Like other precious resources, the United States has become dependent on imported cement, and anyone wondering why only needs to study the case of Holcim US's cement plant, now under construction in Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri.

READY OR NOT: The Holcium US cement plant under construction in Ste. Genevieve County, Mo., will produce four million metric tons of cement. Photo: Courtesy Holicum The Switzerland-based company started the permitting process to build a $600 million giant cement plant on the Mississippi River in 1999, expecting to be busily baking limestone into portland cement at the world's largest single kiln plant by as early as 2003.

It was spring 2006 before ground was broken on the plant. By then the price had climbed to $900 million. And the date for when the first of four million metric tons of cement a year rolls off the conveyors had slipped to August 2009.

The years that intervened were taken up with 40 environmental studies and significant plan modifications necessary to satisfy eight state and federal agencies, not to mention the environmental opponents who always show up when cement plants announce plans to build in their backyard.

Then, with permits finally in hand, there was yet another delay because the company needed to go back and do another feasibility study to determine whether the plant still made financial sense after a 50 percent increase in construction costs, says Nancy Tully, Holcim US's manager of public affairs. During the delays, the prices of materials to build the plant–5,000 tons of structural steel and, ironically, 200,000 cubic yards of concrete–had skyrocketed. But even with the dramatic construction cost increases, the numbers still clearly made profit hurdles.

Demand Is Solid

"Holcim believes that four million tons of capacity will be sold out in short order," says Pierre G. Villere, an investment banker and senior managing partner of Allen Villere Partners, who follows the cement market closely.

Villere thinks so, too. Despite the recent slowing in demand for cement, he expects the four million metric tons of new capacity will have "an insignificant impact on reliance of imported cement" by the time the plant has been up and running a couple of years.

By 2012, Villere predicts, factoring in historic demand patterns and the amount of new domestic cement production scheduled to come on line, the United States will need to import 30 percent of its cement, close to what had to be imported in recent high-demand years. "There is no real plan for [cement] capacity expansions that address this need fully," says Villere, "and the importance and reliance on imports will continue."

Of course, without the new Holcim Ste. Genevieve plant, the situation would be at least four million tons of cement worse, so construction on the mega-plant continues, with an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 workers employed in its construction. When the plant is completed, it is expected to regularly employ 200 people with a $10 million a year payroll.

Pour Form

This summer, a modern concrete engineering marvel is slowly being performed as workers pour some of the largest slip-formed concrete silos ever made for the plant. Thirteen silos for material storage, some as tall as 275 feet and as wide as 150 feet in diameter, are being formed from a seamless concrete pour that, once started, must continue 24/7 until the concrete reaches the silo's full height, which will take 18 days for each silo, says Tully.

When complete, the plant, which sits on a quarry with at least 100 years worth of limestone, is supposed to be the most environmentally friendly in the world and is surrounded by a 1,800-acre conservation area. And plant emissions, no matter what fuel it burns to power the kiln, are expected to be the "lowest emissions ever," according to Tully. "We have put it on paper, so we have to agreed to it. To achieve that, the company will use a new and especially clean "selective non-catalytic reduction burn down process."

The plant can use a variety of fuels to power production. In addition to traditional coal and petcoke, a byproduct of fuel refining, the plant's kiln can also be fueled with tires and used oils, and has a connection to a neighboring electrical power station in case all those sources run short. Burning the tires will keep them out of landfills, says Tully. "But there aren't enough tires in the state of Missouri to fire the kiln."

"Stop Taking a Bath"

Financially speaking, that is, suggests a billboard promoting tankless water heaters.

Speaking of limited U.S. natural resources, there's a new billboard on the infamous 405 freeway in Southern California that might momentarily take commuters' thoughts away from bumper-to-bumper traffic-inspired vehicular homicide and cast it upon nobler pursuits, such as eliminating water heaters with tanks.

Sponsored by the Rinnai Corp., a leading manufacturer of gas appliances, including tankless hot water heaters, the billboard at the South Bay curve displays the millions of dollars wasted each day in California by water heaters with tanks. So, even as their cars consume unknown amounts of fossil fuel and spew pollutants into the air while inching along the freeway, drivers now have another guilt pang to deal with–their wasteful tanks full of hot water at home and work.

The total cost of these inefficient water heaters equals about $5.1 million each day, estimates the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association. That's more than $3,500 a minute. So, on a slow day on the freeway, there will be enough numbers ticking off of the LED display to catch drivers' attention.

"California has always been a trend-setting state when it comes to adopting energy-efficient technologies," says Ervin Cash, senior vice president of Rinnai. "Our hope is that the nearly 200,000 drivers who go past our billboard each day will recognize the positive economic impact of going tankless and decide to make the move to tankless water heating."

Tankless heaters heat the water instantly as it runs through the unit, eliminating the cost of keeping gallons of water constantly hot and taking up less space in the process. Rinnai says its heaters use 50 percent less energy, produce about 30 percent less carbon dioxide emissions, and typically save 1,000 gallons of water a year than traditional hot water heaters.

Hurricane How To

Photo: Courtesy Hurricane Construction Network A Web site provides a one-stop spot for those looking to bone up on hurricane resistant building techniques and products.

Keeping up with what's new in hurricane-resistant construction could be a full-time job. Fortunately, there's a web-based clearing house of information for builders, as well as code-enforcement folks, looking for a one-stop spot to keep up with what's new.

The Hurricane Construction Network at offers answers to questions on a wide range of subjects, from state-specific building science and codes to proper building practices.

There's an online copy of the guidebook for The Hurricane Resistant Construction Project and videos featuring proper installation techniques of various products.

For those interested in interactive discussion groups, there also are online blogs led by industry experts, including:

  • Hurricane and Flood Resistant Buildings, led by Steve Easley, a building science consultant and former Purdue University professor.
  • Mold and indoor air quality, led by Susan Raterman, an industrial hygienist and indoor air quality specialist.
  • Warm and Moist Climate Construction, led by the Building Codes Assistance Project.