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Pros and Cons of Using Steel in Construction Projects

Published Categorized as Construction
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Steel is among the most common (and important) building materials. Most construction projects, whether vertical or horizontal, have become heavily reliant on steel as a primary construction material. Steel’s increased usage in construction results from the many benefits it adds to a structure.

Some of the benefits of using steel in construction projects include high strength, durability, performance, flexibility, reduced weight, configuration adaptability, and increased safety. Steel is also sustainable and cost-effective in the long run.

In this article, we will discuss the main advantages associated with using steel in construction. Besides discussing the advantages, we will also examine some disadvantages of steel to help you make an informed choice when buying construction materials.

Very Durable

Steel is known for its durability as it is uniquely suited to handle the rigors of wear and tear in outdoor environments. Structures made from steel can last for several years with little maintenance, making steel an ideal option for different construction projects. Steel’s durability can be attributed to the high industry standards and building codes that highlight the acceptable quality of construction materials. These codes dictate that steel structures ought to be designed to withstand corrosion, which is notorious for impairing serviceability and overall strength. By using barrier coatings like paint, it is possible to enhance steel’s overall durability and resistance to rust.  is also used to make steel more resistant to corrosion, especially in acidic or alkaline environments. Steel is also resistant to mold as it is inorganic, thus making it unfit for mold development. The inorganic nature of steel makes it resistant to vermin like termites known to wreak havoc on wood structures. Using  is a great way to set up a termite-resistant structure that is healthy and sustainable since it lacks potentially harmful chemicals. The high industry standards, coupled with steel’s ability to resist corrosion better than other materials, makes it highly durable. Steel can hold its weight well, especially when sufficiently coated with paint, zinc oxide, or other types of coatings that provide surface protection.

Strong

Despite being a naturally strong material, steel can be hardened or softened through heat treatment. The possibility to make steel harder makes it an ideal construction material. The strength of steel depends on the elements present. Steel can also be alloyed, which gives it the desired mechanical and chemical properties. Steel can be made stronger by adding relevant . For instance, adding manganese can increase wear resistance, hardenability, and ductility of steel. Nickel also helps to increase oxidation resistance and overall steel strength. Other elements that can make steel stronger include silicon, tungsten, and vanadium. Steel’s strength makes it a great option for use in precast concrete and the construction of primary members. However, not all steels have the same strength as some are more suited for constructing load-absorbing structures like beams, while others work well for lighter structures like handrails.

Lowers Overall Construction Costs

Steel has a higher  ratio than concrete or wood, which means it is strong enough to hold its weight without the need for excessive materials. The lightweight but strong nature of steel helps reduce the total load of the building under construction. While concrete is also a great option in terms of strength and durability, steel construction usually requires reduced steel production, thus translating to reduced construction costs. That is, steel eliminates the need for excess concrete as steel frames are strong and sturdy enough to support heavy loads. Also, since steel does not require mixing like concrete, the number of construction workers on-site tends to reduce. Reduced construction workers translate into a lower budget, more so since the cost of labor reduces drastically.Using steel in construction also lowers overall construction costs in the long run. Granted, the initial costs of purchasing steel might be higher than materials like wood and even concrete. However, steel’s cost-effectiveness can be seen in the long term since not much work will be needed in maintenance or replacements.

Versatile

Not too many building materials are as versatile as steel. Steel can be cut and molded to fit different designs, thus giving architects the creative freedom required for complex vertical and horizontal structures. Steel’s ability to be cut in different shapes and sizes makes it ideal for different construction types. It can be used to provide structural support and load distribution. Besides its usage in supportive structures, steel can be used to create decorative pieces. Steel’s versatility is vital in all types of construction, whether light or heavy, especially since it can be modified and used in place of other potentially costly materials. The versatility of steel allows for its usage in different areas. It can be used to set up a construction tower where heavy loads are to be lifted and installed. Steel will also come in handy when used in a building’s framework and for reinforcement, making it one of the most versatile construction materials.Expert fabricators can also mold steel on the construction site to provide short-term solutions such as temporary storage boxes.

