Focus on Framing Roundtable Debate


Darren kicked off proceedings by inviting Emily King from Mid Group, to identify the main key drivers for the specification of light steel frame. As a material agnostic solution contractor, Emily explained that light steel framing is predominantly used for complex buildings where additional structural integrity is necessary: “Steel is the answer to complex questions where a lightweight response is required.” When asked whether a volumetric modular or panelised system is preferred, although Emily admitted she passionately believes in volumetric, she considered panelised systems offer more design adaptability adding: “If you get the design right, steel frame offers massive flexibility and cost benefits.”

Discussions then turned to sustainability and the group agreed that the environmental benefits of using light steel framing systems are not widely understood and it was down to
the industry to get this message out there. Steel is most definitely part of a carbon neutral solution and communicating this is crucial. Sustainability is perceived as being back at the top of the construction agenda, however when budgets come into play – the participants found safety, cost, programme, mass, design adaptability and structural integrity are more often the deciding factors.

Robert Clark from Fusion Building Systems said: “There is a misconception about steel and to win the embodied carbon debate – we need to focus on the strength to weight message. Low weight equates to improved efficiencies – you get an awful lot of structure for not a lot of weight which reduces embodied carbon. This is where steel cannot be beaten. Lighter structures not only reduce material consumption but reduce concrete in the ground.”

Conversations often involve disconnects between main contractors and their clients. The main contractor focuses on the safety and structural requirements of the project and the client wants sustainability – with steel you can achieve both.

Peter Burchill from EOS Framing believes there is a real conflict at the moment in specification decisions and although the focus appears to be shifting to sustainability in reality safety wins hands down: “Light steel frame has real safety, fire performance and sustainability advantages but the recycled content is not widely acknowledged.”

Neville Grunwald of Wates Construction pressed home the point: “The first and primary consideration for the specification of the structural solution should be what we do from a fire perspective and only then, should carbon emissions and sustainability be discussed. The conversation needs to be more nuanced and focus on what you can and cannot use on a building
from a safety perspective.”

Steel is often compared to timber and Alex Small from Tata Steel is also looking to address the misconceptions surrounding the sustainability equation: “Discussions used to focus on lifecycle analysis including recycling at the end of a building’s life. This approach proves that light steel frame systems are intrinsically more sustainable but more recently the focus has been on embodied carbon which is far more simplistic.

“This is probably because it is a less complex calculation and easier to digest but embodied carbon just reflects the start of a building’s life. This is not a case of kicking the ‘carbon can’
down the road - in use performance, the circular economy and recycling at the end of a building’s life are crucially important considerations. Digital value tool kits are required to provide much needed evidence to change the debate and to offer in-depth accurate analysis of whole life carbon calculations.”

It was suggested that independent industry bodies such as the Construction Innovation Hub, BRE and the Green Building Council need to pick up on this and lead the debate on
which is the more valuable calculation – embodied or whole life carbon. The group also agreed specification is not a binary decision – buildings are the sum of many parts.

David Ellison from Intelligent Steel Solutions added that only one of his clients had sustainability as the key driver, most consider which method of construction is right for the design
but offsite is at the forefront of most developer’s thoughts. David explained: “Decisions are based on cost, capacity, site constraints, perceptions and future adaptability. There are a lot of key drivers that take precedence, but safety, cost, speed and predictability are at the top.”

Continuing with the topic of sustainability, Darren then brought architect Des O’Dwyer into the debate asking: “When specifying or assessing a building where does sustainability sit?” 

Des O'Dwyer from Richard Hopkins Architects responded: “Unfortunately sustainability is currently falling down the list and that’s not only from a client’s perspective but equally from
an architects’ point of view. There are lots of reasons why – budget and programme being two, but architects have to not only consider risk from a building safety perspective but also an insurance standpoint. We are asked to de-risk a building and fire insurance clauses are making it very difficult to specify timber regardless of how it performs, so it carries enormous risk to us as designers. Also, the proposed change in Building Regulations extending the ban of combustible materials in external walls from 18 to 11 metres, is another thing to contend

Des went on to explain the challenge of perception: “The comparison is one of image – timber has a much ‘softer and more welcoming’ image and light steel frame is a more technical approach with designs being harder to visualise – so the industry needs visual design representations of what is achievable. If you talk to a lay person, they will not put steel ahead in the sustainability stakes but does this matter when most decisions are not based on this?

