Steel frames have not traditionally been seen as a multistorey construction method but their share of the market is rising.Midlands-based manufacturer Metsec is already in on the action.Company director Erle Andrews puts Joanna Booth in the picture
'THERE is the potential for steel framing to replace blockwork, ' says Erle Andrews.'Anywhere blockwork is used, load-bearing steel framing can carry out at least an equivalent, if not superior function.'
The Metsec director is convinced that the steel framing market can grow exponentially if designers can be persuaded that the method is up to the job.
Metsec uses its steel sections to form load-bearing panels, either for infill walls or to create complete stand-alone buildings.
Bracing straps are used to square up panels and sheer walls transfer the load through to the ground.
Its light galvanised steel system has been used on a variety of projects, from the redevelopment of Woolwich Arsenal to the construction of the Royal National Lifeboat Association headquarters in Poole, Dorset.
But it is in the residential sector, particularly apartment buildings, that Mr Andrews sees the greatest potential for growth.
He says: 'Land is increasingly scarce in town centres and the best return on investment on a brownfield site is a block of expensive apartments. It's obvious that building contractors haven't discovered a really good system for constructing them.
Traditional build is slow and difficult, and timber frames have a perennial problem in that they can keep moving with timber shrinkage, which can affect the quality of the building.There has been a real move towards steel.'
When Mr Andrews joined the firm in 1994 the framing system's future was on the line.Although it had seen some success in the 1980s, the recession at the tail-end of the decade saw it sputter out.
'Nobody wanted fast-track build, ' he recalls - 'just the cheapest possible method. I got the job of deciding whether there really was a market for the system.We've worked hard to reengineer it and make it efficient.'
Although roll-forming is usually associated with producing large quantities of the same product, Mr Andrews says the secret of breaking the framing market early on was the ability to make small quantities of different sections.
Linking design and detail through to construction is also vital.
Metsec has its own design team in the office. It uses a basic Strucad system but with individually tailored adaptations to speed up the process.
The computer programme takes customers' architectural drawings and strips out the info into a basic layout, generating panel, arrangement, erection drawings and materials lists.
Metsec has an approved range of contractors countrywide to erect its steelwork, so that it can give clients a guarantee that the system can be built within the required time span.
Turnover for the company's framing system is approaching £10 million and Mr Andrews believes there is room for enormous expansion.
'It's a young market that we're very committed to.We have a sales force dedicated solely to the framing market and we've spent the past few years getting BRE certification for the system. It gives us product differentiation.You get cheap copies in any market, whether it's cars or perfume. Construction is no different.'
After a management buyout in 1981, half the original factory was torn down to keep the company afloat.Adding to the 25,000 sq m of remaining factory and plants on two other sites, a new 8,000 sq m building was constructed in 2000 and became operational by the end of 2003.Next year the firm will open two new factory lines.
Metsec has kept track of its efficiency by dividing the amount of steel it delivers into hours worked. In 1998 it was working at a rate of 200 kilos per hour.The rate has now doubled to 400.
Currently operating at a rate of 100,000 tonnes of steel a year, Metsec predominantly uses galvanised substrate with a small proportion of black steel. It sources material from steelmakers Corus and Arcelor, despite the fact Metsec is owned by Voestalpine, an Austrian steel manufacturer, because the latter caters specifically for the automotive and rail industries.
Due to steel price rises, Metsec currently holds two weeks' supply in advance, instead of its usual five days. But Mr Andrews thinks there will not be problems with steel shortages.
'From the front end we should have no long-term issues. It's a problem of distribution, not shortage.The threat from China has already diminished - there are sufficient deposits of ore in Russia, Brazil or China itself for the next year or two - which gives the UK time to build extra ships if we need them to import.'
According to Mr Andrews price rises seem to have stimulated the market.
'Earlier this year I saw increases in the steel market which I put down to people bringing projects forward to beat the prices increases. I've been surprised by how it has been sustained all year and our market intelligence suggests, while there will be some easing, it will stay strong.Our customers are putting in orders.'