President’s Column: October 2020
Governments around the World have made it clear that we all have a responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint. “The Structural Engineer” magazine has recently published several articles on the climate emergency which have focused solely on initial carbon and has largely ignored the wider issues associated with sustainability.
As engineers we don’t just have a responsibility to the current generation, but to future generations and our choice of construction materials must reflect not only the initial carbon content, but the end of life carbon aspects too, and also the wider social and economic impacts. The UK steelwork industry is admired all over the world and it’s imperative that part of the sustainability argument allows home grown steel producers to adapt their steelmaking methods to reduce the amount of embodied carbon they produce, such that artisan skills are not lost forever.
Decisions should be made on a whole life carbon basis including the circular economy principles, which means taking into account the value of the scrap that will be used to make the next generation of structural steel sections. The average initial carbon emissions for steel on the UK market together with its high strength-to-weight ratio results in steel having an initial carbon that is comparable to other construction materials. But steel has other benefits. If you take into account the end of life attributes of steel such as its reuse potential and its recyclability, it is far more carbon efficient than any other construction material. In my view, ‘Module D’ and the circular economy approach are not being used correctly in some parts of the article in “The Structural Engineer”. The whole life benefits of steel including the recycling and reuse of steel at the end of its life should not be overlooked. Steel can be recycled repeatedly with no loss of properties. Steel is 100% recyclable, unlike other construction materials and the current recovery rates from demolition sites in the UK are 99% for structural steelwork and 96% for all steel construction products. More information on this whole life carbon approach can be found in the new Steel Construction: Carbon Credentials publication enclosed with this issue of NSC.
The other benefit of steel is its adaptability. Re-working the structural frame to redevelop and repurpose existing building is much easier with steel and can be done to suit the client’s changing needs. I recall the redevelopment of the Royal Mail sorting office on Oxford Street, London made use of the existing steel frame to re-purpose the building into a highly desirable modern building.
Steelwork Contractor members of the BCSA are committed to sustainable and responsible procurement and many have signed up to BCSA’s Sustainability Charter, which has for “Gold” membership twelve charter requirements. The Charter covers not only specific sustainability requirements, but also more corporate social responsibility aspects including the company’s involvement in their local community, health and safety, personal development, an equal opportunities policy and ethical trading policy, among others. The scheme has been in operation since 2005. Again, the BCSA and its members are leading the way in a similar manner as they did with CE marking and BIM.
As a structural engineer and a steelwork contractor I very much welcome the challenge we have in tackling the climate emergency, but this must be done by considering the wider sustainability issues including the circular economy and the inclusion of recovery, reuse and recycling.