The Material That Built The World (feat. Alex Morales)

Listen now or check us out on one of these platforms!

Apple Podcasts


Google Podcasts



We’re talking about Steel this week!

Eddie kicks off the show by talking about the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri. He breaks down why it was a critical project for the steel industry. Also, we talk about why they walked an Elephant across it as a PR stunt!

Our guest this week is Alex Morales, who is a Structural Steel Specialist with AISC (The American Institute of Steel Construction.) He has a long history of working with designers and integrating it into structures all over the United States.

He also dives into how sustainable steel really is and breaks down some of the misconceptions around it!

Full disclosure, we make our living off of steel. So we LOVE this material!


American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC)


Alex on Linkedin

The Men Who Built America


Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me like he is every week: My brother, Eddie Campbell.

Eddie: What's up way over there, Tyler?

Tyler: Not much, Eddie. Well, this week we're talking steel.


Interview: (12:42)

Eddie: All right, Alex. Thanks for joining us today. Why don't you tell us who you are and what you do?

Alex Morales: Wonderful. So thank you all for having me today. I was totally excited this morning. I couldn't really sleep a wink last night, so looking forward, definitely, to sharing my love of steel with the audience. So yes, my name is Alex Morales. I am with the American Institute of Steel Construction. And so what do I do exactly? That's the question that I get a lot from a lot of my clients on a day-to-day basis. So my official title, for those of you guys that are wondering, is a structural steel specialist. And with that said, I am connecting with industry professionals. So if you can imagine architects, engineers, contractors, really anyone who's involved in the built environment. I am responsible for delivering the love of structural steel, of course, but at the same time, I'm educating folks on finding efficiencies for construction—maybe cost savings, maybe pointing them out to perhaps an expert fabricator that maybe has experience with simple project, K-12, or maybe a complex project like healthcare project. So we're able to identify who those experts are and sort of how you guys that are out there building and hustling and getting things going with those appropriate contexts. So from a design perspective, if let's say, for example, you're wanting to know, “Hey, is there a different way of maybe aligning the structural steel forest system with the overall framing system of my building that I haven't thought about before, or maybe there's a case study out there?” So in that sense, everything to do under the umbrella of structural steel is what our organization stands for, and really what I do on a day-to-day basis is to bring that expertise to the industry. The best part about it, if you guys can believe it or not, is that we do this absolutely free. So imagine, for example, you have an owner that comes to you and they're contemplating a really fancy hotel, and you have a general contractor that's probably pursuing, let's say design-build. And so he's maybe in the—or she—in the initial phases of where do we start, where we're testing this project and we're sort of evaluating what it wants to be. And typically with projects like that, you might consider concrete or steel. And so obviously we at AISC want you guys to think about steel when designing any project, and that's where we come in. It's improbable to expect that those out there that are designing buildings or constructing buildings or engineering buildings are experts at every single type of construction material. So when it comes to structural steel, we are that resource and we encourage everyone to take advantage of that and use it to your advantage to provide healthy projects.

Tyler: Very nice. Well so, since you're a steel expert, and also Eddie and I, we’re in the steel industry as well, we love steel. That's our bread and butter around here at ABSI. We kind of have been talking to some people in mass timber lately, and there's been some pushback, basically saying that steel and concrete, those sorts of materials are not as sustainable as something like mass timber. What would you say to them, and what would you say to those that don't think that steel is a sustainable option?

