IT IS fitting that Alan Todd, general manager for the construction wing of Corus, is presented with a baguette the size of a breeze block by the waiter at The Landmark Hotel in London. You wouldn't expect a man who has devoted his working life to the dynamics of skyscrapers to bother with a Caesar salad, would you?
It was working on sports stadiums that really galvanised Mr Todd's desire to work with steel. He was involved with highprofile jobs including Nottingham Forest and Millwall's football grounds and Murrayfield and Ibrox, the homes of Scottish rugby and Glasgow Rangers respectively.
'The roots of sports stadia are in steel. They are deeply iconic buildings. I was at Twickenham last week for the England Argentina match - it's just a fantastic stadium. Most of the stadia these days have steel roofs, whether it's fancy tubular steel or the more traditional steel that I'm used to from my consultancy days.'
Corus still sells a lot of steel to stadium projects. But has so much changed since he was a consultant?
'I guess general consultants have to be fairly wide in their material knowledge. The debate we often have with people is whether they're going to go for concrete or steel on the terraces.'
Mr Todd believes the major concrete manufacturers would like to think they are gaining ground on steel.
'I don't want to put words in their mouths but I don't think they are particularly. I guess they are concentrating on residential.' According to Mr Todd the residential side of things has seen major market growth, largely due to the high number of apartment buildings. According to Mr Todd this is 'probably' the one building market in which concrete has a higher share than structural steel.
'If you went back about five years there was probably no structural steel being used in residential at all. The apartment sector of residential has grown about five-fold in so many years and that means, by definition, concrete has increased with it.
I guess my point would be it has not increased its share. The share has actually reduced because steel has taken some of the market from it.'
Mr Todd says the market is very buoyant in steel construction generally. The commercial sector is on the up again and for industrial, structural steel has about a 95 per cent share of the market. For commercial work the figure it is '70 per cent or even higher', he adds.
So how do you maintain such a high share?
'It entails continuous development because the concrete guys don't stand still. I must admit my one criticism of them is I don't see much technical development going on. They seem to be concentrating on the marketing message rather than the hardedged technical development that tends to win over the specification chain.'
After a relative slump of 20 years Mr Todd has noticed the industrial sector is now picking up, mainly thanks to the proliferation of warehouses.
He says: 'If you look at the industrial sector it consists of warehouses on one side and factories on the other. Certainly now, you'll tend to f ind with warehousing jobs, they are bigger than the factory jobs because we make less and import more in the UK. I guess it's a sort of Japanese approach because of land shortages. The big industrial developers have decided it works economically to build higher because the price of land in the UK is increasing. So you're getting a huge warehouses being built with lorries going in at different levels to load and unload.'
In terms of public sector projects, education, what with all the Government money earmarked for the Building Schools for the Future initiative, is an increasingly important sector for Corus.
'The Scottish education sector has been on an increase for a longer time, ' says Mr Todd. 'In England and Wales it's just beginning in many respects.'
He claims that the use of structural steel frames probably makes up a 70 per cent share of the secondary education market.
For the residential and health sectors Corus's strategy is to try and grow steel use by identifying the technical issues in those markets. He says that Corus will then find its own steel-based solutions.
'In resident ial it tends to be a case of convincing arch itects and contractors that steel can handle the acoustic issues, ' he says. 'Without being complacent about it, structural steel has become the first choice in most sectors, probably with the exception of residential, which we're trying to do something about.'
The healthcare sector, where historically concrete would have been the preferred material for hospitals and clinics, is also generating a lot of interest for Corus.
'You tend to find that when a mater ial has had more of a foothold, there are usually one or two key technical reasons for it. If you look at hospitals, the key reason for people tending to favour concrete is the perception about vibration performance of steel against concrete. We have done a huge amount of research and it has shown that steel, even with long spans, is capable of meeting the stringent NHS criteria for vibration.'
According to Mr Todd more than 50 per cent of new hospitals are now being built with steel. And, because steel is so dominant in other areas, main contractors are specifying it if the technical argument exists for them to do so.
The UK market is the number one priority for Corus, particularly on the construction side, but Mr Todd also classes north-west Europe as a core market. The company also sells to the Middle and Far East, and to North America.
'Because construction is so buoyant in the UK and steel construction is buoyant as well, probably more than ever most of our structural steel is being used in the UK, ' he says.
In fact, if the UK is exceptionally buoyant he will make the necessary alterations with production to support the UK market, even if that means reducing sales to overseas markets.
Mr Todd believes the late '80s was the last time the market in general was as favourable as it is now. He claims that in 2005 the use of structural steel was higher than it has ever been and he hints that the results for 2006 will be higher still.
When looking at how Corus is going to grow its construction business through innovation, Mr Todd says that Corefast is the product he is particularly excited about. It is designed for your average 20-storey building for which you would tend to go for a concrete core for the lifts and stairwells and a steel frame around it for the floors. Corefast is a two-plate steel system filled with concrete, which, Mr Todd insists, can be built very quickly.
He says that for this reason it has been getting a lot of interest.
'I think cost is not the only measure of a project.
Most clients, developers, engineers and contractors are looking much more closely at things like speed of construction and predictability.'
With the London Olympics not too far off Mr Todd is realistic about the opportunities it will afford but confident in the optimism it will generate and the other projects that will spin off. 'In building terms Olympic Park is probably no bigger than Heathrow Terminal 5 as a project, ' he says.
'But the optimism has helped to drive the commercial market.
The opportunity that arises with the Olympic village is to showcase what steel can do in residential construction, and that may be a catalyst for how the developers look at the whole of the Thames Gateway.'