Construction is one of the most important steel-using industries, accounting for more than 50% of world steel demand.
Buildings – from houses to car-parks to schools and skyscrapers – rely on steel for their strength. Steel is also used on roofs and as cladding for exterior walls.
The world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion persons in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050, according to a new United Nations report launched in 2019.
This will be accompanied by rapid urbanisation. As the need for buildings and infrastructure continues to grow worldwide, reducing consumption of natural resources and associated emissions is crucial for future sustainability.
Whilst the operation of buildings accounts for 28% of global CO2 emissions (cf. footnote below), they also present many opportunities for reducing emissions and mitigating climate change.
Steelmakers around the world are increasingly providing construction solutions that enable energy-efficient and low-carbon-neutral buildings. For example in the HAMK Sheet Metal Centre (Finland) – a near Zero Energy Building (nZEB), steel solutions brought down the cost of electricity and district heating to €5,200 per annum from €12,400 (reference building).
Not only is steel affordable, readily available and safer, its intrinsic properties, such as strength, versatility, durability and 100% recyclability allow for improved environmental performance across the entire life cycle of buildings.
The advanced high-strength steels used in steel-plate applications also find uses in a number of related industries. Offshore oil rigs, bridges, civil engineering and construction machines, rail carriages, tanks and pressure vessels, nuclear, thermal and hydroelectric plants – all these applications benefit from the attributes of modern steels.
How steel is used in buildings and infrastructure
The possibilities for using steel in buildings and infrastructure are limitless. The most common applications are listed below.
- Structural sections: these provide a strong, stiff frame for the building and make up 25% of the steel use in buildings.
- Reinforcing bars: these add tensile strength and stiffness to concrete and make up 44% of steel use in buildings. Steel is used because it binds well to concrete, has a similar thermal expansion coefficient and is strong and relatively cost-effective. Reinforced concrete is also used to provide deep foundations and basements and is currently the world’s primary building material.
- Sheet products: 31% is in sheet products such as roofing, purlins, internal walls, ceilings, cladding, and insulating panels for exterior walls.
- Non-structural steel: steel is also found in many non-structural applications in buildings, such as heating and cooling equipment and interior ducting.
- Internal fixtures and fittings such as rails, shelving and stairs are also made of steel.
- Transport networks: steel is required for bridges, tunnels, rail track and in constructing buildings such as fueling stations, train stations, ports and airports. About 60% of steel use in this application is as rebar and the rest is sections, plates and rail track.
- Utilities (fuel, water, power): over 50% of the steel used for this application is in underground pipelines to distribute water to and from housing, and to distribute gas. The rest is mainly rebar for power stations and pumping houses.
 Buildings are currently responsible for 39% of global energy related carbon emissions: 28% from operational emissions, from energy needed to heat, cool and power them, and the remaining 11% from materials and construction. (https://www.worldgbc.org/embodied-carbon)
Benefits of using steel in construction
- Is reusable and endlessly recyclable.
- Contains at least 25% recycled steel. (1)
- Enables energy efficiency in buildings and construction projects.
- Strong, requiring fewer beams and providing more usable open space.
- Light, requiring reduced foundations.
- Less material implies resource saving and a lesser impact on the environment.
- Flexible in combination with other materials.
- Earthquake resistant due to steel’s ductility.
- Fast on-site build for prefabricated buildings.
(1) Steel Recycling Institute (www.steelsustainability.org/-/media/recycling-resources/steel-sustainable-material-building-construction.ashx)
Did you know?
Steel structures can better withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes, storms, flooding keeping communities safer in environments vulnerable to climate change.