“You need to play to the industries strengths - steel needs to offer a ‘whole package’ solution, an entire wall buildup – from internal linings through to the facade – this would de-risk the construction processes for architects.”

Darren Richards agreed that better communications are required, and the Light Steel Frame Association is now leading the charge in correcting misconceptions and promoting the strength to weight and fire safety benefits of light steel frame.

Michael Sansom from the Steel Construction Institute (SCI) played the role of ‘devil’s advocate’ stating: “We in the industry know the attributes of light steel framing but for context we are facing a climate emergency. It is generally believed that operational carbon has been addressed and that we must now move on to reducing embodied carbon. However, evidence of the ‘performance gap’ demonstrated by CIBSE – TM54 Evaluating Operational Energy Performance of Buildings at the Design Stage – confirms that there is still much to do to reduce operational carbon. I can appreciate, more than most, the longterm benefits of steel and we have to look at the circular economy where recycling and reusing is massively important.”

Neville wholly supported this adding: “Once we start looking at reusing metal components structural verification presents challenges but the real elephant in the room in the sustainability challenge is cost – once clients find out the true cost, they revert back to steel and concrete.”

Emily agreed but added a note of caution: “Embodied energy is the most difficult part of the puzzle to solve. We have to collaborate to achieve the true ideal of the circular economy because you cannot claim one material will do every job. Steel is so efficient it is perfect for the job it is designed for but once we start looking at reusing, its bespoke nature presents challenges.”

Acknowledging that more collaboration is required Jim Roach from ARV Solutions stepped in at this point to stress: “I think there should be more collaboration not only within the light steel industry but also across the offsite material sectors. By adopting a united approach, offsite technologies will have a greater impact in influencing the construction industry to adopt modern methods of construction and move away from outmoded traditional on-site approaches."

Darren then steered the conversation to the manufacturing environment and how the light steel sector is addressing waste and inefficiency in the construction process – pointing out that inefficient developments typically achieve very wasteful buildings.

The steel manufacturing environment is more automated and has become incredibly efficient at value engineering and minimising waste through design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) approaches and the advances in digital engineering with better use of Building Information Modelling (BIM).

Chris Gatehouse from Tekla picked up the conversation: “From a modelling point of view there is no waste – the software is engineered to allow customers to optimise precisely to their design requirements. With cold rolled steel the only waste is the swarf and offcuts produced in the manufacturing which are minimal and can be recycled.”

“One thing that is not considered as part of the sustainability equation is the utilisation percentage of steel – all offcuts are recycled and there is no waste at all. I would really like to see comparisons with other utilisation percentage metrics with materials such as timber.”

Darren then moved on to discuss how more value is being added to the manufacturing process through the introduction of a systems approach such as pre-insulating panels in the factory which Fusion Building Systems have been doing for some time and the panelised through-wall approach that is now being pioneered by companies such as EOS which include boarding and insulation – taking waste out of other components that interface with steel.Darren posed the question: “Are we underplaying and under selling the levels of sophistication in the steel industry?

Robert Clark responded with a resounding ‘yes’ highlighting just one example: “We have been working with a national housebuilder and through using Revit digital technology, Fusion Building Systems has managed the design process. Just through eliminating waste and time inefficiencies, vast savings per unit have been achieved. With a traditional approach to construction there is a massive amount of waste of materials and time – the savings were so vast we could not initially believe it ourselves.” 

As a contractor Emily King highlighted the need to get this message out there saying: “I attend many forums and there is a need for the light steel frame industry to get these positive messages out there. I have to present proposals to clients and the more knowledge I have, the more informed my recommendations.” 

Des O'Dwyer supported this view: “It’s easy to get wrapped up in the technical detail but you need to simplify the message - it’s about educating architects – we do not come out of university with an in-depth knowledge of every material system – you just need to present a package of benefits and applications.”

