BUILDING PRODUCTS - SUMMER 1997
When the sales reps at Brookfield Homes Southland in Costa Mesa, Calif., take prospective buyers through a model TV home,they always showoff the hole in the wall.
"We want our customers to look inside that wall cavity and see the steel studs," explains President Jeff Prostor. "We believe that steel, in many respects, is a better framing product than lumber, and we want our customers to know it."
In educating prospective buyers, Brookfield's salespeople focus on the facts: steel won't burn, is impervious to rot, termites and other vermin and is recyclable. But the real advantage, from a business standpoint, is that steel enables Brookfield to control its future costs.
"Had I been framing with lumber during this last spike, which took prices above $500 per thousand board feet again, it would have cost me [an additional] $500 to $800 a house," Prostor explains.
A number of low-volume home builders use steel, but Brookfield is one of the only larger U.S. builders committed to steel framing. The firm will build about 150 steel-framed homes in the Los Angeles area this year, and plans to build 400 next year. The 1,100 to 5,000 square-foot custom houses sell from $150,000 to $600,000. Still, builders' interest in steel framing is swelling. Besides stable pricing, they're attracted to steel studs' uniform quality and dimensional stability, which almost eliminate callbacks related to drywall buckling and nail pops.
Nevertheless, a number of obstacles continue to stand in the way of steel's acceptance. Prostor's main problem with steel framing, as echoed by many other builders, is finding framers and other subcontractors who do the job right.
"These guys, especially the subs, view steel framing with a lot of suspicion and apprehension," he says. "We're working to convince them that Brookfield's Costa Mesa division is committed to steel framing-that it's not a whim-so they'll be encouraged to go ahead and get the tools and training they need."
[Right: Edgemont at South Hills, in West Covina, Calif., is an all-steel subdivision being developed by Brookfield Homes Southland, a division of a large Canadian builder The floor joists, partition walls and exterior walls are steel only the roof trusses are lumber. The homes under construction are 3,300 to 4,000 square feet.]
But home builders-always a conservative lot-were reluctant to change their traditional building methods, especially when steel offered little, if any, price advantage over lumber. Thus, steel's early forays into the home building industry fizzled.
Then, in early 1993, lumber prices surged to an all-time high-more than $500 per thousand board feet-followed by months of wild price fluctuations. With lumber quality deteriorating and prices jumping all over the place, builders re-examined steel framing as a serious option.
Although industry skeptics predicted that interest in steel framing would peter out once lumber prices settled down, that hasn't happened. The number of steel-framed houses built in the United States has grown from 6,000 in 1992 to an estimated 70,000 last year. If forecasts hold true, builders could erect about 95,000 steel-framed dwellings this year, more than 5% of total starts.
[Left: Few pro lumberyards stock steel studs. Thus, builders must have steel framing packages shipped directly to them fromfabr. Industry officials say that distribution chain soon may change now that CABO approved prescriptive requirements for residential steel framing.]
For some builders and framers, it wasn't the spike in lumber prices that prompted a switch to steel, but the nerve-wracking volatility. "I got tired of fighting to maintain my quotes from morning to afternoon," says Scott Shaddix, president of Nicholas Lane Contractors of Buena Park, Calif. "My steel prices are quoted at six-month intervals, not day-to-day."
Unfortunately, the variables that made lumber prices so volatile in the past, including fickle weather, inconsistent federal timber policies, Canadian lumber import tariffs, environmental laws and court actions, seem likely to shape the future as well.
"Obviously, the fluctuating price of lumber will continue to influence the market," says Geoffrey Stone, project manager for residential construction at the American Iron and Steel Institute in Washington, D.C. "But it's mainly the quality of steel that's driving demand now."
[Right: Sovereign Homes of Columbus, Ohio, combines steel studs with wood top and bottom plates in this new 2,000-square-foot home in the Charleston Ridge development. The studs, designed for integration with wood framing components, are manufactured by the HL Stud Corp., also of Columbus. 614-451-8100.]
Builders who use steel tout its qualitative advantages over lumber. And piece for piece, it's usually less expensive. So what's been holding steel back? The answer is a lack of infrastructure, including a desperate shortage of skilled labor, inadequate tools and less than full recognition under the building codes. Plus, steel is a great heat conductor, so special attention must be paid to insulating the framing (see "Ghost Busters" below).
SEEKING SKILLED LABOR
"Our first experience with steel was not a good one," says Michael Holigan, president of Holigan Homes in Dallas. "The framer told us he could frame in a house with steel in three or four days, but it took him weeks."
