Pushing Boundaries in the Reuse of Steelwork

November 2021

We can’t keep making stuff.

Wouldn’t it be good if we could take apart an old building and reassemble those materials somewhere else, as something different?

The 3 ‘R’s now taught in schools – reduce, re-use, recycle – have gone a long way to change the way organisations think about how they do business. This is a good thing. Reducing consumption and recycling are both essential – but sitting between the two is way to really accelerate our progress towards a circular economy. By re-using in addition to designing more efficiently and recycling our waste, we can begin to develop a more holistic approach to sustainable design. In the construction industry in particular, we need to find smarter ways of sharing, repairing and re-using our materials for as long we as can.

This may seem like a daunting task but the good news is that there is now the desire from our clients to explore re-use in addition to recycling, and fabricators are breaking down barriers to clear the path. Financially, it’s difficult to evidence savings, but when the embodied carbon count is a key driver at planning stage, the idea of re-using elements from one building to another to achieve the carbon benefit is well received.

And it’s not necessarily a new idea – The Steel Construction Institute (SCI) have been working on re-use research projects for around 20 years – but the difficulty in financing and re-organising the supply chain for the re-use of steel seems to have halted its progress. While there are examples of steel framed buildings being dismantled and re-erected in a different location, we are asking to take steel and re-use it in a different building altogether which brings up its own unique set of challenges.

  1. Can we dismantle the steel is such a way that it doesn’t get damaged without elongating a demolition/deconstruction programme?
  2. Can we find a fabricator willing to take the steel, process it, store it and then test it?
  3. Are we confident we know how old the steel is and its provenance? Has it been damaged or overloaded during its life span?
  4. If the steel passes all the tests – can the steel fabricator re-fabricate it in suitable lengths with connections that suit its new desired home?

We are working with steel stockists who have been lobbying for the use of reclaimed steel, and have funded the SCI to provide guidance on its re-use (P427). For these few stockists, testing is relatively straightforward – they have a number of independent steel testing labs available to them and some even have 500-600 tonnes of surplus/reclaimed rolled steel sections already in stock.

Once the reclaimed steel has passed through the steel stockist’s verification process, there are then obvious challenges for the design team. The structural engineer will have to analyse the steelwork to ensure that it has sufficient capacity to take the new loads. Add to this, the ‘used aesthetic’ of reclaimed steel, which could prove to be one of the biggest sticking points. Will the client be happy that their steel doesn’t look brand new? Will the existing paint and other finishes be problematic?

It feels like an uphill task, but nothing worth doing is going to be easy. We must challenge our current ways of thinking and drastically alter the way we work to enact the change needed to respond to the climate crisis that we all share.

So, if the demand is there, and we can see that a verified supply is also there – what can we do to develop a truly circular economy in this area of the buildings industry?

Symmetrys are continuing to develop our responsive guidance document to re-using steelwork to keep our team up to date with the ongoing research and design techniques.

Keep an eye out for our latest updates as we begin to share our findings with the industry. The climate crisis affects us all and sharing the knowledge we gain will help to push us towards a sustainable future, sooner.

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