With sustainability and environmental impact top of the agenda for the construction sector as we kick off 2020, we are championing steel as an underrated eco-friendly building material.
For the construction sector – often seen as a ‘bad guy’ in environmental circles for its consumption of resources and contribution to carbon emissions – it’s time to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of a resource-constrained world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean just looking to new solutions. Sometimes, it can mean taking advantage of the benefits of traditional materials and age-old techniques, which can be combined with new technologies and processes for optimum environmental benefits.
The 2020s has been dubbed the ‘decade of action’ by the UN with the European Commission’s Green Deal, which aims for net carbon zero by 2050 and halving emissions by the end of this decade, front and centre. The challenge is, of course, how to fulfil environmental responsibilities and remain profitable.
The circular economy
The circular economy – a move from the so-called ‘take, make, waste’ linear model to one that keeps products and materials in use for as long as possible, extracts the maximum value while in use, and recovers and regenerates materials at ‘end of life’ – provides an opportunity for the steel and construction industries to take the lead.
It’s critical that sustainable building design considers both how the building is constructed as well as how it can best be de-constructed. Without compromise to the overall concept, building designs that incorporate, where possible, materials that are easily disassembled at ‘end of life’ and those that are easily reusable/recyclable will be those that move the industry towards its circular-economic targets.
The infrastructure for steel recycling is already in place and has been for decades. As well as being incredibly durable and reliable, steel construction products are infinitely recyclable and structural steel elements are inherently reusable. When the challenge for greater adoption of a circular economy comes down, ultimately, to it having a strong business case, using steel – a material that can be recycled without losing its properties or performance – is a natural choice.
The current ‘end of life’ picture sees 99% of structural steelwork reused or recycled (Source: Eurofer). This compares to a recycling rate for concrete of 20% (with 75% downcycled and 5% in landfill) and timber that reuses or recycles just over a quarter (with 10% downcycled, 6% incinerated and 58% in landfill). (Source: SCI)
Design for a lifetime
The longevity of steel means that we may have to wait a lifetime (and more) to see projects we’re building today be recycled but that brings with it its own challenges. The pace of change in our society is breathtaking. The obvious conclusion is that building designs will demand adaptability and flexibility to optimise their life span.
Adopting sustainable materials doesn’t have a quick-fix solution. However, being ultimately flexible, steel allows architects to innovate and create buildings that are beautiful to live and work in with the trust that, with steel, a little can go a long way. Designs can be both innovative and be commercially viable and that solution is available in the here and now.
A key opportunity in efficiency that steels offers is on-site. At Harrogate Steel, we deliver fabricated steel to site and this ‘off-site construction’ brings both a speed of construction – and quicker return on investment – as well as sustainability benefits. Manufacturing waste is easily collected and recycled and, on the construction site, the steel itself generates very little and even zero-waste. It makes it a highly efficient, fast and, with assured quality, a safe choice.
As an industry we know there is a challenge ahead – both the legislative requirements of the Green Deal, as well as the demand that will inevitably come from the end-consumer – but, like the small steps we’ve individually taken to reduce our waste and consumption, collectively we can be conscious in how we construct buildings of the future. And, I believe, the steel industry, while being a traditional one, is fit for the circular economy requirements of our future.