City-Run Testing Could Hamper Construction Schedules

Real Estate Weekly (August 12, 2009) — Falsified concrete test reports on several city construction projects led to a recent New York Times editorial rightfully criticizing the testing industry. In an opinion titled “Bad Actors, Bad Concrete” (Op-ed NYT August 1, 2009), the editors suggested that while the Department of Buildings may hope industry pressure will drive out the “bad actors,” in the end it may be forced to launch its own testing operation. Owners and developers should hope this is not the case. It may be a solution that responds to the falsification problem, but it is unlikely to solve a collateral issue: construction delays. Although the untested concrete demonstrated the code-specified strength after retesting, thereby safeguarding the public, the matter caused necessary but costly setbacks in the work schedules of the contractors and developers involved. DOB might have the best of intentions, but it would be hard pressed to maintain a testing routine adequate for the pace of concrete construction.

This pace is part of the problem inherent in concrete testing. The evaluation is taking place as the material is not yet in its final form or at its final strength. Even with technological advances in testing procedures and equipment, these factors influence the material’s susceptibility to false or negligent reporting. Unlike structural steel, which long before its delivery to the jobsite has been certified as compliant with the appropriate ASTM standards for physical and chemical properties, concrete certification is a relatively last minute yet time-consuming system. Mix design must be pretested, sampled again just before placement, and then often tested in place before it can be accepted as having the specified properties. How the Department of Buildings would undertake these testing activities without impacting their own ongoing operations, and with little chance of hiring in the current economic environment, is unclear. What is clear is that any delays impact the work schedules of other trades at a time when the construction and real estate industries can little afford them.

When constructing a new building, the project team has several options available on which to base the structural framing, including steel, concrete, or a combination of both. Each system has pros and cons for the specific building being constructed. With the possibility of the city taking on responsibilities for concrete testing, a material’s testing requirements become a factor in choosing whether to use it for the structure. Steel, with quality assurance established before it leaves the plant, is not bound by the pace constraints that burden concrete testing and so might be a better option under this scenario. It can also span farther with less weight, meaning shorter construction time and lighter foundations. But these foundations still require the placement of concrete, so it is vital that the testing industry replace bad actors with good performers not only for its own benefit, but also for the welfare of the building industry and of the public.

Gary B. Higbee, AIA
Director of industry development
The Steel Institute of New York /
The Ornamental Metal Institute of New York