Hot Weather App Promotes Worker Safety

With hot weather coming, a mobile app created by the Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) of the US Dept. of Labor may prove very useful.  It calculates the Heat Index on jobsites.  It's available for iOS (iPhone, iPad, etc.) and Android platforms currently, with Blackberry yet to come).

It's a pretty simple, straightforward app that lets you input temperature and humidity - or download those values automatically - and calculates the heat index, providing precautions that should be taken on the jobsite to protect the safety of workers.  The app is free, and can be found easily by searching the App Store for "OSHA."  On your computer, you can view the iPhone version  or the Android version.

This is the main screen of the iPhone version.
The Android version has a different arrangement of the
buttons, but they perform the same functions. 

If your sales force has contact with contractors, it might be good business relations to tip off them contractors about the existence of this app.  (Be forewarned, though, this app got some bad press around Nov. 2011, so it might also start some heated conversations.  See below.)  If your manufacturing operations include outdoor work, it might be useful at your factory or yard as well.

I tested this app (iPhone 3GS running the latest version of iOS) and it worked for me exactly the way it's supposed to.

There are a number of comments about the app on the iPhone App Store and elsewhere online that criticize it, some of them on a very political basis.  The ones that claim it doesn't work or that some functions don't work are, as far as I can tell, inaccurate with reference to the iPhone.  Many comments online that appeared last Autumn appear to have referred to functionality problems on the Android version.  Those may or may not have been fixed by now.

The high development cost reported, learned through a Freedom of Information Act request, is an issue I won't touch here.

What I find most interesting about the app is the option for inputting the heat and humidity figures manually.  It suggests that OSHA expects many contractors to have thermometers and humidity gauges working on the jobsite.  That would be especially on a jobsite where online info may not be available or where the local weather may not be accurately reported online.  Let's hope OSHA is correct about that.

Economy: Half Full or Half Empty

Many people compare the current rate of construction to its peak in 2007. From that perspective, our industry has had quite a tumble.

But look more closely at the vertical axis of the graph. These numbers do not reflect the absolute number of starts. Instead, they are an index, where the number of starts in 2000 is equal to 100%. From this perspective, the economy is only down about 10 percent since a decade ago. Not too bad considering that we have fought two wars abroad, one at home, and had a massive screw-up in the banking system.

The rate of starts has been steady for the past three years. There are a lot of advantages to a steady economy, and companies that innovate can still grow in market share. The trouble is, that economies seldom stay steady for long.

Here is McGraw-Hill's most recent market summary:
February Construction Slips 4 Percent
New York, N.Y. – March 16, 2011 – At a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $404.9 billion, new construction starts in February fell 4% from the previous month, it was reported by McGraw-Hill Construction, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies. Nonresidential building lost momentum for the second month in a row, and the public works sector retreated after its elevated pace in January. Meanwhile, residential building in February was able to register modest growth. For the first two months of 2011, total construction on an unadjusted basis was $55.9 billion, down 9% from a year ago.

The February statistics lowered the Dodge Index to 86 (2000=100), compared to readings of 90 in January and 95 in December. For over a year, the Dodge Index has hovered between 80 and 96, with the average for all of 2010 coming in at 88. “The pace of construction starts continues to fluctuate within a set range, as the gains for one month are taken back by weaker activity in subsequent months,” stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. “Compared to the declines witnessed from 2007 through 2009, the overall volume of activity has steadied in a broad sense, but this period of low-level stability is turning out to be extended. Given various countervailing factors in the environment, this fluctuation within a set range is likely to continue a while longer. On the plus side, job growth seems to be picking up, vacancy rates are beginning to recede, and interest rates remain low. At the same time, financing for construction projects from the banking sector has shown only modest improvement. And, the tough fiscal climate being faced by federal, state, and local governments has added further constraints to public construction programs.”

Nonresidential building in February dropped 5% to $132.3 billion (annual rate), retreating for the second straight month after December’s heightened activity. For the commercial categories, office construction in February fell 30% from the prior month, which had been lifted by groundbreaking for four office projects valued each in excess of $100 million. The office category in February did include the start of one project valued in excess of $100 million – the $125 million modernization of the General Services Administration headquarters building in Washington DC. Hotel construction also reported a substantial February decline, falling 37% after the prior month had been boosted by the start of a large convention-center hotel in Washington DC. Warehouse construction stayed weak in February, sliding an additional 13%, while store construction edged up 1%. The manufacturing plant category in February climbed 54%, aided by the start of a $500 million cellulose ethanol plant in Kansas.

For the institutional categories, healthcare facilities dropped 27% in February, continuing to settle back after the brisk pace of contracting reported at the end of last year. Whereas December featured the start of six large hospital projects valued in excess of $100 million, and January had two such projects, the largest healthcare project in February was the $73 million clinic portion of the $360 million Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center in Cleveland OH. The educational buildings category decreased 12% in February, reflecting the downward pull arising from tight state and local budgets. Providing some support in February were the start of two large high schools, located in Virginia ($66 million) and Pennsylvania ($60 million), as well as groundbreaking for a $55 million medical research facility in Texas. The smaller institutional categories were able to register gains in February. The transportation terminal category jumped 310% after a depressed January, helped by the start of a $200 million bus depot in New York NY and a $143 million transit hub renovation in St. Paul MN. Amusement-related work climbed 92% in February, led by the $287 million convention center portion of the Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center. Moderate January gains were posted by public buildings, up 9%; and religious buildings, up 5%; relative to weak activity in January.

