Jonathan Clemens is constructsteel’s Vice-Chair and Managing Director at Catnic, a Tata Steel enterprise.
As part of a series of Q&As, constructsteel is interviewing experts within the construction sector on aspects of steel’s performance and sustainability in the built environment.
Through a global approach, we can all benefit from steel’s versatility and credentials to provide steel enabled sustainable solutions that add value to customers working in construction
The benefits of better interaction amongst steel companies and partners in the industry to the construction industry have never been so compelling. Construction is the largest market for steel by tonnage but has lacked a unified and concerted focus from the steel industry. The industry is complex and diverse in terms of its product needs, customer types, applications and use of materials. But it is exactly these attributes that there is an opportunity for steel if we change the way we think about construction and the way we interact with parties involved.
Participation has started between the members of worldsteel under constructsteel. This has followed the demonstrable success of our past activities and that we now have a clear vision of what we need to achieve to provide clearer education to the market; to have a single clear message for steel and to amplify member’s voices in key projects such as sustainability, steel enabled solutions, communication and applications.
Construction is the largest user of raw materials, so whilst responding to the societal needs of accommodation, transportation and places of work, it also now faces increasing pressure to be more sustainable, to be more efficient, safer and professional. These trends are rapidly changing the industry and steel needs to have very clear and understandable messages and solutions to ensure it is the material of choice.
Building with steel provides opportunities for not only extended lower maintenance life cycles, but the flexibility to provide opportunities for changes in use, at later stages of the life of the building, when needs might change. To achieve this flexibility and circularity, the construction supply chain must work together to ensure that we are reducing resource use in the ‘construction’ and ‘building use’ phase. Work is also required to ensure that, at the end-of-life of a building, we have the choice available to us to use those materials and products again.
constructsteel has already got the Zero Energy Building (ZEB) programme underway with an aim to provide an architecturally designed, industry supported solution to parts of the residential market. Another key project is to get the steel industry’s communication positioned better in response to the carbon debate. Like other materials, we need to speak with one voice about our product to demonstrate steel is a sustainable solution.
Steel enabled solutions
Steel is not the only material used in construction. In every project in every segment of construction other material types are present. Sometimes it is in direct competition such as other metals for facades and roofs, sometimes in collaboration such as rebar in concrete bridges and structures or HDG for timber connections. Part of constructsteel’s forward work is to gain a greater insight into the use of steel with other materials as both composite solutions and as steel enabled solutions.
To best do this we are looking to work with other Trade Associations for other materials to establish common ground and understanding for a better overall offer to the market. Not only do we see this as an opportunity to create more value and speed up product development but reduce risk.
Every year we see significant and catastrophic failures in construction. Reducing risk generally, and eliminating unnecessary risk specifically in the design, specification and construction are very much at the forefront of industry thinking. This risk reduction can be achieved through a systems approach to construction.
We view a systems approach from two different perspectives. One of these is working with each other in the industry and with other materials the aim is to agree common standards and common approaches to integration and connection. Transparency in terms of material properties and testing is also key. Through this work traditional construction supply chain methodology will provide better outcomes.
The second approach is modular or off-site. Skills in the industry in many of the world are lacking, safety on site is a concern when compared to other choices for workers and conditions are substandard to an office or factory in many cases. To move away from this dangerous and dirty image, to improve efficiency from design to use and to save on resources there is tremendous focus on industrialising parts of construction. Offsite and modular solutions have been around for bridges, buildings and landscaping for decades. Indeed, much of the success of steel structures in buildings, composite panels in building envelope and re-enforced concrete has been that each of these provides a more reliable and prefabricated solution.
The energy behind this approach is now accelerating and offers a real opportunity for steel companies to benefit taking what we have learnt in other markets such as automotive and packaging for example using high strength steels in blanks and structure to improve the final product.
Customers as partners and co-collaborators
We need to communicate with customers more effectively (speaking their language) and work with them more closely to build trust. From this place we can connect with them through mutual understanding of the diverse requirements each of our customers in the construction industry has. By getting closer to your customers’ business goals and the markets in which they operate can make a real difference to your product performance and business returns.
Working together, we can innovate together for growth, delivering products and services that give both steel companies and construction customers an advantage, whether that is improving cost-effectiveness and speed of construction, increasing the functionality and performance of buildings and infrastructure or creating more sustainable solutions.
Key to this approach is having experienced construction professionals in our teams that can educate, offer advice and assistance on how to get the best from our products on construction projects, ensuring client, Building Regulations and planning requirements are all met in the most cost effective and sustainable way.
For the steel industry working closely with customers can also have other benefits. The industry is rapidly becoming more digitally enabled with incredible solutions for design, structural calculations, environmental scenarios and whole life cycle calculations. Working with our own engineers can we therefore apply the use of high-grade steels, new steels and composite solutions to answer tomorrows challenges.
constructsteel is dedicated to improving the industry communications to the sector and providing a portal for customers and steel customers to interact. This education though needs to be deployed locally and to not only those in the industry now but those in education who will work with us tomorrow. The more members committed to this activity the greater the chances of success.
I cover this point last as I wanted to focus on two very different meanings of this word in the English language.
Firstly, the application of our products in use in construction. As mentioned, steel is very well positioned to gain even more value in this market which already accounts for the largest volume of our product. The complexity of applications and customers has to date often meant that the industry is seen as less attractive than other markets. I would argue that this diversity in product types, construction solutions, routes to markets and of course customers means that every steel company so inclined to focus on the construction industry should be able to find its point of differentiation to succeed. There is enough current volume, future opportunity, product types and ways to supply in a market that is truly global and changing more rapidly than before for the diversity incumbent amongst the World Steel Association membership.
Secondly there is the application of effort and endeavour. There are examples of materials and product companies supplying the construction industry that are hugely successful. They share some common traits in that they understand the market, they speak the language of the market and meet the demands of the wider societal needs not just a technical specification. If we think of these brands, we must also bear in mind the emotional connection to these brands in the hearts of the customers, not just their minds, is borne from effective communication, demonstrated results and trust.
From constructsteel we already have a wealth of resources in personnel, case studies and brand experiences to draw from and an exciting programme of work ahead. For construction we are all convinced that for the construction market there is opportunity. Steel a sustainable solution.