Steel going strong
Despite new entrants posing a challenge, steel continues to be favoured by developers as their preferred building material.
BY Mitalee Kurdekar
While the use of steel for building construction purposes is time-tested, it is intriguing that, even after so many years, it continues to be a preferred option. This can be attributed to its sustainability and complimentary benefits, when compared with other materials. As a result, the construction industry has resorted to moving towards environment-friendly products of steel or associated materials, not only because they have a positive environmental impact, but also because it makes economic sense in the long-term. In fact, during the last 20-30 years, the steel industry has progressed to develop steel products for the construction industry in a manner that energy usage has reduced by 50-60%. So much so that even the water used for steel-making is recycled to the maximum extent possible, while steel by itself is recyclable to 90-95%.
Apart from its sustainability merits, steel is a safe, sturdy and durable material for use in building construction. With appropriate coating, this durability can be further enhanced, protecting the steel from issues like corrosion. Unlike other key construction materials like cement or wood, steel is not vulnerable to mould growth or the spread of termites. It does not rot, if routinely maintained, which is easy and economical. Steel is also highly stable dimensionally, as it does not bend or warp. But the biggest advantage of steel over other materials is that its requirement – in terms of volume – is far less, thus providing greater strength with lesser weight. Therefore, in terms of constructing, steel is a developer’s delight.
The Indian Context
This means that despite the availability of alternative materials, steel continues to dominate the construction industry, which is good news for steel vendors. D Raju, MD, Kirby Building Systems India, feels that the positioning of steel as a building material was never really under a threat, in the first place. He says, “Steel is definitely going to see an increase in acceptability as one form of building material, apart from other existing building materials. This will continue despite the introduction of new building materials, as steel has got many distinct properties when compared to other building materials, and has an edge over these materials. With increased urbanisation and consequential rapid increase in construction activity across India, there is enough space for all building materials to co-exist and work towards developing sustainable construction, either in individual or composite form.”
Newer and more versatile steel products introduced for building construction bring in both cost and time advantages, as such steel structures can be finished off site and erected in the shortest possible time, thereby bringing time savings into play.
PK Nagarajan, director & CEO, Tiger Steel Engineering (India), aptly points this out when referring to the Indian scenario. He says, “RERA will push developers to complete projects within the agreed timelines. Projects like affordable housing, slum rehabilitation, Prime Minister Awas Yojana (PMAY), Smart Cities, etc. are emerging opportunities that will use steel-based prefabricated technologies to accelerate the construction work.”
Construction purpose steel comes in various grades, forms and shapes, making it the most flexible building material that is in use at the moment. In terms of grade, we have reinforced steel used in conjunction with cement concrete, as also structural steel used in steel structures. In terms of new developments, we now have coated steel that enhances the longevity of such structures, while remaining easy on maintenance. There are individual reasons and preferences when it comes to choosing between such grades, forms and shapes, with different ones being utilised by different developers.
In the case of Omkar, for instance, steel products are widely used, constituting around 10-20% of project cost. Raman Sapru, president, EPC, Omkar Realtors & Developers, reasons that, “As regards steel, we use reinforcement steel in concrete and structural steel – rolled or built-up sections, for the buildings. The advantage of structural steel is that while you are making foundations ready, you can simultaneously keep the super structure ready and it can come to the project site in a knock-down condition, and can be assembled on site. This results in huge time savings. You need highly skilled people for structural steel buildings, but the merits of fast construction make it worth a try.” Sapru also feels that with steel, they are able to control the column sizes, and reduce congestion of reinforcement bars in columns.
Explaining the virtue of flexibility, Pakshal Sanghvi, director, Sanghvi Realty, claims that, “The versatility of steel gives architects the freedom to achieve their most ambitious visions. Its strength and durability, coupled with its ability to be recycled without losing quality, makes it sustainable over the long term.” Steel materials currently make up 30% of Sanghvi’s input cost, but he senses that steel’s contribution to projects in terms of volume is set to increase over time.
And he is not alone. Most developers see the benefits of incorporating steel in their projects, albeit to varying degrees. Shabbir Kanchwala, senior VP, K Raheja Corp, explains, “We have incorporated steel as a preferred building material for the construction of our commercial and residential projects. We will continue to use it in all our projects, as it is considered as a cost-effective option and ideal for constructing high-rises/multi-story buildings.”
As a developer, Kanchwala is mindful of on-site constraints of space and manpower. The way he sees it, “Steel is beneficial and extremely viable from the point of view of space constraints, and is logistically-convenient during extension of functional offices. When we look at a prefabricated structure, there is comparatively lesser manpower usage and arrangement required. With the rapid construction technique, erection is done easily.” As a result, promoting steel structures vis-à-vis other alternatives available in the market becomes an economical and practical option in the long run.
