Despite the initial cost disadvantage, steel structures demonstrate numerous benefits, and are leading real estate developers to opt for steel construction.
BY Mitalee Kurdekar
Over the past few years, the construction industry has been experimenting with new ideas. There are numerous drivers for such trials; be it for employing alternative methods of construction, using newly invented materials with superior features, seeking sustainability targets, or simply gaining cost savings for both developers and customers. At the centre of all these efforts is the intent to explore something new or to innovate. The steel industry, specific to construction, is no different, and, as a result of its innovations, is leading to a quick rise in the popularity of the tough material.
Today, with the improved availability of steel and, more importantly, the availability of structural steel that possesses better quality and features, the scenario is fast developing. New technologies in the design, fabrication and erection of steel structures are making them more popular than ever before, even though they still remain costlier in comparison to RCC. In fact, steel structures are now seen to be completing a full circle by becoming a material of choice, something that is a result of their being identified for their speed of erection, higher load-bearing capacity and convenience.
D Raju, MD, Kirby India, aptly states, “Steel structures are steadily getting their due recognition because of their sheer advantage in terms 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.”
Explaining his company’s contribution in promoting this paradigm change, Raju adds, “Kirby India has always been developing and introducing new and innovative products, since it has pioneered this technology in India. It continues to do so on a regular basis across different projects throughout their project lifecycle, because of wide range of structural requirements and aesthetics. The company continues to develop technologically advanced steel products for different industry specific requirements.”
This shift is now increasingly visible, compared to earlier, believes PK Nagarajan, director & CEO, Tiger Steel Engineering, India. He explains, “Steel structures in the construction of industrial and commercial buildings have been very well accepted, to the extent that most multinationals and Indian corporates adopt pre-engineered metal buildings for their projects – whether greenfield or expansion projects.” He further points out that, “Within the newer areas of applications for steel construction in residential and high-rise buildings, our company has carried out Research & Development (R&D) aimed at making the steel frame lighter by adopting materials used in walls, light in weight; insulation properties aimed at providing comfortable living; and high-strength using nano materials. This kind of construction solution will offer a viable option for owners and end-users.”
Offering a user standpoint, Mukesh Jaitley, director, projects, The Wadhwa Group, opines, “Steel structures have emerged as a popular choice of construction material in the recent past, as compared to RCC construction, as RCC poses a few limitations to developers such as cost and load. On the other hand, steel provides several benefits to developers. Pre-fabricated steel can be brought to the site for installation, which facilitates space saving in the urban environment. Moreover, it provides ease of expansion owing to its flexibility. Ancillary structures like car parks, podiums, and other standalone structures, are designed for the composite construction of steel, which helps in faster completion of the projects. Time is always of the essence for project completion and steel constructions are one of the key requirements for our business to achieve timely delivery.”
Catalysts of Change
Structural steel, which is at the core of this change, was in short supply in India until not very long ago. Given the limited supply, good quality structural steel had to be imported at a cost. However, things are changing. Recently, the Indian construction market has witnessed the introduction of new and innovative structural steel and components that have changed the face of construction. Steel structures are now able to take more load with lightweight components. As far as promoting and popularising the concept of fast paced construction in India goes, this new age material has managed to do the trick. The biggest change seen is that fabrication has now moved away from construction sites to component factories. Improved transport infrastructure in India has further facilitated the shift to off-site fabrication.
Shabbir Kanchwala, senior VP, K Raheja Corp, suggests that they have widely used steel structures during the construction of their commercial and residential projects. “We have incorporated these structures as a preferred option in our organisation, and have also utilised it during the extension of our corporate office,” he says. “This option is beneficial and extremely viable from the point of view of space constraint, and logistically convenient during extension of functional offices. When we look at a pre-fabricated structure, there is comparatively lesser manpower usage and arrangement required. With the rapid construction technique, erection is done on weekends when offices are not open for business. Hence, promoting steel structures in comparison to RCC becomes an economical and practical option in the long run,” adds Kanchwala.
Even though there are many advocates for the use of steel structures, others are not completely convinced, choosing instead to take a call according to the need of the hour. As Parth Mehta, MD, Paradigm Realty, puts it, “In any type of construction, economy and time are the most important factors. We choose the method of construction which suits the project’s requirement. RCC and steel structures both have their own advantages and disadvantages. While construction with RCC takes time, building with steel structures is relatively quick.”
Shailesh Puranik, MD, Puranik Builders, echoes similar sentiments when he says, “When we compare structural steel to RCC, it has been observed in various buildings in India that structural steel costs more by 20-25% as compared to RCC. But the advantage with structural steel is that it gives faster completion compared to RCC. While evaluating its use for commercial buildings, we notice that the time saved in structural steel is critical.”