Nonbuilding construction, at $151.5 billion (annual rate), slipped 9% in February. Highway and bridge construction dropped 27% from January’s exceptional amount, which included the start of a $1.5 billion project to add new lanes to the LBJ Freeway in Dallas TX. The February pace for highway and bridge construction remained a slight 1% above the monthly average for 2010, as the waning support from the federal stimulus act is only just beginning to have a dampening impact. Decreased activity in February was also shown by river/harbor development, down 52%; site work and mass transit, down 34%; and sewer construction, down 13%; following the gains each category reported in January. Water supply construction was the one public works category able to show improvement in February, rising 51%, with the boost coming from the start of several water treatment plant projects located in Washington state ($51 million), Oklahoma ($47 million), and New York ($45 million). The electric utilities category had a strong February, surging 46%, as the brisk activity witnessed during 2010 for this project type has yet to slow down. Large electric utility projects that were reported as construction starts in February included a $2.4 billion coal-gasification power plant in Mississippi and a $1.4 billion wind farm in Oregon.

Residential building in February moved up 2% to $121.1 billion (annual rate). The strength came from the multifamily side of the housing market, which advanced 67% in February after a brief loss of momentum during January. Large projects that were reported as February starts included a $140 million apartment building in Secaucus NJ, an $87 million apartment building in Chicago IL, and a $58 million apartment building rehabilitation in Minneapolis MN. Murray noted, “Multifamily housing is turning out to be one of the few near-term bright spots for the construction industry. While rising from a very low amount, multifamily housing in 2010 grew 12% in dollar terms, faster than the 6% gain reported for single family housing, and it’s expected to see another double-digit increase in 2011.” Single family housing in February slipped back 7%, as the modest improvement that seemed to re-emerge towards the end of 2010 paused. The single family slowdown in February was widespread by geography, with all five regions showing reduced activity – the Midwest, down 2%; the South Atlantic, down 4%; the South Central, down 7%; the West, down 8%; and the Northeast, down 21%.

The 9% decline registered by total construction on an unadjusted basis for the first two months of 2011, compared to 2010, was the result of a mixed performance by major sector. Nonresidential building was down 21%, reflecting this pattern by segment – commercial building, up 6%; manufacturing building, up 483%; and institutional building down 37%. Last year’s nonresidential total included the start of two massive projects during the January-February period – the $3.0 billion transit hub in lower Manhattan NY and the $1.1 billion airport terminal project at Los Angeles International Airport. If these two large institutional projects are excluded from the 2010 statistics, then the year-to-date change for 2011 would be the following – institutional building, down 18%; nonresidential building, down 5%; and total construction, down 2%. Nonbuilding construction during the January-February period of 2011 was up 9%, helped by this year’s early strength for electric utilities, while residential building retreated 14% year-todate. By geography, total construction during the first two months of 2011 performed as follows – the Northeast, down 34%; the South Atlantic, down 30%; the Midwest, down 6%; the West, up 5%; and the South Central, up 17%.

Useful perspective is obtained by looking at twelve-month moving totals, in this case the twelve months ending February 2011 compared to the twelve months ending February 2010. On this basis, total construction is down 3%, due to this pattern by sector – nonresidential building, down 10%; nonbuilding construction, no change; and residential building, up 1%. By region, the twelve months ending February 2011 showed this behavior for total construction – the South Atlantic, down 16%; the Northeast, down 6%; the Midwest down 1%, the South Central, up 1%; and the West, up 4%.

Fed Ups Building Requirements to LEED Gold

From ENR:
The nation’s biggest landlord, the U.S. General Services Administration, is requiring LEED Gold certification as a minimum in all new federal building construction and substantial renovation projects. GSA is updating its facilities standards by the end of the year to enable the projects to meet the LEED Gold requirement...
This is clearly good news for manufacturers targeting government construction, but I'm more excited about the larger message: our expectations for sustainable design are increasing. Green building has been a big enough topic for long enough that it could be suffering from idea fatigue, but instead people seem to have internalized the message; "sustainable" is now the baseline.

Building Product Nutrition Labels Arrive in 2011

Light bulbs will display "nutritional labels" starting next year, according to an announcement from the FTC.
Starting in mid-2011, the Federal Trade Commission announced today, consumers shopping for light bulbs will notice new labeling on packaging designed to help them choose among the different types of bulbs on the market – traditional incandescent bulbs, and newer high-efficiency compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. The new labels will enable consumers to save money by selecting the most efficient bulbs that best fit their lighting needs.

