You are on page 1of 15


Structural Steel Construction


There is more than a century's history of using structural steel as a method of building
construction. Even in Hong Kong, the use of structural steel in construction has a history of
more than 60 years.

Buildings like the old headquarters building of Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation
and the old Bank of China Building, are examples of buildings in structural steel which were
constructed from the 30's to50's. Recent examples of such buildings in Hong Kong are the
park Lane Hotel in Causeway Bay, the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wanchai, the new
Bank of China Building in Central, the Time Square, Jumbo Sogo and Manulife Tower (Figure 1)
in Causeway Bay, or the Headquarter of Hong Kong Bank (Figure 2), The Center (Figure 3) and
Cheung Kong Center in Central (Figure 4).

Figure 1 the Lee Garden Hotel Redevelopment, a typical composite structure with a RC core
and a structural steel external frame (Manulife Tower, 1997)

Figure 2 - The Headquarter Building of the HK & Shanghai Banking Corporation, a highly
prefabricated and modulated structural steel structure, 1985

Figure 3 - The Center, a mega steel frame without the use of RC core wall, 1998

Figure 4 - The Cheung Kong Center, a composite structure using concrete-filled steel columns
as the external framel, 1999

The examples mentioned above are in fact representing two generations of structural steel

Those constructed in the 50 s or before were rivet-jointed frame with a relatively broader base
which rigidity is not an important factor in the structure. Those constructed recently are
high-rise buildings often more than 40 storeys in height. Structural performance, especially
under typhoon situation or in case of fire, which definitely fatal when human life is the main
concern, are becoming a vital consideration in the design and use of this kind of buildings.

However, due to the employing of modern materials and techniques such as the use of high
tensile steel, tension bolts, improved welding and connection techniques, more reliable
fire-proofing materials, together with the use of more effective layout concept used in building
design, as well as the introduction of more powerful and economical equipment in construction,
the use of structural steel construction can now serve most of the strictest requirements of
modern buildings and is becoming more popularly accepted once again today.

Advantages and drawbacks in the use of structural steel in construction

Debates whether the use of structural steel in construction is better and more effective than using
reinforced concrete construction, or the vice versa, have been going on for decades. Both
arguments sound perfectly good in theories. The below are some of the advantages and
drawbacks that experts often claim in structural steel construction.

Advantages in the use of structural steel construction

1. Structural performance

Structural steel has a very high yield stress both in taking compression and tension. As a result
of this, the amount of steel used in building to produce the equivalent performance is much less
than that of using ordinary reinforced concrete. Due to the use of lesser materials, the weight
of building can be lighter and resulted to a smaller foundation, enabling the building to reduce
the size in column, achieving larger span and headroom. Similar structural advantages may
also be maximized in case where suitable beams and slab arrangement is employed, such as by
the using of one way slab on relatively closely-spaced shallow beams, or by the using of
composite beam/slab design.

Fabrication and connection of the structural steel members may be difficult to have quality
control, but as most of the members are fabricated in well-equipped fabricating yard off-site
(Figure 5), such problems are much improved under contemporary techniques.

Figure 5 Fabrication of steel components are done in well-equipped fabricating yard

Steel does not have the problems of curing or slow development of strength, and is less affected
by moisture movement and creeps.

Since on-the-spot connection of steel members is relatively easier, the frame-type construction
using structural steel can allow alteration fairly easily in case when future amendment or
expansion to the structure is required.

2. Construction

Speed of construction using structural steel may normally be faster than in-situ concrete due to
the following reasons.

2.1 Most structural steel members can be pre-fabricated off-site, this can allow other site
works such as the construction of the foundation, the central core or the erection of other
members to be done at the same time and shorten the critical time in waiting for the
completion of the other required members.

2.2 Erection of structural steel members do not require complicated in-situ formwork thus save
up quite a lot of time in the preparation, erection or striking of formwork.

2.3 Fabrication and erection of structural steel members off or on-site may be less affected by
inclement weather.

3. Maintenance

In general, maintenance cost for buildings in structural steel construction is reasonable when
compare to other forms of construction, especially when the design, workmanship and
protection treatment during construction is effective and sound. In case of maintenance is
required, such as deterioration appears in the connections, repair works can be done simply right
after the exposing of the defective areas.

Disadvantages in the use of structural steel construction

1. Structural performance

Owing to the flexible nature of steel and other inherited weakness in its connection, the rigidity
of a frame structure constructed by structural steel is much weaker when compare to the
monolithic reinforced concrete structure. Furthermore, such situation may become even worst
when the joints of frame get aged. To overcome this weakness in the design, additional amount
of steel or very strong and rigid connection design may be required to strengthen the
performance of the structure (Figure 6 and 7).

