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Feeding the beast

Matt IndenJohn Harris has been driving for Lafarge for over 15 years, and as a result of the cement shortage his hours have been cut slightly, but hes optimistic about next month. An Olathe resident, he says, "They're feeling the effects down there, too."
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Project coordinators and foreman at construction sites across the county have been holding their breath lately, scanning the horizon and listening intently for the rumble of concrete trucks. After all, theres a shortage of cement the prime ingredient in concrete and many really arent sure if theyre going to have the amount of concrete they need for a particular job until they actually see it in front of their eyes.Brice Jackson, a project administrator for Jim Guida Construction, has found himself crossing his fingers quite often in the past two weeks.Its been quite stressful, Jackson said. Basically we dont know until the concrete trucks pull up on site if were going to get concrete or not. September, for both smaller custom homebuilders and larger contractors alike, is a busy month, the bread-and-butter month before winter sets in. Its typically a month where construction workers are putting in 60 hours a week in a last-ditch effort to make enough cash to sustain them through the winter season. Its a month where the contractors themselves are striving to get foundations poured and readied for the construction that can be done after the first frost arrives and the ground begins to freeze. And though some contractors are finding ways around the shortage, such as importing cement from other states, the builders are having to pay more. Those extra costs, not surprisingly, will eventually be paid by the person who will own the building: the home owner, the business.Right now, with the concrete shortage that weve got, (contractors) are getting cement from other states, but theyre upcharging for it, Paul Burbidge, general superintendent for R.A. Nelson, said. That extra cost goes to the contractor and the contractor is going to have to pass that cost along. Its either that, or we just sit around and wait for the shortage to go away and prices to come back down, and most people cant do that.The cement shortage affects more than just the concrete contractors and homeowners, though. Burbidge, for one, is concerned about how the situation will affect employment in general within the local construction industry.Employment will be affected all the way down the line, Burbidge said. If were not pouring the concrete slab, the foundation, then it affects the framers, the plumbers, and all the trades behind it.

Smaller concrete contractors like, Reg Martinez of RM Concrete, had been looking forward to a profitable September. Not being able to get the concrete he needs from local concrete providers like B&B Excavating and Lafarge has made it difficult for him, though. It was going to be a busy September and now Im pretty much done for the whole month, Martinez said. Under my concrete companys name, I cant get any more concrete for the month. Its a financial strain, because winter is coming up. We went from (working) 50-60 hours a week to 30 hours a week. September is about making as much as you can so you can get through the winter. Not this month, though.The squeeze on concrete is really due to a shortage of cement. Concrete and cement are not synonymous terms. Cement, made of a combination of ground limestone and clay burned at high temperatures, is essentially the flour that holds concrete together. Cement is mixed with rock, sand, water and chemicals to make concrete, which is then poured into a form to make anything from a house foundation to a major highway bridge. Before a house can be built, a foundation must be poured and to make the concrete, you must have cement. Right now the state of Colorado, along with many other states around the nation, are facing a cement shortage. Holcim, a leading supplier of cement, owns one of the two major cement plants in Colorado, located in Florence, south of Colorado Springs. Last month they warned their customers that they would be going on cement allocation, meaning they would be able to buy only 50 percent of the cement they normally do in a month. Tom Chizmadia, the vice president of communications for Holcim, said the Colorado region is just one of the regions in the U.S. currently experiencing cement shortages during peak construction season.This year the shortage in Colorado is really a reflection of the strength of the economy and the high number of construction projects that are being conducted right now, Chizmadia said.Contrary to the rumor that many local construction contractors have heard, the plant in Florence did not break down. Instead, according to Chizmadia, it was closed for regular maintenance during the last few days of August and the first few days of September.Its back up and running now, but that short period of time it was down caused demand for cement to shoot up and the supply to deteriorate.In the U.S. there has been a historic gap in the supply demand balance that gap has always been addressed by imports, Chizmadia said. As a company we have imported (cement) to help supply our customers adequately. According to Lafarge Vice President and General Manager Steve Wood, the U.S. only makes about 75 percent of the cement it uses and relies on imports to supply the rest.The demand for cement has increased worldwide, a lot of the product has been going to China and Malaysia, Wood said.More demand in the Asian market means less supply available to the U.S. market.Wood also pointed out that many of the surrounding states have been on cement allocation programs for awhile. Utah has been dealing with it for nearly two years now, he said.With demand being so high this summer, Wood said that any glitch in the already taxed system throws everything out of sequence. Our cement supplier, Holcim, is telling us they think theyll be able to start supplying us much better at the end of the month, he said. Weve (Colorado) been exempt because the plant has been running fabulously and its been supplying the market adequately until just recently. Cemix and Mountain Cement have been having plant problems as well. If you have any plant glitches, it throws everything off.As a result of the supply and demand gap, the price of cement will likely go up. Though Chizmadia said that his company refuses to talk dollars (We dont talk about our pricing, he said), Wood said that LaFarge has been notified that pricing will likely increase in January and again in July.They havent told us how much yet, Wood said.

For people in the construction industry, the cement shortage is no small issue. Chris Lammers, a project coordinator for R.A. Nelson, said the shortage is definitely being felt. We were supposed to pour 600 cubic yards of concrete this month and we got rationed down to 200 yards, Lammers said. Its slowing down projects. If you cant pour the foundation, it is going to slow our schedule by a week or two.These past few weeks project managers like Chris Evans, of Evans Chaffee Construction, have become adept at juggling jobs and using the cement theyre able to get as carefully as possible. So far hes been able to keep all of the balls in the air so to speak, though he admits that some future start days for projects are already being rescheduled based on the cement supply. Evans is in charge of the Beaver Creek Landing job, a 52-condo project planned for the base of the Beaver Creek Landing chairlift above the ski resorts west parking lot. Basically, if everything goes as planned and the shortage ends at the end of the month, then the Beaver Creek Landing start date will continue as planned, Evans said. If the shortage continues, than the start date could get pushed back. I need a lot more concrete for that job alone than what Im being allocated this month.Wood said that when it comes to who gets the cement thats available, a few factors come into play. We give preference to community projects, he said. The roundabout in Glenwood is a good example. We need to get that project done, its in the best interest of public safety. Wed put that in front of some guys swimming pool or patio in Aspen or Vail.Wood also pointed out that Lafarge is concentrating on keeping their good customers happy.Were going to supply customers that are faithful to us, have their accounts in good standing and do a lot of business with us, Wood said. Were going to continue to supply our good customers the best that we can, but the bottom line is, nobody is going to get what they want in the month of September. Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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