The value of structural steel in building construction

Australia is somewhat behind the curve when it comes to structural steel. The steel industry is stronger and the supply chain more advanced in places like the UK and America.

In Australia, the preference for traditional concrete remains.

But should it?

Let’s look at why structural steel is a boon for the construction industry.

The key characteristics of structural steel

There are a few key differences between structural steel and other common construction materials and methods.

Weight: Steel buildings are 20% lighter than their concrete counterparts, making them useful in areas with less stable foundations, and for building on top of existing structures.

Strength: The strength-to-weight ratio of steel is high, giving you better ‘bang for your buck’, as less material is required to span further. Steel is stiff and strong, allowing you to design more intricate and economical structures.

Availability: While it might lag slightly behind the UK and US, our supply chain is still mature, making steel readily available in Australia. Everyone enjoys easy access to steelsuppliers and local fabricators. The international steel market is competitive, which also helps to ensure a steady supply of materials.

The importance of structural steel in modern construction

As industry players begin to understand the structural steel proposition, the tide is slowly changing. There are two drivers behind the rise of structural steel in Australia: contractors and clients.

A major consideration for contractors is safety. The simplest way to increase safety is to limit the number of people on-site who could potentially get injured. A concrete construction may have 20-40 people on site. A large steel building on the other hand may require only 10. This is because steel components can be manufactured off-site and put together like Lego on delivery. This is otherwise known as design for manufactured assembly or DFMA.

The client’s key consideration is often sustainability, as the more sustainable a building, the more attractive it is for future tenants and owners. The advantage of steel is that DFMA helps to reduce the amount of waste. Another perk is that steel buildings can be modified easily, which means that clients have the option of adding an interconnecting stair or a new level. In this way steel can be considered more future-proof than other materials.

The default position in Australia is still to build with concrete. But as soon as clients and contractors begin to understand the benefits of steel, like the speed of construction and the adaptability, it will only become more popular.

The current sustainability schemes are Environmental Sustainability Charter and World Steel Association Climate Action Group.

The next evolution in our local steel industry will be decarbonisation which will be significant differentiator from concrete construction. Combined with the ability of 95% of structural steel recovered/reused/recycled at the end of the asset life, steel will have a very attractive whole of life sustainability.

How structural steel is currently being utilised

More and more large, modern buildings are being constructed entirely from steel—the load-bearing and the decorative elements, the floors, the columns and the roofs. Stadiums, aquatic centres and shopping centres are high profile examples of this. This method of construction allows for unmatched architectural expression

Currently structural steel is predominantly used in commercial applications. It’s becoming more popular in the residential sector, but has not yet replaced traditional timber and masonry. Structural steel is increasingly being used in the healthcare and transport sectors, particularly in steel bridges.

The benefits of structural steel as a building material

Structural steel can bring a number of unique benefits to a construction project.

It allows you to design longer column-free spans (up to 18m). This can reduce effective structural floor depth, allowing for a reduced number of foundations and faster erection speeds, and delivering floor spaces that have greater flexibility and usability.

The speed of DFMA construction is a huge benefit, as is the ease of future modifications like inter-tenancy stairs and floor infills, both in the construction of new buildings and the modification of existing ones.

Compared to traditional concrete, where you must consider an endless array of factors that contribute to the overall deflection of the concrete structure, steel is quite predictable when you run the numbers.

While Australia has always had an affinity for steel, we have been comparatively slow to embrace it as a building material. But it seems as though we are at a tipping point, where even the most rusted-on of construction traditionalists are finding the advantages of structural steel hard to ignore.

John Merrick

Senior Technical Director at Arcadis +61 (0) 2 8907 8210 Ask me a question
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