Life cycle assessment

Life Cycle Assessment

As awareness grows around the pressures on the world’s environment, there is a vital need to adjust our thinking around social, economic and environmental sustainability.

A large proportion of worldwide environmental pollution and resource use has links to buildings and construction. As the population continues to increase, the need for infrastructure and housing will rise, with correlating environmental impacts.

Against this background, use of steel in the construction sector offers a range of benefits. To understand the environmental performance of a steel product, its entire life cycle needs to be taken into consideration. This includes looking at resources, energy and emissions, from production through to end-of-life stage, including recycling and reuse.

Manufactured using the readily available resource of iron, steel is infinitely recyclable without any loss of its intrinsic properties. This gives it incredible performance throughout its lifecycle. While steel production is carbon and energy intensive, the industry has made great strides in lowering its emissions over the past 50 years. It has also reduced the energy consumption per tonne of steel produced by 61% in this time.

Steel can also be fabricated off-site which is far more efficient, faster and safer than on-site construction. This also results in lower emissions as it requires less transport of raw materials. The economic benefits of this speedier and simpler construction also contribute to greater sustainability. Building with steel structures allows for innovative, flexible and sustainable designs that take advantage of its superior strength-to-weight ratio when compared with its competitors. Zero Emission Buildings are fully achievable using steel structures.

Once a building has entered its end-of-life stage, the benefits of steel are felt again as, unlike some competitor materials, it can be recovered and reused. This has led to some regions operating a fully developed recycling infrastructure, that can recover a good proportion of a building’s structural steel from a demolition site.

As steel frames often come in a modular kit form, wholesale dismantling and reuse of pristine steel structures and components is possible, enabling perpetual reuse. Known as demounting, entire buildings can be fully dismantled and re-erected in a new location in relatively short time periods, or the building’s structure can provide the basis for a ‘new’ building.

Steel is already a fundamental construction material due to its inherent properties and high performance. As adoption of life cycle thinking increases, understanding of the sustainability benefits of deploying this material in the construction sector can only be set to increase.

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