Building lighter and faster delivers an edge
I N the nursery rhyme, you could build your house of straw, timber of bricks. But none of these will do if you want to build an office tower: your only options are steel or concrete. About 87 per cent of Australian tower buildings are built of concrete and only about 13 per cent of steel.
Why? Mostly habit and historical chance, but that is changing.
You’d think that with the cost of iron ore up 70 per cent since Christmas, and coking coal ( essential for making steel) 200 per cent dearer, this would not be a good time to try to convert Australians to building with steel.
No so, says Mark Sgaravizzi, founder and owner of Sydney- based Sebastian Engineering. Steel fabricators such as Sgaravizzi are making steel buildings more competitive — on price, on speed of construction, on green credentials and on re- usability.
Ten years ago in Britain, steel building comprised only 12 per cent of the market. Now it’s 72 per cent, and Australia is heading the same way,’’ Sgaravizzi says.
In Australia, steel used to be uncompetitive — the manpower required for manual fabrication priced it out of the market, so builders used concrete. It is their comfort zone,’’ Sgaravizzi says but concrete is not as appealing any more: the steel reinforcing used inside concrete has risen at a much faster rate than other kinds of steel and eroded the price differential. Steel has many advantages. I want people to see how it’s a better option.’’
A steel building, he admits, is still about 10 per cent dearer to build than a concrete one. But steel buildings can go up three times faster than concrete ones - so tenants can be in sooner’’, and the short construction time means all materials can be bought outright at the beginning rather than risking price rises during construction, which ruin the estimates for a job. Unforeseen cost rises during the life of a project can send a builder broke,’’ Sgaravizzi says.
To explain how steel saves more than money and time, Sgaravizzi says constructing a 40- storey tower in steel rather than concrete would require only 12- 14 men rather than 80 formworkers, and would eliminate 2500 concrete trucks from the city streets ( plus the dust and noise pollution).
Steel is also much lighter than concrete, and so requires vastly less work to be done on the lower levels of a building, a huge cost saving if a tower is being constructed upon an existing podium.
Sgaravizzi has used technology to increase his efficiency and cut costs and, while it was a very expensive outlay, it has paid off: Sebastian Engineering’s turnover is now $ 30 million and aiming for $ 100 million by 2011.
I started my steel fabrication business, using my credit card, 10 years ago and we were a three- man outfit. We won some Westfield contracts and within a couple of years I bit the bullet and decided to outlay a huge amount of money on buying computer numeric control ( CNP) equipment.’’
This is advanced technology which enables a fabricator to measure, stamp, cut and drill beams of steel to an exactitude according to the architect’s specifications.
It means everything on site fits. We have eliminated all the mistakes you get in manual fabrication. No time is wasted on the building site making adjustments, or waiting for correctly machined items to be replaced.
The outlay nearly bankrupted me, but now it is the source of the great growth the company has seen. Our Westfield jobs just keep doubling in size each time.’’
Sebastian Engineering produces about 350- 400 tonnes of steel beams a week and also processes another 250- 300 tonnes for merchants. With this sort of equipment, we can do a multi- story building in a matter of weeks. We can manufacture, fabricate, supply and erect a floor a week in any building.’’
Until the 1990s, Transfield dominated the market in Australia. There were no other majors: all other fabricators were mid- tier and they fed off Transfield. When it left the field, there was a gap into which Sgaravizzi stepped, and his company now dominates the market.
The cost benefits of this equipment are dramatic. We produce about half as much as Transfield did, but from a 400sqm factory compared with Transfield’s 80,000sqm, and use one- tenth the manpower.
And here’s a thing: steel is utterly recyclable. A beam of steel can have 12 more life cycles — 300 years — but with concrete, all you can do is crush it up once for road base. In Australia, 94 per cent of all steel is recycled,’
Sebastian Engineering has provided all the steel work for every Westfield development in the past 10 years and is now working on the Centrepoint tower in the Sydney CBD. The Sydney Broadway Shopping Centre development and the Kingsford Smith Airport suspension bridge are other Sebastian Engineering projects.
From Sgaravizzi’s point of view, the benefits of steel outweigh any rise in its price.