Sustainable

Steel is among the most sustainable construction materials due to its ability to be reused and recycled. Once made, steel can be recycled and reused infinitely without experiencing any downgrade in quality. The nonrenewable resources used in steel construction like fossil fuels and minerals are not subjected to any wastage since they will be used forever. The manufacturing of steel relies a great deal on scrap, which reduces the usage of nonrenewable minerals. The use of scrap in steel manufacturing helps preserve the environment by reducing pollutive waste. Moreover, the production of steel does not require excessive energy or the usage of harmful products. Since structural steel comprises 88% recycled product, its usage helps empty salvage yards without damaging the environment. This is unlike materials like concrete that require sand and stones to be used as aggregate. Obtaining the sands and stones requires mining, which tends to deplete natural resources while damaging the environment. Steel allows for green and highly sustainable construction practices. Recycled steel can be put to good use without needing further processing, which helps conserve nonrenewable resources. Moreover, unlike cast in situ concrete that cannot be wholly reused, steel can be put to different uses if a building becomes defunct or is demolished.

Efficient

Due to its strength, steel does not need to occupy excessive space to support a structure, allowing for slender columns and, consequently, better space usage. To create value, commercial structures need to make the most of the available space. Steel allows architects to create longer spans for open space. In terms of space conservation, steel allows for the integration of systems like HVAC into the structural spaces, thus reducing overall floor-to-floor heights. A typical steel column occupies approximately 75% less floor space than a similar column made from concrete.The elimination of the need for concrete columns creates larger open spaces, which is ideal for parking lots and modern offices looking to conserve available space.

Has a Variety of Steel Types

Steel is available in several varieties, which makes it ideal for different types of construction. With several steel types to choose from, architects can use those whose properties best suit the project at hand. Below are some of the main types of steel used in construction.

Rebar Steel

Also called reinforcing steel, rebar is used to increase concrete’s tensile strength, thus reducing the chances of breakage or cracks. Rebar is commonly used to provide primary and secondary reinforcement. Rebar steel helps prevent cracks by absorbing and distributing tension stress, consequently helping structures remain stable and compact. Rebar also makes concrete stronger, thus reduces the overall volume of concrete needed in construction.

Alloy Steel

Alloy steel is produced when carbon steel is combined with alloying elements to give the resulting steel desirable properties. Some of the common alloying elements include copper, titanium, nickel, chromium, and manganese. Alloy steels are tougher and more resistant to corrosion, properties that make them ideal for construction in acidic or salty environments. Alloy steel has high compressibility and tensile strength rating and is usually smaller in size compared to other types of building materials. The heat treatment of alloys also increases the overall strength and toughness of steel, which provides better resistance to heavy loads.

Carbon Steel

This type of steel has a high carbon concentration, which boosts its overall strength and ability to handle both dead and dynamic loads. There are different types of carbon steel like mild steel, medium carbon steel, and high carbon steel. These steel types’ physical and chemical properties differ, which gives architects a wide range of options depending on the type of construction. High carbon steel is difficult to cut and is used to make construction tools like hammers, rope wires, high-strength springs, and other tools. Medium carbon steel is stronger than mild carbon. However, due to its low carbon content, mild steel is highly flexible and appropriate for construction projects in earthquake-prone areas.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is among the best-rated steel types in terms of corrosion resistance, durability, and overall strength. This steel type has a high strength to weight ratio and is also heat resistant. Its shiny appearance also gives architects and designers great options when looking to improve a structure’s aesthetics.

Structural Steel

This steel type is commonly used in construction due to its malleability. Skilled fabricators can transform structural steel into L, T, and Z shapes, among various other shapes. Structural steel is commonly used in heavy construction but also works well for light construction projects.

Weathering Steel

Weathering steel is another steel type that gives architects increased flexibility when planning out designs. Designed to prevent gradual corrosion, weathering steel has the right properties for buildings or structures in acidic, wet, or salty environments. Therefore, as evident from above, there is a wide range of steel types that add unique values to different types of construction. This makes steel a great construction material since it is easy to choose (and use) a specific type that is suited to the nature of the project at hand.