Alex Morales: I would say do some exploratory research, first. Curiosity is our best friend in anything, whether you're learning to ride a bike or whether you're learning how to build a building. And so I say do your homework, and part of that entails, of course, coming to people like myself—and yes, of course, going to those people that are putting out that information and asking them and challenging them about exactly what those sustainable facts are. And so if you would come to me, I would say— And I always design with respect to the environment, and so of course I had to explore different types of construction materials and methods, and it was, you know, studying concrete and it was studying wood and it was studying structural steel. I had a task at hand, which was to do the best that I could for the project. We know this in the industry as due diligence. I would say do that, be curious, be diligent about what you're proposing to your owner and to the client and to the environment. Good segue about the environment is that a lot of people have this notion that structural steel may not be sustainable because they have this, maybe, perception of a bulldozer sort of exploiting natural resources and digging these giant pits and mining ore out of the earth. That simply is not true, particularly when discussing domestic structural steel right here in America, because we can achieve about, on average, 93% recycled content. So I will say that there is no other material that achieves that amount of recyclability, and you can hold my hands to the fire all day, that's just a fact. The other portion: I'm a gardener, I grew up on a farm. So I absolutely love trees and have a respect for nature, as I said before. However, my philosophy is that the best place for a tree to be is in the ground. And when you really start analyzing the effects of harvesting wood responsibly, you have to think about the material in terms of what we call LCA, a Life Cycle Analysis. And so what that means specifically is that, think about how that material you bought through time from when it's harvested, whatever source it may come from, to how it's implemented in construction and during the construction process. And finally, what does that material look like at the end of that proposed building's lifespan? So for example, in the case of wood, you might imagine there's a beautiful tree growing and it's in a sustainable zone, or at least it's deemed to be sustainably harvested. You have to consider, do we have a limited amount of forests which are harvested in a sustainable manner when you look at SSD certifications? Where are those coming from? And are they so abundant that we're not making a dent in a negative fashion in recycling them? Are we thinking about the animal biome associated with that environment? So that, for example, you have a trailer coming into a sustainable zone, but you're also disrupting the microbiomes as you harvest the sustainably grown wood products or trees, for example. And then thinking about transport mechanisms, if we indeed have limited zones of sustainably forested forests, for all intents and purposes, does that limit then sort of negate the carbon footprint that we're impeding upon? So, you know, if I have to, in Texas, go to somewhere like the great North Pacific Northwest to source the mass timber products to bring them down to Texas, does that make any sense in terms of a carbon footprint? And is that really sustainable? Please do your homework, be diligent about where we are sourcing materials, and be diligent about what is the best that we can do for the project. I could go on and on about sustainability in terms of structural steel. I will say, going back to the notion of, you know, perhaps there's some folks on the fence that have issues with using structural steel because they consider it non-sustainable. We've already talked about steel accomplishing upwards of a 93% recycled content. The other wonderful facet about it is that the steel industry, and specifically mills that produce steel, have tapped into the energy grid, which is no longer the energy grid that existed back in the eighties. So that image of billowing smoke and, you know, sort of the mining ore, that's no longer true today. Because not only are we re-melting steel and reusing it over and over again versus mining it, but we've now been able to tap into it a more renewable grid. All of the mills in the United States have renewable energy as part of its processing. And they work with the local communities to ensure that, for example, they operate whenever there's less demand for energy. They also purchase renewable energy credits to ensure that. Hey, there's always room for improvement, so there's an actionable kind of energy associated with the entire steel industry to ensure that we not only talk the talk, but walk the walk of being sustainable. 

Eddie: I’m gonna kind of turn the page here a little bit on us, but I got to sit in on a really cool lecture about SpeedCore and Rainier Square a couple of years ago at North American Steel Conference. Talk to me about that project and SpeedCore. What do you know about that?

Alex Morales: Well absolutely. So SpeedCore has been one of the most phenomenal developments in the steel industry right here in the United States. So SpeedCore has allowed us to kind of really push the envelope of how we design and build tall buildings. It's not limited just to tall buildings, but the first example came out of Rainier Square in Seattle. So this is a tower that is about, that is 58 stories tall. And the superstructure, I like to call it the bones of the building, they were erected in only 10 months, and that's never done with traditional concrete core construction. So if you think about this, a system that allows you to build the floors and the core at the same time, that's the beauty of SpeedCore. Almost imagine a sandwich. So if you imagine the SpeedCore system where the outer layers of that sandwich are these steel panels, and then you infill them with concrete, that's pretty much what the SpeedCore system is. And so what does that do? That's the question I often get. And so what it does is eliminate the time to wait for concrete to cure. For example, you guys might be aware of, you know, traditional concrete construction. You have to kind of let that core go up to a certain height, and we call that a leading core in concrete construction. And so in essence, we're not able to build the floors below until we get up to that certain height and until that concrete is cured. The beauty of SpeedCore is that it eliminates that wait time. And in this particular case, the initial predictions were two months under, so we actually were able to build it a little bit faster than what the project team had initially predicted. What's that mean for the developer? If you think about it, if you're like an owner, a developer, or if you want to make your owner happy, is that you get to occupy that building faster. So it's not only the fact that you're building it faster, but you are able to generate revenue a lot faster because you're leasing it out at an accelerated speed. 

Eddie: What was it about Rainier Square that made this a reality? What was it that the owner was asking for that really made this a requirement?

Alex Morales: The project was dead. It was cost prohibitive to sort of chase it down the path of using the traditional concrete core construction. And there was some background dialogue already in the works on using the system. So this system—when I say the system, I mean SpeedCore, or a composite concrete and steel plate system—was studied by Purdue University and the Pankow Foundation, and of course also funded by AISC. And so MKA, Magnusson Klemencic, they were the engineers on this project, and they had knowledge about what sort of impact this would have had if it became a contribution to the building industry, to the design industry. And since the imagination of using concrete construction for Rainier Square was cost prohibitive, this was the other option and all kind of all hands on deck. It turned out to be a success.

Eddie: Well turning a page to something a little new here: I think everybody right now is curious what industry influencers and industry educators think about the future of our construction industry. You had mentioned that you might have some insights that make you feel that things could turn up in certain markets. What markets do you think may be turning up and what kind of optimistic message can you bring to us?

