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STEEL vs. CONCRETE
GREENING EAST CAMPUS
MIT
Concrete Versus Steel
This section evaluates the potential impacts and tradeoffs at stake in deciding to use steel or reinforced
concrete to construct the superstructure of the East Campus Project building.  Modern construction
techniques can incorporate each type of superstructure into a building design without significant
differences in the experience afforded to building users and maintenance personnel, or in the
performance of other systems within the building.  Aesthetics are also not impacted by the choice of
structural material as the proposed building façade can be achieved with either steel or concrete as the
superstructure.  Although concrete may be used as thermal mass as part of a passive heating and cooling
strategy, such an option will not be considered herein because concrete could be strategically used in
conjunction with either a steel or concrete superstructure if thermal mass is desired.  Therefore, because
impacts of the structural material during the usage phase of the building are minimal, they are not
considered in this case study.  The relevant impacts of concrete and steel to be compared are production
of the materials, construction of the building, and demolition and disposal of the building at the end of its
life.

Summary Results
Estimated environmental and worker safety impacts of concrete and steel superstructures for the East
Campus Project building, assessed using Athena EIE (an environmental LCA tool) and published
statistical information,   are summarized in Table 1.  The results indicate that a steel superstructure is
preferable over a concrete structure for seven of the eleven impact categories evaluated.  No significant
difference was found in two of the impact categories (transportation of materials and fatal occupational
injuries).  The only impact category in which a concrete superstructure is preferable is Water Pollution
Emissions.  This is due to the large amount of water used in steel-making processes for cooling,
quenching, and pollution control and the greater abundance of toxic chemicals used in steel making.  More
detailed information on each impact category is included in the following Detailed Results section.

The poor performance of concrete relative to steel in most impact categories is primarily caused by the
large amount of material that goes into concrete structural elements.  According to the Athena EIE model
constructed to evaluate several of the impact categories, over six times as much material (by mass) is
required to produce the concrete superstructure than is required for the steel superstructure.  The
modeled concrete superstructure requires approximately  21,000 cubic meters (m3) of concrete (46,000
standard tons assuming a density of 2,000 kg per m3) and about 1,500 tons of iron and steel for wire and
rebar.  A steel superstructure for the East Campus Project building would require approximately 3,000 m3
of concrete (7,000 standard tons) and about 1,000 standard tons of iron and steel.

It should be noted that if further investigations into the engineering requirements of the East Campus
Project building show that the building would require more or less materials than the above figures for
either type of superstructure, the given results can be adjusted proportionately.  Because the modeled
impacts occur primarily in the manufacturing phase, their magnitude is proportional to the amount of
material produced.  Therefore, if the amount of steel or concrete that will actually be required is found to be
less than or more than that indicated by the Athena EIE, the Athena EIE results can simply be multiplied by
the ratio of the two totals to obtain an approximation of the new result.

This analysis of concrete versus steel for the superstructure of the East Campus Project building is a
classic example of how reducing the amount of material used for a product or service reduces the
environmental impact of that product or service.  Concrete would require an estimated siz times more
material (by mass) than steel, and its estimated environmental impacts are consequently much higher.  
The results of the Athena EIE model, summarized in the graph below, show that steel produces far less
environmental impact than concrete in every category with the exception of water emissions.

The comparison for safety of production workers shows that concrete and steel do not differ significantly
for fatal injuries.  However, non0fatal injuries and illness are estimated to be 12 perent higher for steel vs.
concrete.

Methodology - Athena EIE model

Five of the impact categories (Energy Consumption, Natural Resource Use, Solid Waste Production, Air
Pollution Emissions, and Water Pollution Emissions) were evaluated using the Athena Environmental
Impact Evaluator (EIE) (version 2.0) software developed by the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute in
Merrickville, Ontario, Canada.  Athena EIE is an LCA program that allows for the modeling of environmental
impacts of different building types, designs, and materials.  The program calculates the environmental
impact of a building design input by the user.  A user may choose from an array of building components,
such as beam and column systems, floor and roof systems, etc.  Calculations are based on databases
stored within the program that contain information on the resources consumed and the pollution produced
by the production of various building materials from resource extraction through construction and use, to
final disposal of the building materials.

Based on conceptual drawings of the East Campus Building provided by the MIT Facilities Department, the
building was modeled as an eight-story 450,000 square foot (450 feet by 100 feet) building.  The concrete
superstructure scenario was modeled using a reinforced concrete gerber beam and column system and
pre-cast concrete double-T floors and roof with a concrete and steel mesh topping on the floors.  The steel
superstructure scenario was modeled using a wide flange steel beam and hollow structural steel column
system with open web steel joist and steel decking floor and roof with concrete topping added to the
floors.  No walls, envelope, foundation, or any other component (including the parking garage proposed to
be built beneath the building) were added to the model as it is assumed that no significant change to their
design will result from the choice between a concrete or a steel superstructure for the building.

Background - Production Process Overview

Concrete is produced by the mixing of hydraulic cement and aggregate materials such as sand, gravel, or
crushed stone.  Aggregate materials are mined from sand and gravel pits or open quarries or are obtained
as waste from stone mining operations.  Hydraulic cement generally consists of aluminum and silica from
clay or shale, and a calcareous material such as limestone or chalk, all of which are also mined.  Portland
cement, the most common type produced in the US, also contains iron.  Hydraulic cement is manufactured
by combining these materials, heating and fusing them in a rotary kiln, cooling the product and reducing it
to a fine powder.  The cement and aggregate are combined, with each other at a concrete batching plant.  
The concrete mixture is then either combined with water and cast into prefabricated shapes, or transported
to the building site to be cast in place , .

Structural steel is produced primarily from iron ore, coke, and scrap steel.  Iron ore and coal are mined
domestically in areas primarily located in the Great Lakes Region (iron ore) and in the Appalachian and
Rocky Mountain Ranges (coal).  The coal is heated in the absence of oxygen to produce coke.  Iron ore is
melted down in a blast furnace with coke and limestone to produce pig iron and slag.  Pig iron is then
processed with coke and scrap steel in a basic oxygen furnace to produce carbon steel.  Various finishing
and shaping processes can be used to alter the properties of the steel.  Steel is also produced through a
recycling process in which scrap steel is melted down in an electric arc furnace.
Table 1:
Summary of Concrete
vs. Steel Assessment
for the Superstructure
of the East Campus
Project