BRITISH STEEL’S technical manager for the Middle East & South Asia is on a mission, armed with a simple message: ‘Give steel a chance.’ Haydar Ibrahim is out to convince developers and consultants that there is an attractive alternative to the reinforced concrete buildings which are a ubiquitous feature of the Gulf skyline.

Dubai-based Ibrahim has no illusions about the scale of the task ahead. ‘In the Middle East, there has been a lack of familiarity in the building community about the merits of structural steel, as there simply hasn’t been the demand,’ he says. ‘That is slowly changing, but we are still only at the very beginning of the education process.

The advocates of structural steel have seen some encouraging signs over the past two years as the Middle East has started to embrace steel design for multi-storey struc tures. Office blocks with reinforced concrete cores and steel superstructures are now going up in the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.

‘The number of steel buildings being considered in the Gulf is much higher than it was before, although admittedly, it was at a very low level,’ Ibrahim says. ‘There was a time when you could count them on the fingers of one hand.’ Nevertheless, despite the recent increase in interest, the region still lags far behind many other markets in the application of steel. In the UK, steel-framed structures account for an estimated 55 per cent of all new buildings over six storeys high. It is a similar story in much of the Far East where structural steel is the norm for high-rise developments.

The Middle East’s devotion to reinforced concrete is long-standing and deeply embedded. I.imestone deposits and cheap energy resources made it possible to produce cement locally at low cost and it has become the preferred construction material, shaping an industry and the attitudes within it.

Steel is a relative newcomer. It also has to be imported for most projects and remains an unknown quantity to many contractors.

Says Tony Barnard, partner at the Dubai office of Schuster Pechtold & Partners (SPP), ‘Steel-framed buildings remain an unfamiliar territory for many consultants. As a result, they are loath to push clients up the learning curve about the advantages of the structures.’

Raising awareness As a first step companies like British Steel are trying to raise awareness in the construction industry. In early October. the company hosted seminars on architecture and steel construction in association with the UAE Society of Engineers to promote their product. The three key advantages of steel are held to be:

Speed of construction. SPP, which is acting as consultant on the Al-Masood tower project in Dubai, estimates that a steelframed design can cut by a quarter on the overall building programme. There are time savings as the contractor can start work on the concrete core and foundations while the pre-engineered steel material is being fabricated elsewhere. As soon as the concrete elements are ready, the steel frame can be brought on site and assembled without the need for scaffolding. Steel-framed buildings also tend to be lighter than their concrete counterparts, so less foundation work is required.

Durability. The oldest steel buildings in the Middle East are single-storey warehouses which have survived the harsh climatic conditions without any form of protection. Most have not suffered from corrosion as steel used in an internally-conditioned environment does not require corrosion protection.

Adaptability. The useful life of most buildings is much less than the life of the structure. The need to accommodate change and be more receptive to customer needs is a priority for the developer. The steel lobby argues that their product lends itself to change of usage: residential buildings can easily be converted into office blocks, and vice versa, while steel also maximises the available space as it does not require internal columns.

Supporters of steel are also at pains to dispel the widespread perception that the product is more costly than reinforced concrete. ‘Because the international steel market is becoming so competitive, it makes steel-framed buildings an increasingly attractive option here,’ Barnard says.

Ibrahim takes a different approach to the cost question. ‘If you take an average building, the structural elements and floors only make up about 10-15 per cent of the overall costs. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that steel costs 10 per cent more than reinforced concrete. In terms of the total project cost that works out at a 1.0 per cent -1.5 per cent increase. That sum can easily be recouped by cost savings related to the speed of construction, which translates into faster occupancy, less interest payments and higher returns,’ he says.

The steel industry accepts that the sceptics will only be won over once they see tangible evidence of steel being used. Good examples are proliferating and there is no shortage of examples to examine. In Qatar, construction is nearing completion on the 18-storey Salam tower, located opposite the Doha Sheraton hotel. In Manama, the local/UK Jalal Costain has recently won the construction contract for a new headquarters for the National Bank of Bahrain, which will be the tallest building in Bahrain. In Dubai, erection of the steel bracing is under way for the landmark tower hotel on the Chicago beach resort development.

Such developments are helping to increase regional expertise in the use of steel and serve as an advertisement for its advantages. ‘I’m hoping that the few landmark projects coming up will play a pioneering role,’ Ibrahim says, ‘When people see how quickly the buildings come up, they will ask themselves how.

Ultimately, that should persuade people to give steel a chance.’