Say "tilt-up concrete" to most people and the image that comes to mind is a warehouse with four square walls.
That's a preconception tilt-up concrete contractors have been fighting for years.
"The biggest thing we do when selling a project is try to stress the architectural features we can accomplish, to try to overcome that 'box' image," says Mark Meyer, vice president of Meyer Brothers Building Co., Lees Summit, Mo. "We sell the potential."
"Tilt-up concrete has more options than any other building method out there," says Andrew McPherson, owner of Seretta Construction, Apopka, Fla. "It can be infinitely shaped and colored and featured."
The best way to convince clients of how well it will work is to show them past projects, says Bret Newcomb, president of Newcomb Construction, Madison, Wis.
"We look at every project we build as a sales tool," he says. "So we'll seek out special projects that incorporate some unique features that we can use to sell the next job.
"We still do plenty of boxes - that's where you make your money - but the special projects are the ones that sell the next year of business for you."
Despite the fact that tilt-up has been around for years, many architects and designers aren't aware of the method and everything it can do. Some of that, though, is finally starting to change.
"It was almost always a case of somebody designing something and we'd have to convert it to tilt-up," Meyer says. "It has become more visibly known as a construction method."
The competition varies from market to market, but most tilt-up contractors find themselves competing not against other tilt-up companies, but instead against other building methods.
Florida-based Seretta Construction works all over the country, but tries to do as much work as possible near its two offices in Apopka and Charlotte, N.C.
"In Florida, we find ourselves competing against masonry," McPherson says. "In Charlotte, it's still a lot of brick construction. In other parts of the country, our biggest challenge is precast."
For most tilt-up contractors, masonry is still the biggest competitor, but that seems likely to change as there are fewer skilled masons entering the industry.
"It seems to be a dying industry," says Newcomb. "We're finding that there are so few skilled masons left in our market that we can beat them pretty easily on price."
And while precast concrete is gaining popularity in some markets, tilt-up offers some advantages that precast can't meet, most notably size.
"The size is limited because it has to be transported to the site," McPherson says. "We can pour multistory panels on-site and tilt them into place, so for large buildings, it's a clear advantage."
Overall, tilt-up concrete continues to grow in popularity as a construction method. According to the Tilt-Up Concrete Association, the industry experienced growth of 23 percent in 2004, with 664 million sq. ft. of buildings constructed using site-case tilt-up. That follows a 7 percent increase in 2003.
Growth in office, retail
Long a staple of warehouses and distribution centers, tilt-up seems to be making major inroads to the office and retail markets.
"Right now, retail is the biggest market we're working in," says Meyer of Meyer Brothers, which does most of its work within a 150-mile radius of Kansas City. "We're seeing a lot of interest in lifestyle open-air malls, car dealerships, motorcycle dealers, that sort of project."
A recent project Meyer Brothers constructed, the Shops of Boardwalk, a lifestyle mall in Kansas City, Mo., won the company a 2004 TCA Achievement Award because of its effective demonstration of tilt-up for the retail market.
"It was a project that was very heavy in the architectural side," Meyer says. "There was a huge mix of materials: Cultured Stone, EIFS, cornices, Scott cast-in bricks. It's the kind of project people are surprised is tilt-up."
So far, the Kansas City market has shown little interest in tilt-up for offices.