Dave Parker opens NCE's Steel Old & New special with a report on a quietly optimistic sector of the UK construction industry.
This has been a good year for the steel construction industry. Order books are healthy, and those who prophesied the World Trade Center disaster would tarnish the image of steel framed construction appear to have been confounded.
Steel's undoubted advantages in speed of construction are helping it hold onto a dominant market share in the commercial office sector. And in some areas, notably motorway structures, steel is making big inroads into traditional concrete strongholds.
'Business is good at the moment, ' agrees British Constructional Steelwork Association (BCSA) director general Dr Derek Tordoff. 'Especially in the bridge market. But we still have problems with the conditions steelwork subcontractors find when they arrive on site.'
To address the problem the BCSA last month launched its Site Safety Handover Certificate (SSHC) scheme, with support from local government minister Nick Raynsford. This is the latest initiative spawned by the Safer Steelwork Construction programme, itself launched last March in the wake of February's construction safety summit.
SSHCs are designed to tackle the endemic problems of restricted access, inadequate hardstanding for cranes and lack of information on existing overhead and underground services. A checklist approach has been selected, with main and steelwork contractors working together to satisfy the safety requirements. A special SSHC has been developed for steel bridge construction.
Billington Structures managing director Steve Fareham says the scheme is already having a significant effect on standards on site. And safer sites inevitably mean fewer delays and even faster construction, enabling steel frame contractors to fight even harder against the concrete competition.
'One sector we're doing very well in at the moment is student accommodation, especially in northern inner cities. We seem to be fighting back against concrete's perceived advantages of greater thermal mass and better acoustic insulation, ' says Fareham.
'Post September 11 intumescent fire protection is gaining ground. Factory applied coatings are increasingly seen as the most resistant to the traumas associated with extreme events such as terrorist attacks. Graham Hillier, construction director at producer Corus, believes that the real secret to increasing steel penetration into the UK is to move as much of the actual construction off site and into the factory.
'Working in a safe, controlled environment with well trained, highly skilled staff will produce better structures, ' he argues.
'We should be looking at far more building with factoryproduced modules - and not just apartments and hotels either.'
One of the less obvious manifestations of this philosophy is the development of modular rail platforms. Two contracts have already been completed, a permanent platform at Barry Parkway station in Wales and a temporary installation at London St Pancras. Hillier points out that the use of lightweight manhandlable components, mostly tubes and trays, speeds construction and minimises the need for disruptive possessions.
Dean Morcom, sales director at highway structures specialist Nusteel, would echo all of Hillier's arguments. He certainly believes his company's increasing penetration of the lighter end of the market has a lot to do with the ability to prefabricate ever larger sections in its workshops and deliver them to site 'We can now build and deliver up to 60m long sections, ' he says.
'In other words we are designing out a lot of site work by cutting the number of different elements that have to be assembled down to a minimum.'
. With road widening schemes proliferating, structural spans are increasing, with 50m now commonplace. Longer spans increase the attractiveness of steel - as does an apparent shift in Highways Agency policy.
'There's now a preference for more visually 'open' structures, ' says Fairfield Mabey sales director Alex Cole. 'These lend themselves to steel. But the real secret is speed of construction.'
This, Cole says, is the main reason why all 44 bridges on the M6 toll road project use steel for the main structural elements, with composite decks. 'Costs of both concrete and steel options were much the same, ' he adds. 'In fact the steel option might even have been slightly more expensive.
'But this is a PFI project, and the client is determined to open early, so speed won the day.'
So the immediate future looks rosy. Provided all the promised transport infrastructure spend actually gets through to site, the industry should be better insulated than most against the effects of stock market tribulations. In three years time, who knows?