Concrete masonry units (CMU) are some of the most durable, cost-efficient, fire-safe and non-combustible building materials in the world. And a new program connecting block producers, contractors, consumers and other stakeholders will enable the industry to carve out a bigger share of the construction market through a concerted, multi-faceted effort supported by a new national checkoff program.
There’s precedent for the success of checkoff programs like the one passed via nationwide vote of CMU producers in December 2021, as announced by the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). The referendum vote — preceded by the proposed checkoff’s approval as part of the Concrete Products Research, Education and Promotion Act enacted by Congress in the Fall of 2021 — advanced the process to implement the program, which is positioned to drive demand for block and win back market share eroded by other building materials.
It’s been a years-long process that continues with the appointment of federal leadership positions that will then select regional and local leaders to represent a cross-section of producers from around the country with a common goal. Those leaders — appointed by the U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and equitably representing CMU producers in 15 districts encompassing the entire country — will be charged with directing the checkoff’s work funded by a one-cent contribution per block produced and sold in the U.S.
That collaborative spirit will be foundational in moving the checkoff forward and accomplishing its goals, according to Ray McVeigh, interim CEO of the Concrete Masonry Products Board (CMPB), the entity responsible for implementing CMU Checkoff programs.
“We’re so much more powerful as a group. we want to continue together and take it to the next level in really advancing the industry,” McVeigh said. “I like to recall the Thomas Paine quote when talking about the checkoff: ‘If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.’”
How The CMU Checkoff Will Build Block Demand
Borne out of a need for industry-wide strategic investments to promote CMU as a world-class building material, the CMU Checkoff is administered by the DOC and will create key program areas by which the industry can grow demand for its products. Six key program areas were identified early in the checkoff development process that will stoke improved demand for CMU:
- Codes & Standards
- Education & Research
- Workforce Recruitment
- Educate Design Pros
- Support Design
Current estimated production of around 1 billion blocks per year and a levy of one cent per block produced and sold in the U.S. will yield $10 million in funding for the six key program areas. Those program areas, Ogilvie said, had broad support in the early stages of building around the checkoff’s early skeleton.
“These six value propositions were established from industry feedback to be successful and build a bright future. They were established by the industry and for the industry,” he said. “It’s the recognition of the ways the industry can maximize the impact and minimize the time and the cost of the checkoff, an investment in our business.”
While they represent different, unique paths to create new demand value for the CMU industry, the checkoff’s six program areas are in many ways interwoven and all function together as a whole. In the near term, marketing is important in telling the industry’s story. But beyond its promotional function in creating general awareness about CMU, it will create a groundswell of information in the long run that can contribute to both more in-depth consumer education as well as stoking interest in maintaining and evolving the industry’s workforce.
Other areas —revamping codes and standards as well as educating current and future design professionals, engineers and architects — have a longer tail and will require more time to reach fruition, according to Patrick Sauter, CMU producer with King’s Material, Inc., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But all six are interrelated and though not necessarily sequential, depend on one another in effectively growing CMU market share and evolving the industry.
“These program areas will help us connect with engineers who are concerned about things like building structure details and fire codes. We’re not going to be successful with only marketing, design software or codes/standards efforts,” Sauter said. “It’s going to take efforts in all these six areas. And we’ll be able to achieve and demonstrate success in some areas faster than in others.”
How Checkoff Programs Support Education
Strategic educational investments created and backed by checkoff programs — like the Softwood Lumber Checkoff’s Wood Institute and formal partnerships with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ASCA) and American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) — have translated to new competitive advantages. In the case of softwood lumber, that meant a leg up over other building materials through wider integration into curricula preparing students for design careers.
By graduation, students participating in these organizations via their curricula are already aware of and prepared to design for softwood, creating an inherent advantage and corresponding market share growth once those students are in the workforce. In some cases, it’s even translated to designers choosing softwoods for projects on which they otherwise would have been inclined toward another building material. And those designs have in some cases garnered support from industry groups like the International Association of Fire Chiefs, an unlikely alignment given the fire risk of softwood compared to concrete block.
