Steel: The Material of Choice

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Structural steel is the leading structural framing material for buildings in the United States, with a 50 percent market share for non-residential and multi-story residential construction, writes Bob Kruhm in a comprehensive editorial feature.

The American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) estimates 2015 industry employment to be in the range of 160,000 to 170,000 individuals with revenues in excess of 20 billion dollars. North Carolina accounts for approximately 2.9 percent of the structural steel consumption represented in buildings and industrial projects.

Benefits of Steel

The best way to recognize the benefits that structural steel brings to a project is to simply ask the question, “If I could develop a material that would best satisfy the requirements for building construction, what would it be like?” The answer would be that it would:

  • be the benchmark against which all other materials are compared
  • be strong in both compression and tension
  • be sustainable in every sense of the word
  • be shop fabricated for enhanced productivity and high tolerances
  • allow for the opportunity to optimize cost and schedule through integrating the design and construction process
  • be easily erected in the field allowing for straight forward integration with other building systems
  • allow for the acceleration of project schedules
  • easily handle future field modifications to adapt to changing building requirements
  • be cost effective
  • drive improved industry productivity
  • be aesthetically pleasing
  • allow for ease of design, yet be able to handle innovative design approaches.
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Fortunately, it is not necessary to develop a new building material. Structural steel effectively addresses each of those desires. The selection of structural steel for a building’s framing system brings numerous benefits to a project. All other materials are measured against the standard of structural steel and structural steel is still the material of choice..

All other materials are measured against the standard of structural steel – strength, design flexibility, cost – and structural steel is still the material of choice.

High Strength

All other materials talk about high strength, but their strength is still less than that of structural steel even when enhanced by steel reinforcing. In fact, the increase in the standard strength of steel used in buildings today compared to 10 years ago is greater than the total strength of competing “high strength” materials.


Structural steel is the most recycled material on earth – today’s structural steel is made of 95% recycled product, is fully recyclable in the future and can be reused without further

Speed of Construction

Productivity increases in the construction industry have lagged behind all other industries. Productivity enhancements for construction will occur not in labor based field activities, but in shop based technology enhancements. Structural steel can enhance construction productivity because of its shop fabrication while maintaining high construction tolerances. Field placed material will always lag behind the productivity curve.

Technology exists today to allow the close cooperation between designers and steel specialty contractors in the design, fabrication and erection of building structures. This technology allows designs to save both time and dollars in the construction process by integrating fabricating and erection efficiencies in the design and passing design models between analysis, detailing and fabricating operations. This is a process unique to structural steel that often generates savings in excess of recent material cost increases.

Rapid erection in all seasons with close tolerances being maintained for integration with other building systems and minimal construction site waste is achievable only with structural steel.


Other materials may be able to start field work sooner, but the rapid design, fabrication and erection cycle with structural steel will allow the framing system to finish sooner and be available earlier to other trades.

Structural steel buildings can be modified in the future for new applications, loading conditions, vertical expansions and changes in owner desires in ways that other framing systems can never accomplish.

Lower Project Costs

Today, when competing framing systems are evaluated for projects using comparable, current cost data, structural steel remains the cost leader for the majority of construction projects. And that is not surprising; structural steel has remained the cost leader for construction materials over the years.

Today a ton of structural steel requires substantially less than a single man-hour. While not as dramatic, similar productivity enhancements have impacted the cost of detailing and fabrication. The end result is that the structural steel component of the construction industry is one of the few segments where significant productivity increases have occurred.

Dave Schulz, vice-president of Schulz Iron Works, Raleigh, NC, agrees steel is the cost leader over concrete and wood framing for non-residential building construction in the North Carolina market. He cited several projects at North Hills and the Wake Med main campus in Raleigh.

Schulz Iron Works, a structural steel fabricator and erector, was publicly recognized last month for contributions to the new “fast-track” Green Elementary School project on Six Forks Road. “Our fabricators collaborated with the architect, engineers and general contractor to deliver the school on time and under budget,” said Schulz.

Charlotte-based steel fabricator SteelFab, Inc. is currently participating in two new projects being built in the Charlotte region, LPL Financial plans to relocate about 1,000 Charlotte workers and build a new headquarters building in Fort Mills, SC. The project will require 3,309 tons of steel. A second large project that SteelFab is work on is the Sealed Air new corporate campus relocating from New Jersey to Charlotte, NC. The Sealed Air project will use 1959 tons of steel.

SteelFab’s sales manager Marsh Spencer says 2015 has been a busy year for his company with many large scale” he says.

Buckner Companies Chairman of the Board Eddie Williams says 2015 promises to be one of the steel industry’s best years since the ending of the Great Recession. “We are in the process of increasing our workforce to meet the increased demand for structural steel work,” Williams says.

Buckner hosted more than 200 students, teachers and steel industry stakeholders at a SteelDay event being held at the company’s headquarters on Sept. 25. The open house is designed to show area high school and university students how steel contributes to building America.

“The average age of construction workers in the US is 40,” says Kevin Leonard, Buckner’s training director. “We need to attract young people to the career opportunities in steel and construction,” he adds.

Buckner also sponsored the North Carolina Construction Career Day at the Cabarrus Arena on Oct. 7 in Concord. The Graham-based steel erector conducted rigging demonstrations at the statewide event designed to introduce students to vocation opportunities.

Design Flexibility

Dillon Supply Company’s director of sales and marketing Arnold Chatelier praises the multiple uses of steel. The NC-based Steel Service Center houses extensive inventories of carbon steel, alloys and stainless steel products. “Whether it’s a small ornamental iron working shop or a large structural steel fabricator, we accommodate a wide range of steel-related applications,” Chatelier said.

Architects applaud the natural beauty of steel and are excited about exposing it in the design of their structures to emphasize grace, slenderness, strength and transparency of frame. And structural steel remains the most desirable material for the structural engineer to design in. Tools for structural steel design abound and are a quantum step ahead of tools for other systems.

From the simplest, functional structure to the complex, signature design structural steel can be readily used to accomplish the design intent of the architect and structural engineer. No other framing material comes close to structural steel in the ability to encourage freedom of expression and design creativity.

Ross Allbritton, the AISC’s industry mobilization manager, says: “The key to success with steel is to engage the fabricator in the project team early in the life of the project..”

SteelFab’s Spencer agrees. “The steel fabricator should be brought on board early to assure good communication amongst architects, engineers, and developer. Expectations need to be agreed upon early with regards to schedule and costing of projects to assure everyone is pleased with final results,” says Spencer.

Fabricated structural steel is not a commodity item that is mass produced for use in a variety of different projects. It is a specialty item that is custom produced for each project. “Optimizing that process is highly dependent on integrating the expertise of the fabricator early into the project design decisions and coordination with other trades,” adds Allbritton. “The key is early communications.”

AISC sponsors the IDEAS2 (Innovative Design in Engineering and Architecture with Structural Steel) competition drawing entries from throughout the United States of recently completed structural steel projects. The range of submissions highlights the innovation and creativity of project architects, contractors and structural engineers in their use of structural steel. For the latest and greatest innovations, to add to the AISC list, or to learn more about how to use them on your next project, visit

Full integration between analysis, design, detailing and fabricating software is in use today. This innovative blending of technology is not just for simple boxes, but also for complex structures requiring innovative design approaches and the cost saving techniques of 3-D modeling with full steel specialty contractor involvement in the design process.
It is not necessary to dream about developing the ideal construction material. The indispensable material of choice remains- structural steel.