Refurbishment with Steel Framing Systems (SFS): A sustainable pathway to Lower Carbon Emissions

As national and international governments aim towards Net Zero Carbon, along with just about every other sector of the economy, the construction industry is facing increasing pressures to reduce its impact on the environment.

Owen Johnson, Research & Development Manager at voestalpine Metsec’s Purlins & Framing Division, looks at the contribution that building refurbishment can make towards a greener future, using Steel Framing Systems (SFS).

The built environment is responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. This fact alone makes it imperative for the construction industry to adopt practices that minimise carbon emissions and promote sustainability. Greater weight and urgency are added to the situation by the increasing amount of legislation that is being aimed at reducing carbon emissions in the building industry.

Historically, the largest contributor to carbon emissions from buildings has been from their operation (heating, lighting, cooling, etc.) with regulators imposing increasingly tighter requirements on performance, and designers, owners and managers seeking ways of minimising environmental impact through improvements in insulation, power generation, electrification, energy management and other measures.

More recently, embodied carbon – the contribution to a modern building’s emissions from the materials used in its creation – has come under the spotlight and is now seen as a prime area in which the building industry can make improvements. Reducing embodied carbon has two chief approaches:

  1. Minimise the amount of carbon released during production of raw materials (e.g. Green Steel)
  2. Minimise the amount of material used (i.e. Use less stuff).

Green Steel

Briefly, as it is beyond the remit of this article, Green Steel is, essentially, the manufacture of steel without the use of fossil fuels. However, sources suggest that totally green steel may be some way off, if at all achievable (World Economic Forum: ‘What is green steel and why does the world need more of it?‘).

Use less stuff

This approach to “using less stuff” is an integral part of the Institute of Structural Engineers’ Hierarchy of Net Zero Design, which promises to make a significant impact on the reduction of carbon emissions. By recognising the immense potential of refurbishment and repurposing, we can unlock a wealth of opportunities to lower our carbon footprint and preserve valuable resources.

Using SFS for refurbishing existing buildings instead of demolishing and constructing new ones can significantly reduce carbon emissions in several ways:

Lower Embodied Carbon: The embodied carbon refers to the total carbon emissions associated with the production, transportation, and construction of building materials. When refurbishing an existing building with SFS, there is a reduced need for new raw materials compared to constructing a new building from scratch. The lightweight steel framing can allow for the existing superstructure and foundations to be retained, which results in less total material being manufactured and transported, leading to a reduced carbon footprint.

Less Waste Generation: Demolishing buildings generates a substantial amount of waste material which will often end up in landfill. In addition, mature buildings often store a significant amount of carbon within their existing structure which is returned to the atmosphere by demolition. By using SFS to refurbish the existing structure, this carbon storage can be preserved, and the waste generation of the construction is minimised.

Reduced Transportation Emissions: Constructing a new building requires the transportation of numerous materials to the construction site. By reducing the amount of material required, refurbishment can reduce the contribution to the total carbon emissions from transportation. SFS, being both lightweight and efficiently bundled, keeps transportation emissions to a minimum. For example, a 4000m2 façade requires twenty-five times less lorry deliveries when constructed from SFS than with blockwork.

Energy Efficiency Upgrades: Refurbishing existing buildings with SFS provides an opportunity to implement energy-efficient upgrades. SFS allows for the integration of improved insulation materials and energy-efficient cladding systems. Improved insulation, efficient windows and climate-responsive design can help reduce the building’s energy consumption for heating, cooling and lighting. By making the building more energy-efficient, the overall operational carbon emissions are lowered.

Less Disruption: Demolishing and constructing a new building can be a disruptive and lengthy process, often involving heavy machinery and the associated emissions. Refurbishing with SFS typically involves less disruptive construction, shorter construction periods and reduced emissions related to the building process.

By choosing to refurbish existing buildings using a voestalpine Metsec Steel Framing System, we can tap into numerous opportunities for reducing carbon emissions, preserving resources, and contributing to a more sustainable built environment. There is also the potential to reap economic benefits from reduced costs of construction and operation as well as quicker returns on investment.

This approach to minimising the use of materials for construction aligns with the broader goals of sustainable development and will support the transition towards a low-carbon future.

Further reading:

Institute of Structural Engineers: Hierarchy of Net Zero Design

World Economic Forum: ‘What is green steel and why does the world need more of it?’

Global Energy Monitor: ‘Pedal to the Metal ’22’