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Breaking Into The Ontario School Market

Español | Translation

Breaking into the Ontario school market is tough. This market sector requires patience, perseverance and a lot of good fortune. Nonetheless, over the past 20 years, SiteCast Construction has cultivated many early adopters of the tilt-up building system. I am sharing our strategy for two reasons. Firstly, our lessons learned could be valuable for contractors in other areas looking to make a move into the school market, and secondly, I would like to point out the value and importance of quality competition within markets.

Recently, I presented a seminar at the Canadian Concrete Expo in Toronto in which I outlined our efforts, results and strategy for the future.

As with any new market penetration, there are a few general rules of business to consider. These apply specifically to the Ontario market:

  • SIZE OF MARKET: $784 million was allocated for 2018
  • PROCUREMENT PROCEDURES: The Province of Ontario funds the education system; therefore, the province provides the rules and regulations as to who is funded and when new schools/additions are funded.
  • CURRENT SCHOOL CONCEPT: Brick/block hard-wall construction with steel infill will be used.

In 1999, SiteCast built the first tilt-up school in Ontario. This followed a model that used the design concept of a previous school for this School Board, and we revised it to be a full tilt-up school. The exterior panels were insulated (Thermomass) with thin brick (Scott System) veneer. Both technologies were relatively new to the tilt-up industry at that time. In addition to the overall design, we incorporated integral color concrete, and most of the interior panels (corridors, stairwells, etc.) were load-bearing tilt.

COMPARISON: When compared to the traditional construction of schools, the benefits of the tilt-up method added up quickly.

RESULTS: We opened the school on time and on budget. The board enjoys a maintenance-free wall assembly and annual hydro savings of 23 percent and gas savings of 38 percent.

PROBLEM: Although the cost and timeframe were of great value to the school board, SiteCast was the only tilt-up contractor in the game and the design/build model was too risky for board members to digest moving forward.

In the early 2000s, wooden portable classrooms were becoming a nightly news item. They were mold-infested, water-saturated, cold/hot boxes and used up valuable playground space in the schoolyards to maintain fire separation. Students and staff felt as though they were second-class citizens, condemned to the playground portable.

SiteCast constructed a standalone classroom that we competed in an open procurement model as an alternate to the wooden classrooms. We sold more than 50 of these classrooms in many arrangements throughout Ontario. Eventually, the wooden structures changed to metal stud, improving the wall assembly and becoming another option for the schools to lean towards. The hysteria of the portables subsided, slightly.

In this model, acting as the general contractor and, in some cases, the design/builder, we constructed multi-story school additions quickly, usually during the summer break. This model remains successful; however, most boards still struggle with procurement, as they are unable to obtain competitive bidding since no other firm would contract to construct hard-wall structures in the time-frame and for the cost we presented. It was at this point we began to revisit our strategy.

It took 20 years (we can be slow learners) for SiteCast to realize we cannot change the design and procurement methodology in Ontario (in any market emerging, actually). We realized most decision makers do not want to be “first” adopters, and they certainly do not want to ruffle the feathers of local design professionals and well-established generals. Some were close to retiring and did not see enough runway to change direction.

We changed our business delivery model. We met with school boards and provided them with budgets and design support. We met with design teams and walked them through the school delivery program. We helped the design teams understand tilt-up as a sub-contract product that should be detailed as a traditional shop-drawing element. The design teams became comfortable with this engineered shop-drawing process, which transferred the detailed panel design to our panel engineer. We explained to the school boards how we compete against fellow tilt-up contractors and, in some cases, pre-casters.

We started with a forward-thinking, progressive local school board, which stepped outside the box to learn about this product. This board realized that tilt-up must be cost-effective, as we have built more than 75 projects throughout Ontario for our development partner in the past 25 years.

Our first task was to address some typical tilt-up stereotypes:

A: My answer is usually “no.” However, it is not more expensive, either. Rather, we provide a higher-quality superior product for the same price. Hence, it is technically cheaper when you compare value for dollar.

A: The school board’s traditional professionals design the concept! The tilt-up contractor designs the panels via the shop-drawing process. SiteCast met with the board’s awarded architects and engineering teams, assisting them with detailing and understanding the process to convey the maximum values tilt-up can bring when detailed correctly.

A: The school board’s preferred general contractors do the bidding on the schools. SiteCast meets with these GCs to assist them in understanding the programming and requirements.

In recent years, Ontario tilt-up contractors have constructed eight schools and four school additions. When compared to traditional tendered results, the conclusion is stunning. These tilt projects have saved the Ontario Education System (tax payers) $19, 595, 505.00. Added to this value, school boards are saving around 30 percent in gas and hydro usage, providing more returns to the school boards, which must operate the schools as a business. These savings are reinvested into the board’s operations, which further drives new student enrolment as old schools are refreshed with savings from our tilt-up product.


There is no doubt we had a better mousetrap with tilt-up construction. The masonry industry is unfortunately diminishing, which leads to opportunities where hard-wall construction is required. We have a quicker system that delivers a higher quality school product at a cheaper net cost. The problem was we were bucking the established industry. We were bucking the traditional way of designing and the traditional way of procuring construction. It was too much change for owners, designers and general contractors. If you are starting out in a new tilt market, do not try to do all three on day one. Get your business established and accepted and then move forward methodically. It will be an easier sell. You must adapt to suit the market, instead of trying to change the market.

We found we could make great inroads without changing the design teams’ approach. We did not need to change their detail libraries; we simply added to them.

When the drawings were issued for tender, our approach was to bid the project and capture as much of the missing details as possible. For example, the penalization typically needs to be tweaked to suit brick coursing. This was not an entirely extra task, as we had to draw the panels anyways. We could share our amendments with the architect’s detailers, whom are now savvy in tilt detailing. Again, being proactive feeds, being reactive takes.

We did not want the GC to learn the hard way about what things are included and excluded in tilt-up construction, as they were new to this. General contractors, we strive to remember, have relationships with the community and the school board that we want to foster, not break.

In the end, we chose to fly beneath the radar and become another subcontractor. We did not change the procurement method or process. We walked the owners, designers and GCs through the issues, and ate a lot of costs to keep everyone sane. This was a learning process for us. Our bid sheet grew from half a page to two pages, with a lead document to help the GCs understand the process, timing and casting area requirements. For example, we carry many smaller items such as caulking, joint covers, slab-joint fill-in, and panel-fire stopping. The more scope we cover, the better the project is for everyone involved. An angry general is looking for loss, somewhere! If the job is difficult and the general contractor loses money, his or her negative response will quickly spread about the product, which could set us back years.

Our job as tilt-up subcontractors in a new market is to educate and protect all the players, including our fellow subcontractors.

In the end, we learned to focus on small changes. Focus on education, create a support network, and, most importantly, be flexible. Before long you will be in the exact position you want to be in – perhaps in 20 years sooner!

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TILT-UP TODAY, a publication of the Tilt-Up Concrete Association, is THE source for Tilt-Up industry news, market intelligence, business strategies, technical solutions, product information, and other resources for professionals in the Tilt-Up industry. A subscription to TILT-UP TODAY is included in a TCA membership. Subscriptions for potential TCA members are also available. If you would like to receive a complimentary subscription to the publication, please contact the TCA.