Alex Morales: I'm always really keeping my eye on the pulse, if you will, on what's trending, what discussions are we collectively having as an industry to move things forward and innovating and thinking about new ways of doing things. One of them—which is actually not a new concept, it just seems to have resurrected—is modular construction. That has to do a lot with kind of a shortage in labor trades. It also has to do with sort of the constraints that the industry has placed on itself. That sounds a little odd to say, but if you think about the way we deliver projects, you know, we've got design teams, we've got general contractors, we've got... Everyone really is almost competing with each other as far as winning the next project. And because of that, the effect has been that we're almost promising our owners that we will deliver projects faster. And so with that territory comes trying to figure out how to deliver on what we promised. And if we're convincing our construction schedules, modular construction has surfaced as something optimal for that, because you're able to build it, typically, in an enclosed environment. Build “it” could mean anything, could be a residence, or it could be a large hotel, for example. There's a few examples of modular construction and hotels in the Northeast. And I see that as catching on. You've got major chains like Marriott, for example, who have taken the plans in pursuing modular construction. It's almost like plug and play. You think about Legos, that is the avenue that provides efficiency, and I see that as gaining prominence. In terms of the steel market, the other trend, if you will, that I see is urban infill. And that has to do with the fact that as we become more dense societies, we're running out of space. You know, it's not anything new. I mean, we can look at examples from across the pond in Europe where people are running out of space and you have to get creative on where it is that you're going to put your new building. And so with urban infill, and steel specifically, think about it in terms of bulkiness of material. If you're able to modularize, even if it does mean doing it in sections offsite and then using cranes to carefully put these into tight spaces, then that lends to possibilities of using real estate that is confounded by lot restrictions, or maybe there's a kind of wedges of buildings where you're trying to get to a middle island, if you will, to build your new building. Urban infill is definitely something that is not going away, especially with generational change. If you think about the millennials, for example, who are always wanting to be where the action is, you know, live, work and play. If that means being in the city and really being able to walk to your office and then being able to walk outside and run at the gym, for example, you want all that to be sort of clustered, and that means that density is not going anywhere. The way things are sort of trajecting now, definitely urban infill is another kind of a lookout market, if you will.

Eddie: Curious here: How would you advise somebody that wants to do steel construction on just following some of the best practices that AISC recommends?

Alex Morales: Absolutely. So I'd say, “Start early.” So if you think about it, steel is really flexible, and it's forgiving through the design, procurement and construction phases. However, it's important to really begin to understand that the project team, and typically builders, so for our GC audience, really need to be on top of releasing their steel packages ASAP. So what does this mean? This means collaborating with your steel fabricators and talking to your detailers, to really begin to determine how you streamline the shop drawing process, for example, and then seek expert feedback in that regard from folks like your steel fabricators, who are your experts. They work with that material day in and day out, and I guarantee you that they will give you different angles to make your project more successful. Another thing to keep in mind that I always like to throw out there is related to cost, because we all care about cost. In terms of steel, in a typical steel package, you can expect that the cost of labor is upwards of 70%. So what that means is that only 30% of the cost is actually associated with the steel package. So that's really good food for thought, because when you’re trying to find strategic way of gaining a competitive edge, for example, as a builder, you probably want to bring a value add to the project team finding ways to cut costs and terms of saving on labor, because that's where the bulk of the cost for the typical steel package comes from. So I would really encourage you to involve your fabricator, for example, early on in the process, especially if you have some clout with the architect and design team, push for that so that you can really gain a competitive edge for your project and bring value to your team.

Tyler: Heck yeah, man. Well, I think we've kind of come to our megaphone. So if we gave you a megaphone that the whole industry could hear for 60 seconds, what would you say?

Alex Morales: I would say think about chasing structural steel for your projects. I think there is really no limit when you put it in terms of creativity and design. One good philosophy that I have is something that I learned on a project at the Johnson Space Center. And this was the first time I was actually able to work with structural steel in the field. You can cut steel, you can splice it, and you can make things work. You don't have to start from scratch. It's very flexible. In terms of creativity, if you have more room, you have more sort of creative options. The more spans, the more freedom to plan. And of course, the material that is able to do that is structural steel. In terms of like, for example, we're always wanting to take advantage of the most real estate as possible to give us the spaces that we want. So if we're working with material that tends to be bulkier, i.e. concrete, why not think of a material that is going to meet the intended structural requirements, but gives you a lot more slimmer of a profile so that you can play with those spaces and really begin to push the envelope of creativity and building? Come to us! You know, shoot me an email, and let us help you be successful on your next project.

Tyler: Heck yeah, man. That's awesome. Well Alex, we really appreciate you being here today, man.

Alex Morales: Absolutely. It was fantastic. Thank you guys.


Tyler: Hey guys, thanks for joining us today. I wanted to take a second and point you at a couple of things before you go. Number one, make sure that you go check out our website. It is We're constantly posting new blog updates on there, thoughts of things that we're seeing in the industry. Also, make sure while you're there, go check us out on social media. We are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. We're constantly asking questions there, trying to get people involved and engaged and learn more about what's happening in the industry so we can keep bringing stuff to you that’s relevant and also share it with somebody. If there's something in here that you thought was valuable, forward it over to your friend, let them know about the show. Again, that's going to help us out a lot. And finally, please leave a review. If you found this interesting or helpful at all, you could help us out in a big way by just hitting a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. So thank you so much for joining us this week. Have a good one.