Allows for Fast Construction

Steel sections can easily be produced off-site in fabrication shops. Prefabricated steel ensures the steel has the structural and dimensional accuracy required, which allows for the construction of structurally sound buildings. The prefabricated units usually rely on computer numerical control machinery to provide dimensional accuracy. This ensures that the steel used is of the right size and density. The use of 3D technology and other construction-relevant technologies improve the efficiency of the prefabrication process. Structural steel can be installed anytime, regardless of the weather. This means there will not be any need to wait for the ‘right’ weather, as is the case with the cast in situ concrete. Moreover, once prefabricated, steel can be delivered on the site and immediately installed as per the initial engineering blueprint. The ease of installation, coupled with the increased dimensional accuracy, ensure that steel construction is efficient with little to no wastage. This allows for faster construction times, especially since the on-site task will not require excessive collaboration between stakeholders.

Easily Modifiable

Another great advantage of dealing with steel buildings is steel’s ease of modification. It is easy to modify steel buildings to accommodate new applications, vertical expansions, loading conditions, or any other changes desired by the owner. Steel’s ease of modification makes it stand out from the likes of concrete that only gets weaker when structural modifications are made. Engineers can strengthen existing beams and columns by attaching steel plates on the web of sections or flanges to accommodate greater stresses and loads. It is even possible to add new stairways to existing steel framed structures by careful removal of a section of the floor decking before adding the preferred stair structure. Therefore, steel allows for future modifications without the need to vacate the premises. This feature makes steel construction ideal, especially for costly projects, since they can be modified or repaired without asking tenants to vacate, thus allowing for business to continue as usual. The ease of modifying structures made from steel makes it a great material for constructing vertical and horizontal construction projects. Even better, structural steel buildings can have additional floors installed years after the initial construction was concluded.

Highly Reliable

Steel manufactured for construction is highly regulated across the world. This means that before steel products make it to the market, quality control technicians must test them to determine their capacity to handle tensile and compressive loads. The quality control guides the manufacturing and rolling processes, thus ensuring the client gets the highest quality products. The availability of steel in different shapes and sizes allows for selective usage during construction, thus ensuring architectural blueprints are observed to the latter. Moreover, the staff working in fabrication shops are usually skilled and certified in steel production, which consequently increases the resulting products’ quality. On-site erection for prefabricated steel is usually done by experienced professionals, thus reducing the risks of improper installation. Since welded connections and bolts are usually exposed, it is easy to check for quality or any impending issues. Steel is also reliable since it has a plastic-like behavior that provides extra safety in the event of extreme loading. The plastic-like behavior of steel means it will not break in the event of an explosion, terrorist attack, earthquake, or heavy impact. Steel is also reliable due to its constant supply since it can never run out of stock. This is because steel mostly uses recycled scrap that is usually readily available in yards.

High-Quality Construction

Due to the construction industry’s competitive nature, more and more contractors are keen to improve the overall quality of services administered. Steel contractors usually provide intricate details regarding steel while also providing assistance and professional collaboration throughout the construction project. The increased cooperation between different stakeholders in steel construction increases the chances of success. As industry regulations continue to change, more research is undertaken by steel producers to develop greener and more practical products that can withstand the test of time, heavy loads, and gradual wear. Technological advancements have also improved the overall effectiveness of steel as a construction material. Steel industry experts use advanced software to test and confirm the desirable properties before and after prefabrication, thus creating durable and high-quality steel products.

Safer Construction Sites

Using steel translates to reduced overall labor, which reduces clutter in the construction site, hence increasing safety. Steel construction does not require as much workforce compared to alternatives, especially when dealing with large chunks of prefabricated steel.The presence of lifting points on sites to lift prefabricated steel makes for organized, well-controlled erection and installation processes. Most construction sites rely on integrated edge protection and steel decking to provide extra safe working platforms. Steel construction does not need as many on-site tools as concrete and wood construction. All that is needed are dedicated-lifting points and well-skilled personnel to set the steel in place. The reduced number of workers on a steel construction site reduces the chances of negligence or carelessness creeping in. Moreover, the staged delivery of prefabricated steel also helps to decongest the sites, making it ideal for construction projects in congested cities.

Lightweight

Compared to concrete buildings, steel structures are intrinsically lighter due to steel’s higher strength and stiffness. The lightness of steel contributes to reduced loads on foundations, which translates to smaller and more functional foundations over limited spaces. Weight reduction allows for retrofitting of existing structures for either refurbishment or extension. This explains why steel structures can have floors added to already completed structures. Steel’s reduced weight means fewer materials will be needed to provide support, hence contributing to affordable construction.Since steel is strong, longer spans can be achieved without pouring large volumes of concrete. It is also possible to build structures without too many columns, thus conserving space and resources. Overall, steel’s reduced weight but high strength and stiffness make it a fantastic option for high rise buildings that require strong foundations.