“Money talks. The wood industry has been the latest to jump into the academic world, and now you’re seeing designers design buildings 20 stories tall with wood products,” said Paul Oldham, mason contractor and President of Ollier Masonry in Batesville, Indiana. “Educating designers is huge. There are very few schools who teach how to design with masonry. I have a degree in engineering and was not educated about masonry. Students don’t learn, so they don’t understand it and wind up overdesigning, which makes it more expensive.”
Awakening The Design World To CMU’s Value
The CMU Checkoff will ultimately contribute to the kind of visibility of CMU resources and messaging to key demographics like university students studying design, architecture or engineering. Making those resources functional and contributing to actual design acumen and expertise will eventually have a high-tech tilt with the integration of software that can enable designers to parlay new CMU knowledge into designs that ultimately will grow market share.
“Students are leaning on experts in the wood industry to help design on software packages from the steel industry. They’ve made it easier for designers. We can roll out tools like that to level the playing field. We’ve got to have the tools to make it easy to use CMU for designers, estimators, and contractors. And we must have the marketing to tell the story,” Sauter said. “There’s been a lot of talk about creating a design center type of model where we can leverage the expertise of engineers and designers who are great with concrete and masonry and who can help design firms learn and become more efficient with CMU. It’s something we can easily implement, but we just need the money to do it. The CMU Checkoff will provide that necessary funding.”
This educational effort is important not just to block producers, but the contractors leveraging concrete masonry in building designs. Right now, the lack of education in secondary-education curricula around the country puts CMU at a competitive disadvantage to other products like lumber.
“It starts with educating people in the design community. One of our biggest issues currently is retroactively training people how to design with masonry because if they do so without the right education, it sets us back as contractors,” said Livonia, Michigan-based Leidal & Hart Mason Contractors, Inc., Vice President Brad Maurer. “It takes a lot of time and effort, and when they overdesign because they aren’t educated, the prices of CMU projects go up. If we had mandatory education like we do with steel or wood, we could level the playing field and elevate CMU as a building material that’s cost-competitive in the long term.”
Supporting Competitive Building Codes And The Workforce
Detractors say concrete and masonry lack the natural composition of what they consider more “green” softwood building products. But that’s largely a consequence of the Softwood Lumber Checkoff’s efficacy in telling the industry’s story to targeted audiences with the power — purchasing and otherwise — to influence design and construction work around the country.
Raising similar awareness, the CMU Checkoff will not just demonstrate the value and competitive advantages of CMU but also show it’s a leader in safe, resilient construction that’s going to only grow in importance moving forward, according to Monica Manolas, President of Ash Grove East, a block producer based in Sumterville, Florida.
“To me, it’s not about denigrating other materials, but talking about what we can do. We know that concrete and masonry is fire-resistant, termites can’t eat it, it withstands wind, water, storms, earthquakes, and keeps communities hygienic. They’re all reasons why concrete is the second most used building material in the world,” Manolas said. “The more community homes, schools, hospitals, fire stations and police stations that are built from concrete masonry, the more viable and resilient those communities become.”
This is why advancing the competitive position of concrete masonry is one of the six pillars of action for the CMU Checkoff, at both the national and regional levels. It’s an effort that will take some time to reach fruition given the research and work that will ultimately contribute to building codes that restore CMU’s role in a growing number of structures, similar to the work that’s happened as a result of the Softwood Checkoff.
“The wood industry has made a lot of progress in allowing taller structures and wood being used in more places that has hurt concrete and masonry. But that takes research to support those kinds of claims, as well as a constant presence at places like municipal code hearings. It takes a lot of work that’s not very exciting,” Sauter said. “The CMU Checkoff will help us support this work consistently around the country. We have to be consistent about all of these efforts in the right timeframes.”
What The Checkoff Can Do For The CMU Workforce
Just like the other five primary program areas and value propositions of the CMU Checkoff, workforce development doesn’t happen in a vacuum; contractors and producers face mounting challenges in retaining and evolving their workforces to meet existing demand, and they’ll continue to loom large, especially as concrete masonry market share grows in the future. That makes workforce recruitment and development a major priority to block producers like Sam Finney, president of Tidewater Block in Suffolk, Virginia.
