How a 10-page document could slash steel costs and carbon emissions

A technical document, launched this month, sets out to boost the reuse of steel. Construction News finds out more…

What is it?

The British Constructional Steelwork Association (BCSA) has published a new model specification for the purchase of reclaimed steel sections. This 10-page document sets out how the components should be salvaged and tested, and includes a contract to be signed by buyer and seller.

What prompted the move?

The BCSA says steel reuse is happening on a more frequent and varied basis than it had previously thought. Different models are emerging and the association has increasingly received requests for advice and information. It aims to create a framework for best practice and ultimately boost the safe reuse of steel in construction.

Why is steel reuse important?

Let’s start with the small task of saving the planet. The World Green Building Council has called for all embodied carbon to be stripped from new construction projects by the middle of this century. Research by steel supplier John Lawrie Tubulars found in 2020 that using 1 tonne of repurposed steel tubulars saved 97 per cent of the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of manufactured prime steel products.

Aside from the planet, is there another, immediate reason to switch?

Have you seen the price of new steel? British Steel last month increased the price of structural sections for all new orders by £250 per tonne, while UK Steel director-general Gareth Stace said energy costs and supply side challenges, including the war in Ukraine, mean the sharp price rises seen so far this year could be “just the start”.

Ok, I’m sold. So what do I have to do?

The BCSA specification sets out a 13-step process for suppliers to follow “for verification of the structural reusability of steel members”. This starts with carrying out an audit before removing the steel from its existing building, and ensuring it hasn’t been exposed to “extensive dynamic loading” or “other severe conditions”. Other boxes to tick include checking that less than 5 per cent of the thickness of an element has been lost to corrosion, and that toxic coatings are removed.

It sounds quite onerous. Anything else purchasers should ask for?

Yes. A number of sections of British Standards need to be complied with; certain test results from certified laboratories must be provided; quality-management systems have to be in place; and extensive record-keeping is required. For full details, see the BCSA specification.

Why are there so many hoops to jump through?

The idea is to create a process that ensures reused steel is fit for purpose in new construction projects, so it has to be exhaustive. Ultimately, once the system is up and running, it should promote confidence in the used steel that is offered for sale, thereby reducing the demand for new steel while potentially tempering price rises and global warming.

Big aims. Will it work?

Iain Bell, sales and purchasing manager at John Lawrie Tubulars, is optimistic about the potential of the specification. “I hope it will help to boost take-up of repurposed steel,” he says. “It is certainly a step in the right direction.” Bell says some clients insist on expensive grades of steel for non-structural jobs that could easily be fulfilled using reused elements. Elsewhere, an ultra-cautious reduction is applied to the values of an existing steel component. “Following these rules efficiently would allow more steel to be reused,” he says. “There is steel out there that can be used; it might not be on a skyscraper, but perhaps as a beam for a house extension or a cow shed.”

And what comes next?

The BCSA says reuse of structural steel is “still evolving”, but already “showing compelling benefits in relation to the environment and costs”. While its latest guidance requires suppliers to use steel from buildings constructed since 1970, the association says “work is underway” to extend it to older steelwork.

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