Under direction from Congress to re-examine the current labels, the FTC is announcing a final rule that will require the new labels on light bulb packages. For the first time, the label on the front of the package will emphasize the bulbs’ brightness as measured in lumens, rather than a measurement of watts. The new front-of-package labels also will include the estimated yearly energy cost for the particular type of bulb.
Eco-insiders and sustainable design advocates have been predicting and calling for this type of labeling for years. Light bulbs are particularly well suited to the treatment, given the confusing interplay of wattage, lumens, energy cost, and more; I expect that if this program is successful it will quickly spread to other building products. Voluntary and preemptive labeling could help companies get ahead of the curve and cement their reputation for environmental leadership.

H/T TreeHugger and EcoGeek for the tip.

Federal Assistance for Building Product Export

Several of our clients are getting through the rough economy by expanding sales overseas, China and the Gulf States included. These programs can be helpful to novice exporters:

The Ex-Im Bank has three financing products geared especially to small and medium-sized businesses:
Working Capital Guarantees: covers 90 percent of the principal and interest on commercial lenders' working capital loans for pre-export costs.

Export Credit Insurance: protects mostly small-business exporters and their lenders against the commercial and political risks of a foreign buyer defaulting on payment.

Loan Guarantees: enables American firms to offer foreign buyers competitive credit to win a sale of equipment and services.
The Office of International Trade at the SBA has two programs to enhance the ability of small businesses to compete in the global marketplace:
Export Working Capital Loan Program (EWCP): provides short term, transaction based financing up to $2 million to assist experienced U.S. exporters to fulfill specific export contracts purchase orders, or letters of credit from overseas buyers.

Export Express: provides loans up to $250,000 to assist with working capital funds for international marketing & promotion activities and long-term financing to support an exporter's acquisition of fixed assets.
For more information, visit the Ex-Im Bank's web site at www.exim.gov or the SBA's website at www.sba.gov/oit .

ARRA Made in America Requirements

Building Product Manufacturers may start getting more questions about the origins of the products they make. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 requires that designated federally and state-funded projects must use manufactured products and un-manufactured construction materials that are sourced domestically. The requirement does not seem to require components be made in the US, just assembled here. For applicability to your projects, download a copy of the legislation and look for the state-by-state breakdown of agencies that must comply for ARRA-funded projects. There is a rigorous procedure for qualifying non-domestic products which includes proof of 25% cost benefit, with a potential consequence of ARRA funding not covering the portion of the project that does not comply.

This does not mean you have to start smothering your website and literature with the Red White and Blue. But this will shift the competitiveness of some products.

One unintended consequence of this Act may be to encourage foriegn companies to buy ailing US firms so they can do "final assembly" in US.

Watch this website for further information.

Here's an example of a building product manufacturer waving the flag about this act:

FTC Rules about Endorsements

New guidelines from the FTC may have a significant impact on building product marketing communications. Additional analysis will be posted in this blog in the weeks to come:

"For Release: 10/05/2009 (Excerpted Below)

"FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials -- Changes Affect Testimonial Advertisements, Bloggers, Celebrity Endorsements

"The Federal Trade Commission today announced that it has approved final revisions to the guidance it gives to advertisers on how to keep their endorsement and testimonial ads in line with the FTC Act.

"The notice incorporates several changes to the FTC’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, which address endorsements by consumers, experts, organizations, and celebrities, as well as the disclosure of important connections between advertisers and endorsers. The Guides were last updated in 1980.

"Under the revised Guides, advertisements that feature a consumer and convey his or her experience with a product or service as typical when that is not the case will be required to clearly disclose the results that consumers can generally expect. In contrast to the 1980 version of the Guides – which allowed advertisers to describe unusual results in a testimonial as long as they included a disclaimer such as “results not typical” – the revised Guides no longer contain this safe harbor.

"The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.

"Celebrity endorsers also are addressed in the revised Guides. While the 1980 Guides did not explicitly state that endorsers as well as advertisers could be liable under the FTC Act for statements they make in an endorsement, the revised Guides reflect Commission case law and clearly state that both advertisers and endorsers may be liable for false or unsubstantiated claims made in an endorsement – or for failure to disclose material connections between the advertiser and endorsers. The revised Guides also make it clear that celebrities have a duty to disclose their relationships with advertisers when making endorsements outside the context of traditional ads, such as on talk shows or in social media.

"The Guides are administrative interpretations of the law intended to help advertisers comply with the Federal Trade Commission Act; they are not binding law themselves. In any law enforcement action challenging the allegedly deceptive use of testimonials or endorsements, the Commission would have the burden of proving that the challenged conduct violates the FTC Act."

Buy American!

Federal stimulus funded jobs are requiring domestically-manufactured products.

On a office complex in Baltimore, MD, a popular imported threaded-rod hanger was thrown off the job and replaced with a domestic product. The new product performed as well, if not better, and was priced comparably, but the changeover caused delays and paperwork. Stories like this are encouraging an increasing number of federally-funded projects to start with, and use only, "Made In America" products.

LEED got people thinking about locally-sourced products; the economy is getting us to redefine our conception of local.