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‘Reframing’ construction in Southern Africa: light steel frame building offers quality, energy-efficient and affordable construction which is growing in popularity

The growth trajectory and incremental increase in the popularity of light steel frame building (LSFB) in South Africa has been nothing short of remarkable. In 2004, when the CEO of the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) visited Australia to evaluate light steel frame building, this construction technique was little-known in South Africa. Today, this relatively new building method is now both widely accepted and frequently used locally.

“The growth in the popularity of LSF construction locally is due to its inherent innovation, and to the fact that it reduces building costs, in a number of ways,” explains John Barnard, Director of the South African Steel Frame Association (SASFA), a division of the SAISC.

Barnard explains that a major advantage of LSF building is that a structure takes much less time to complete than a similar brick and mortar building.

“As the construction team can finish the outer shell of the building in a much shorter period, work on the inside of the building (completing internal lining, ceilings, tiling and painting) can get underway much earlier – as can the installation of services (water and electricity),” he points out, adding that, in addition, having the outer shell completed earlier means that the building can be secured against unauthorised access much sooner.

The steady growth in the membership of SASFA – which now stands at more than 60 member companies, provides evidence of the growing popularity of LSF building.

“LSFB should however not be confused with prefabricated building. In LSF building, the supporting frame is made from thin gauge, high-strength galvanized steel sheet, which has been cold-formed into lip-channel sections. These sections are joined using rivets or self-tapping screws to form strong wall frames, roof trusses and floor joists,” Barnard advises. The wall panels are then clad using fibre-cement and gypsum boards, fixed using battery powered screw guns to install the self-drilling screws. Insulation (glass wool) is installed in the wall cavities to provide the thermal efficiency and enhance the acoustic properties of the walls.

As far back as 2013, the fast food chain McDonald’s built an outlet in Cape Town which employed LSF in its construction. In this project, material wastage was reduced by 30%, transport costs by 80% and the carbon footprint was significantly reduced. The savings on construction time were of such an order that McDonald’s were able to open the outlet four months earlier, something they would not have been able to do had they used traditional building methods.

With its installed insulation, LSF buildings are more energy-efficient than heavy masonry buildings. A research project carried out by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for SASFA, indicated that an LSF building will require less than half the energy needed to heat and cool an uninsulated masonry residential building.

“The use of LSF allows for energy conservation on two levels. The energy used in the manufacture of the actual building materials – the embodied energy – is considerably less than the amount consumed by traditional building materials. Secondly, the operational energy used in heating and cooling the building over its lifespan is also considerably less.

A LSF building is dimensionally far more accurate than masonry building or concrete construction. This saves time and cost when installing pre-made components such as kitchen cupboards and wardrobes. “With light steel framing, one can work to a tolerance of less than +5 mm,” says Barnard.

With a comparatively new building technique such as LSFB, training of contractors is essential. To this end, SASFA presents a five-day training course in light steel frame building. The course is split into two sections:

  • Steel frame materials, components, and erection
  • Internal lining, external cladding and insulation

The course is growing in popularity (the most recent one was fully subscribed), as an increasing number of building contractors, developers, architects and engineers wish to become more knowledgeable about LSF construction.

“It has indeed been exciting to see – and hear about – the progress that the cold formed steel industry has made since SASFA’s inception. Some of these highlights include the development of the light steel building code, the introduction of cold formed steel into building façades, the acceptance of the benefits of light steel framed homes and the growing number of light steel frame projects being completed.” says SA Institute of Steel Construction CEO Paolo Trinchero.

“Furthermore, SASFA’s ongoing education programme for the construction industry and allied sectors is proving to be very effective in growing the awareness of the features and benefits of light steel framing, and providing the skills required to efficiently build using LSF.”

“Whereas initially, LSF construction was only used for smaller building projects in South Africa, it is now being used for the complete spectrum of construction projects,” continues Trinchero. A milestone achievement for light steel frame construction in South Africa occurred when the building technique was used to supply and install a lightweight steel façade wall and parapet structure at the Mall of Africa in Midrand.

“This is one of the largest single phase shopping mall building projects ever undertaken in South Africa and certainly the largest and most prominent LSF project to date in this country,”  Trinchero comments.

“The growth and popularity of LSF construction in South Africa is a phenomenon that needs to be both welcomed and embraced. It is highly efficient building and construction technique, which will provide South Africa with a more affordable means of constructing both our residential and commercial properties in the future,” he concludes.

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