Figure 6 the external trusses (left) used in Manulife Tower, the tie members (middle) and the
anchor frame that built inside the RC core wall for stiffening the core with the external frame

Figure 7 Belt trusses (left) and out-rigger systems (right) used in Cheung Kong Center as a
means to increase the stiffness of the composite structure

Besides, steel loses its strength significantly under fire. Under normal fire situation finds in
high-rise building when temperature can rise to 900
C in a short time, strength of steel can drop
by more than 60%. This may lead to disastrous result unless effective fire-proofing treatment
is provided.

Deflection may easily occur in structural steel members especially when they are exposed to
excessive or rapidly varying loads such as under extreme temperature difference or facing
sudden wind load. The usual allowable deflection should not exceed 1/300 to 1/350of the
effective span, otherwise, it may not be acceptable from the point of providing finishes to a
building. Similarly, the relative flexibility of steel may have the problem of incompatibility
when some rigid components such as cladding or curtain walling systems.

2. Construction

Although structural steel members can be fabricated off-site, demands to transport the
components to and temporary storage of the members on site still incur practical difficulties
(Figure 8 & 9). Fabricated steel members are often made to quite a large size and heavy weight
in order to minimized unnecessary connection works on site. However, this may create
problems in lining the member to the spot of work. To overcome this, heavy hoisting
equipment (Figure 10) is required. This may at the same time increase the loading requirement
of the structure during the process of construction. Besides, the mounting, erection and
operation of the hoisting equipment may incur additional work on site.

Figure 8 steel components are delivered and hoisted to work spot for erection

Figure 9 Delivery of huge amount of steel components can cause complication in the handling
of materials on site. Some members are very massive and large in size

Figure 10 provision of carnage facilities is critical for the erection of steel components


Connection of the pre-fabricated steel members requires accurate dimension coordination
(Figure 11). Slight discrepancy exists in the off-site or on-site works may therefore result to
delay in the whole operation. Besides, the carrying out of anti-corrosion or fire proofing
treatment to steel, site inspection to the steel connections or to the encasement of the steel
members may require addition work and time thus lengthen the entire construction period. Not
to mention the more specialized workers it required in the carrying out of such works.

Figure 11 complicated frame and special design often demand very accurate dimensional
control and coordination

Generally speaking, the above points only reflect the relative characteristics in the using of
structural steel. The actual merits or demerits of this construction method should finally rely
on some other local factors such as the choice of both architectural or structural design,
availability of materials and labours, site conditions and the opportunity cost created by the
speed of work etc.

Extent and constraint in use of structural steel construction in Hong Kong

Generally speaking, the use of structural steel construction in Hong Kong is not so popular as
compare to other countries such as in Japan, United Kingdom, United states or other western
European countries.

The main reasons for this may be due to the following factors:

1. Lack of the required resources

Workers or contractors for structural steel construction usually come from some related
industries such as shipbuilding or other heavy industries involving large-scale steel works.
However, these industries are not originated in the traditional industries of Hong Kong. In fact,
Hong Kong lack the expertise and skill in the carrying out of such work in general-Engineers,
contractors or even skilled workers qualifies for structural steel construction are rare and thus
resulted to relatively higher construction cost-This situation is specially obvious for building of
complicated structural steel design or for very large scale development projects.

Besides, Hong Kong cannot produce most of the essential materials such as structural steel and
other required mechanical equipment for work-Such materials are to be imported and thus make
the cost of construction more expensive.

2. Lack of working spaces

The carrying out of structural steel works require very large space for pre-fabrication,
anti-rusting treatment, or in the temporary handling and storage of the structural members.
Such working spaces are often required inside and outside the site. Temporary fabrication or
treatment yard sometimes may require up to 10,00 m
of space to be allocated for projects using
structural steel construction under the situation of Hong Kong. The completed structural
members are transported to site for connections afterward. This may in fact increase the
overall cost of construction. Besides, the availability of extra working space is sometimes
more than a consideration of budget for land in Hong Kong is scarce.

The completed structural members often weigh more than 10 tonnes. They require heavy
hoisting equipment to assist in the connection works. The positioning of such members may be
difficult especially in congested site where there are buildings and other public facilities nearby.
Furthermore, the erection, mounting, operation or dismantling of such hoisting equipment also
occupy extra space, working time and incur costs. These factors are in fact unfavourable for
the use of structural steel construction as a whole in Hong Kong.