Of course, aesthetics clearly plays a huge role in modern-day buildings. In fact, besides end-user requirements, in some cities, the building permissions also depend on the aesthetic appeal a building makes to its surrounding environment. Structural steel is a big advantage in this context for the freedom of creation it allows to building designers. Structural steel can also be combined with other types of materials of construction, thus affording more options. Combined with toughened glass, the structure makes a telling impression with light and space, especially in some congested cities in India.
Talking about future trends in construction methodology, Vikas Kaushal, president, sales & marketing, Interarch Building Products, sounds positive when he suggests, “As the Building Information Modelling (BIM) and modular construction technology advances, the usage of steel in construction is bound to expand. Since, today, we are more concerned about the environment and public health than ever before, alternatives to steel have a long way to go in terms of research, innovation, cost-efficacy, availability and application, before getting established.”
Over the years, steel as a building material has undergone a significant development process. Efforts have been focussed on enhancing the quality and utility parameters of the alloy, besides keeping it compliant with environmental control norms, and even supportive of green building norms. One vital change has been in the coating of steel products used for construction.
BlueScope Steel, Australia, claims to command a leadership position in coating technology across the globe, enabling them to develop and offer innovative, customer-centric products. They have a joint venture in India called Tata BlueScope Steel. CR Kulkarni, chief, sales (coated steel) & CQH, Tata BlueScope Steel, outlines his company’s contribution in introducing technologically-advanced products of their parent company in India. He proclaims, “The use of coated steel for structures, roofing and wall cladding, is growing rapidly, as it offers a variety of benefits including aesthetic appeal and longer life-span. As a result of the metallic coating (zinc/aluminium/zinc–aluminium alloy) on the base steel, today’s bare or pre-painted metal roof and wall panels resist corrosion, provide longer service life and trouble-free performance.”
He proudly declares, “We have a state-of-the-art testing lab, which tests products for corrosion resistance, mechanical properties and paint performance. The products undergo outdoor tests in corrosive environments to further establish durability and longevity. We work closely with global paint suppliers to develop our exclusive colour range, which is environment-friendly, and are constantly improving our existing paint system to cater to customer demands.”
Raju of Kirby speaks about new developments from their stable. “Steel structures are steadily getting their due recognition because of their sheer advantage of innovation. Each of these structures is fully customised with advantages such as faster construction, ease of expansion, eco-friendliness, earthquake-resistance, factory-controlled quality, lesser maintenance, green building features, etc.,” he confesses.
Kirby India has established its Global Centre of Engineering Excellence at Hyderabad, with an in-house R&D team. Through this, Kirby supports its customers in the Middle East & Africa, South East Asia and the Indian sub-continent with innovative designs based on the building requirements. Raju suggests, “Kirby India was the first company to develop and introduce steel structures in different segments such as metro rails, shipyards, power plants, heavy industries, etc.”
Elaborating on Tiger Steel’s approach in this context, Nagarajan states, “In terms of roofing systems, we have introduced a state-of-the-art standing seam roof system, which is manufactured at the project site, ensuring single length sheets, eliminating longitudinal joints, while the side laps are double lock, 3600 seam rolled over floating clips, to take care of thermal expansions as well ensure a leak-proof roof system. Fire resistance of the steel structures and its components is achieved by the use of fire-proof paints.”
Globally, steel pricing is influenced by metal markets, and often impacted by variations in demand and supply in key economies like China etc. Though it is a commodity market and the market pricing is at times very volatile, the good thing about this market is that the pricing is determined by market forces, which act as a good equilibrium mechanism. Hence, the price remains highly competitive for the benefit of market players. In such a situation, it is interesting to note that every user has their own strategies to counter the adverse price movements and continue to remain price-competitive in their own project segments.
Kaushal says, “The success of any construction project depends on the integrity of both the project owner and the construction service provider towards each other. Looking at the volatility in input material pricing, it is important to frame contracts based on a win-win principle. With so many socio-economic factors influencing business nowadays, we at Interarch feel that the key to the success of a project is in its planning.”
With the Shree Naman Group, steel makes up 10% of their project cost, and their future variations are assessed after simulating the percentage variations from available historical data and added to the considered basic price for the year. Sundar Rajan, head, projects development, Shree Naman Group, confesses, “We consider a basic (standard) supply price in our budgetary calculations, and the range of change is known based on previous trends. We allow a contingent amount for any increase. Also, we look at the requirements of multiple projects to get bulk purchase advantage.”
Whatever the procurement method, there is no denying the fact that steel continues to enjoy a premium position in the minds of developers as a material of choice. With its obvious advantages, steel and steel structures made from structural steel are going to be preferred options, at least in the near future.