Steel – at the centre of construction

19th February, 2021

Frank and forthright discussions were the order of the day at a recent Focus on Framing virtual roundtable, seeking to identify many of the key drivers for the specification and sustainability of light steel frame within the offsite and wider construction sector. Here are some of the key takeaway points raised.

As a material agnostic solution contractor, Emily King, Client Solutions Director at Mid Group, started proceedings by explaining that light steel framing is predominantly used for complex buildings where additional structural integrity is necessary: "Steel is the answer to complex questions where a lightweight response is required." When asked whether a volumetric modular or panelised system is preferred, although Emily admitted she passionately believes in volumetric, she considered panelised systems offer more design adaptability adding: "If you get the design right, steel frame offers massive flexibility and cost benefits."

Turning to sustainability, the group agreed that the environmental benefits of using light steel framing systems are not widely understood. Steel is definitely part of a carbon neutral solution and communicating this is crucial. Sustainability is back at the top of the construction agenda, however when budgets are tight – the participants found safety, cost, programme, design adaptability and structural integrity are more often a 'deciding factor'. 

Robert Clark from Fusion Building Systems said: "There is a misconception about steel and to win the embodied carbon debate, we need to focus on the strength-to-weight message. Low weight equates to improved efficiencies. You get an awful lot of structure for not a lot of weight which reduces embodied carbon. This is where steel cannot be beaten. Lighter structures not only reduce material consumption but reduce concrete in the ground."

Peter Burchill from EOS Framing believes there is a real conflict at the moment in specification decisions and although the focus appears to be shifting to sustainability, in reality safety wins hands down: "Light steel frame has real safety, fire performance and sustainability advantages but the recycled content is not widely acknowledged."

Alex Small from Tata Steel is also looking to address the misconceptions surrounding the sustainability equation: "Discussions used to focus on lifecycle analysis including recycling at the end of a building's life. This approach proves that light steel frame systems are intrinsically more sustainable but more recently the focus has been on embodied carbon which is far more simplistic. This is probably because it is a less complex calculation and easier to digest but embodied carbon just reflects the start of a building's life. This is not a case of kicking the 'carbon can' down the road - in use performance, the circular economy and recycling at the end of a building's life are crucially important considerations. Digital value tool kits are required to provide much needed evidence to change the debate and to offer in-depth accurate analysis of whole life carbon calculations."

It was suggested that independent industry bodies such as the Construction Innovation Hub, BRE and the Green Building Council need to pick up on this and lead the debate on which is the more valuable calculation – embodied or whole life carbon. The group also agreed specification is not a binary decision – buildings are the sum of many parts.

David Ellison from Intelligent Steel Solutions added that only one of his clients had sustainability as the key driver. "Decisions are based on cost, capacity, site constraints, perceptions and future adaptability. There are a lot of key drivers that take precedence, but safety, cost, speed and predictability are at the top."

Neville Grunwald of Wates Construction pressed home the point: "The first and primary consideration for the specification of the structural solution should be what we do from a fire perspective and only then, should carbon emissions and sustainability be discussed. The conversation needs to be more nuanced and focus on what you can and cannot use on a building from a safety perspective."

When specifying or assessing a building where does sustainability sit?" For Des O'Dwyer from Richard Hopkins Architects: "Sustainability is currently falling down the list and that's not only from a client's perspective but equally from an architects' point of view. There are lots of reasons why – budget and programme being two of them, but architects have to not only consider risk from a building safety perspective but also an insurance standpoint. The proposed change in Building Regulations extending the ban of combustible materials in external walls from 18 to 11 metres, is another thing to contend with."

"Timber has a much 'softer and more welcoming' image and light steel frame is a more technical approach with designs being harder to visualise – so the industry needs visual design representations of what is achievable. You need to play to the industries strengths – steel needs to offer a 'whole package' solution, an entire wall build-up, from internal linings through to the facade – this would de-risk the construction processes for architects."

The Light Steel Frame Association (LSFA) is now leading the charge in correcting misconceptions and promoting the strength to weight and fire safety benefits of light steel frame.

Michael Sansom from the Steel Construction Institute (SCI) played the role of 'devil's advocate' stating: "We in the industry know the attributes of light steel framing but for context we are facing a climate emergency. It is generally believed that operational carbon has been addressed and that we must now move on to reducing embodied carbon. However, evidence of the 'performance gap' demonstrated by CIBSE – TM54 Evaluating Operational Energy Performance of Buildings at the Design Stage – confirms that there is still much to do to reduce operational carbon. I can appreciate, more than most, the long-term benefits of steel and we have to look at the circular economy where recycling and reusing is massively important."

Neville Grunwald, Head of Facades at Wates Construction Limited, wholly supported this adding: "Once we start looking at reusing metal components structural verification presents challenges but the real elephant in the room in the sustainability challenge is cost – once clients find out the true cost, they revert back to steel and concrete."

Acknowledging that more collaboration is required Jim Roach from ARV Solutions stressed: "I think there should be more collaboration, not only within the light steel industry but also across the offsite material sectors. By adopting a united approach, offsite technologies will have a greater impact in influencing the construction industry to adopt modern methods of construction and move away from outmoded traditional on-site approaches."

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