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Supporting the Precast Industry Through Education

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While the debate rages on regarding the viability and sustainable use of concrete, it is undoubtedly a challenging landscape for those within the sector. The industry is demanding improvement from all sides, cost, quality, and sustainability. This particular combination can be difficult to balance and, as tends to be the case, compromise is needed. However, it is within this discussion that precast concrete has emerged as a solution. Its strength, versatility and a more positive environmental profile all contribute to it being a building material that is growing in both use and reputation. Emerging from two separate groups representing the bridge and transportation sector (CABA) and buildings/parking structures (MAPA), the PCI Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI) was formed in 1978 to promote the accelerated growth and increased marketability and profitability of businesses in the precast concrete industry throughout the Mid-Atlantic region serving companies in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

While Cast-in-Place concrete may have an advantage from a historical viewpoint, the Precast sector is making huge forward strides and is fast becoming the go-to building material. Undoubtedly, this is an industry that has grown and developed hugely in recent decades. For Dawn Decker, Executive Director of PCI Mid-Atlantic, this momentum has been in tandem with the education work the association does on behalf of its members. “As the precast and prestressed concrete industry has evolved with more market data and research findings, we’ve expanded our education and awareness outreach to include more stakeholders that influence the design, specification and construction of buildings, bridges, and parking structures. Additionally, Jim Voss, president of JVI-Inc., established the PCI Foundation in 2001, a separate non-profit from PCI with its own operating budget. The PCI Foundation focuses on providing curriculum development grants to schools of architecture, engineering, and construction management.”

concrete bridge project by PCI

In addition to this education piece, the association also works to support its members in a variety of other ways. Through a combination of marketing and facilitating connections right through to providing resources, support and expertise, members benefit from the reassurance of having an association with a huge knowledge base in their corner. “Our chapter is focused on supporting precast professionals, generating greater awareness for precast, and improving the communication between our industry, academia, and design community to foster beneficial working relationships for all.”

Marketing a hugely well-known product in an industry that has been working with concrete for generations may seem like an unnecessary venture, however, it is a vital aspect of the work PCI Mid-Atlantic does. By generating marketing content for the chapter, member businesses, academia, and PCI as a national institute, the chapter works tirelessly to promote and increase awareness and use of precast and prestressed concrete for bridges, buildings, and parking structures. As Decker explains, the need to keep Precast concrete on everyone’s mind has many benefits. One of the most important being the need to attract talent to a sector that can struggle to fill working positions. “Our members are constantly recruiting new employees in various roles in their organizations; this is one of their greatest challenges. Last year we established a Career Center with job descriptions linked to our 10 workforce development videos and a zip code plant locator to generate applicants – we’re committed to supplementing company efforts to get more people working in our industry. To that end, we’ve started sharing employee stories highlighting Women in Construction, our Young Professionals Network, and this year, we’re launching a Veterans in Precast blog series. The people that work in our industry are our greatest asset and we need more people to join us. Celebrating our member employees is part of these initiatives.”

“Members benefit from the reassurance of having an association with a huge knowledge base in their corner.”

As the industry pivots to more sustainable practices, PCI Mid-Atlantic’s members benefit from its ability to harness industry leading knowledge and they receive legislative advice on current challenges. At PCI Mid-Atlantic’s annual winter meeting, Emily Lorenz, a PE, industry expert and consultant, gave a talk about legislation that is incorporating sustainability criteria, such as low embodied carbon concrete. As Decker shares, its members are in various stages of improving their manufacturing practices and environmental footprint as well as conducting LCAs (life cycle assessments) to produce EPDs (environmental product declarations). By providing this information to members, businesses in the sector can be best prepared to overcome the challenges of introducing EPDs. As Lorenz explained, the legislation surrounding these requirements make for a very disjointed approach. “Things are moving quickly to prepare for the federally funded infrastructure work. Agencies are looking to EPDs and setting limits in an effort to build toward a more-resilient and zero-carbon future. But some of the guidance or model code language doesn’t conform to the requirements in the ISO standards related to comparisons. Some agencies have established environmental benchmarks that don’t correlate to current construction methods. Others are based on best practices for buildings including energy performance and construction types. This scattered approach […] makes it difficult for designers and product manufacturers to comply.”

With these complex and on-going challenges facing members, it could be easy to forget the innovative and high-quality projects that are being completed every day. Speaking to Decker, she was keen to reinforce the message that using precast prefabricated components produced in factory-controlled environments deliver resilient, durable, low maintenance and beautiful structures. Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh is a prime example. This three-span replacement bridge that sits almost 100 feet above ground consists of 21 Prestressed Concrete Bulb Tee Beams, each one an impressive 155 ft long, weighing over 100 tons. With conventional methods, replacing a bridge this size would’ve taken about three to four years, plus for planning the bridge, choosing its design, obtaining approval, installing an abutment, and cleaning the site. With precast concrete construction? Fern Hollow Bridge in Frick Park was completed in under a year. “This is extremely, extremely fast. On a normal bridge project, we probably would’ve been about year three before we reached this point,” said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, District Executive at Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). As Decker explains, this project was incredibly challenging. As the bridge had collapsed, there was a need to move decisively and navigate a complex landscape. “The collapse of Fern Hollow Bridge begged the need for an emergency acquisition system. The project team was stacked with both public and private players who worked intensely to meet unprecedented construction rates, delivering the bridge beams just six months after the initial collapse. It’s incredible for a bridge project of this magnitude to move so quickly and open in less than a year, and it’s all thanks to close collaboration and a push to meet this community’s urgent need.”

 John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts project completed by PCI members
John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts at Villanova University

Another example of the quality work being completed by PCI Mid-Atlantic members was the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts at Villanova University. Villanova University wanted to maintain the Gothic revival architecture found throughout the 175-year-old campus in the design of their new performing arts center. Additionally, they aimed to achieve LEED Silver with notable inclusions such as reflective roofing, a green roof over the main proscenium theater, recyclable materials, low-emitting finishes, and an energy-efficient HVAC system. “The client and design team utilized architectural precast concrete due to construction cost savings and better lead time of the exterior wall related to a traditional stone façade construction. This was based on the rigorous construction schedule reviewing lessons learned from a traditional stone veneer project being constructed at the same time across the street. The John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts at Villanova University was completed as a $50 million, three-story, 85,000-square-foot structure that houses a full-size theater and various arts-related classrooms.”

With a rich history and an ever-growing awareness of its benefits, Precast Concrete is becoming the best choice on projects that require strength, efficiency, accelerated construction and additional sustainability. For Decker and those at PCI Mid-Atlantic, the future will be one of continued support, education, and advocacy. As she explains, this will benefit members both today, and long into the future. “We need more visibility at high schools to let guidance counselors know about our industry for those students that don’t want to pursue a college education. A recruitment path for our members in their local communities. Our goal is to create a strong precast community that is inclusive of all our diverse stakeholders. When we come together, we want to learn, innovate, and advance all while celebrating what precast and prestressed concrete has to offer.”

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