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Feature Stories: A Concrete Education


Historic "puppy stairs " at Alcatraz Island in California. CIM students participated in a renovation project there last summer. | Photo courtesy of Dr. Tanya Komas

There's a lot to admire in the seat-of-the-pants way many of the concrete industry's leading decorative concrete pros have learned the art by picking up a book or looking over someone's shoulder, then convincing trusting family and friends to give them enough work to serve as a basis for a portfolio.

But there's also much to be said for a four-year, industry-supported multidisciplinary university program that teaches decorative concrete as part of a hands-on, degree-driven course of studies emphasizing the technology, artistry and business of concrete.



Josh Cornwall, a 2003 Concrete Industry Management graduate, works on a decorative concrete project on the Middle Tennesee State University campus in fall 2009. He is etching the pattern of the MTSU logo, which was later stained. The project was a collaboration between members of the ASCC Decorative Concrete Council and the MTSU CIM Program. | Photo by Becky Linville
MTSU student Rhett Bass visits Alcatraz to lend his skills to the California State University, Chico CIM Program's restoration efforts. | Photo courtesy of Dr. Kanya Thomas



That's the appeal of the Concrete Industry Management (CIM) Program sponsored by the industry and currently offered through five universities in America. Under the CIM Program, schools offer bachelor's degrees from their schools of engineering along with minors in business administration from the business schools. The business degree includes coursework in accounting, project management, marketing and related subjects.

Two of the schools - California State University, Chico (CSU Chico) and Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) - include decorative concrete as an elective to core courses that provide grounding in concrete contracting, engineering, sales, project and production management and new technologies.

"We've had great success in the five years we've been with the program, " says Dr. Tanya Komas, director of the CIM Program at Chico State. "We graduated 14 students last year and all of them are employed. "

That claim is particularly noteworthy in this economy, and a trend in which Clark Branum takes special pride. Branum, a nationally known decorative concrete expert, is a visiting lecturer for the Chico State program. "We're an aging breed, so to speak, " he says. "When you bring in young people and train them properly, it's a major advantage to the industry. "

A decorative concrete course
MTSU was the pioneering school within the CIM Program, having started in 1996. But it's more recently, within only the last three years, that decorative concrete has been offered as an elective to students within the program, and initially only at Chico State.

"That's a great example of how key leaders were able to see an emerging market and a need within the industry and build a curriculum and craft a program that responds to those needs and opportunities, " states Brian Gallagher, a national steering committee member of CIM and chairman of the CIM marketing committee. "They were also able to tap into local contractors and other industry resources to get their expertise into the classroom. "

As decorative concrete tends to be an entrepreneurial, self-starting kind of a career choice, that's exactly how the Chico State team put their course together. "The students wanted it, so we we engaged a number of top industry professionals and learned it together, " says Komas. "I worked with Clark, the real expert in this area, to see what a university-based decorative concrete curriculum would look like, how the flow of the lectures and accompanying hands-on lab exercises should work. "

The course's first "textbook " was - and still is, for now - basically a collection of lesson plans, a manual that's grown as the class has taken shape on the bones of what's worked so far.

Dr. Heather Brown, Komas' counterpart at MTSU, picked up the decorative concrete class after that first year at Chico. As at the California school, MTSU students learn by doing.

"The students love being able to roll up their sleeves and learn concrete hands-on. They request fieldwork experiences to gain better insight into all aspects of construction, " Brown says.

Partnering with industry
The decorative concrete course is a 15-week semester-long program that involves classroom instruction and hands-on lab exercises every week on such topics as stamping, staining, texturing, project planning, sustainable aspects of decorative concrete, specialty applications and other pertinent subject areas.

Outside experts are brought in to present the material first - then the students put into practice what they've learned in the classroom.

During the class, students get to take their lessons into the real world and see the creative, technical and business aspects of the decorative concrete industry. "One student made a concrete guitar stand, another did work in fiber optics, " says Brown.

Branum sees the benefits of the program from an industry perspective. "The hardest part of hiring is finding young people you don't have to train from the ground up, " he observes.

To the decorative concrete industry, that's the number one reason to embrace the CIM Program.