Relies on Innovations

The steel industry is subjected to great technological influence. Over the years, the quality of steel has continued to improve, with innovations changing how designers approach steel construction. Systems like ConXtech, Girder-Slab, and Side-Plate have entered the market to provide effective solutions to ever-changing designer demands. These (and more) innovations address critical steel construction issues like fire protection, long-span deck systems, coating systems, progressive collapse, and connection optimization. The structural steel industry is heavily reliant on interoperable software and other technological advances, which increases the effectiveness of steel construction. The dimensions and density of prefabricated steel are usually calculated off-site before the final product is transported to the site. The ever-increasing reliance on technology makes for stronger, safer structures while also allowing for increased cost savings on the structural package.

Predictable

Since steel is manufactured under controlled conditions, it is possible to know what to expect based on the properties of the final product. Moreover, due to its importance to modern structures, steel production is usually regulated through strict quality assurance processes (varies by region). All final steel products must be verified for ductility, tensile strength, and overall strength at the point of production and not on-site just before construction. This allows for steel experts to make necessary adjustments and corrections before the final product is delivered on-site. It is impossible to fabricate site cast materials to the close tolerances like shop-fabricated structural steel. At the time of delivery, clients will know what to expect based on the type of steel ordered. Even better, the regulation of steel producers means steel manufacturing standards must remain high to satisfy the set regulations, thus allowing for more consistent and predictable products.

Disadvantages of Using Steel in Construction Projects

Susceptible to Rust and Corrosion

Unlike wood and concrete materials that are not subject to rusting, steel is notorious for rusting, especially when used in salty or acidic environments. While some types of steel have increased resistance to corrosion and rust, they still require regular maintenance, which can prove costly in the long term. Buildings may have to be painted regularly to provide a safe coating to prevent corrosion.

Good Conductor of Heat

Improperly fireproofed steel structures might lead to fires when the steel absorbs heat and touches off easily combustible materials. In order to prevent fire incidences, steel must be adequately fireproofed, which tends to contribute to the overall cost of production. Fireproofing steel translates to additional costs, which is not the case with other construction materials.

Susceptible to Fatigue, Fracture, or Buckling

Manufacturing inconsistencies can add impurities to steel, which can lead to the formation of a small crack that rapidly forms other cracks, thus leading to brittle fracture. Brittle fracture can lead to catastrophic failure since there is usually no sign of the start of failure.Buckling is also a common issue when dealing with structures with long steel segments. Another potential issue that affects steel structures is improper maintenance. When inexperienced welders and technicians handle ‘light’ repair work without the required seriousness, they might interfere with the optimal web thickness, thus making the structure ripple, buckle, or fail.

Little Room for On-Site Modification

Unlike cast in situ concrete or wood that can be modified on-site, prefabricated steel usually comes in the pre-planned dimensions. This means that in the event of incorrect measurements, the construction work will have to stall until the errors are corrected. The need to correct errors can significantly increase the overall construction time, thus increasing total construction costs. Wood can easily be cut, while concrete can have a variety of both soft and coarse aggregates introduced to achieve the desirable properties. Prefabricated steel usually comes ready for installations, and even welders on site can only make slight modifications in areas that will not affect the integrity of the steel structure.

Costly

The cost of steel construction cannot be compared to that of using wood or concrete. While some types of steel might be affordable, high-quality steel types tend to cost more. For instance, although strong and highly durable, stainless steel is rarely used as a primary construction material due to its high cost. The cost of maintaining steel is also high, especially since it must be regularly coated to prevent rust or gradual corrosion. Although the cost of maintaining steel is fairly low for small structures, the cost can go extremely high when dealing with high-rise buildings or long-spanning horizontal structures.

Wrapping Up

Using steel in construction comes with a host of benefits. Besides its strength and durability, steel is also sustainable and cost-effective in the long run. Structures made from steel can be easily modified or repaired even years after the project was completed. While the cost of purchasing steel can be high at first, its durability and strength make the investment worth the while since not much will be needed in terms of maintenance. Steel is also lightweight and can be prefabricated off-site to reduce clutter and enhance overall safety.

Sources

By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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