Concrete is one of the most in-demand construction materials on earth, with billions of pounds produced each year. The aggregate mix is so durable and reliable that it’s now a staple in commercial construction projects — from foundations to flatwork to retaining walls and beyond.
There’s a lot more to concrete walls than just pouring a slab and raising it in place with a crane or stacking cinder blocks on top of one another.
In this article, we’ll tell you all about concrete walls:
Let’s get into it.
More like, why not concrete?
Concrete walls are the default choice in commercial construction for these seven reasons (among others):
The main draw to concrete as a commercial wall system is its ability to withstand the elements.
Among concrete’s finest characteristics are its resistance to environmental factors:
Though concrete walls can crack, creep, or spall over time, concrete holds up against saltwater, humidity, and temperature changes better than any material known to man.
The exact build time varies based on the type of concrete wall, but the time between mixing, pouring, and curing to full strength takes around 28 days.
Using tilt-up walls in dry, non-windy conditions, it’s entirely possible to erect a 50,000-square-foot building shell in a span of a few weeks.
A building is only as strong as its weakest component.
With a compressive strength of 2,500+ PSI, a single square inch of concrete is strong enough to support a black rhinoceros.
Load-bearing concrete walls are durable to support multi-story commercial buildings (and even skyscrapers) without crumbling or cracking under the weight of the floors above.
When designed with steel reinforcement bars (or rebar) and given the time to properly cure, concrete walls can literally last a lifetime or longer.
Many industry professionals slap the “100-year” lifespan on concrete structures, but the Ingalls Building (1903) in Cincinnati is an actual example of the longevity of concrete construction.
To state that concrete is widely available is an understatement.
Concrete is a blend of three of the most abundant components on earth: aggregate, water, and portland cement.
This makes concrete easy to manufacture in most geographic locations, which reduces the lead time of precast or tilt-up walls.
Although concrete production leaves behind a concerning carbon footprint, this building material is remarkably energy efficient.
The “greenness” of concrete comes from its airtight structure (which prevents air leaks at joints) and its thermal mass.
Concrete blocks and panels slow the flow of heat in either direction, putting less strain on HVAC systems for superior temperature control in extreme heat and cold.
Concrete is also incredibly resilient against the most destructive element of all: fire.
This fact alone makes concrete walls a logical option in commercial buildings housing chemicals, machinery, or electrical components susceptible to catching fire.
If flames do erupt within the building, the walls won’t burn (or act as fuel to the fire). Concrete walls can withstand 1–4 hours of direct fire exposure, depending on their thickness and concrete type.
Among the most persuasive traits of concrete walls is their affordability. Concrete walls cost anywhere between $5 and $60 per square foot, depending on the thickness of the wall and the aggregate material used.
For higher-end buildings, you can invest in stamping or color dying to customize the building to match your brand and leave a lasting impression on visitors.
On most construction sites, you’re likely to encounter at least one of these three wall types:
We’ll get into each of their pros, cons, and characteristics below.
Tilt-up concrete walls are a modern phenom in the construction world and part of the reason behind the recent surge of rapidly built-up industrial parks.
The tilt-up method is simple:
Once the initial concrete floor slab is poured, the on-site crew creates a mold out of lumber that’ll eventually form the shape of the concrete wall panels.
Next comes the grid-shaped (or mesh) steel reinforcement rods called “rebar” that add structural integrity to the fully cured concrete.
After pouring the wall panels into the framing and allowing it to cure for 7–10 days, the panels are carefully tilted up into place with a crane. The walls remain braced in a vertical position before interlinking the panels with caulk.
Tilt-up is popular for big-box retail stores, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, factories, and even schools.
For a more detailed explanation of the process, check out this post: Tilt-Up Concrete Pros and Cons. To learn about the fasteners that hold concrete walls together, check out this post: How Concrete Connects: Types of Concrete Anchors Used in Large Building Construction.
At more than five inches thick, up to 100+ feet tall, and as heavy as 300,000 pounds per panel, tilt-up walls are as massive as they are durable.
The earliest tilt-up structures — those built by none other than the father of tilt-up himself, Robert Aiken — still stand today over a century later.
Tilt-up walls tend to have a compressive strength of about 4,000–5,000 PSI.
They’re also a top choice in seismic zones along the West Coast. The 1971 Sylmar and 1994 Northridge Earthquakes inspired tougher building codes for tilt-ups after many suffered extensive damage.
Modern tilt-ups are now durable enough to survive high-magnitude earthquakes with minimal structural damage and spalling.
Tilt-up walls are also budget-friendly (to an extent). Crane rentals run close to about $1,000 per day. However, priced around $6 per square foot for the panels, tilt-up is affordable.
If nothing else, tilt-up walls are the obvious choice for tight construction schedules or regions with unpredictable weather.
Between the concrete mixing, pouring, curing, and tilting, your build time could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
Not to mention the opportunity to multi-task, working out the kinks in the design stage during casting.
Unfortunately, the tilt-up installation process is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Concrete cures best under consistent temperatures (55-73 degrees Fahrenheit), fast-drying causes shrinkage, and wind gusts make crane operations dangerous.
Precast cement walls are similar to tilt-up walls in that they’re enormous panels poured, cured, and hoisted into place with cranes.
The key difference, here, is in the three small letters — pre.
Unlike tilt-up walls that are cast at the construction site, precast walls come to life in a temperature-controlled facility called a “precast plant.”