Light steel construction is used extensively in the UK in a wide range of building applications. The precise nature of the value benefits of light steel construction will depend on the application and project specifics. However, there are generally five overriding value benefits associated with light steel construction – safety, quality, speed, strength and lightweight. These lead to supplementary advantages, such as early completions, fewer snags, elimination of shrinkage and minimal re-work. 

Michael Sansom then raised a very significant point concerning the recycling and reusing process: “The light steel framing sector can learn from the hot rolled steel industry where SCI has produced a prototype database which we can upload all IFC files so we can retain all the design, manufacturing and structural information for all the steel elements used in a building. By capturing and storing all the information at the end of the building’s lifecycle steel components can be reused with confidence as we have all the properties captured and documented.”

Darren totally agreed and said this is an area for the Light Steel Frame Association to progress and develop in association with their steering group and working with technical partners within SCI.

Alex Small had several points he wanted to address starting with enabling reuse: “Standardisation and a system approach is the driving force behind our consortium led Seismic project which is working on the future of construction for schools and healthcare facilities. It is a logical development with impressive results on light steel standardisation and by supplying a documented kit of panelised or modular parts, everything becomes reusable at the end of a building’s life.”

He then turned to embodied carbon and gave participants insight into the future: “There is a huge amount of work going on in steel production, we are working in partnership to develop the largest cluster of hydrogen plants in Europe and our goal is to be carbon neutral by 2050.

“Hisarna is a radical new technology completely transforming the way we make steel which can use 50% scrap steel and reduce carbon emission by 80%. A steel industry united around the recycling and reuse of components will offer massive embodied carbon benefits. If the business model is based on this, we are far more likely to offer buyback and leasing options for light steel in our future plans.”

As the discussion evolved it was agreed that all the messages downstream of steel production are good news stories and steel brings major safety, adaptability and longevity benefits to construction. All steel producers have strategies for reducing embodied carbon and reports have plotted the route to low-carbon primary steel making which demonstrate that it is achievable at relatively affordable costs but there was a consensus that it is better for this to be led by European producers which operate under more stringent regulations.

Associate Director of SCI, Michael Sansom considered the circular economy and shared some thought provoking facts: “In the UK we are largely self-sufficient in steel, by that I mean we can pretty well produce all the steel we need through recycling our latent stock to satisfy market demand. But steel is a global commodity, and we live in a global community. Many nations are still evolving but in developed economies there is a stock of 12 tonnes of steel per person and if we can get to that point globally – then we have eliminated primary steel production worldwide.”

This point emphasised the fact that the demand for recycled steel is going to go up and there is a pressing need to grade and ID tag every component so that when it does come back into the market – quality steel ready to be recycled is easily identifiable.

This sparked a healthy debate with Darren stressing how this information could be included in the ‘as built’ BIM Model but Alex said: “As steel manufacturers already keep this data, to drive the maximum possible benefits, they should be custodians of this information.”

Chris Gatehouse raised a note of caution: “Embedding the data in the BIM model can be laborious and problematic, the most reliable and efficient solution is to link back to the manufacturer’s data.”

Michael picked up on this point: “The SCI are developing a portal to store and log information on steel components for recycling and reuse, it makes good sense to collaborate with Tata Steel and Tekla.”

Darren also agreed to take this forward to the Light Steel Frame Association’s steering group and engage with manufacturing members as they could play a crucial role in progressing this for the future good of the industry.

Darren Richards representing the Light Steel Frame Association presented a roundup of the Focus on Framing roundtable event and thanked all participants for their valued input: “When we gather a group of construction industry professionals together and pose some challenging questions, we cannot predict the outcome. This has been a frank and honest discussion which will take the industry forward with the support of the Light Steel Frame Association. There are areas for improvement, and it is quite clear that this event will result in some key collaborations.

Many thanks to ARV Solutions,EOS, Intelligent Steel and Trimble Solutions/Tekla for sponsoring the Virtual Roundtable Event and thanks to all participants for their time and contributions to the online discussion.

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