Promoting the Benefits of Precast
From versatility to aesthetics, design-build efficiency, sound absorption, increased thermal properties, resistance to insects and the elements, and reduced costs, the numerous benefits of precast concrete over site-cast concrete are well-known by architects, contractors, and customers worldwide…
Wells Concrete has been an expert in the precast industry for over sixty years and continues to innovate and embrace new technologies like three-dimensional (3D) printing as the industry looks toward the future.
In recent years, 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – has become increasingly popular in manufacturing and many other industry sectors. The roots of 3D printing go back to the early 1980s, and the technology is used create a wide variety of objects out of paper, metal, plastics, wood, and other materials for fashion, automotive, aerospace, and medical purposes such as joint replacement. It is even used to recreate pieces of missing sculptures and relics. Today, this technology is making its way into the precast concrete industry, with Wells emerging as a recognized leader.
Among the company’s projects is the Pioneer Hall Dormitory on the University of Minnesota campus. It was originally built between 1928 and 1932 and has been the subject of considerable debate over the years, with some questioning if it would not be simpler to demolish the historical structure rather than repair it. The dormitory was urgent need of upgrades to bring it up to today’s standards and code compliance, as it contained outdated electrical systems, antiquated plumbing, had no air conditioning, and was not accessible to those with disabilities.
The university decided to renovate, and the $104.5 million project, led by KWK Architects, partnering with architecture and engineering firm-of-record TKDA, was soon underway. Among the many areas requiring changes were the narrow corridors, limited study areas, and the dining space, which had insufficient capacity to accommodate the growing number of students. Another issue was the overall look and feel of the old structure. A plan was made to demolish and renovate the interior while maintaining the unique, decades-old red brick exterior, which gave the building much of its character.
Among the challenges faced by contractors working on the project was matching the ninety-year-old facade with new panels. Wells Concrete created a series of mock-ups for officials at the university and persuaded the institution to use architectural precast panels cast offsite in its facility, cured, and then transported to the construction site. The resulting panels match extremely well with the old building.
“These are insulated panels, so the inside face of the precast will be painted and exposed to rooms – that’s the advantage of precast concrete – and we matched some of the stonework, too,” says Spencer Kubat, vice president of sales and marketing for Wells.
The bulk of its work was performed on the expanded south and north courtyards. The team at Wells Concrete, using state-of-the-art 3D printed molds, ingeniously created precast panels with two windows in architectural precast frames, and an intricate cornice, surrounded by cast-in brick that matched the original color. Additionally, the company performed entryway renovations on the west and east sides of the Pioneer Hall Dormitory and handled hollow core panels, solid slabs, double tees, and beams to create the floor and roof of a loading dock area.
“The 3D printing comes in where the original building had stone window surrounds that were tapered, and everyone was concerned about matching that,” says Kubat, who has been with the company since 1980. “The only way that we felt we could match that was through a 3D printing form – we call it a window surround – and the nice thing about that is they have great detail. Some of the window sizes changed and moved within the panel, so it gave us a lot of flexibility on how we poured those panels.”
Wells Concrete discovered 3D printing through one of its partners, Gate Precast, which was using it on an office building project in New York. Kubat says 3D printing will play a significant role in the future of the precast concrete industry.
In the years following the end of the Second World War, the rejuvenated American economy saw a spike in demand for housing and other kinds of construction. To keep up with demand and the need to build quickly and efficiently, pre-stressed concrete products including modular panels, beams, and more were factory made under strict quality control conditions. Pre-stressed concrete products soon found their way into schools, shopping malls, churches, and many other building types.
It was around this time that businessman Frank Balcerzak, owner of the Guaranteed Gravel and Sand Company of Mankato, recognized the great potential of pre-stressed concrete and founded the Wells Concrete Company in Wells, Minnesota in 1951. Pre-stressed concrete has many positive aspects, including its fire resistance and acoustic properties.
Balcerzak increasingly focused the company on the new pre-stressed ‘double-tee’ beam and, in 1957, launched the business’s pre-stressing aspect. Soon, he was joined by Leo Nesius, a Purdue University graduate who was a field engineer for Standard Oil before he came to work for Frank. Together, the pair grew the business and promoted the tremendous reliability, durability, and functionality of pre-stressed concrete for uses from stores to supermarkets, churches, and warehouses.
The company continues to grow. It has about nine hundred employees today – the majority being laborers in the plant – and four strategically located plants in the upper Midwest in Wells, Rosemount, and Albany, MN, and Grand Forks, ND. The company also has four supporting offices to serve its many clients better.
Wells Concrete has been building and installing quality structural and architectural precast concrete products for sixty-one years, becoming the Midwest’s largest precast solutions provider. Widely known for its quality, innovation, and high degree of customer satisfaction and professionalism, Wells has an established presence among contractors, developers, owners, and clients all across the Upper Midwest.
Wells Concrete announced the acquisition of Hanson Structural Precast’s facility in Maple Grove, Minnesota in late 2014. Hanson was a competitor to the company at the time, and the move enabled Wells to “offer a more complete and comprehensive product offering and strengthen our platform for growth in the precast industry,” according to Wells. “We look forward to the continued development of Wells Concrete as we preserve the focus of our mission: ‘Being the Solution Provider of Choice for Our Customer.’”
