Of the many horror stories born in New York City on 9/11, the one that belongs to Herbert Margrill serves as the genesis of an ongoing storm between boosters of structural concrete and structural steel. Although New York's building market has become the battleground, the tempest has spread beyond, fueled in part by articles and advertisements published in the business press. Charges of steel-bashing are flying and steel interests are fighting back. Even structural engineers are incensed over what they say are blatantly false claims by publicist Margrill that concrete framing is inherently safer than steel.
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It all started on Sept. 11, 2001, when Margrill, now 81 years old, was knocked out of bed by the ear-drum-splitting sound wave produced by the hijacked plane that terrorists crashed into the 110-story One WTC. The industrial public relations and advertising veteran fled his home-office near Ground Zero and didn't return for three weeks. "To me, it was a numbing experience," he says.
In 2002, still-traumatized, Margrill decided to do his bit to help make the world safer. He called an old friend, Alfred G. Gerosa, a six-decade veteran of concrete construction, to discuss a plan. They decided "to educate people about the safety aspects of cast-in-place reinforced concrete so that terrible disasters don't happen again," says Margrill.
By January 2003, the long-dormant Concrete Alliance, with Gerosa as president and Margrill as vice president of communications, was incorporated with safety as its new mission. Or more specifically, safety as it relates to concrete behavior in calamities, such as fires, terrorist acts, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods.
The promotional group is supported by New York City-area concrete contractors and construction unions. This fall, the alliance plans to launch an initiative that would offer a "safety seal of approval" to owners of concrete-framed buildings, which they could use for marketing purposes.
In the group's marketing brochure, Gerosa says, "Concrete is the best material to use for safety, blast resistance, durability, flexibility....A cast-in-place, reinforced concrete structure is safer than any other commercial building type." He adds: "Structural steel is fine. We don't object to a steel structure if it is fireproofed properly," with cast-in-place concrete.
But the alliance lacks any scientific evidence, research or statistics to substantiate its claims that concrete is safer than steel. "It's our educated opinion, based on over 50 years of experience," says Gerosa.
Structural engineers say alliance claims are not only without merit, they are out of bounds. "Their assertion that concrete structures are safer than steel is based not on facts but on their greed to build concrete structures...," says Clifford Schwinger, quality assurance manager with Cagley Harman & Associates Inc., King of Prussia, Pa. "That they are trying to profit from the 9/11 tragedy by claiming concrete construction is safer is worse than obscene."
The alliance now is pushing concrete office towers, a building type long dominated in New York City by structural steel. "Before 9/11, we pretty much felt concrete itself was not practical for commercial highrises...," says Gerosa.
The alliance has infuriated steel interests. The American Institute of Steel Construction Inc., Chicago, calls the group's "steel-bashing" tactics, "negative and unprofessional." AISC maintains that concrete does not offer better fire resistance, blast resistance or structural robustness. "These are all characteristics of well-designed buildings, which can be provided in buildings of any material," says...