CIM students work to restore Alcatraz
As undoubtedly the most colorful and memorable element of the U.S. National Park Service, the infamous Alcatraz Island gets more than a million visitors a year, and it shows. As a former military prison, federal penitentiary, bird sanctuary and, much more recently, a popular tourist destination within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, The Rock's concrete walkways, railings and other structures are weathered and badly in need of stabilization and repair.

"The 150-year-old military structures beneath the existing Prison Recreation Yard, the tops of which we exposed during slab repair work in cooperation with NPS archaeologists, have what could be some of the very earliest concrete in the United States, " says Dr. Tanya Komas. Her concrete repair and decorative concrete students in the CIM Program at California State University, Chico got the call to spend last summer making repairs.

Working under the watchful eye of NPS staff, archeologists (interested in the below-ground structures) and biologists (safeguarding the bird population), Komas' students painstakingly patched and repaired concrete a century old. The goal was to match as perfectly as possible the existing concrete work within the old prison rec yard and concrete stairs that are part of the old officers' row.

"The students started with mock-ups to decide on the best approach, then either formed and poured or hand-placed the repair material. As soon as the material would allow, they used decorative techniques to rough it up and scar it, " Komas recalls.

Her group used three different kinds of materials from BASF to accomplish structurally successful repairs as well as formulate concrete coloration and textures that replicated the shades brought about by decades of moss growth and bird droppings, the rough textural conditions incurred by the harsh weather, and the effects of millions of hands and feet.

"The company's Zero-C mixes perfectly matched what we were doing, " says Komas. "We shaped the Vertical Overhead Mortar mix like Play-Doh for hand placement in vertical applications, which was quickly followed by scratching and scarring to match the historic textures. We used the self-consolidating mix with wood forms in other places. The students devised a very creative method of texturizing the interior surfaces of their forms to match the historic texture in these cases.

"To achieve color matching, we dabbed on white and tinted microtoppings and an overall subtle application of color-matched water-based ecofriendly stains. All the while, we worked among the tourists and sea gulls. "

Bureaucracy was as much a working challenge as the environment. "Operating under Secretary of the Interior guidelines, we had to be very minimalist in what we took out. It was a situation where standard practices didn't always apply, and that was a valuable lesson to students, " says Komas.

"What they learned, " says Clark Branum, "was to do structural repair properly with a blend of artistry and concrete. "


PreiTech Corp. owner and project instructor Mike Eastergard helps CIM students construct a Sept. 11 memorial at 2010 World of Concrete. | Photos by Becky Marshall

A 9/11 tribute at WOC
A memorable fieldwork project took top senior CIM students at MTSU and CSU Chico to World of Concrete in Las Vegas last February.

Under the tutelage of Ed Gruetzner, a decorative concrete practitioner who's also a retired firefighter from New York City, and Michael Eastergard, owner of PreiTech Corp., a concrete form company, students from both MTSU and Chico State created a bittersweet memorial to members of two companies of firefighters who were lost at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

"It was touching, listening to the fire-station chief talking about the firefighters he'd lost on 9/11, " says Dr. Heather Brown, of MTSU's CIM Program. "The students were so proud to be involved. "

The team created concrete silhouettes of two towers ranging to nearly 10 feet tall. (A two-inch height difference between towers mimics the effect of perspective.) Glass-fiber reinforced concrete was cast against faceted casting mats to produce a dramatic reflective mirrored finish. Onto that finish was engraved the names of the fallen heroes and the story behind the event. Unique casting mats were created for the project by Eastergard.

The CIM students who worked on the project were seniors. "It was an entirely extracurricular undertaking for a select group of students, " says Dr. Tanya Komas, CIM Program, CSU Chico. "They'd taken the decorative class, so they had some knowledge of the process, but they still had to learn how to do GFRC. "

Students practiced with samples of the GFRC panels before the show, then spent their in-show time erecting forms, fitting them together and sanding them, reports Brown.

The memorial was erected, displayed and then dismantled all under the keen observation of show attendees. It will be reinstalled and officially dedicated at a memorial park in New York across the street from one of the firehouses affected. reports Brown.



Universities offering CIM degrees
Arizona State University

California State University, Chico

Middle Tennessee State University

New Jersey Institute of Technology

Texas State University, San Marcos

Concrete Industry Management Program Home Page