“Of course we need to get market share back through marketing and promotion. But right behind it in my eyes is workforce development,” he said. “If we can create education and workforce development programs from intermediate schools on up to build the new labor force out there, that’s just as important as more market share. If we don’t have masons to put block in the wall, what’s the point in building more market share? To me, that’s step one and two.”
Manolas sees all six value propositions of the CMU Checkoff working together, especially as it relates to workforce development. Producers like her and Finney face a range of workforce challenges around the country, from a lack of available workers to training and employee retention that contributes to her ability to keep up with demand. To her, both education and codes/standards contribute to her ability to maintain the right workforce to meet current and future consumer demand.
“It’s all about getting future designers to understand what concrete masonry offers, but if you don’t follow that up with workforce development so you have the workforce to install that masonry, it won’t matter,” Manolas said. “If we don’t have the right codes and standards in place so people know they’re investing in the long-term sustainability of concrete masonry and considering full life-cycle costs, they’ll just look at up-front installation costs and do what they can the cheapest and with the lowest labor requirements. The workforce piece is a big contributor to creating new opportunity for CMU.”
Building A ‘Proven Entity’ For The CMU Industry
The CMU Checkoff isn’t without opponents within the industry. The industry-wide referendum vote netted support from a majority of producers around the nation. But the administration of the program by the U.S. Department of Commerce — the first federal-level checkoff program under the department’s authority — and the creation of an escrow account for checkoff funding have been common justifications for opposition to the program.
“I’ve heard concerns about the government involvement, some asking why we want the government in our business. It’s the nature of the system. Go back to beef, avocados, watermelons: all these industries have checkoffs, so there’s established precedent for what they can accomplish. A checkoff is a proven entity,” Oldham said. “At the end of the day, it’s about trust. It is the U.S. Department of Commerce’s first checkoff, and it has been a slow process. But the department is following the rules in the bill passed and paying attention to how past checkoff programs have been established. I know people have been frustrated with how slow it’s been, but they’re trying to do it right.”
As for the cost, Oldham said though “every penny counts,” the value created by every producer’s minor investment will dwarf the penny-per-block cost.
“We’ve never been the one to buy the cheapest block. We pay more for block because value is very important to us. The penny a block is not a big deal,” he said. “As a contractor, we work with clients who see value in what we do and who will also pay for the value. It’s not just about cost. It’s about the value we create for our customers.”
Ogilvie sees such a view on value versus cost as critical to the long-term success of the CMU Checkoff and, in turn, the concrete masonry industry moving forward. In many ways, he sees the program as fundamental to success of producers and contractors, groups united as owners and operators of independent — in many cases, family-owned and operated — businesses.
“Folks who own and operate businesses realize that you want to maximize the impact of a program like a checkoff and minimize time and cost. But you have to invest in your business, and that’s been a hard thing for us to do in the last 15 years,” he said. “Our business is hungry for success, and everybody wants to quickly maximize what we can do with the CMU Checkoff.”
The Future Of Block Fueled By A Checkoff
The challenges Ogilvie said producers and contractors have faced in the past will likely remain so in the coming years, but they’ll gradually ease as CMU Checkoff programs are implemented in the next two to three years. The result — even for competitors within the industry — will be a new edge for CMU in the general construction industry.
That edge will sharpen, McVeigh said, with the involvement of the right industry members to lead checkoff programs and evolve them over time to maintain a bright future.
By creating a “rising tide” for all block producers, the checkoff will unify and galvanize the industry, ultimately restoring and growing market share for everyone.
“We’ll be a more cohesive industry in 10 years. We can all work together and maximize the value of concrete masonry,” Oldham said. “I think the checkoff will help the industry come together and see that even though we compete in some respects, we will all benefit through smart decisions and a trusted program.”
Added Ogilvie: “A lot of people in our industry are third and fourth-generation block producers. There’s a lot of pride in this business, and it means a lot to us. It’s a hard-working business, and the checkoff is going to make CMU cool again.”