Changing the Language of Concrete: Communicating clearly with the project team

It is important to seek training beyond American Concrete Institute (ACI) flatwork certification to achieve success when working with architectural exposed structural concrete (AESC).

Documents communicating differently
Perhaps the most poignant example of conflicting language in concrete construction comes when attempting exposed finishes. However, this is not so much a fault of different definitions between members of the project team, but rather of existing lingua franca in construction document practices.

Not all firms have specifications for architectural exposed structural concrete (AESC). Rather, they have language in their exposed concrete specifications that refer to MasterFormat Section 03 31 00–Structural Concrete, despite the fact these documents were never written to be used to create exposed architectural finishes. MasterFormat has anticipated the need for cast-in-place concrete where appearance is a prime consideration, and appropriately named it Section 03 33 00–Architectural Concrete. This section can describe the performance expectations and modifications to standard structural concrete to achieve the required finishes, which are poorly represented even where guide specifications do exist.

Lobbies used to be covered in carpet. Retail stores across the country were covered with millions of acres of vinyl composite tile (VCT), and manufacturing facilities primarily planned on epoxy finishes throughout the facility’s life cycle. Fifteen years ago, when there was a drive to sustainable and durable finishes requiring minimal replacement, this changed—but construction documents did not. Concrete already formed part of the building structure—it encapsulated fly ash and other recycled components, and had an expected life cycle equal to that of the building.

No design team would ever specify “slab must curl to ensure uneven aggregate exposure at joints and edges,” “cover floor in map cracks,” or “confuse and anger owner by creating different outcome than shown in rendering.” Nevertheless, this is exactly what thousands of firms end up doing on a daily basis by continuing to use structural concrete specifications that were never intended for AESC.

FF and FL are no longer simply measures of safety or performance requirements for intended use, but also benchmarks of uniformity of aggregate exposure and project cost. Older methods of curing and finishing may no longer be relevant in AESC if they detract from esthetic, long-term maintenance, or other considerations.

To compound matters, training programs have not been updated to describe this new field of AESC and teach its vocabulary. For instance, Division 03 30 00 may require use of an American Concrete Institute (ACI)-certified concrete flatwork finisher, but ACI certification does not address concrete with an exposed architectural finish. In this instance, firms are relying on non-native language to direct contractors unfamiliar with AESC requirements toward a design intent they cannot possibly meet. This is unfair to contractors, who often bear the financial responsibility that comes from not having clear, concise, complete, and correct language.

What happens when we all speak the same language?
The culture and language of any organization or group of people is passed from top to bottom, but also horizontally. As people join at any level, they learn from those who have been there longer. There is an informal education on ‘best’ work practices, who to trust, and who to listen to. Without communication in all directions, it is easy to create barriers and misconceptions based solely on what perspectives are immediately around you. This can lead to an ‘us versus them’ mentality, which does not help the project or owner, or further development of the project team
members. Professionals must allow each other the opportunity to ask questions and the patience to discover the answers together.

Architects and engineers must learn the language of concrete not simply in how it is used in documents and situations familiar to them, but also by getting out onto the site and observing conditions affecting placement, construction of formwork, and scheduling of concrete delivery. By becoming a part of the experience and learning from the contractor members of the project team, design language can become more precise, while also creating common bonds and a drive to understand each other’s needs.

At the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (CAST), these ideas are already well in motion. For students attending CAST, architectural research embraces both the design and hands-on components of construction. This is a fundamental change to how architects, engineers, and designers have been educated in the past, but provides graduates with both theoretical and empirical foundations, which will make them better communicators with all members of the project team. (For more on CAST, visit

Unfortunately, constructors—usually outliers to the design process—do not yet have an avenue to pursue cross-disciplinary studies like their design counterparts. There are training and certification opportunities from manufacturer and contractor organizations, but these are proprietary at worst, and exclude real-world experience and perspectives from architects, engineers, and designers at best. There is little chance contractors and designers will interact directly during a live project, so it is even more important formal training is available in a safe and productive atmosphere where more-robust professional development can occur. Having a strong grasp of design language and perspective helps professionals both make the right choices for the benefit of the project and understand better choices do not necessarily lead to higher prices or longer construction schedules.

Concrete construction is more than integrated project delivery—it is an integrated design process often lacking in cross-discipline co-ordination. Understanding each other’s point of view—and being able to describe similar concepts using words all parties agree have a common interpretation—should be the first bulwark for ensuring success.

Communication benefits everyone involved with the project, but is only possible when everyone’s definition of concrete is understood. Using the proverbial ‘concrete eraser’ (i.e. employing a jackhammer to selectively remove concrete that fails to meet expectations) to fix problems is never going to be as effective as a simple meeting between professionals that understand one another and empathize with one another’s situations. With a meeting, it becomes possible to discuss expectations, establish the requirements for samples and mockups, and illustrate outcomes and limitations. This can set up an inclusive environment where everyone on the construction team is dedicated to providing quality concrete work.

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