the amount of times that someone from downstream has thanked us for a material order or a subcontract we have given them over the past few years. Maybe it’s because people were too busy (before 2007)…or maybe they do not think what a wonderful opportunity this would be to build a relationship.

I’m not talking about the obligatory Christmas present or card. I’m talking about genuinely connecting throughout the year to say “thanks.” If you and your business did this, I suspect that your relationships will strengthen more because your competitors are probably not taking the time to say “thanks” either.

Two simple words, expressed in different ways.

From what I have read recently, people who show gratitude have more energy, more optimism, better social contacts and are healthier. We say thank you (a lot) and we try to do it in different ways because we are sincere. It’s who we are. It’s our culture and besides, we enjoy doing business with our customer relationships.

A teaspoon of honey goes a long way to strengthen the relationships for more opportunities which leads to more success.

 

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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 friend of mine was just diagnosed with a severe illness this week. Sadly, it was the kind a simple procedure could have detected much earlier, solving the problem without major surgery.

I think we are all sometimes guilty of procrastinating matters related to our health. It seems parallel to the way we think of safety in our companies. We never worry much about either until we have a problem. When things are back in balance, we realize how fortunate we are.

We should all be concerned about safety, but oftentimes we’re more focused on profits and maintaining a corporation. Here are a few ways we keep projects safe without a huge upfront time investment:

  • Safety training. Meet routinely to review the basics.  Most of the accidents on a job can be avoided by simple measures.
  • Hazard identification. Point out potential hazards that might be unusual on a project site.
  • Emergency evacuation. Make contractors and workers aware of what they should do in the case of any emergency, from fires to chemical releases to severe weather.
  • Communication. Consider having both internal and external communication plans in place, whether you are the contractor, owner, architect or party. In the event of a catastrophic problem you’ll be glad you are prepared. I bet BP wishes they had a communications plan.


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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.