A somber but resilient mood permeated this year’s World of Concrete expo, held on Jan. 18-21 in Las Vegas, where thin crowds circulated amid a kiosk-filled convention floor. Contractors looked for innovative ways to prepare for an economic recovery, while budget-conscious construction solutions dominated exhibitor offerings.

“We’re focusing on our ability to reuse equipment in different applications, rather than buying anew from job to job,” said Andrew Mair, chief executive officer of Doka USA Ltd., a Little Ferry, N.J.-based concrete formwork provider. “We’re also showcasing our Frami Xlife product, which is light enough to be [handled] without a crane, saving time and money.”

Overall attendance, noticeably down in this sluggish economy, topped out at 48,554, which is about a 12% drop from last year. Net exhibit space fell 14% to 515,000 sq ft. Some opted to skip World of Concrete in favor of the triennial CONEXPO-CON/AGG show, a larger expo to be held in March this year, again, in Las Vegas. Some exhibitors, likewise, were holding off on reserving large booth spaces and making product introductions until CONEXPO.

Given the economy and CONEXPO, the World of Concrete attendance was “a good, solid number,” said Steven Pomerantz, spokesman for show organizer Hanley Wood Exhibitions.

Slumping Forecasts

A reeling construction industry, which had a 20.7% jobless rate in December 2010, faces fledgling growth through 2013 before recovery begins in earnest, said Skokie, Ill.-based Portland Cement Association’s chief economist, Ed Sullivan. Excess homebuilder inventories, tight lending standards, state budget deficits, high unemployment and capacity constraints are expected to dampen new construction investment in 2011 and 2012.

“Economic growth will not become strong enough to generate more robust job gains in the short term, translating into a longer-than-expected recovery period,” Sullivan said during a Jan. 18 forecast briefing. “This is a construction-focused recession.”

Yet, future population growth and infrastructure investment, if led by a renewed federal transportation bill, would fuel a 16.6-million-tonne and 18-million-tonne portland cement consumption increase between 2013 and 2014, respectively, Sullivan said. The industry’s use of cement sank to a historic low in 2009, with 26.9 million tonnes of negative cement absorption. The market has slowly improved.

“The critical issue is confidence in lending and spending,” Sullivan said. “It takes time to push down the headwinds that still face our industry.”

Speedy Bricklayer

On the positive side, Ray Robinson won the SPEC MIX Bricklayer 500 by laying 697 bricks in 60 minutes. The eight-year-old event took place on Jan. 19 in one of the outdoor parking lots under a bright winter sun.

The contest pits 20 masons in head-to-head competition to see who can place the most bricks in one hour while still meeting strict quality standards. Each 26-ft, 8-in. double-wythe brick wall must have a consistent height, plumbness, joint thickness and minimal voids.

Robinson works for J.A.M. Construction Inc., a 25-year-old Gainesville, Fla.-based private contractor that does about $3 million annually in residential and commercial work. In addition to bragging rights as the “world’s best bricklayer,” Robinson received a new 2011 Ford F-250 4x4 XLT Crew Cab pickup truck, plus $5,000 in cash and prizes.

Robinson, 44, has been laying bricks for 27 years, yet this marked his first time competing in the Bricklayer 500. Garrett Hood of McGee Brothers, Monroe, N.C., still holds the all-time record, placing 911 bricks in one hour in 2010.

Greener Pavements

Sustainability was a key theme at this year’s show. In one of the outdoor exhibits, contractors had an opportunity to watch live demonstrations of how to place a relatively new type of pavement material, called “pervious,” or permeable, concrete. The “green” pavement, which allows stormwater to soak through the pavement without adding to local gutters and sewers, is seen as a way to help manage water as runoff regulations tighten nationwide.

“This is an evolving technology, and we’re gaining ground,” said David Mitchell, owner of Salt Lake City-based screed supplier Bunyan Industries. He and others have been placing pervious pavement in parking lots for several years but want to expand its use to roads and highways. Proponents are lobbying state highway officials around the country to allow pervious concrete to be used on shoulders. Some states already allow it for rest areas, along with local roads with speed limits that do not exceed 35 miles per hour. In Chicago, pervious concrete has been used extensively in alleyways, which typically do not have sewer infrastructure.

However, the pavement, which resembles a giant Rice Krispies Treat due to its large voids, is challenging to place, especially in windy climates or places with fluctuating humidity. The material usually is placed in 6-in.-thick mats over a base of aggregate, typically 6- to 12-in. thick. The aggregate acts as a retention pond, slowly releasing the water back into the soil. Pervious concrete on average has half the water-to-cement ratio of normal concrete.

Another challenge to the material’s widespread adoption is that no strength test currently exists for it.

“Until we can get a test standard, we are sort of going to be in limbo,” says Matthew Offenberg, a technical services manager for admixture supplier Grace Construction Products.