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Sun 6 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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In the frame

Steel framework is a hi-tech, high-efficiency technology that can transform construction.

In the frame
Steel framework represents a hi-tech, high-efficiency construction method.

The typical challenges faced by contractors in the Gulf region
include building green, on time and within budget. Contrary to popular belief, there
are certain technologies and techniques which can help with all these issues.

Steel framework is one of them. While the technique itself is
not new, it has, like all other technologies in the construction industry, developed
over the years. Revolutionised by software, it is now able to offer more.

Steel framework, and particularly light-gauge steel framing,
is used for a variety of projects, from schools, villas and labour accommodation,
to offices and high-rises. It can also be used for partitions within buildings and
for framing interior walls.  As an engineered
product (often manufactured and assembled in a factory before being delivered to
site), it is gaining popularity due to a lack of application limits.

“There are many standard sizes used in the industry, but one
can use any size or shape,” says Nader Elhaji, regional director for steel-framing
supplier Framecad Solutions. “It is an engineered product, and therefore there are
no applicable limits on the building shape or size.” He adds that, for steel framing
to be economically viable, it is usually only used for buildings up to nine storeys.
In sharp contrast to ordinary concrete construction, steel framing today offers
an array of advantages both to builders and end users. Speed, efficiency and cost-savings
are among them. “Time-saving is one of the biggest advantages,” says a Kirby Building
Systems representative. “Steel is 50% faster to erect than conventional concrete
buildings.”

Other suppliers agree. “The structure is typically built using
CAD/CAM systems, and as panels and trusses off-site, which means a much lower price
[as much as a 35% reduction on construction costs] and a higher speed of construction
than traditional systems,” explains Genesis Manazil Steel Framing CEO Maged Mostafa.
“And it adds some predictability, which enhances the confidence and certainty that
the project will meet all of its targets. The quality of work is also not entirely
dependable on the quality of workmanship, or on weather conditions, as 80% of the
activity is carried out in an indoor, controlled environment,” he says.

Elhaji is also of the same view. Like Mostafa, he stresses the
importance of the frames themselves, as well as the technology used to fabricate
them. “Steel frames are lighter, cost-effective, faster to erect and durable. Perhaps
more importantly, the latest technology has automated the steel frame construction
market. It has reduced the need for skilled labour that the market required previously,
and has sped up the engineering, fabrication and erection processes.” The Kirby
Building Systems representative adds to this, stating that there is now more of
a focus on engineering designs.

Asked how the technology actually works, Elhaji says: “You start
with a drawing, a picture or a hand sketch of, say, a house. This gets drawn in
the engineering and design software. This is where every piece of the structure
gets designed to meet international building codes.”

He adds: “Once that is done, the file gets transferred to another
piece of software to detail every piece of the structure. The file is then saved
onto a memory stick and inserted into a machine where all the members are fabricated
in sequence, labelled, cut, punched, all ready to assemble.”

But steel framing and the associated technologies are not only
advantageous from a precision and efficiency point of view. There are also the additional
green benefits, such as reduced errors and wastage (due to the exact specifications
achievable), not to mention the material’s energy-efficiency and recyclability.
“Light-gauge steel frames are environmentally-friendly,” says Elhaji. “They are
100% recyclable, and can be recycled over and over again. Steel is the most recycled
material among all construction materials. Other green advantages include reduced
shipping, less petrol used in transport (due to steel being lighter) and less use
of natural resources.”

Adding to this, Mostafa explains how using steel can reduce the
overall amount of material needed for construction. “Steel has the highest strength-to-weight
ratio of all building materials,” he says, “making it the strongest material available.
The more we can utilise steel in smaller structures – such as residential and light
commercial buildings – the more we can save on materials used and overall construction
costs.”

Of course, every construction technique has its downsides, but
luckily for steel framing there are not too many. First is that not all frames are
manufactured in a factory, the process largely depending on the size of the project,
which may mean less precision, the need for skilled labour and the opportunity for
construction to be affected by adverse weather conditions. Other reasons why a contractor
might not choose steel framing relate to the capital costs, availability of materials
and infrastructure available for testing and reviewing. If a contractor does not
have the money available for capital investment or if the material is not readily
available, steel framing can present a formidable challenge.

Thermal insulation costs have also been known to increase with
steel framing, though Mostafa argues that steel frames can reduce cooling costs
by 40%, making them perfect in hot climates such as the Middle
East.

Meanwhile, according to Elhaji, most municipality engineers do
not know how to review the engineered plans or inspect the structure, which creates
obstacles for contractors. This is in addition to the fact that most contractors
do not how to calculate costs. “With traditional construction methods,” Elhaji explains,
“there are several rules of thumb that contractors go by. None have fully been developed
for steel framing.”

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the biggest barriers
to the widespread use of steel frames is a lack of knowledge of the advantages,
and a reluctance to accept new ideas among both end users and contractors. “There
continues to be a lack of knowledge about the material, the method of the actual
construction process and how to frame steel, not to mention an issue with overall
consumer acceptance,” says Elhaji.

“Most consumers in emerging markets are used to traditional concrete
structures. It is very difficult to make them change from this to a new product
like a steel frame.”

Mostafa agrees. “Our product has been getting more local recognition
and acceptance lately. However, we understand that there is still a lot of work
to do until the natural resistance to change is completely overcome.” He does feel,
however, that with an ongoing pressure on contractors and consumers to go green,
the market is on track for a transformation.

“It is clear to us that construction markets across the Middle East are moving towards more modern methods of construction
and ‘greener’ buildings. This strong movement comes as more government regulations
are enforced each year.

“We expect these new regulations will start to pressurise developers,
contractors, architects and consultants into adopting more advanced and environmently-friendly
practices and designs.

“Consumers will also push for higher quality and more comfortable
buildings at the end of the day, which will also increase the demand for new technologies,
non-traditional building products and smart systems,” concludes Mostafa.

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