The existing Hanson plant was in a state of disrepair, so Wells began work on the sales office and plant in Rosemont, Minnesota, soon after the acquisition, while simultaneously expanding facilities in Albany and Wells to accommodate the closing of Hanson’s Maple Grove plant. Among the benefits of the Hanson acquisition was Wells being able to step into a number of high-profile projects, including the new U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, now home to the National Football League’s legendary Minnesota Vikings team. The U.S. Bank Stadium originated as a Hanson project before the company was acquired, about three-quarters the way through. The project was completed in 2016, with the Wells Group allotting field personnel to assist Hanson workers in finishing the stadium.
“That project was one of the highlights for us,” states Kubat of the highly-visible landmark work, completed in 2016. The 70,000-seat U.S. Bank Stadium – boasting a fixed-roof design, zinc metal exterior panels, 360-degree views in its two concourses, and a good deal more – is the fourth-most-expensive NFL stadium ever constructed. Owing to the more than eight thousand workers who invested some four-million-plus hours on the now iconic project, the stadium was completed in just two and a half years, on budget and six weeks ahead of schedule.
In addition to stadiums, Wells is active in many other types of work, including car dealerships, data centers, distribution facilities, schools, healthcare facilities, hotels and motels, industrial and manufacturing sites, water and wastewater treatment plants, and mixed-use, office, religious, warehouse, and storage buildings.
The company works primarily across five states – North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin – and will occasionally take on projects in Nebraska and Illinois. Unlike some precast concrete companies, Wells does not operate within a set dollar range. “We have good clients that have very small projects, and they also have very big projects,” says Kubat. “We provide solutions, no matter the size of the project.”
Wells Concrete is experienced in many areas, including engineering and drafting, manufacturing, project management, construction, and technical sales and account management. It does everything from preparing precast estimates and helping select the most appropriate color and texture to production design, value engineering creating architectural and structural precast products, coordinating production, delivery, and managing safe installation. Wells works with customers every step of the way.
Its four manufacturing plants and decades of experience means that the company can offer structural and architectural solutions that are not only innovative, environmentally-sound, and practical but also cost-effective, functional, and aesthetically pleasing.
The company receives much of its business from repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals. Kubat credits the hard work and dedication of Jenny Frost, the company’s director of marketing, with bringing in new customers. Frost is a seasoned marketing and business development professional who has been with Wells Concrete for over three years. She promotes the business through a variety of means, including LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. She conducts project review surveys for clients, creates customized ‘lunch and learn’ presentations, and more.
“For the most part, it’s a pretty tight market,” says Kubat. “In this industry, contractors know who the players are. We are fortunate, because the economy is very strong, and precast concrete is more and more becoming the material of choice. We kid ourselves in the sales group that we are so busy we are order takers rather than sales guys, but it’s a good problem to have.”
For decades, Wells Concrete has been presenting the advantages of using precast products. Once architects, building owners, contractors, and engineers have tried precast concrete and seen the rewards for themselves, many are convinced. Wells provides precast concrete products including insulated architectural wall panels, structural columns and beams for buildings and parking garages; post systems, precast stairs, and more. Precast concrete products have changed the face of architecture and how buildings are constructed. Precast can be made in virtually any shape or size, and unlike other building materials, absorbs sound owing to its density, making it well-suited for both commercial and residential applications.
The products are truly unlike any other building material on the market. Precast concrete is known for its superior resistance to fire, rain, insects, and even earthquakes and is better-suited to often-dramatic freeze-thaw cycles than other building products. Precast requires considerably less maintenance; if painted, it needs to be repainted less often. Its use can also result in reduced insurance costs for building owners, since it is less subject to damage from the elements. Unlike some building products, precast does not interfere with Wi-Fi or other signals, making it better for today’s construction needs. And once the structure has reached the end of its lifespan, precast concrete can be completely recycled, making it better for the planet.
Precast concrete products are available in a range of styles to achieve the desired look and feel sought by architects, designers, and clients. One of the company’s projects, Globe University’s Minnesota School of Business, incorporated thin, brick-lined columns and a liner simulating the look of stone around the base. The combination resulted in a sense of depth and a striking ‘stately look’ sought after by the client.
Other projects, such as the Jamestown High School, started with the approval of the Jamestown school board to use precast concrete over traditional brick and block. The cost of using a precast panel system was half that of the estimated masonry bid of $4.6 million, an enormous financial and time savings, as installation also required half the amount of time as traditional masonry methods. Once awarded the project, the company replaced the originally planned masonry work with precast tilt-up wall panels.
“Weather was not a concern, and the school’s leadership was impressed by the speed of erection,” states the company. The school district soon realized the many other pluses of using precast concrete: it maximized its budget, and the installation schedule was not weather dependent. An aesthetically pleasing sandblast complemented the precast structure. Another touch – a recess in was added to the panels for tile inserts. The recess was used for the Jamestown mascot, the blue jay.
Although the many benefits of precast concrete are increasingly well-known across the industry, Wells Concrete continues to spread the word about its products. Currently, the company is looking at ways to serve its clients better, such as installing windows at its facilities prior to panels being shipped to the job sites and bringing in product lines which are already insulated and sheetrock-ready, with the wiring already there.
“We are proactive with our client groups, listening and getting feedback,” says Kubat. “We are not just sitting on our hands and offering them the standard products all the time. We are out and about asking questions like: ‘How can we be better?’ and ‘What value-added things should we be looking at?’ It’s not to say we won’t branch out to other market areas in other parts of the country. Anything is possible. There are lots of opportunities for pre-casters these days. There are parts of the country where pre-casters do fantastic work. It’s amazing the work they do.”