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July/August 2010 – Steel shows its diverse appeal

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There is always something surprising thrown up by the annual Structural Steel Design Awards, now in their 42nd year and reported on in some depth in this issue. Everybody who attends the awards ceremony and sees the projects displayed in detail must surely see at least one structural steelwork entrant that takes them aback with the audacity of architectural and structural design, and the quality of steelwork.

This year there was as outstanding a crop of worthy shortlisted projects as ever, with some that easily stand comparison with the best of the past 42 years. The judge’s comments are telling: “an heroic engineering achievement”, “steelwork at its most dramatic”, “comprehensively well designed and economical in form”.

What might be most surprising to some though is that there were so many quality entrants while the construction industry is in the depths of as bad a recession as any can remember. As the annual market share survey recently showed, steel still commands a dominant share of some 70% of the market for multi storey buildings; and as the SSDA shows, steel is still the material of choice for the most challenging projects, delivering innovative structures that score outstandingly on aesthetics, programme, cost and sustainability. It is no surprise that the use of alternative materials remains in long term decline.

As well as holding its ground with a dominant multi storey buildings market share, steel has been consolidating its market position in new growth sectors. As demand from sectors like schools that have bolstered the construction sector for the past few years tails off, operators of the new generation of waste to energy plants for example are opting for steel. Steel construction appeals to the widest range of clients.

As is usual, the judges – a group including architects and engineers with experience of creating large and iconic structures – reported that they were impressed by the diversity of projects gaining recognition as well as their quality. Awards were granted to inspirational projects as diverse as bridges, education buildings, an airport terminal, an energy recovery plant, a museum, and a sustainability enhancing wind turbine enclosure on top of a multi storey building.

The Legacy Roof of the Aquatics Centre was the first of the London 2012 Olympics structures to achieve an Award; without wanting to pre-empt the judges in any way, it would be surprising if it was the last as steel is making such an invaluable contribution to the success of the challenging Olympics building programme. Others will be eligible for entry next year; we wish them well against what can confidently be predicted to be the usual stiff competition.

Nick Barrett

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