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Promoting unity

Europe's concrete industry is beginning to co-operate on a wide range of technical, educational and promotional matters. Martin Clarke reports.

Being essentially a locally produced product, concrete in all its forms has developed differently in each European country.

Varying building traditions, climates and design factors such as seismic considerations have led to very different applications - a variety added to by national and local technical profiles, chemistry, and standards.

Traditionally, there has been little co-operation between the component groups of the European concrete industry. There is no European concrete industry body and until recently no network. In contrast in the past 30 years the European constructional steel industry has skilfully planned its business internationally - backed by the European Coal and Steel Community funds and a supportive civil service.

Co-operation across the total concrete industry has been left to the excellent but mainly academic and researcher driven work of the two groups FIP and CEB now joined as the fib group based in Lausanne (see box).

Sadly, the European concrete supply industry itself, apart from dedicated precast/prestressed enthusiasts, has failed to support sufficiently this important forum and there is an overdue need to improve communications between the European concrete industry groups and fib - the international federation for structural concrete.

The advent of European standards for concrete and its components and the development of the Eurocode suite now make trans-continental collaboration absolutely vital. There are several signs that this is happening.

International ownership of the industry and the global issues of environment and sustainability are now binding together concrete interests as never before.

These factors, plus the instant electronic transfer of information and news means that all parts of the concrete industry are beginning to appreciate their symbiotic interdependency - they prosper, or otherwise, together.

Unlike the simpler steel and asphalt industries there is no European concrete organisation representing all interests but then no individual country has such a pan-industry body.

Arguably there is no need for a new body and consequent extra costs - providing that efficient networks are in place so that the component groups can work efficiently together. Then the concrete industry has it in its power to assemble a virtual electronic European association.

In Britain the assembly of sector networks in place has been a key strategy of the BCA over the past ten years. For example, we have forged an excellent and long-term relationship with ASW - one of the world's top steel reinforcement companies.

In Europe there are several promising signs of a unified approach (see box).

There is no doubt that despite differing national traditions we can learn much from the way other countries work with more apparent success. Block paving - a tremendous and continuing success in Britain - was an early example in the 1970s. Tilt-up building, now just starting here, has been transplanted from the US and Australia.

CRCR concrete pavements were an imported idea and should become the standard road design in the UK in future; now continuous concrete rail trackbed is coming in. The initiative to set up a French school of concrete has attracted much interest. Several European countries were earlier into the sustainability agenda than the UK and we are learning from them.

And this is a two-way street.

around Europe. The UK strategy of setting up focused co-funded sector groups in roads, bridges, housing and the frame market and binding in the supply chain is of great interest to other countries where traditionally the cement industry has led and funded everything.

Our Egan and M4I initiative has no apparent parallel in Europe. And the Cardington project is producing efficiency gains that may have propelled the UK concrete frame industry towards the top end of the European league.

Case study: Belgium Concrete per capita consumption varies widely from country to country (see table).

The major determinants are economic growth rates, the proportion of national income spent on construction, the maturity of the built infrastructure and demographic pressures together with the topography, climate and environment that each country is endowed with.

The concrete industry cannot do much about these 'givens' but it can exploit the opportunities that they create.

The relative strength of competition from steel, timber and asphalt also varies significantly across Europe as does the tradition and fashion for buildings and materials.

One country that consistently comes out towards the top of the league table is Belgium - a country that benefits from being in the political and transport hub of Europe yet seems to have played an effective interventionist role in growing and defending markets. The promotional effort is led by the cement industry trade association Febelcem, in close association with the ready mix industry which is closely vertically integrated.

A strong and active pre-cast federation FeBe runs a network of 16 lively product groups, some of which are active exporters around Europe.

Together with the small but popular Belgian Concrete Group - the equivalent of the Concrete Society, the four industry groups make an effective case for concrete.

Through good and bad times the industry has stayed with a policy of free provision of student learning material to all universities. They are also regularly 'teaching the teachers'.

Belgium also has more architects per head than anywhere in Europe. Most new houses are individually designed and this seems to work in favour of concrete solutions. Paving block market growth has been greater than anywhere else in Europe and Belgium has had an attachment to concrete roads with quiet running surfaces for many years.

The most recent development is the start of a new national image campaign - the most difficult of marketing programmes to measure. Yet the Febelcem team is confident of success - a battery of trade and newspaper advertisements reminds the public constantly of the benefits of concrete. As they say 'Le Beton respire' and 'Il y a de la vie dans le beton'.

The rest of Europe is watching with interest.

The fib based at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne was formed in 1998 by a merger of two established parents - FIP representing international pre-stressing and post-tensioning interests and CEB, the Euro-International Committee for Concrete.

The fib currently runs 10 commissions and task groups and three special activity groups.

Further details at Cembureau, the European Cement Association, is working with international precast federation BIBM and European ready mix organisation ERMCO on a range of issues for the first time. These include fire and Eurocode 2.

In the vital area of life cycle profiling, the three organisations have assembled a major holistic project - now well advanced - with partners EISA (steel reinforcement), UEPG (aggregates) and EFCA (admixtures).

For an on-line guide to European and national organisations see www. europeanconcrete. com.

A two-day conference on promotional issues is being held by Cembureau, ERMCO and BIBM in November to which all concrete interests are invited.

Most countries have their equivalent of the Concrete Society. A number of European bodies has joined together to form the European Concrete Societies Network.

[www. ecsn. net]. They have already secured EU funding for several projects and a number of publications and training initiatives are in progress.

Cembureau members have been working hard to develop a series of case studies looking at national successes of concrete marketing programmes. Seventeen individual case studies have been completed and will be launched in November.

The main concrete industry groups in Europe can be contacted via their websites as follows:

Cembureau - cement www. cembureau. be ERMCO - ready-mixed concrete www. ermco. org. uk BIBM - pre-cast concrete www. bibm. org EISA - reinforcement mills www. eisa. org UEPG - aggregates www. uepg. com EMO - mortar www. euromortar. com ECSN - concrete societies www. ecsn. net Further details of national and European organisations can be found at www. europeanconcrete. com

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