3. Existence of alternative techniques

The major advantages of using structural steel construction are its ability to produce large-span,
light-weight and space effective buildings. However, due to the introduction of many other
advance construction techniques such as the using of pre/post-stressing, flat slab construction,
high performance concrete or other effective foundation design/techniques, many of the
advantages inherit from structural steel construction can now be substituted by other relatively
simpler and more cost-effective methods of construction.

4. Fire proofing requirements

Fire proofing requirements in Hong Kong is quite strict for the buildings are mainly high-rise in
which a great number of occupants are using. Failure under the situation of fire may produce
great casualty-Though structural steel is not a combustible material, it loses most of its strength
under fire. Fire protection to steel is therefore essential for structural steel construction.
Applying fire resisting treatment to steel is costly, time consuming, the most important of all, it
often involves special testing, approval and monitoring procedures. In order to saves such
extra works, engineers or designers tend to use other methods to construct wherever alternative

Structural behaviour of structural steel construction for high-rise building

Ta1l and slim buildings like many of the sky-scrapers find in Hong Kong may not be a kind of
structure that are favourable in the using of structural steel construction. The main problem is
that tall buildings may bend significantly under normal wind load and produce undesirable
movements and deflection. Rigidity in the connection of the steel members is of no doubt
required to improve such situation, but of course, this incurs certain technical difficulties
especially when site connection is concerned.

To overcome such drawback, one of the common methods is to build a strong reinforced
concrete core which usually locates in the centre of a building (refer also to figure 1 & 4). This
core acts as a stiffening structure and help to take up most of the bending movement created by
wind load. The core is usually rectangular or square in section with the perimeter wall
sometimes more than 450mm thick and accommodating part of the essential utilities such as the
staircases, lift shafts, toilets or services ducts etc. Sometimes, suitably located shear wails can
act similarly to a rigid core.

The second method is by the introduction of more bracing or truss members between the main
structural steel members (refer also to figure 6 & 7). The bracing members can produce stiff
diagonal supports and help to resist wind pressure by transmitting the load from the external
faces of the building through the floors which act as rigid diaphragms also. However, this may
make the layout of the building becomes complicated, lower the space efficiency of the building
or produce additional technical difficulties to internal or external finishes.

To increase the overall performance, most of the modern floor systems for this kind of structure
are using composite floor design (Figure 12 & 13), that is, the steel floor joists are topped with a
RC slab that form a very strong and rigid composite floor membrane as part of the stiffening
provision for the entire building system.

Figure 12 placing GI sheet as the under deck onto the floor joists (left) and welding of the
steel studs to joists to provide the anchorage between the RC slab and the joists

Figure 13 connecting the floor reinforcing bars to the core starters (left),
floor bars fixing and concreting (right)

Fabrication, erection, connection and fire-proofing treatment of structural steel members

1. Fabrication and Erection

Most steel embers used in structural steel works are standard hot-rolled steel sections as
specified by BS4: Part 1. The common types of section used include the universal beams,
universal columns, joists, channels, angles and T-bars. The dimension of these sections has
quite a large range to convenient various design needs and requirements. The typical steel
sections under BS4: Part 1 are shown in Figure 14.

Figure 14a connecting steel columns to form a column base


Figure 14b connecting columns to columns by welding and by bolts

Figure 14c connecting column to beams (left) and beam to beam

As for multi-storey buildings where the structure are heavy, fabrication of the structural steel
members are usually done off-site in a properly equipped fabricating yard (figure 15) in which
the scheduling of works, dimensional coordination, quality of welding or anti-rusting treatment
(figure 16) of the structural members can be done under a more accurately controlled manner.
The completed members or components will then be transported to site as scheduled.

Figure 15 a temporary fabrication workshop set-up for the roof structure
of the new airport terminal building at Chek Lap Kok

Figure 16 worker remove dust and grease on surface of steel before applying anti-rusting
coating (left), and the cover hood for doing sand blasting and paint curing

In order to have more fabrication done off-site to gain the best benefit from works, most of the
completed members or components are fabricated into a size or weight as large and heavy as
possib1e up to the handing limits (figure 17), such as the storage spaces or the capacity of
hoisting equipment, of the site (refer also to figure 10).

Figure 17 a section of circular steel column cut to module equivalent to 3-storey length (left),
each hoisting for smaller units can be up to 3 beam sections per lift.

