April 7, 2010
As Earthquakes Rattle Globe, Interest In Steel Rises

Long after the dead have been counted and the world’s attention has moved on, the terrible testimony of an earthquake can still be seen in the piles of twisted metal and chunks of concrete — often all that is left of a region’s buildings.

As a horrified public has seen in Chile and Haiti, most of the hundreds or thousands of victims were killed or left homeless because of poor construction materials and building methods. And Roger Bilham, a seismologist at the University of Colorado, was quoted last week saying that the planet’s booming population faced an “unrecognized weapon of mass destruction: houses.”

Now, an industry organization is trying to focus attention on its familiar product — steel — as a potential life saver.

“If Haiti had more buildings done to the right standards, they could have withstood the earthquake,” said Scott Chubbs, program director of Living Steel, a consortium of companies like Tata and ArcelorMittal that is promoting steel for residential construction.

The five-year-old program, managed by the World Steel Association, has spent almost $20 million on projects of that kind.

“An aid agency in Haiti has already contacted us, and our architects, the U.K. company Cartwright Pickard, are already working on a design using the latest in steel technology,” Mr. Chubbs said.

“We are looking at the design of transitional housing for Haiti, and it is likely that, if we realize anything there, it will be through one of our member companies,” he said. “There is no doubt Haiti will be much better off with buildings made of steel, but the challenge is: Where does the money come from?”

Steel already is being used in other rebuilding efforts. In China, after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 that killed at least 68,000 people, the Chinese government “came to Baosteel, one of the biggest steel companies in China, and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to supply us with housing units.”’ Mr. Chubb said.

As Baosteel is involved with the Living Steel effort, the Chinese steel company began manufacturing the NovoHouse, a two-story steel-frame home designed by Cartwright Pickard. Even the walls are made of two thin sheets of steel, with a central layer of insulation.

Two NovoHouses have been erected in the mountain village of Hongkou, in the Dujiangyan Province of China, right on an earthquake fault line. They house farming families whose homes were wrecked in the Sichuan quake.

“The families wanted their new homes to look like a mountain house from the Canadian Rockies or the Swiss Alps,” says Mr. Chubbs, “so they and the steel company added local materials such as brick, wood or straw bales for cladding and used the roof tiles from their old homes.”

If there is another earthquake, he said, “The materials may be swept away but the steel structure will remain intact.”

A total of 40 houses are planned for the entire region; 20 are being assembled now. The design is not cheaper than traditional construction but, Mr. Chubbs said, it is “competitive in the lower end of the market, with prices working out at 1,300 to 1,400 renminbi a square meter,” or $17.75 to $19 a square foot.

“There are cheaper houses using traditional materials, but they won’t have the same fit and finish and the engineering as these steel houses and, remember, they have been designed to withstand earthquakes in a way that houses built 30, 40, 50 years ago would not,” he said.

Steel has a history of residential use. In the mid-1800s, for example, steel homes were shipped from Britain to new settlements in Australia — and some are still standing. And in the 1920s, the U.S. retailer Sears Roebuck offered steel homes for sale through its mail-order catalogue.

In a similar style, the NovoHouse was designed to be assembled with simple tools by people without building skills. Also, it is fabricated in sections that weigh no more than 450 kilograms, or 995 pounds, light enough to be transported in a small boat or by donkey.

Steel also was used to frame the 12 buildings at the Happiness Garden Project, a development of 1,300 apartments spread across 35 hectares, or 83 acres, in Dujiangyan City.

The Baosteel framing was similar to that used in the NovoHouse, although these buildings range from six to 18 stories high. About 800 people already have moved into the development, which is expected to house a total of 1,300 families when it is completed in April.

Despite the showcase projects, most Chinese continue to prefer the country’s traditional building materials, concrete and brick. Steel is “a very young market and hasn’t had a chance to really grow,” Mr. Chubbs said. “In the grand scheme of the Chinese market, steel buildings make up maybe less than 1 percent. It is even less in India.”

Pierre Bourrier, a consultant to the steel industry, who himself owns a steel house in Avignon, France, says: “Less than 3,000 steel homes are built in the world every year, which means the market is very fragmented.”

But, he argued, a combination of economic pressures and technological advances would increase demand. “Steel production has reached saturation with the decline of the automotive industry and the need to find a new market,” he said. “More than half of steel production now goes into the construction of bridges, factories, commercial malls and so on — but the share of residential is still very low.

“It used to be more difficult to build in steel than in concrete blocks, for instance. You needed lots of skill,” he said. “Now we have become more efficient manufacturing light elements for residential use which can easily be put together. The steel units arrive on site with the shapes already done so all you need is a Black and Decker power drill.

“The material is recycled from tin cans, old cars, refrigerators, anything — so it is also sustainable. Two tons of steel will build a 1,000-square-foot building.”

While designs like the NovoHouse are intended for the lower end of the real estate market, Mr. Bourrier wants to see both the development of steel meet housing shortages and also appeal to the wealthy.

“Andre Agassi has an elegant steel house in Nevada,” he said. “It is my passion to develop steel houses designed by well-known architects and use the technology in a more popular way.”

Living Steel also is involved in a number of other projects. In Calcutta, a top-end apartment project is being built with a steel frame, a skin of perforated steel and a steel and concrete hybrid mixture for the flooring. And in North London, Cartwright Pickard designed the Murray Grove apartment project, what Mr. Chubbs described as “a pre-fab with some artistic style and architectural flair.”

Source: The New York Times, March 12, 2010
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