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Steel meets new and old challenges in evolving ways

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We live in fast moving times, with the pace of innovation never seeming to let up for long. From some perspectives however the old adage that the more things change the more they remain the same remains true.

The constructional steelwork sector has seen a continuous flow of productivity, efficiency and sustainability enhancing developments since the construction industry started to adopt steel as a first-choice material 50 or so years ago. Our regular look back at past achievements in NSC’s ever popular 50 Years Ago consistently proves steel’s unrivalled record of successful projects and introductions of new techniques.

In many aspects the industry is almost unrecognisable from 50 years ago but the issues thrown up by projects, the challenges that construction teams have to overcome, show remarkable consistency. This month’s 50 Years Ago feature is from June 1969, a 14-storey hotel construction on what was said to be ‘probably the most picturesque site in Bedford’. The parallels between then and now in terms of the challenges facing construction teams are striking.

The site was high profile and very congested, being hemmed in all four sides by a bridge, a road, a river and a park – nothing out-of-the-ordinary challenge-wise there today of course when so many inner city sites are being redeveloped, but steel construction has won a lot of fans over the years for being able to cope with difficult sites, delivering projects that wouldn’t have been economically viable using any other material.

As today, 50 years ago labour was reported as being in short supply and materials prices were rising rapidly. The developer of course wanted the hotel built as quickly as possible so that revenue could start to flow. Site and financial constraints mean the building had to be fabricated mainly offsite and erected with minimal use of labour. It had to be erected quickly despite labour shortages potentially worsening and regardless of the weather.

There had to be flexibility to allow for changes in plan layouts where the building’s use changed from public rooms to hotel bedrooms and then to flats on the top floors. Site conditions were unknown so a light structure would be needed to overcome any possible difficulties with the foundations.

The project was a success of course, thanks to steel being chosen as a framing material despite the original design concept being for a reinforced concrete solution, and the contractor having its own reinforced concrete design subsidiary.

Today’s focus on sustainability is a major difference from 1969, but steel delivered a huge range of sustainability benefits long before it was ever asked to – it is inherent in steel construction. We see those benefits highlighted in all of the projects in this issue of NSC, including a retail development, a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, an offices project spearheading a town centre regeneration, and what should be the first building in Bristol to commit to net-zero carbon in operation.

We can’t forecast exactly what buildings will be like 50 years from now, although they will certainly have high sustainability credentials, but readers of NSC, or its successor, might be surprised to see what steel was achieving 50 years before. Some things might change, but steel’s ability to deliver successful, sustainable projects will remain the same.

Nick Barrett – Editor

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