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Banging the steel drum

With new chairman Steve Cross in place, the Steel Piling Group has plans to improve knowledge of the techniques with a view to improving the industry’s market share. Claire Symes reports.

Steel piling

Steel piling is only limited by the ability to deliver the piles to site

When it comes to piling, it seems that concrete - whether cast insitu or precast - is the first port of call for most designers. But the Steel Piling Group (SPG) believes that the steel option is often overlooked. According to the SPG, steel piles can match the performance of many concrete designs and are more sustainable because extraction and reuse or recycling back into new steel products is possible.

“The SPG has an aspiration to be the piling equivalent of the British Steel Construction Institute and provide technical information and advice on steel piling applications,” explains SPG chairman and Royal Haskoning maritime and waterway division senior consultant Steve Cross. “Most people have a limited view of steel piling techniques,” he adds. “One of the projects I’m working on in India is using diaphragm walls and it strikes me as a messy and unsustainable approach with mud and slurry during the construction, the need for steel reinforcement and no potential for extraction if the site needs to be redeveloped.”

Cross was appointed chairman of the SPG last summer, taking over from Arup director Duncan Nicholson, and is now working with the group’s main sponsor, Arcelor Mittal, to improve knowledge and understanding of the industry.

Cross is well qualified to lead the group, having worked in the steel piling industry since leaving Loughborough University with a degree in civil engineering in the late 1960s. He was inspired to study civil engineering as a teenager after working in the building trade.

“My father was a builder, so I grew up around the building industry and worked on site with him in the early 1960s,” he said. “But it was reading his copies of International Construction magazine that got me hooked on civil engineering as a potential career - it looked much more technically interesting than general construction work.

“Steel offers the possibility of being reused or recycled as a primary material. If concrete piles can be extracted then the only option is to crush them for use as fill material”

Steve Cross, SPG

“It was just a few weeks after graduation that I started work with W A Dawson to work on an oil tanker jetty project in Dublin,” he says. “I was interested in geotechnics so I opted to join a company that undertook piling and marine work. I loved it right from the start.” It is a decision that has guided the rest of his career and he has specialised in marine work, with a focus on piling, ever since.

Cross gradually worked through the ranks from site engineer through to construction director with W A Dawson before leaving in 1996 to join Volker Stevin. During this period he worked on a big land reclamation scheme at Dover Harbour in Kent and marine works at Invergordon in the Scottish Highlands. “I was mostly focused on piling work, but then I moved to the engineering department based in Newcastle and it was there that I got more involved in the bidding process,” he explains. “I was also heavily involved in design and construct schemes.”

In 2004, Cross joined Royal Haskoning, but says that working for a consultant rather than a contractor was not a big change. “I was still very much involved in design and construct schemes for marine developments,” he says. “I also work on high-level studies and detailed design work.”

The Steel Piling Group was started about six years ago and is the brainchild of Robin Dawson, who Cross worked closely with during his time at W A Dawson. “Robin left W A Dawson to set up his own piling equipment business - Dawson Construction Plant - and later set up a contracting company to undertake steel piling work too,” explains Cross.

“Robin has now retired but was always trying to get me involved with the SPG although I have never had the time until now.”

The SPG has around 40 member companies. Contractors and equipment producers pay an annual membership fee, while consultants are asked to contribute their expertise instead. The group’s aim is to provide technical information about steel piling and offer an advisory service to the piling industry. Cross firmly believes that steel solutions can offer a better alternative to concrete.


“Concrete can be viewed as more economic but it’s not as sustainable as steel. Too many people opt for concrete because it is within their comfort zone”

Steve Cross, SPG

“Extraction of steel piles has improved significantly,” he says. “Dawson has a 1,000t extractor that was used on the Singapore metro to extract some very deep steel piles that were 25m to 30m long. Steel combi tubes have also been extracted successfully at a marine project in Great Yarmouth.

“Steel offers the possibility of being reused or recycled as a primary material. If concrete piles can be extracted then the only option is to crush them for use as fill material.”

Cross also points to steel’s speed advantages and the development of quiet installation techniques. As an example he outlines recent use of steel box piles to support cantilever sign gantries on a motorway in the South West. “It took one shift to install the steel piles, compared to the two to three weeks to construct the concrete alternative. The traffic management costs are significantly less even before you consider the construction costs, plus there is the potential to remove the piles if they need to be relocated in the future for motorway widening.

“The aim of the SPG is to emphasise the benefits of steel solutions,” he says. “Based on initial cost, concrete can be viewed as more economic but it is not as sustainable. Too many people opt for concrete because it is within their comfort zone.”

The SPG is kick-starting its education initiative with a new conference to be held on 17 May at the BRE in Watford, which Cross hopes will allow people to get a better view of the potential steel offers. “The speakers will expand on the benefits and capabilities with presentation of technical studies and case studies from various parts of the industry, including consultants, contractors and equipment producers. We plan to have an exhibition with stands from the industry too.

“We want to raise the profile of steel piling and attract new members to the SPG.”

A versatile solution

Steel piling

High-tech solution: New technology and equipment is making steel piling safer and faster

SPG chairman Steve Cross claims that one of the major benefits of steel piles lies in the fact that they can be used as a temporary or permanent solution.

The longest sheet steel piles driven in the world were used on the Hull tidal barrier that was built at the same time as the Thames Barrier. “The piles were 34m long and led to development of technology that helped to improve quality and safety of sheet piling,” says Cross. “Dawson developed a clutch guide for this work, which was featured on the BBC programme Tomorrow’s World, and this style of equipment has been used widely since. The quick-release shackle was also developed for this project as it allowed workers to work from the ground rather than at height.”

This scheme pushed the boundaries of steel piling back in the 1980s. Now, development of longer piles has not been halted by on site by technology but by the mills that produce them and the logistics of transporting them onto site. “The piles for the Hull scheme were brought to site by train but the route had to be specially planned to avoid excessive curves,” says Cross.


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