To try to shine a light on the dimly lit future, Masonry Construction asked 30 of North America's top masonry professionals to pull out their crystal balls and create a vision of masonry in the year 2050. These experts include architects, engineers, contractors, association managers, material producers, and educators. There were some common themes and a few startlingly original ideas, some optimistic predictions and some doomsayers, some who predict revolutionary changes and others who expect only peripheral innovations.

But one thing seems clear: This is a perilous time for masonry—there are great dangers and great opportunities ahead. The overarching trend that will compel us to innovate in all sectors of the industry is the need to do more with less.

Four general areas of change emerged from the predictions:

  • materials
  • building systems and design
  • construction practices
  • business practices

Materials in use in 2050 will increase in size and decrease in weight. Microchips in every unit will provide inventory control, be recognizable by electronic shop drawings, and interact with site robots and with environmental-control computers. Their insulating ability will probably be much higher than that of current units.

Autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) likely will "take market share from concrete masonry units, and concrete masonry units will take market share from clay brick," states Tom Grimm. AAC, according to Rich Klingner, "will increase the amount of construction that can be performed with masonry." Bob Nelson sees AAC, due to its light weight, fire resistance, and noise-reducing capability "replacing stud and drywall walls for interior partitions, especially in commercial construction."

Mortar as we know it today may not survive. The new mortar probably will not be cementitious but based on an epoxy or something similar. Job-blended mortars may be replaced by "factory-preblended mortars delivered to the job in 3,000-pound bulk bags, tankers, or portable silos."

"Construction drawings will be sent in electronic form to manufacturers where custom-shaped units will be produced as needed," says Dan Abrams. Ed Glock agrees: "Masonry materials will be made to order like cars are today," which will greatly reduce the money tied up in inventory.

Masonry materials may soon be sold as a system, requiring more contractor training. Preassembled components and modular building systems are likely to emerge. Prestressed masonry holds great promise. Prestressing could become commonplace on low-rise masonry.

Another construction technique that fits the theme of building a wall faster and with fewer skilled workers is dry-stacked masonry. In the design of masonry buildings, the biggest change will be increasing requirements for "designed" masonry. This could lead designers to consciously design some masonry buildings with a much shorter anticipated lifetime than the "forever" that is often expected from masonry buildings.

Computer-based design will lead to more rational design and fewer problems.

One growth area will be the rehabilitation and retrofit of masonry structures. More sophisticated design will require more precise construction.

Certainly there will be many advances in the construction process. Many feel that panelization and prefabrication will virtually replace site-built masonry. Computers will affect construction as much as design.

If it is to survive, the masonry industry as a whole will have to adopt more sophisticated business practices. There will likely be some consolidation of companies, especially on the manufacturing side. This ties in well to the system approaches described earlier.

A trend towards internationalization will increase the pressure on the industry and the entire country to adopt metric units of measurement.

Recruitment and training will become more sophisticated.

Marketing has always been one of the industry's weaknesses. The build-green movement will grow much stronger in the next 50 years, heightening awareness and appreciation for masonry's environmental friendliness. As the pace of change increases and our lives are dominated more and more by technology, people will seek the comfort and stability of traditional design and materials.

An end to the adversary approach to construction, and within the industry as a whole, is predicted (perhaps naively) by some. "This would lead to more successful projects," says Glock. Carl Anderson sees this trend leading to more masonry construction as "design-build approaches will allow us to convert buildings designed in other materials to masonry." Anderson also feels that more masonry contractors will take on the role of general contractor since "10 to 20% of a masonry building is the masonry." Nelson envisions the entire industry coming together as competition with other materials becomes more fierce. If this unification happens, McMican's rosy view could be realized: "Masonry will become a respected material again."