Hoisting equipment assisting in the erection of structural steel members is usually done by one
or two tower cranes with luffing jib mounted inside the central core of the building (refer also to
figure 10). This kind of crane can handle at its effective radius up to a weight of more than 5
tonnes. Time management for the use of hoisting equipment in the erection of members is a
crucial consideration for structural steel construction. The hoisting process of a member
includes the lifting of it from the ground level up to the level of installation, maintain the
member until it can be placed in the pre-set slot or cleat where it can be initially fixed by
workers. Sometimes the entire process may engage the crane for quite along time and idling it
from other works.

2. Connection

Connections for structural steel sections can be classified into shop connections or site
connection in a properly equipped fabrication workshop, most of the connections are done by
welding in order to produce more rigid joints. On the other hand where connection works are
done on site, rivet or bolt joints are used more frequently in conjunction with site welding for the
former can be done quicker, and can have easier dimensional tolerance, cost effectiveness and
quality control.

By welding

Welding of steel can be done by oxy-acetylene method. A blowpipe in this case is used which
allows the heat from the burning oxygen-acetylene mixture to raise the temperature of the
surfaces of steel to be joined. A metal filler rod is held in the flame and the molten metal from
the filler rod then fuses the surfaces together.

Figure 18 welding equipment: transformer and power distribution frame for electric arc
welding (left) and oxy-acetylene cylinder for gas welding (right)

Another method for welding is by the use of electric arc. The electric arc is produced by a low
voltage electrical supply when in contact with an earthed steel surface. The high temperature
produced by the arc causes the metal filler rod to melt and fuse the surfaces.

Figure 19 welding equipment: the filler rod feeding machine (left and middle)
and the treatment to the steel members before welding

The electric arc method is in fact having more advantageous performance when compare to the
oxy-acetylene method for it is more convenient and save to use, and does not produce high
temperature over a large area of steel. Such temperature may easily lower the strength of high
tensile steel due to the forming of internal stress within the section of member under differential

By the use of bolts

Connections using bolts almost limit to site connection works nowadays. There are three kinds
of bolt used for such purposes, they are the black bolts, turned and fitted bolts and high strength
friction grip bolts.

Black bolts can be cold or hot forged with machined thread. They are the cheapest in cost but
have a lower shear strength thus are not suitable for most modern high rise building where the
loading requirements are high.

Figure 20 typical connection making use of bolt and splice plate, note that some bolt connections
are temporary provision and the actual joint will be welded to increase rigidity afterward

Turned and fitted bolts are turned to fit tightly into the holes of a member and secured by nuts.
Instead of being forged, the shank is machine formed so the production cost of the bolt is higher
but with a more accurate dimension and requiring smaller clearance allowance in the

High strength friction grip bolts are also known as torque bolts. They are made of high yield
steel. When the bolt is turned and secured by nut, tremendous tension is developed and
gripped the plates tightly together. This can produce great frictional resistance within the steel
plates which are to be connected and make the joints relatively quite strong and rigid. The nut
is usually tightened by using a torque wrench which measures the tightness of the connection.

3. Fire-proofing treatment

Conventionally structural steel members are fire protected by concrete, which is slightly
reinforced and poured around the steel using suitably design formwork. However, this method
have a lot of drawbacks, such as increasing the dead load of the structure, time consuming and
costly, and is seldom used today.

The other fire protection method is to encase the steel members using some kind of
non-combustible board. Usually, a 19mm thick board can provide a fire protection up to one
hour, or a 32mm board up to two hours. Quite a lot of materials, such as gypsum board of
adequate thickness or vermiculite concrete board, both reinforced with fiber or metal mesh, can
serve such purposes.

One more popular method used today to fire protect the structural steel works is by the applying
of a spray-on fire protection coating-Materials for the coating may be of cement based and
mixed with mineral wool or mineral fiber product. This kind of material can easily achieve a
fire protection up to two hours under convenient thickness. Since the material is applied using
spray-on method, it can easily coat onto most objects with irregular surfaces, or to build up its
thickness in subsequent coats-Another type of coating which developed recently can also be in a
form of intumescent painting, that is, the paint surface will expand under heat becoming
spongy-like with the heat insulating ability tremendously increased.

Figure 21 preparing the fire resistant plaster materials (left), spraying of the plaster(middle)
and the finished steel surfaces (note that the underside of floor slab does not require protection
for it is a composite slab with RC on top

Furthermore, by encasement method, say, using gypsum board, to encase the exposed surfaces
of the steel members. The encasement can serve as the surface finishes as well as to provide
additional fire protection to the steel member.