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Light Gauge Steel Becomes
Attractive for Home Builders


Many changes have taken place in the residential construction industry over the last two years. Among the most significant of these changes is the shift form traditional use of wood for framing purposes to the use of recycled steel studs. This shift to steel has far reaching implications for developers, builders and other supporting industries.

Originally, residential developers began using steel studs in the homes they built as a result of increasing prices and limited availability of lumber. This scarcity of lumber has been prompted by environmental protests over harvesting forests in the Pacific Northwest, the traditional source of lumber for the California building industry. As conservation efforts continue to limit the amount of forest that can be used for construction and as fewer board feet of lumber are taken from reforested trees due to increasing costs, lumber prices for builders could easily rise even higher. Because of this, steel has become an acceptable and often favored alternative to lumber by offering many advantages over wood including substantial cost savings.

According to a recent NAHB report, lumber comprises approximately seven percent of the price of a new home. Cost may well be the prime motivating factor for builders to begin using steel. However, safety is also a main motivating factor and one of the major advantages of using steel in residential construction. According to Walter Pruter, technical director of the Information Bureau for Drywall, Lath & Plaster, "Steel studs are not only competefive in price, but offer many advantages over lumber framing. They can be installed to flatness tolerances much tighter than building code requirements and can produce framing for drywall and plaster which eliminates the problems wood framing generates." Pruter further praises steel studs for their strength and their lack of weight, which makes for less foundation settlement and cracking.

Recently, Taylor Woodrow Homes chose to utilize steel in its Homecoming development in Temecula, California. According to Barbara Stowers, sales manager for Taylor Woodrow Homes "Steel is a good value for consumers because it makes for very durable homes." In addition to durability, Stowers extolled steel's environmental advantages over traditional wood construction. "Steel helps conserve natural resources and protects the ecosystem. We will be using steel throughout all the remaining phases of our Homecoming project." Scott Shaddix of Nicholas Lane Contracting, the framers on the Homecoming project, agrees with Stower's assessment "Steel is a great way to build homes and when used properly by skilled labor, can be a great asset to developers."

With steel, the studs, track and joists are lightweight and easy to move and assemble. In addition, steel is pre-cut at the factory and comes pre-punched with electrical and plumbing conduits, which save time and money on installation and labor. Steel structure homes also offer more durability than wood and are impossible to distinguish from wood framed homes. Unlike wood, steel will not warp, twist, split or crack; is immune to termites and vermin and nonflammable. Homes built with steel can be engineered to receive a seismic four rating, the highest for residential dwellings. Basically, steel has greater structural strength than wood, with increased flexibility of design, greater interior spans, increased square footage and usable living space.

Of course, steel is not completely without problems. A highly skilled labor force is essential to the timely and budget wary completion of any construction project. Framers who have traditionally used wood for their projects must now learn how to use steel in order to take advantage of its qualities and advantages and to be a viable member of the construction workforce. Says Scott Shaddix "There is a learning curve associated with steel just like there was with wood. It will take time before their is an equal facility with steel." Shaddix believes it is in the best interest of everyone involved with construction to be completely acquainted and skilled with wood or steel. That knowledge will enable them to keep working no matter what material developers decide to use. This will also provide a highly skilled labor force that will be capable of meeting the needs of any developer. As the skills and knowledge of both the labor force and developers increses, the advantages and cost savings of steel can become more fully realized.

In addition, even though steel will not burn and add fuel to a house fire, it will melt if temperatures are high enough, as they often are in a house fire. Despite these problems, steel is an environmentally conscious way to construct homes. When builders use steel, they are contributing to the environment and saving trees and helping to reduce lumber mill costs. Using recycled steel is an ideal way for builders to contribute environmentally. The overall recycling rate for steel in the U.S. is 66%, the highest rate for any material, even wood.

If builders and developers continue to use steel, they will be making a significant contribution to the environment. However, more recently, wood prices have begun to come down and steel prices have begun to increase. What effect these changes will have on the builder and the developer's decision between steel and wood remains to be seen. Will the safety and environmental advantages of steel outweigh any increase in price? Will builders and developers continue to use steel if it becomes as costly as wood? Or, will they return to more traditional methods of construction? Whatever the decisions of builders and developers, change will inevitably be part of the construction industry landscape over the next few years, and beyond.