A little concrete, a lot of grit

Margaret Allen
Dave Van Doren, with a stack of Grid-Crete panels, explains how builders construct housing with the reusable plastic molds.

It’s impossible to say how many square feet of affordable housing and commercial and industrial space have been built worldwide with the concrete building system developed by Hays native Dave Van Doren.

“It’s a lot,” Van Doren said Friday, speaking from his office in the Hadley Center on east 7th Street.

Van Doren is founder of the original Hays company that invented the modular concrete Waffle-Crete panel system for affordable buildings.

It started out his customers were local, then regional, and ultimately international, evolving over the decades into builders from Africa to Asia to Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as in the United States.

That’s still the case today, with a refined version of the original product, for Van Doren’s company, Global Technology Building Systems.

The product’s attraction is the rapid overnight curing of the cement for fast construction of sturdy, low-cost commercial and industrial buildings, as well as single family homes. Using labor and materials local to the building site, the biggest opportunity has been in developing countries, where concrete is the preferred building material, and particularly where thousands of economical housing units are needed fast.

“There’s no way to know” the number of square feet, said Van Doren. “We sell the molds and the equipment to them, we teach them how to do it, and we’re sometimes able to go back and visit periodically. But the molds are theirs, so there’s no royalty or fees that would give us any indication how much they’ve been used.”

Hays-based Global Technology Building Systems has been recognized now both nationally and internationally for its two kinds of building technology. Waffle-Crete is a thicker panel for commercial and industrial buildings, and Grid-Crete is lighterweight with thinner panels for single-family housing.

The national monthly magazine Fast Company, in its May/June issue recognized Grid-Crete as a finalist in its World Changing Ideas competition among products designed for the developing world.

In December 2018, the Grid-Crete home design came in 13th among 30 finalists from 300 team submissions in an international competition sponsored by The World Bank, UN Habitat, the Build Academy. Winners and finalists were acknowledged for housing that can withstand earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters to solve the global challenge of building affordable housing for the 23 million left homeless the past decade.

“We used a home that we had already designed and built in Jamaica,” Van Doren explained. “We had the only one that had actually been engineered and built, everything else was just a concept. And of course this has been through many hurricanes over the years.”

The recognition is part of the comeback for Van Doren’s business, which has been in existence for 40 years. It took a brief hiatus after Van Doren sold the company in 2000. By 2016 the buyer had abandoned it, so Van Doren and his original business partner, Rob Disney, started it back up. The trademarks and patents at that time had expired and were up for grabs.

“It’s not like starting from scratch, because we’ve got decades of experience and engineering and technology. It’s like starting in the middle,” said Van Doren from the company’s headquarters at the Hadley Center. “We’ve still got customers that I set up when I was involved with it earlier, and they’re still excited about it and wanting to do big projects and wanting our help with new molds.“

One of those projects is a custom two-story upscale home in the Philippines, said Van Doren, flipping open a set of architectural drawings from a builder he’s worked with since 1991.

“He wanted us to review the drawing and give any suggestions for improving the layout,” he said. The builder also has a government contract to build a multi-level housing unit from Waffle-Crete for 300-square-foot homes.

“We met in Las Vegas in February and reviewed all of his plans,” Van Doren said. “Then everything has just shut down. Things are on hold.”

He was supposed to be in the Philippines in March, and in Saudi Arabia this past spring.

One project still under construction despite COVID-19 is a phased U.S. military training facility in California. And still on the drawing board are multiple hotels and apartments in Alaska, a housing project of small single-family homes in Florida, and a 2,500-square-foot home in Saudi Arabia as part of what’s considered an affordable housing project there.

And this past week, Van Doren received word from the company’s patent attorneys in Kansas City that he’s been granted the patent for a concrete barrier wall he developed, such as President Trump envisions along the Mexico-U.S. border.

Still, Van Doren’s company as it stands now is much smaller than it was previously, with far less revenue and overhead. Van Doren says they are starting small and being very conservative.

“We’ve been busy developing the best new technology and securing the trademarks and the patents, so we’re taking it step by step and getting all of our ducks in a row,” he said. “We’re probably to the point that we need to find an investor that wants to carry on.”

Right now they farm-out a lot of work to control overhead. Mold manufacturing is done in Wichita and Austin, Tex., and suppliers, like Leon’s Welding & Fabrication in Hays, do a lot of the company’s custom work.

They are ready for a larger facility, bigger warehouse, and additional people.

“The biggest challenge is going to be at some point the on-site technical assistance,” Van Doren said. “I’ve been doing that myself, so at some point we’re going to have to hire additional trainers to go out and be available on site. It’s almost essential when they’re starting up a new project in a new place, is to show them how to do it. It’s not hard to learn, but it’s important to get started off properly.“

On Friday, Waffle-Crete molds most likely headed for the Philippines were stacked on pallets in the basement of the Hadley Center, a former hospital and 180,000-square-foot building that Van Doren bought in 2001 and redeveloped into office space. The molds, shrink-wrapped 32 to a pallet, will be loaded into a shipping container, delivered by train to the coast, and shipped overseas.

“Our guy in the Phillipines, who’s been at it since ’91, almost 30 years, he’s still using some of the original molds he bought in the 90s,” Van Doren said. “They’ve lasted much longer than we forecast.”

To watch a video on a Waffle-Crete project pour, go to https://youtu.be/2DIoWb0krDQ

Privately developed Stadium Place Apartments on the Fort Hays State University campus were a Waffle-Crete project.