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May 2007 – Think sustainable – think steel

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Sustainability has emerged as one of the main business decision making drivers across all industries in a remarkably short space of time. The pace of penetration of corporate thinking by sustainability is only going to get faster, partly thanks to several key pieces of legislation coming in over the next few years, including the UK’s first ever Climate Change Bill which will aim at radical reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to be overseen by a Carbon Committee. It will affect all industries and all of us when we are at home.

Carbon committees can be expected to spring up in virtually all industries, and many companies, as we strive to meet the new targets to be set by the Bill. This will refocus attention on sustainability generally, and the constructional steelwork sector is already taking the steps necessary to thrive in the new carbon conscious world. Sustainability is of course about more than simply meeting targets for carbon emissions. To many it could not be more wide ranging, implying a new philosophy embracing how we are to interact with our planet.

Sustainability implies a balance between the social, economic and environmental factors involved in any calculation about the benefits and disbenefits of projects. With these factors in mind, in NSC this month we start a series of articles on sustainability and steel that will spell out the case for steel as a sustainable choice for constructional uses. There is a strong sustainability case for steel, most obviously its inherent reusability and recyclability. Some 99% of structural sections are already either reused or recycled, as are some 94% of all steel construction products.

What the series will do is reinforce the leading position that steel occupies during the coming debates on how to increase sustainability across all our industrial and domestic practices. The series will spell out the sustainability spin offs when choosing steel for benefits such as its structural efficiency, low waste, off site manufacture, flexibility, speed of construction, and just in time delivery.

The sustainability case for steel is strong when compared to competitive materials, and we have recently had independent verification of this in a straight comparison against a concrete framed alternative for a university building (NSC April).

Few choose anything other than steel on cost grounds and in future we can expect the same choices to be made when sustainability is the main driving force in decision making.

Competitive advantage maintained

On the subject of costs, the latest Cost Comparison Study update on commercial buildings has recently been completed and initial results confirm that structural steel frame solutions maintain their competitive advantage over concrete frames (details in next month’s NSC). The cost of steel frames has risen over the six months to the end of 2006, by around 6%, but the price of concrete frames has been increasing fast. Rebar prices have gone up 16% in the same period and the price of concrete has been surging amid stories of ‘cement famines’ and raids by cartel busters across Europe. In situ concrete frames for some buildings have gone up by 15%.

The cost analysis partly explains the pleasing results of the Market Share Survey, which showed steel increasing its share in the key market sectors to record levels. The cost study proves that the competitive situation for steel remains virtually unchanged. With an economic case to match its sustainability virtues the outlook for steel in a sustainable world looks encouraging.

Nick Barrett

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