Fabcon Precast’s VersaCore panels are an ideal solution for LEED building.
By Tim O’Connor
Since the first LEED standards were established in 2000, sustainability certification has become the benchmark for environmentally friendly building design and construction. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), as of July 2016 more than 59,000 United States commercial projects have achieved some level of LEED certification and 200,000 individuals have earned LEED professional credentials. In the 3rd quarter of 2016 alone 937 projects achieved some level of certification accounting for 114,006,829 square feet of building space.
Sustainable building practices are likely to continue to permeate the construction industry moving forward as material manufacturers, developers and owners seek ways to optimize long-term building system performance.
Not only does certification improve sustainable building operations, LEED accreditation is a way for developers to demonstrate they have brought environmental stewardship into the building. “Having the certification allows you to be more appealing to tenants as well as municipalities and states,” says Tyson Intile, project manager for Fabcon Precast. “It’s great marketing.”
Fabcon is well positioned to help builders meet LEED standards. The customizable thermal resistance of Fabcon’s panels insulates buildings, meaning less energy is needed to heat and cool them and the building environment’s overall climate, humidity and temperature remain consistent throughout the day.
The precast concrete panel maker has been a leader in innovation since its founding. David Hanson and Gerald Rauenhorst started the company in 1970 to develop SpanDeck technology for casting 8-foot-wide concrete wall panels. Today, Fabcon is know for its light-weight and energy-efficient VersaCore+Green precast panels.
VersaCore+Green panels are used in a variety of construction projects including commercial/industrial projects such as manufacturing facilities, warehouses, distribution centers, national retailers, data centers and community/public spaces. In most cases, Fabcon contracts with the general contractor. However, since Fabcon has a long history of working with owners, developers and architects, it is common for Fabcon sales engineers to be involved with project development in the very early stages.
Fabcon’s reliability and capabilities have also made it a preferred partner for several national companies, such as Walmart International, that contract directly with Fabcon for new facilities. “They definitely like the speed of our construction process,” Director of Engineering George Miks says. “If you can get a building open three months earlier than you normally would with other materials it’s definitely a benefit.”
Fabcon’s four production facilities are located in Minnesota, Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. This year the company celebrated its 45th anniversary. It has manufactured and installed wall panels for 12,400 buildings in 37 states and four Canadian provinces during that time. Last year, Fabcon produced nearly 12.4 million square feet of product at those four facilities. The closeness of Fabcon’s facilities to its customers enables it to provide timely support to projects and act as a regional supplier. Shorter distances from plants to project locations is a factor for receiving LEED certification points.
Innovation remains one of Fabcon’s core tenets. Continuous improvements across the organization have led to efficiencies throughout manufacturing and construction. Because Fabcon engineers, manufactures and installs its own panels, processes are well defined and continually refined.
In response to market demands, the company is making advancements in its finishes. Corporate Marketing Manager Joy Svoboda points out “precast is not a gray piece of concrete, today we have limitless color, texture and finish options. Our products are used in combination with other building materials such as rare woods, unique metal materials and customized glass. We can also produce free standing design features such as kiosks, entrance features and other unique applications. Our goal is to work with architects and owners to achieve the look and building performance they desire.”
Flexibility is the key to Fabcon’s ability to match customer requirements and evolving trends. “It allows us to look at our internal processes to be more efficient and more effective so we can respond accordingly,” Miks says.
Fabcon’s precast panels have several advantages over site cast concrete wall panels. Because the panels are produced in a controlled environment, they are not subject to outdoor elements or uneven surfaces, resulting in better quality and precision. Further, indoor production allows Fabcon to deliver finished panels to customers year round.
Fabcon panels carry some of the best thermal resistance ratings (R-values) in the concrete wall market. The R-value is a measure of the effectiveness of the panel’s insulation. VersaCore+Green panels are available in a range of thickness from 8 inches to 12 inches and can be up to 13.6 feet wide, enabling customers to determine the R-values that best fit local building codes and client specifications.
There are three primary methods to measuring R-value: testing, calculation or computer modeling. In the past, Fabcon used the calculation method to determine the R-value of a panel. However, the company recently completed a finite element analysis, enabling it to switch to more accurate computer modeling, according to Miks.
Using the modeling method, Fabcon builds the cross-sectional element of the material it wants the program to study. The program then does a steady state analysis on that element to identify the insulation properties of the material and its resistance to heat transfers. From there, Fabcon can convert the information into an R-value. “That has given us a truer representation of the thermal performance of the panels,” Miks explains.
