Build­ing lighter and faster de­liv­ers an edge

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Steel -

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.

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