Supported by Technology
Over the past many years, the construction industry has proactively adopted new technologies in every sphere of its operations. It is one industry which is largely influenced by buyers’ tastes and preferences, so much so that every project becomes unique in terms of the precision and attention to detail that it demands. Being a buyers’ market, one cannot overlook the requirement of lacing such adaptations with fast and affordable solutions. And that is where technology plays a pivotal role.
Vendors, on their part, are leaving no stone unturned in supporting the needs of developers, through their technological prowess. Raju professes that, “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. The company was the first to introduce standing seam roofing system (KSS-600) with FM approval from USA, in India, which provides 100% leak-proof building and racking systems bundled with PEB as one complete packaged solution for the warehousing industry. Kirby India has introduced various other roofing profiles and innovative products through its world-class manufacturing facilities.”
Of course, support from in-house R&D facilities goes a significant way to usher in these changes faster and better support the customer base. Kirby India has also established its Global Centre of Engineering Excellence at Hyderabad with an in-house R&D team, where more than 200 highly qualified structural engineers cater to customers spread across different countries in the Middle East & Africa, South East Asia and the Indian sub-continent, with innovative and unique designs based on specific building requirements. The company has recently ventured into high-rise structures and developed a new concept of providing composite construction which will bring down the overall project costs.
Nagarajan explains Tiger Steel’s approach in making unique inroads. “The key innovations done by our company are in terms of advanced design solutions for composite floor beams, hanging mezzanine systems, besides a host of other new solutions like floor decks in depths up to 75mm, 3600 double lick standing seam roof system on site rolled in single lengths of 100mts,” he says.
Safety, Quality and Compliance Focus
Being a highly regulated industry, the emphasis on a safe, quality-conscious and regulatory-compliant approach cannot be undermined by any industry player. Kanchwala stresses on these requirements from the point of view of developers and end-users by explaining the approach they adopt. He believes, “Steel structures require a good in-house infrastructure setup, in terms of factory and fabrication. Selecting the right agency plays a prominent role, as that will ensure good quality control, safety measures, the desired regulatory compliances and utmost care.”
Jaitley agrees, stating, “Vendors are equipped with adequate knowledge to offer the right product at the right price. We make our requirements clear to the vendors and choose our product after careful consideration. This leads to cost benefits not only for us but also for our potential customers, and ensures compliance.”
That begs the question: How good are Indian structural steel vendors in supporting these requirements? Puranik proclaims that, “There are vendors in India who are experts in structural steel construction, supervision and erection to meet the required standards.”
Mehta elaborates that, “Steel vendors in India understand the market well. Fortunately, there are a few of them who are very knowledgeable and know the requirement very well. In terms of safety, quality and regulatory compliance, India still follows some borrowed codes. We hope this scenario changes soon. While working with steel vendors, we see to it that we have our set of compliance standards and the vendors adhere to it.”
As a result, vendors and developers seem to have reached a consensus on what is required and needs to be done. Yet, even as steel structures are making a grand entry onto the Indian construction scene, there are many challenges that lie ahead. First and foremost is the cost of steel itself, especially given that prices keep fluctuating vigorously in the global market, and in turn impact the Indian market, despite the Government’s efforts in regulating them.
Raju further identifies the need for a separate recognition for the industry by the Government, non-availability of skilled manpower, need for standard design codes and uniformity in industry practices and policies, as other key issues. To add to these, the initial high cost is often seen as a deterrent by real estate developers, and greatly affects the market at large.
Nagarajan says, “The challenges that lie ahead are changing the mind-set of decision makers, by shifting it from the conventional process of using brick and mortar; and creating awareness, education and training on the benefits of a steel-based construction process in a composite construction system; use of low-weight wall panelling systems using nano materials; and mass production of high-quality doors and windows and other accessories to support the emerging demand in housing.”
So, if one considers the costs to be recouped over a longer term, the concept is well justified. As Jaitley reasons, “Albeit, steel being slightly costlier than concrete, it provides great long-term advantages to the developer. Steel is more earthquake-resistant and less prone to soil erosion as compared to concrete. It is also easy to repair, reducing maintenance charges and, most importantly, steel can be recycled and reused, thus compensating for its high cost. Steel is also helpful in building warehouses as they can be used to create large span open spaces at low costs. These factors are incentivising enough to incorporate steel in our construction for its long-term economic benefits.”
It is easy to tell that a huge opportunity awaits the steel industry within the construction arena. And this growth story is poised to continue in the coming years. Nagarajan feels that the sector has a potential to grow at 15-20% in the years to come.
As India gets increasingly urbanised, one would believe that steel structures will indeed grow in popularity, especially since their benefits will far outweigh the challenges faced in economic terms. This bodes well for steel vendors, but also for the industry at large. After all, fast, yet sturdy, is always a welcome thing.