Green Living

Building with steel

While it is very common to see public buildings with structural steel in the U.S. and Europe, we hardly see them in India.  

During the recent decades, our society has been continuously experimenting with newer materials and construction alternatives. Sometimes it is to solve a problem, often to derive benefits like monetary savings, occasionally to strive for a greener future or could be to explore a personal thought. Not all have led to replicable ideas, but this impulse to explore is important to us today. Sometimes, we have simply tried out a foreign practice, like concrete technology, which came from Europe in a big way after our independence. Within half a century, it has swept across India, shifting the way we built for centuries.

Among such imported ideas, building with steel is trying to find a foothold in India today. While it is very common to see a public building with structural steel in the U.S. and Europe, we hardly see them here with the exceptions of industries and temporary shelters, despite India being the third largest producer of steel in the world. Of course, we use steel in the construction process, as in reinforced concrete or an occasional beam but the whole building is not made with structural steel columns, beams, floor plates, staircase supports and such others.

Positives

Once finished with infill walls, external cladding, flooring materials, paint finish, doors and windows, only a subject expert may identify a steel building. As a technology, it is much faster than any other existing approaches, offering a wide choice of material finishes. The material gives it greater fire safety, while making it easy for future maintenance and alterations. Yet, why are steel buildings not common in India?

The primary reason is cost, where all the above advantages come at a price not always worth, unless we are building in a congested city centre a commercial property with high site value. Return of investment is emerging as an overriding criterion in our construction industry. Steel structures demand greater precision than those built with masonry or concrete frame, which cannot be guaranteed by all contractors.

Uninterrupted power supply, ease of transporting long steel sections to sites, large storage space for site materials and such others are related prerequisites for building with steel.

In the Indian context, can we term steel structures as eco-friendly? They come with some green parameters including the few cited above, but on overall count, steel buildings tend to fall short.

The embodied energy consumed by steel buildings is high mainly due to steel itself and partly due to increased use of manufactured and transported materials. Construction demands lot of electricity, produces wastage or joining multiple materials may not get done well affecting occupancy performance.

There could be more arguments against steel buildings, but in the urbanising India, there would be more of them in future, especially where factors weighing against them like cost and energy may appear less important than site value or project period. All that we can hope for is as steel buildings get more common, the steel technology gets greener.

(The author is an architect working on eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at varanashi@gmail.com)

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Printable version | Nov 15, 2020 5:00:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/homes-and-gardens/green-living/building-with-steel/article6574602.ece

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