Here, a masonry crew pours the concrete into a much-smaller reusable mold, allows it to cure in optimal conditions, then straps it down to flatbed trucks before driving it to the construction site.
Like its tilt-up cousins, a crane then lifts the panels into place where the workers brace them upright and bolt them into place.
One of the biggest hang-ups of precast walls is their size.
Although casting facilities are quite large, panel size is limited by the dimensions of the trucks and the streets these trucks need to navigate. Multi-story structures and tight corners require smaller panels.
Did you know that precast walls could have nearly twice the compressive strength of tilt-up walls at 7,000–9,000 PSI? We have the temperature and humidity-controlling casting facility to thank for that!
As we touched on earlier, freshly poured concrete cures best at a consistent, cool temperature.
Concrete cures wicked fast at higher temperatures. Yet, data from PowerBlanket shows that concrete is actually strongest a year later when cured at 55–73 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pouring the slabs in a curing facility prevents temperature fluctuations and unexpected downpours and blizzards — which could cause cracking when the concrete expands or shrinks, even before the panels arrive at the worksite.
Priced at about $6–$15 per square foot, precast walls aren’t budget-drainers on their own. However, after factoring in crane rentals, transportation, and panel storage, the precast route could ultimately be more expensive.
Business owners may also feel the effects of this choice later. Since precast panels tend to be smaller with more joints, there’s a greater risk of heat flow and a potentially increased strain on HVAC systems.
In geographical areas known for heatwaves, winter weather, or completely unexpected natural disasters, precast walls are the more strategic option for the sake of time. The only potential delay would be a long lead time.
Block walls are stacks of hollow concrete masonry units (or cinder blocks) “glued” together in a staggered pattern with a mixture of water and mortar.
These 8x8x16-inch blocks start their journey on a production line. Conveyor belts send the raw materials down the line, mix them until they’re a perfect consistency, and pour them into a mold for compact “bricks.”
Next, the freshly poured CMUs travel to a kiln where they’re slowly heated and allowed to cure for 12+ hours.
After the building’s foundation cures, workers spread a layer of mortar along the wall and lay down an entire row.
The crew repeats this process, staggering the blocks in a diagonal pattern until they reach the ideal height. Along the way, workers grout vertical and horizontal reinforcements to the blocks to add to the building’s structural integrity.
The final product — while bland — provides enough strength to serve as a reliable exterior, retention, or interior wall.
Despite their semi-hollow structures, block masonry walls are roughly equivalent to the classic tilt-up walls, maxing out at around 5,000 PSI. Block walls are also surprisingly strong despite their multi-component design.
Most builders opt for one of two mortar mixes:
The classic staggered “running bond” pattern adds even more strength.
Old-school block wall construction is also relatively affordable, averaging $3 per square foot for materials and up to $20 to factor in labor. For large-scale factories or data centers, the budget could swell with labor costs.
Block walls are an excellent choice for small shops and retail stores because installation is simple and doesn’t require back-breaking labor, heavy machinery, or specific weather conditions.
However, the installation process is tedious and can be time-consuming for large commercial buildings.
Besides tilt-up, precast, and block walls, there are also a few other wall types your project manager or builder may recommend in the planning stages:
Sound walls — sometimes called “barrier walls” — are non-load-bearing walls that fall into the precast category.
Most common along stretches of highways bordering residential areas, these 20-foot tall concrete panels act as a noise-absorbing barrier. Sound walls can reduce noise pollution by 5–10 decibels.
In the commercial construction world, sound walls are common around factories, substations, HVAC equipment, or water treatment plants to muffle the escaping mechanical and industrial noises.
Retaining walls are yet another type of concrete wall that often flies under the radar. When a structure sits at a higher elevation than the surrounding earth, a 3–4-foot concrete retaining wall will create a vertical barrier along the slope.
These walls essentially lock the soil in place to prevent erosion and damaged foundations caused by shifting ground and water. Retaining walls are common along low-sitting parking lots, sidewalks, and driveways.
Now that we’ve reviewed five of the most common concrete wall systems, how do they compare to two other materials: steel and wood?
With a compressive strength of 36,000+ PSI, a much higher density, and better acclimation to temperature changes, steel is generally a more durable wall system than traditional concrete.
Concrete also runs a considerably higher price tag than alloys like steel.
However, concrete and steel are remarkably similar in their fire, weather, and water-resistance qualities. But if you’re still weighing the pros and cons of both materials, steel ticks more boxes.
Concrete wins in a landslide over wood, though. Unlike concrete, wood isn’t fire-resistant, is prone to termite and pest infestations, has size limitations, and isn’t as energy-efficient, making concrete the better option for most commercial structures.
However, wood framing is also less time-consuming, lighter, and long-lasting. In the battle of concrete versus wood, concrete comes out on top.
Concrete is one of the most versatile construction materials on earth, featured in home decor, countertops, concrete floors, wall coverings, and even decorative concrete work.
If you’re leaning toward a concrete building, we’ve gone over three wall system options: tilt-up, precast, and block.
Precast is the best all-around option, with tilt-up systems in a close second for large-scale commercial structures. Otherwise, block walls are just as effective for smaller yet durable buildings.
FMP Construction is a commercial contractor located in Denver, Colorado. Contact us about your commercial construction project today, and we’ll help you find the perfect walls for your needs.