Special Report: Structural Steel Fabrication

Sustainable steel

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Four World Trade Center’s 72-story design called for an 80-ft. span that rested on only four columns.

As green building activity grows, industry leaders promote new project delivery method to foster communication across supply chain

March 2019 - History is full of parallels. Authors and filmmakers use them as tools to create context and anchor storylines. Drawing a historical parallel between past and present events can also bring a complex issue into sharper focus. Take the account of the Exodus, which happened somewhere around the second century B.C. Moses sent 12 spies into Canaan to explore the region and report back. Upon their return, the group agreed the land was “flowing with milk and honey.” But only two of the men advocated taking possession of it. The other 10 were afraid. As a result, the Israelites wandered in the desert for another 40 years before a new generation entered Canaan and reaped its benefits.

Back to the present, the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC), American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) and Steel Tube Institute have long discussed the advantages of including specialty contractors, like steel fabricators, in the design phase of a project.

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Completed in 2014, Four World Trade Center won the IDEAS2 Award in 2017 and made the top nine list of largest LEED-certified buildings in the U.S. in 2018.

But the effort, says AISC Consultant John Cross, has been like “Moses sending out the 12 spies. We understand the benefits of early involvement, but owners, designers and general contractors very often are like the 10 spies who were afraid. They are resistant to going down that path because they are afraid of not getting the lowest price for their project. So we, as an industry, are still wandering in the wilderness of the design-bid-build approach rather than reaping  the benefits of integrated project teams.”

The idea that the lowest bid means the lowest cost and the best value is one that these groups are working to dispel by fostering an environment of communication and transparency across the supply chain.

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Four World Trade Center was the first tall building to open on the 16-acre World Trade Center rebuilding site.

Environmental impact

“Sharing information and practicing transparency sets a project up for success in terms of profit gains, an accelerated construction schedule, higher quality and lower environmental impact,” says Cross.

Building with a smaller carbon footprint is still “very evolutionary,” despite steel’s reputation as a sustainable material.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) program and more recently the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) certification program support design standards for building projects with eco-friendly goals.

Green building activity is projected to grow over the next three years. Last year, the council published the results of Dodge Data & Analytics’ World Green Building Trends 2018/SmartMarket Report. Two-thirds of survey participants said that using a rating system like LEED allows them to create a better-performing building.

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Rolling steel coils produced by ArcelorMittal.

“With more and more people demanding and expecting healthier places to live and work, more and more leaders around the globe are committing to green building, which is now a trillion-dollar industry,” said Mahesh Ramanujam, council president and CEO. “We need to get all buildings on a path to sustainability in order to raise the standard of living for all people around the world, regardless of their circumstances. And the results of this study show we are on the right path.”

Four World Trade Center in New York City and the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, Anaheim, California, are two high-profile examples of projects that received LEED certification. The Anaheim project earned an Innovative Design in Engineering and Architecture with Structural Steel (IDEAS2) award from AISC in 2015. Four World Trade Center won the same award in 2017.

To better understand how materials like steel and adopting a new project delivery model might affect supply chain management—and fabricators in particular—let us create a bird’s-eye view of the structural steel market.

The U.S. supplied fabricated and erected structural steel framing for more than 10,000 buildings, bridges and industrial facilities using a system of producers, service centers, steel fabricators and erectors in 2017. Electric-arc furnaces (EAF) use ferrous scrap as the primary feedstock to produce hot-rolled steel shapes. Hollow structural sections (HSS) are made with sheet steel processed in a basic oxygen furnace or EAF.

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Special bar quality (SBQ) steel bars and seamless mechanical tubing produced by TimkenSteel.

“Improvements in furnace technology have enhanced the formability of EAF-produced steel sheet, which is increasing the number of EAF-produced coils used in the production of steel tube,” says Joseph Anderson, executive director for the Steel Tube Institute. “As a result, more steel tube is being made from EAF-produced coils, increasing steel tube’s contribution to the recycled content in building projects.”

“Steel has long been considered the leading green construction material,” says Mark Thimons, vice-president of sustainability at the Steel Market Development Institute, a business unit of the AISI. “Steel has a high recycled content and end-of-recovery rate. When used in construction, steel contains between 25 and 100 percent recycled content, is nontoxic, noncombustible and creates minimal waste during production. It is 100 percent reusable or recyclable at end of life with no loss in performance. A steel beam can become another steel beam, a vegetable can or a car door.”

Since 1990, the iron and steel industry on a per-ton-basis has reduced carbon emissions by 37 percent and energy intensity by 32 percent. “The life cycle impact of domestic hot-rolled sections on global warming is about 1 ton of carbon dioxide,” says Thimons. “The same steel produced in China results in about 3 tons of carbon dioxide.  If you want to lower global warming potential, sourcing domestically produced steel is one way to do that.”

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Source: Steel Market Development Institute


An EPD provides full documentation of domestically produced and fabricated structural steel from cradle (mill processing stage) to gate (fabrication). Evaluations are based on industry average production data from AISC member steel mills and survey information obtained from almost 300 fabricators.

In 2016, AISC and the National Steel Bridge Alliance (NSBA) released the first EPDs for fabricated hot-rolled steel sections and fabricated steel plate. The organization also worked with the Steel Tube Institute to issue an EPD for fabricated HSS. EPDs must be submitted for products delivered to a job site to qualify for credits under the LEED v4 point-based system and satisfy green building criteria.

