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FerrousWheel steel reuse tool cuts embodied carbon

Stephen Cousins

Free-to-use software automatically matches reclaimed steel with digital building designs to help projects cut carbon and boost circularity

Steel re-use virtuous circle.
Steel re-use virtuous circle. Credit: Symmetrys

A digital tool that automatically matches reclaimed steel sections from a live stocklist with data in building design models is being developed by a team of UK researchers.

FerrousWheel is the result of a four-month research collaboration, funded by Innovate UK’s Accelerated Knowledge Transfer initiative, between structural engineer Symmetrys and London South Bank University.

The free plug-in for Revit is due to launch at the end of the month as part of a drive to help the industry cut embodied carbon associated with steel production and make steel part of the circular economy.

According to Matteo Attanasio, senior structural engineer and head of sustainability at Symmetrys, the software will be an open source and more user-friendly alternative to existing tools that perform a similar function.

‘Existing tools are either in-house only or they use Excel spreadsheets to give a list of stock, making them relatively inaccessible for lay users,’ explains Attanasio. ‘We're looking at visualising the stock in a 3D model so architects or engineers can take a quick screenshot and show the client straightaway. It's making the process more accessible for people who don't necessarily have the technical knowledge.’

Symmetrys’ steel re-use study for the refurb and extension of a grade II listed warehouse at Great Suffolk St, Southwark, by Hawkins\Brown.
Symmetrys’ steel re-use study for the refurb and extension of a grade II listed warehouse at Great Suffolk St, Southwark, by Hawkins\Brown. Credit: Symmetrys

FerrousWheel scans analysis models or 3D visual models, catalogues structural steel sections and matches them instantly with a live stocklist of reclaimed beams and columns in the cloud. In addition, it calculates the carbon savings of any selections made and produces easy-to-interpret graphical summaries for clients.

Architects can also make use of the tool, particularly during RIBA Stage 2 or 3, says Attanasio, to give the client and wider design team an idea of the potential for steel reuse on projects. ‘It gives a really good indication to demonstrate the potential to clients, pending confirmation of the steel being available to procure at Stage 4,’ he explains.

The tool currently taps into data provided by Cleveland Steel and in future will also include metal recycling company EMR Global. One challenge for researchers was the complexity of logging parameters for factors such as damage to steel and penetrations for connections in a standardised way.

Volume of supply was another issue. Even though the UK recycles around 90% of its steel, that's still not enough to keep up with demand and virgin steel is constantly being manufactured. According to Attanasio, the more buildings are taken down and disassembled for reuse, the more stock will be available in stocklists used by the software.

Screen grab of FerrousWheel study looking at re-use potential
Screen grab of FerrousWheel study looking at re-use potential Credit: Symmetrys

The amount of steel currently available depends on the size of the project. ‘If it’s a 40 storey tower, and you're looking for 80% reuse, you might struggle,’ says Attanasio. ‘However, for most mid-rise projects, you're almost certain to find a few sections you can include.’

Although the research project ends in April, the team plans to continue research and development to refine the product until September.

There are many challenges associated with incorporating reused structural elements in a project programme, as this recent RIBAJ article demonstrates.


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