March 08, 2017

3 Challenges Facing CMU Construction in Texas

Concrete masonry units or “CMU” have been a part of the construction landscape in Texas for over 100 years, and are widely used in commercial construction throughout the state. CMU walls have been used in the construction of warehouses, industrial facilities, public safety buildings, schools and several other project types that require higher levels of durability.

Additional advantages of building with CMU include:

  • Lower maintenance compared to other construction materials
  • Concrete is not a food source for mold or pests
  • Increased fire resistance
  • Noise transmission reduction
  • Simplicity of interior and exterior finishes

However, three recent trends have begun to make CMU construction more challenging and expensive to deliver in Texas.

1. Shortage of Labor

Concrete masonry construction is labor intensive and requires a significantly skilled workforce in order to be constructed properly. CMU walls are often finished simply with block-fill and paint, which leaves the pattern of block and mortar visible for all to see. For that reason, it is critical to have skilled masons performing this work in order to ensure the completed CMU walls are structurally sound and aesthetically attractive.

However, in recent years the Texas market has experienced a significant shortage of skilled masons, making it very difficult for masonry contractors to provide enough labor to meet the demands of a very fast-growing construction market. In many cases, masonry companies are having to pass on bidding new work because of fears of not being able to adequately staff additional projects.

While the recent growth in construction has put heavy demands on the masonry trades, much of the shortage can be traced back to the construction market downturn at the end of the last decade. The Associated Genral Contractors of America (AGC) found that many skilled trades who were having trouble finding work at the time found lucrative work in the oil and energy sector, which was experiencing a boom period as a result of expanded hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” activities all across the state. When the construction market recovered several years later, many of these former masons never returned to their construction jobs.

The shortage is further fueled by the fact that very few younger people are joining the ranks of the skilled trades. As the existing masonry workforce ages, this trend will continue to cause significant shortages of masons across the state.

2. Lead Times for Materials

Another side effect of a very strong Texas construction market is the increasing shortage of CMU inventory and stretched delivery lead times many contractors are experiencing. Contractors must be very proactive in getting their orders in the manufacturing queue to avoid delays. Delivery times for some CMU products can be 8-12 weeks, and even longer in some cases.

3. Continuous Insulation Requirements

CMU walls constructed in Texas have not traditionally been insulated. In some cases, the unfilled or “ungrouted” cells of the wall were filled with vermiculite or some other insulating material to provide a fraction more energy efficiency to the building. However, the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code recently adopted statewide now prescribes continuous insulation for CMU walls on both commercial and residential construction. While there are some work-arounds in the code where continuous insulation can be avoided, many architects have accepted the fact that specifying a continuous insulation system is the way to go.

The addition of continuous insulation increases cost, but also creates more complexity in the design of the wall assembly. Architects must choose to insulate the inside or outside face of the CMU wall, which also requires that they identify an appropriate and cost effective finish option.

A Masonry Alternative

For architects, contractors and owners who want the benefits of CMU construction while also meeting today’s building and energy codes, the innovative Bautex Wall System is a particularly good solution.  This system has similar structural and greater fire resistant properties of a CMU wall but also has the continuous insulation required to meet today’s codes built right into the block.  

A Bautex wall can also be built up to twice as fast a CMU wall, saving a lot of construction time. The Bautex wall can also be constructed using fewer skilled trades which decreases cost to the owner and increases the number of projects a masonry company can win. With Bautex, masonry contractors can support more projects with broader scopes of work that includes insulation, utilizing less expensive and more available labor, thereby increasing profits.

Click here to learn more about the innovative Bautex Wall System.