Fabcon began using the computer modeling method this past summer in response to modified code standards from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). “That was something we thought was prudent knowing how some of the building codes are identifying ASHRAE [standards],” Miks says.
Having a more accurate R-value gives developers and contractors a better picture of the entire thermal envelope of their structure. This in turn translates into understanding the building’s potential energy consumption.
A panel’s R-value is only one component in a project’s total thermal performance. Miks says it’s important not to get caught up in the insulation rating of individual parts. A typical window might have an R-value of between 2 and 2.5 but the small size has an insignificant impact on the building’s total thermal envelope. The key is looking at how all those elements interact to create overall building performance.
Most of the insulating properties of a building come from the roof. Even a half-inch of additional thickness can make a significant impact on the thermal envelope. But by having a more accurate understanding of R-value of Fabcon’s panel, contractors and architects might be able to shave down the roof to save on construction costs while still meeting the same energy efficiency goals.
A thick mass wall, for instance, could be used on the sunny side of the building to delay the transfer of energy from the hot exterior. The mass wall can be designed so that by the time the heat penetrates the panel and begins warming the inside, it will no longer be peak hours. With fewer warm bodies around, it takes less energy for the building’s air conditioning to maintain temperature.
The company can also help builders meet LEED goals on the product side of the sustainability equation. VersaCore+Green panels are made from up to 58 percent recycled materials, which include coarse and fine aggregate such as rock and sand, cement, steel and insulation.
Fabcon works with regional suppliers to find those materials, an approach that Intile explains not only helps with LEED ratings – closer sourcing means less fuel is burned during delivery – but also is a boost for local economies. “Most of the time we are able to source the vast majority of the materials for our project from within 500 miles of the site,” he says.
Fabcon’s panels don’t require adjustments to meet green building standards. “We don’t really change our products around LEED criteria because our product is manufactured with recycled components,” Intile says. “Our product has the recycled value and regional material [qualifications] regardless of whether the projects requires it or not.”
In most cases, LEED is looking at where the raw materials come out of the earth. But when it comes to Styrofoam insulation or raw plastics made from petroleum, the original extraction point can be difficult to determine. The USGBC has specific rules for how materials must be documented to qualify for certification. “The big thing for us was developing a documentation process that accurately tracked our product from design through production, delivery and installation,” Intile says.
Although the raw materials for products such as Styrofoam are usually not extracted from within the same region as a project, the USGBC allows for such recycled materials to count as locally source if the recycling process is done nearby. This allows Fabcon to increase its contribution to a project’s LEED score.
By working with its regional vendors, Fabcon created a library of supporting information that details where supplies were extracted from, unit costs and recycled content. The company’s supply chain maintains ownership of the lists and provides all the necessary information for projects seeking LEED certification.
Nearly 100 percent of the steel used in Fabcon’s precast panels comes from recycled sources and the company’s cement manufacturer uses about 7 percent recycled material as a filler. Foam is 30 percent post-industrial and 1 percent post-consumer, allowing about 16 percent of the total foam to contribute to LEED. The coarse and fine aggregates are not recycled, but are extracted from regional mills.
Demand for green building materials and the advantages of precast panels are fueling Fabcon’s growth. The production schedule at the company’s Pennsylvania plant, which serves the Northeast market, operates at full capacity daily, producing 15,000 square feet wall panels. “Our sales engineers in the region have built strong relationships with our customers which means longer production lead times can be planned around accordingly. Daily panel setting rates are high among Fabcon field crews and customers know they can rely on speedy installation,” Svoboda says.
While customers have learned to plan for projects far in advance, Fabcon is looking for ways to better support all of its customers. “Growth for us is about expanding our capacity to meet the demands of the market,” Intile says.
Builders want more of Fabcon’s panel products and they want them faster. To accommodate that demand, the company in 2015 opened its fourth casting facility, located in Pleasanton, Kan. The facility completed its first full bed cast in May of that year.
Fabcon’s production volume will only continue to rise going forward. The company’s output increased between 5 and 10 percent during the past year, according to Miks.
“The scope and scale of our projects in the eastern region are complex and we don’t expect that to change anytime soon,” Svoboda says. “We are aware of opportunities to diversify not only our product offerings but the types of buildings we construct there. As shipping routes change and eastern ports expand, we anticipate even greater demand for pre-stressed, precast insulated wall panels. Currently the company is considering expansion options that we anticipate will put us closer to our customers and their projects.”