In a traditional structural steel supply chain, a typical design-bid-build approach begins with the architect who delivers a layout to the structural engineer [designer].  The detailer in turn provides drawings to the fabricator, which sources steel from producers and service centers. Once steel is cut and processed, the building materials are shipped to the erector at the job site.

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Above: Completed in 2014, the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center won the 2015 IDEAS2 Award and became the first Platinum LEED certified transportation hub.

Below: The 67,000-sq.-ft., three-story terminal features a steel-framed tubular structure.

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There are more than 1,700 steel fabricators in the U.S. supplying fabricated structural steel for building and bridge projects. Of that number, 965 are AISC members. The typical steel fabricator is a family-owned business employing from 10 to 100 workers. Approximately 65 percent of material flows through service centers to fabricators. Specialty contractors source the rest mill direct.

“For designers, working with steel products covered by an EPD is a positive because they know the environmental impacts of the product,” notes Thimons.

To optimize a project, designers and engineers must work closely with the fabricator. But it’s not just about specifying material with EPDs.

“A lot of engineers understand the intricacies of fabrication,” says Brian Raff, director of communications and public affairs for AISC. “But some have never visited a manufacturing plant and may lack the perspective needed to understand how their designs can affect other links in the supply chain. For example, if an engineer is designing an office building, their structural analysis might tell them that they can select the lightest W16 steel wide-flange section [W16 X 26] for their infill beams. But given the load they have designed for, the beams would have to be cambered [or bent] to meet deflection requirements.”

Moving one size up would add 5 lbs. for every linear foot of beam, but it would eliminate the need for the fabricator to bend each beam, which is labor intensive. “Material costs might be a fraction higher, but the savings the owner would realize would be vastly greater,” says Raff.

AISC is working to encourage collaboration by conducting seminars it calls Early Involvement and Marketing Bootcamp for the structural steel industry. The workshops teach fabricators how to position their company to “get a seat at the table as a contributor in the decision-making process.”

“We kicked off the most recent round of sessions in November 2016,” says Luke Johnson, senior Steel Solutions Center advisor at Chicago-based AISC. The effort has targeted 15 cities.

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Source: Steel Market Development Institute


Ted Hazledine, president of Benchmark Fabricated Steel in Terre Haute, Indiana, attended each of AISC’s Early Involvement events and is a longtime member of the organization.

Steel beams, columns, braces, joists, miscellaneous metals, and roof and floor decking are just a few of the products Benchmark supplies, including structural hollow core planks, precast walls and architecturally exposed structural steel. The company also performs design and erection.

“When we fabricators get involved early in the design process, we stand a much better chance of arriving at appropriate sustainability goals than if it were just a conventional design-bid-build mechanism,” says Hazledine. “All that does is create issues that everyone has to tackle as the project unfolds. But if you can deal with potential challenges up front, they become non-issues. It has to start with collaboration.”

The number of change orders issued can be one indicator of extra expenses piling up due to rework.

“It doesn’t mean you won’t have problems but, if you don’t have change orders, that’s a positive sign you’re moving in the right direction,” Hazledine notes. “The only way to do this is to have informed, capable representatives of each element of the construction process who are smart enough to bring potential problems up before they have a chance to surface.”

The Early Involvement workshops illustrate the various levels of involvement and show how fabricators work and what they need. In addition to collaboration and transparency, trust is a key building block.

“It is helpful to have an engaged owner who is transparent about project goals and objectives because the owner is the most important component of the project,” Hazledine says. “For the fabricator, that means checking your ego at the door and understanding how the product you provide fits in with everything else that comes before and after you. It’s also important to communicate with confidence that you are doing what is best for the project—not necessarily the cheapest and easiest.”

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Ted Hazledine, center, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from AISC in 2017. He is flanked by James Thompson, left, who chairs  AISC’s board of directors, and AISC President Charles Carter.

Companies can always find a vendor that can deliver cheaper goods and services, but “that’s where you can get into serious trouble.” This is a recurrent problem industrywide and another reason to promote inclusion of steel fabricators in the design process.

“If the design and details are not right, the installation won’t be right,” says Hazledine. “When we show up on a job site, we inspect things like the location of anchor bolts. This is fundamental. If the anchor bolts are not in the right place, we don’t have a prayer. That’s why we include an anchor bolt survey as part of our services. We want to make sure we are moving forward with the dimensions we expect when we show up in the field.”

Benchmark Fabricated Steel sets expectations with customers up front by asking the right questions and listening to the answers. Understanding what the customer wants to build and how the structure will be used is critical. The fabricator explores limitations with the customer, as well.

“We find out if a geotechnical survey has been completed; which [building] codes we’ll have to work with; what options are available to achieve the geometry the customer wants; cost, schedule, quality—the gamut,” Hazledine says. “Any company that goes into a construction process with no understanding of these elements is doomed to fail. If your focus is solely on creating a drawing, good luck.”

Hazledine grew up in metalworking and has 53 years of experience in the industry. Benchmark Fabricated Steel is a case study for other fabricators that want to move the use of sustainable steel forward. “The industry is committed to lowering environmental impacts,” says Cross. “We know how to do it by optimizing the design of the project, but those benefits are only available when the fabricator gets involved early.”

Hazledine observes another benefit of sitting around a table with a cadre of properly selected design and construction pros and an owner who is engaged and understands the process. “When there is trust, the magic of collaboration can achieve incredible results in quality and performance in every aspect of the project.” FFJ

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