Pending shortage of steel form ties threatens construction

By Jenny LescohierMarch 16, 2021

A shortage of steel form ties is predicted, due to factors such as purchasing practices, raw material depletion and tariffs on imports as well as the pandemic’s impact on shipping and manufacturing

A pending shortage of steel form ties across North America threatens to hinder the industry’s fragile recovery from the pandemic as potential work stoppages loom.

Concrete Foundations Association (CFA), representing cast-in-place contractors, has announced an industry-wide effort to mitigate the building supply shortage.

Form ties in demand

The form tie system prevents breakage in the formwork, thus keeping concrete structures in good shape without discoloration. Besides ease of assembly and removal, the system saves construction costs as all parts are reusable except for the separator, which is casted into the wall.

While concrete form ties are manufactured domestically, to meet rising demand and address cost issues, a significant volume of the supply has transitioned to imported ties from China over the last decade.

“This shortage has evolved over the past two quarters into a significant industry issue,” said James Baty, executive director of the CFA. “The record level of housing starts in 2020 has combined with significant factors such as purchasing practices, raw material depletion and tariffs on imports as well as the pandemic’s impact on both shipping and manufacturing.”

“Form ties are the most essential component of the cast-in-place concrete forming industry as they must be designed to handle the rigorous pressures and permit the rapid construction schedule that has long been an advantage of this method,” said Jason Ells, senior vice president for Custom Concrete, a concrete contractor from Westfield, Ind.

“We have been feeling the impact of this shortage for several months now and can see that it stretches from raw material and imports through manufacturing and into the marketplace through supply to companies like ours,” he said. “We have yet to find any relief or projected relief for the situation before it gets even worse.”

Industry aims to mitigate impact of materials supply shortage

The CFA has developed a coalition of key industry stakeholders with several meetings already this month to gather facts related to the situation and to begin identifying plausible solutions. The goal of these meetings was to discern rumor from fact as well as preparing the building industry for the impact of the shortage, while identifying steel industry and possible government assistance.

“CFA is spearheading an unprecedented collaboration effort to offer as many solutions as possible to ensure minimal disruption to the marketplace, while also maintaining quality and worker safety,” states Doug Herbert, president of Herbert Construction in Marietta, Ga. and the current president of the CFA Board of Directors. 

Baty noted one of the key concerns at this point is making sure that short-cuts aren’t taken in the building process because of the shortage. For example, contractors may opt to use fewer ties in the forms, while others might try alternative tie systems that are not tested nor designed for the loads. Deviating from proven industry methods may compromise the structural integrity of the forming system and put worker safety at risk.

While some additional production is proposed by steel mills committing to increases of the roll stock required to stamp the ties domestically, it will likely be the end of second quarter or early third quarter for the market to realize the temporary impact of the increased supply. Likewise, the timing of imported inventory into the U.S. market remains challenged and the potential impact will not likely offer much relief until mid-second quarter.

In related news, builder sentiment fell in March as rising material prices pushed builder confidence lower, according to data from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The latest NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) shows builder confidence in the market for newly built single-family homes fell two points to 82 in March.

“Future meetings are planned for updating those with specific interest in monitoring the progress and to continue bringing the right minds together to do what we can to solve this problem,” stated Baty. “In addition to our attention on supply, we also are working to educate the marketplace of the safety risks that must be considered when attempting to stretch inventories by reducing tie usage or attempting untested or provisional replacements.”

 Contractors interested in learning more about this situation are encouraged to reach out to the CFA either by calling 319-895-6940 or by email directly to Baty at jbaty@cfawalls.org.

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