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November/December 2006 – Steel frames’ cost bears no comparison

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Away from the headlines about steel industry takeovers and mergers and worldwide rising prices for energy, the UK’s structural steelwork success story quietly trundles on. The latest evidence that the marketplace continues to decide in favour of steel comes from this year’s Cost Comparison study from Davis Langdon (see news).

Every year since 1993 this study has been carried out, comparing the cost of using steel and concrete as framing material for two typical commercial developments and every year steel has consistently been proven to be the most cost effective framing solution. Steel wins out on purely cost grounds even before the benefits like faster construction times – essential to many developers – are factored in. Several years ago Corus came up with the name the Competitive Gap to describe the gap between steel and concrete prices; the gap shows no signs of narrowing.

In real terms steel is actually cheaper than it was 20 years ago, as massive productivity gains have been shared with clients. Competition helps keep prices keen among steelwork contractors, with clients able to attract a healthily long tender list when they go to the market for prices. If using other framing materials there might only be two or at best three tenders.

Early indications from gathering market share statistics suggest that steel is maintaining its performance in key market sectors, and improving in some. Market share can be expected to grow in areas like healthcare now that the old  sore of steel sections having to be made uneconomically heavy to resist floor vibration have been laid to rest by the Steel Construction Institute. SCI’s research has rebuked suggestions made by rivals that steel – concrete composite floors would have to be uneconomically deep to attain the required vibration performance.

Composite floors meet the National Health Service requirements easily, with a large margin to spare. It is being said that the initial vibration performance of concrete is not always borne out over time, as concrete creep has an adverse impact on performance. Unlike its rivals, steel is in rude good health.

Charter proves sustainability credentials  

The BCSA’s Steel Construction Sustainability Charter is now a year old, and already it is apparent that this is a project that is destined to succeed. The first of the initial signatories to the charter have passed through their sustainability audits with flying colours and more companies are realising the benefits and signing up.

The call from the client side for construction to adopt sustainable practices has also grown over the past year, with this year’s soaring energy prices adding economics to the arguments in favour of pursuing sustainability through lowering energy consumption. A year ago we warned that fresh impetus to the drive for sustainable buildings would come from London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics, as government and the delivery authorities saw the games as an opportunity to drive sustainability forward. Things have not happened fast enough at the Olympics to suit all observers, but progress is being made and the need for sustainable approaches can be expected to be stressed again soon.

Work done by the steel sector over many years means that the industry is in the fortunate position of being able to prove its sustainability credentials. Contractors who want to be able to do the same could do no better than sign up to the Sustainability Charter as the help they can then be given will ensure that they are not only working with a sustainable material and with due respect to the environment, but they will be able to prove that they do so.

Nick Barrett

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