In 1971, the world was changing at an astonishing pace. It’s the year Federal Express, the NASDAQ and Walt Disney World all made their debuts, and up in Minnesota, a little company named Fabcon Precast was working on the finer points of producing precast floor planks.
What started as a way to speed up construction and lower costs would eventually evolve into a product category and building method that would not only influence the whole of commercial construction, but also the way retail, manufacturing, and logistics organizations grow and operate. On this, the 50th Anniversary of Fabcon’s first project, it seems fitting to revisit our origins and examine how prestressed, precast concrete building systems have developed and impacted commercial construction.
Fabcon was the brainchild of Minnesota developer and construction pioneer Gerry Rauenhorst. Rauenhorst Construction Company (later to become Opus Group) had been active and innovative throughout the 1950s and 1960s, working to strip away the traditional conflict between architects and contractors. By horizontally integrating the two services under one roof, they could achieve greater accountability and efficiency from concept to completion. But that wasn’t where the integration stopped.
Aerial photographs from the early 1970s of Fabcon Precast’s new plant in Savage, Minnesota. Fabcon still operates from this location today with expanded facilities, serving the upper midwest region.
In the 1950s, precast concrete construction had come into its own and had been used extensively in the country’s exploding infrastructure buildout in the shape of overpasses and bridges. Rauenhorst was impressed with precast and saw an opportunity. Incorporating precast, prestressed floor planks was a time saver. The planks could be manufactured at a different location and stored, delivered, and installed quickly when the jobsite was ready. The structural performance of the planks also permitted impressive column-free spans and reduced the amount of steel required. In the spring of 1970, Rauenhorst collaborated with local construction veteran Dave Hanson and together they co-founded Fabcon Precast.
Fabcon challenged conventional wisdom and engineered the first rolling bed system.
Even in the 70s, the mass production of hollowcore planks was not a novel idea. The conventional method of making the precast planks had always involved steel beds and drycast concrete. Fabcon challenged conventional wisdom and engineered the first rolling bed system. These rolling beds made unloading the hardened floor panels much quicker and more efficient and have been a hallmark of Fabcon’s production process for 50 years. Even after Fabcon transitioned away from producing hollowcore plank in favor of structural wall panels, the method has remained at the heart of the manufacturing process since its conception.
Truly Superior innovation: Fabcon’s first job
In the winter of 1970–71, Fabcon secured its first job. The company provided hollowcore planks for a YMCA in Superior, Wisconsin. The planks would be used as a ceiling above the pool area and other sections of the facility. Although modest in overall scope by today’s standards, the project provided Fabcon with the opportunity to put its integrated suite of services to the test. The company designed and produced the panels, then delivered and installed them. This new integrated model of precast construction was so successful that it has remained virtually unchanged for 50 years.
The Superior YMCA’s original facility is still serving the community, and although it has undergone several expansions over the decades, Fabcon’s original product can still be seen above the pool area. “It’s hard to say what the expectations were in 1971, but by any measure, 50 trouble-free years is a good run. There’s no physical reason why that floor system shouldn’t last another 50 years,” said Fred Wilson, PE, Chief Engineer for Fabcon Precast.
“There’s no physical reason why that floor system shouldn’t last another 50 years.”It wasn’t long after the Superior YMCA’s grand opening that precast gained even greater acceptance, and Fabcon Precast helped to make it a commercial mainstay in the Midwest.
Gradually, more and more of Fabcon’s work focused on the building envelope. By the end of the decade, Fabcon had more than 1,300 completed projects under its belt. Precast had become a bankable solution and was leveraged by schools, manufacturers, big-box retailers and more. The word was out, and Fabcon’s panels were in demand across much of the Midwest.
In the five decades that followed the YMCA project, Fabcon never sat still, amassing product patents and reinventing what a precast panel can be. In 2000, the construction industry had fully embraced sustainability, and with the introduction of VersaCore technology, Fabcon had effectively upped the ante for performance. By incorporating polystyrene bats in the center of the panel, Fabcon could now achieve R-values approaching R-30, and the lighter panels reduced the number of truckloads needed to complete a project. The new and improved panels also boasted up to 58% recycled content.
The original memo detailing delivery and installation for Fabcon Job #1, scanned from microfiche.
Refusing to rest on its laurels, Fabcon has never stopped building. Starting with the acquisition of Ohio-based precaster American Precast in 1995, the ownership group has always looked to expand the growing flock of precast faithful. The eastward expansion continued in 2000 with the addition of a third Fabcon facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and in 2015, Fabcon set its sights west and added a fourth plant in Pleasanton, Kansas. Then, in the first half of 2021, the company made a quantum leap, acquiring Kerkstra Precast in Michigan and securing a manufacturing facility previously owned by Oldcastle Infrastructure in Selkirk, New York.
Today, Fabcon is stronger and more diverse than ever. No longer confined solely to wall systems, Fabcon is eyeing total precast solutions offering a product portfolio that covers walls, ceilings, structural support components and, ironically, the same hollowcore floor systems used in the Superior YMCA.
It’s been a rock-solid half century for Fabcon, yet as the organization enters its fifth decade, it enthusiastically asks…What’s next?