A worker wearing a hard hat, a bright shirt and jeans is laying a layer of concrete

Concrete and steel are two of the most common building materials used in modern construction, prized for their strength, affordability and durability. However, all structures require proper design, construction and maintenance to achieve maximal lifespans.

The following sections explore key factors impacting the longevity and durability of concrete and steel structures to analyze how material properties, environmental exposures and maintenance practices influence the lifespans of these structural materials. 

Understanding these dynamics allows engineers and builders to optimize concrete and steel structures for extended service lives spanning decades or even centuries.


Factors Affecting Longevity and Durability

The lifespans of reinforced concrete and steel structures depend greatly on their environmental conditions and inherent material properties. Yet the ultimate determinant of extended longevity and durability lies in the quality of construction methods and best practices utilized.

Several elements play pivotal roles:


Environmental Exposure Factors

Exposure to moisture, freeze-thaw cycles, chloride-containing environments, and temperature fluctuations tests the weather-ability limits of concrete and steel buildings. Epoxy-coated rebar provides additional reinforcement stability.


Material Properties

The inherent strength and durability parameters of selected materials also affect outcomes. For example, the lifespan of precast concrete elements depends on the cement-to-water ratio, porosity, and curing time.


Quality of Construction Practices

Proper handling, preparation, installation, curing, consolidation, and coating application practices for concrete structures and corrosion-resistant steels are also vital. The workmanship and concrete curing greatly sway durability capabilities.

While existing material characteristics impose baseline constraints, following construction quality controls can influence longevity. To increase durability, concrete should have well-maintained air void systems while steel should be protected with sealants, epoxy or zinc coatings to prevent water and chemical damage. 

With such protections and skilled workmanship, concrete and properly coated steel structures can last over 100+ years, even as environmental stressors accumulate.


Concrete Longevity and Durability Dynamics

Concrete structures show exceptional longevity and durability when properly engineered, reinforced, cured and maintained. Well-made concrete gains strength over decades while minimizing porosity vulnerabilities. Implementing optimal mix designs and curing also enhances concrete performance properties, saving building owners maintenance costs over 75-100+ year lifespans.

However, several issues can impact concrete durability:

  • Exposure to freeze-thaw cycles, particularly in the presence of moisture and deicing salts, induces expansive stresses. Air drawing in admixtures helps.
  • Sulfate attacks trigger decomposition reactions, which compromise integrity.
  • Surface abrasion from weathering or traffic wears away concrete. Hard aggregates counter this effect.

Various design and construction strategies bolster concrete durability:

  • Higher cement ratios increase strength and water tightness while saving owners maintenance fees and improving longevity outlooks beyond 50 years.
  • Optimizing cure times to hydrate all cement components fully boosts durability parameters over the operating life.
  • Using polymer fiber reinforcement aids in controlling shrinkage cracks that admit water.
  • Correct placement and consolidation procedures minimize porous voids.

With proper mix proportions and curing, expert finishing, protective sealants and regular upkeep like repainting damaged areas, reinforced concrete structures can persist over a century before major repair interventions become necessary — saving considerable operating expenses for owners.

The exceptional track record and time-tested nature of durable concrete construction are evidenced in structures like the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman Pantheon dome, which utilized an advanced, self-healing concrete mix design with high resilience to weathering, earthquakes, and the test of time. When used together, modern engineering techniques can help owners build concrete structures that last as long as steel ones. 


Structural Steel Durability and Corrosion Considerations

A tall steel structure under construction is pictured in front of a clear blue sky.

Structural steel, one of the most widely used construction materials, demonstrates excellent strength-to-weight capacities required in building projects with height or span constraints. With proper protection and maintenance, structural steel can last hundreds of years in various construction projects, such as precast plants, stadiums, high-rises and infrastructure in modern cities. 

However, unprotected carbon steels remain susceptible to rust and section loss when continually exposed to moisture, chlorides and weathering:

  • Rust scaling progressively damages steel sections, necessitating frequent repairs, recoating and eventually replacement to maintain building life expectancy projections.
  • Cathodic protection systems use metal anodes to slow down corrosion, but they need to be checked regularly.

Preserving steel structures involves:

  • Utilizing cost-effective epoxy or zinc coatings to shield underlying steel from moisture with long-lasting barriers. Stainless steel best resists corrosion but has higher alloy costs.
  • Establishing and adhering to rigorous painting or sealing touch-up schedules to prevent coating failures.
  • Meeting fireproofing codes requires applying spray-on cement-based or intumescent materials, which also help to prevent moisture damage.

By coupling durable epoxy or aluminum alloy coatings with preventative maintenance repainting cycles, steel systems persist beyond 100+ years. When buildings near rivers or oceans face high chloride levels, using stainless steel or well-insulated rebar offers better corrosion protection for structures expected to last 50 years or more.


A Comparative Analysis

While concrete and structural steel possess their own durability advantages in buildings and infrastructure when properly engineered and maintained, their vulnerability is different. Evaluating lifespan considerations provides insight into long-term applications for each material.

Several key differentiators stand out:

  • Concrete exhibits high innate material integrity, resisting weathering factors without much-added protection. Steel undergoes rust-centered deterioration without coatings.
  • The maintenance profile also contrasts — concrete requires less maintenance over decades compared to carbon steel, which needs regular corrosion prevention treatments.
  • Concrete maintains strength but grows vulnerable to freeze-thaw expansion cracks over decades. Steel faces gradual section loss risks under moisture but maintains ductility.

Concrete relies on its natural resistance to corrosion while steel requires vigilant upkeep over its building lifetimes. When factoring in repair costs, either material can prove cost-effective for a century-long service duration.

For more information on both materials, read our guide, Structural Concrete vs. Structural Steel: Choosing the Right Material.


Trusted Expertise Delivering Concrete and Steel Solutions

At SW Funk Industrial Contractors, we have built a reputation for reliable, high-quality concrete construction and steel fabrication since our founding over 40 years ago. As steadfast believers in the ethos “Safe + Accurate + Reliable = Trusted,” every team member receives over 80 hours of safety training annually to promote an unparalleled safety-first culture. We aim to deliver seamless customer experiences through dedicated employee expertise.

Our industrial concrete crews specialize in:

  • Precision anchor bolt layouts
  • Massive foundation pours
  • Intricate formed details
  • Concrete repair and resurfacing

We also offer full-scope structural steel solutions, including:

  • Catwalks, platforms and stairs
  • Pipe racks and support structures
  • Custom fabrications and installations
  • Structural repairs

What sets SW Funk Industrial Contractors apart is our ability to safely execute complex industrial concrete and steel projects without disrupting clients’ existing operations. We own all necessary equipment in-house and leverage logistical ingenuity to conquer access, space and scheduling obstacles through creative engineered lift plans.

As a certified AISC steel fabricator, our veteran project teams handle everything from welding intricacies to navigating active pharmaceutical cleanrooms without compromising safety and quality. We aim to be long-term partners delivering reliable results again and again.

Contact us today to discuss your upcoming industrial construction needs and discover what the SW Funk Industrial Contractors difference can do for you!