Steel – an underestimated construction material with a great deal of potential.

Steel – an underestimated construction material with a great deal of potential.
1 November 2018, Alexis Leuthold. in discussion with Patric Fischli-Boson.

Steel – an underestimated construction material with a great deal of potential.

The Stahlbau Zentrum Schweiz SZS association has awarded the SBB, as part of the «Swiss Prix Acier steel construction award», for the construction of the axlebox bearing of the SBB repair center in Zurich Altstetten and the new arrivals hall at St. Gallen station, this year. Each year, SBB uses tons of steel for projects including contact lines and rails, putting it among the largest consumers of the material in Switzerland.

However, the use of steel when constructing buildings is still not very common practice, even though the material scores highly in the sustainability and efficiency departments, as well as mainly more. I discussed what other potential steel can offer and what challenges go hand in hand with steel constructions with Patric Fischli-Boson, head of the office of the Stahlbau Zentrum Schweiz SZS association.

There are hardly any well-known steel structures in Switzerland. Why is that?

In Switzerland, a long-standing tradition of concrete construction has been established and has developed into the standard technique, which is why the material has also been used to create many iconic buildings. The steel and timber construction industries have always occupied a special niche and are trying to secure this place with innovative approaches.

Without naming individual architects, you can’t avoid the Solothurner Schule when it comes to steel construction in Switzerland. Modern steel construction, however, is based less on a modularised construction method and more on a systemic hybrid approach.

The frequently stated technical disadvantages of steel construction such as fire safety and structural physics are a result of a lack of education in steel construction at universities. A counterexample example is the UK, where around 70 percent of buildings are constructed using steel. The UK also has fire safety requirements and usability and comfort criteria, which can also be met by buildings made of steel; steel construction does not present any technical barriers. It is a different building technique and thus a different construction culture.

What is being done to counter these disadvantages?

On the one hand, we are trying to support planners with technical aids, making the barriers to the construction method as low as possible. On the other, we are focusing on the architects responsible for designing, who often decide on the material. We are trying to arouse interest in the construction method with publications by and for architects as well as architectural competitions. We are pursuing a discursive approach, turning to critical and analytical architects to do so.

In what way does steel construction offer advantages over other construction methods?

The benefits of steel construction are clear in traditional areas of application, where support structures with a wide span bearing heavy loads are the focus. Steel also particularly shines in combination with other materials.

What does the future of steel construction look like to you?

The steel construction method and industry will change rapidly as a result of digitalisation. Like the previous industrial revolutions, these ones will create winners and losers. The industry is consistently adjusting itself to a digitalised construction method. This results in interesting innovations for developers and planners. In the past, the focus was on developing joints that were as universal as possible, which could be reused time and time again. Digitalisation means this repetition is no longer important, as each joint can be manufactured and installed individually with very little outlay. This factor can significantly influence the design of structures and make them more attractive.

Which future project are you currently dedicating most of your time to?

We are currently working on the possibilities offered by circular construction. This construction method focuses on reusing and recycling building structures. The linear way of thinking is being replaced by building in cycles. With “reduce”, “reuse”, “remanufacture” and “recycle” as mottos, steel – in combination with other materials – has the capacity to assume an important role in hybrid construction. In working groups and in cooperation with universities, we are developing the foundations for this and will present them to planners in a suitable form.

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Patric Fischli-Boson.
Patric Fischli-Boson.
Patric Fischli-Boson, who holds a degree in construction engineering, is an owner and partner at Büeler Fischli Bauingenieure GmbH. Besides this work, he has been heading up the office of the Stahlbau Zentrum Schweiz SZS association for five years now. He also teaches structural design and steel construction at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Winterthur and is a member of the scientific advisory board for the «Stahlbau» trade journal among other positions.

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