The bad news is that during the past year, the cost of raw structural steel has increased by more than 40 percent. And since mill prices make up about 30 percent of the cost of the entire steel package, that means the structural steel package has gone up about 12 percent.
The good news is that structural steel remains readily available from both steel mills and steel service centers. In fact, the domestic construction market could grow by more than 25 percent and wide flange materials would still be readily available. The even better news is that there are simple steps project managers and building owners can take to more than compensate for the increased cost of steel.
Involve a fabricator early to ensure an economical structure. While engineers can often employ rules-of-thumb to reduce the cost of a structural steel building, the most efficient way to ensure that you’re receiving the best value is to consult with a specialty steel contractor early in the design process. A study from the Construction Industry Institute, conducted in conjunction with Penn State, investigated 351 construction projects built between 1990 and 1995 and demonstrated that the most successful projects were those where specialty contractors were brought on board before any of the design was completed.
Don’t assume that least weight is always least cost. Many contractors evaluate project costs based solely on the weight of the framing members. While a common practice, in the long run it will cost an owner big bucks. In reality, even with the recent price increases in structural steel, the cost of fabrication and erection is still a greater percentage of the cost of the steel package than is the cost of the raw material. Therefore, reducing the weight of the steel while increasing fabrication or erection costs often ends up costing the owner money.
Encourage the use of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). A growing number of engineers and fabricators are working together to exchange design drawings electronically and work within a total 3-D project model. A common objection is that engineers need to spend slightly more time developing their design drawings up front. However, this results in a significant savings during the shop drawing review process, eliminating much of the revising and resubmitting. Studies by the American Institute of Steel Construction show the use of EDI can usually save more than 10 percent of the steel package and reduce the total project time by between four and 12 weeks.
Make sure you’re not paying for unnecessary paint and fire coatings. In most cases, there is no need to paint or prime steel unless it is being left exposed. On a 100,000-square-foot building, unnecessarily painting the steel can easily add $30,000 (though the savings would be slightly less for not painting a bar joist system). Likewise, current building codes allow designers to utilize active fire protection systems (sprinklers) instead of passive systems (spray-on coatings). Too often, designers are unaware of the specific code requirements and end up specifying both. And at a rough cost of 40 cents per square foot for spray-on coatings, the unnecessary costs quickly add up.
Scott Melnick is vice president of communications at the Chicago-based American Institute of Steel Construction (www.aisc.org).