One problem, says Holigan, is that most good residential framers are too busy to learn a new skill. "Commercial contractors, who are already familiar with steel, may do fine when it comes to straight walls," he points out, "but they get lost up top. They don't know how to cut in a roof."
Despite his bad experience, Holigan, whose company will build about 700 homes this year, hasn't given up on steel completely. "We may pick it up again for interior walls," he says, "and perhaps in the new modular housing plant we're building in Missouri. In a manufacturing setting, you can keep tighter control over your labor."
[Left: Just like stick-framed homes, steel-framed residences can be any style or design. Nevertheless, some builders complain that few framers or subs know how to build with steel, so they derive little or no savings from their first few projects. This house was erected by Nicholas Lane Contractors of Buena Park, Calif., which specializes in steel framing.]
Whatever savings a builder might expect on material charges should be reallocated to cover increased labor costs, at least on the first few houses.
"The learning curve will kill you-and you'll lose your investment-if you don't plan to amortize your increased labor costs over a number of houses," warns Hank Mailand, manager of research and product development at Taylor Woodrow Homes in Laguna Hills, Calif., which will build about 400 upscale houses this year.
Recognizing that skilled labor is the key to steel's future, the American Iron and Steel Institute and the National Association of Home Builders Research Center in Upper Marlboro, Md., are developing new training curricula and are offering ongoing training programs for bi4iders, framers, subs and code officials.
In addition, the institute is conducting on-site time-and-motion studies to see how residential steel framers can work more efficiently. It's also meeting with tool companies to push the development of new tools, fasteners and saw blades.
Most training programs teach stick-building techniques, in which steel replaces lumber piece for piece, because it's the easiest system for builders and framers to learn. But the experts agree that steel's future is in panelized and pre-engineered systems that take advantage of its superior strength and thus reduce costs.
[Above: Of course, steel-framed homes contain some wood products and other building materials. In some cases, builders spec wood roof trusses instead of steel ones based on price and availability.]
Unfortunately, some tools that would be a big help, for example, in attaching drywall to steel or wire mesh and foam (for stucco) to steel, aren't available or are prohibitively expensive.
"It's the old chicken-and-egg story," explains Curt Kinney, president of Tri-Chord Systems, a steel component manufacturer in El Cajon, Calif. "The tool companies don't want to invest in manufacturing new tools until they see a bigger market, but we won't have a bigger market until we get the right tools."
[Right: This steel-framed house built by Taylor Woodrow Homes shows that any exterior finish system can be applied to steel. Taylor Woodrow is completing the last of 40 steel-framed houses in its Cliff wood development in Mission Viejo, Calif. The houses, framed by Nicholas Lane Contractors of Buena Park, Calif ., are 2,800 to 3,400 square feet and are priced from $350,000 to $400,00.]
The impasse is dissolving. During the past year, for example, ET&F Fastening Systems, Aerosmith and Paslode introduced pneumatic fastening tools specifically designed for steel framing. Also new is Quik Drive's QD2000 autofeeder for screw guns and the model FH41 2 battery powered screw gun expected soon from Max Company Ltd. Meanwhile, Hitachi Power Tools and Black & Decker are working on saws and blades that cut steel.
BUILDING CODE BREAKTHROUGH
The action places steel framing on an equal footing with dimensional lumber, so builders no longer need an engineer's seal on plans for houses less than 2,000 square feet.
[Left: Employees of Nicholas Lane Contractors of Buena Park, Calif., lift a steel roof truss into place with a crane. Some builders complain that steel framing requires them to use heavy equipment and tools, like screw guns, that they're not accustomed to working with.]
"That engineering stamp represented a big indirect cost to a lot of builders that now has been erased," says Bill Farkas, a research engineer at the NAHB Research Center. "CABO approval also means that builders won't have to use steel members that are heavier than necessary to provide a margin of safety."
Despite CABO approval, further code refinement is needed. Farkas says that the institute and the NAHB Research Center are documenting ways to optimize residential steel framing so that builders can safely reduce the number of studs, joists and trusses they use within full code compliance.
"Why frame a steel wall at 16 inches on center when you can frame on 24?" he asks. "Why use two 2-by-4s for a king stud when you can specify a thicker gauge of steel and just use one?" In due time, says Farkas, the codes will recognize material-saving modifications.
The CABO breakthrough also should help create a better distribution system for steel. At this point, steel fabricators often ship direct to builders because only a few lumberyards carry the material. Now that CABO has standardized sizes, gauges and fasteners, more lumberyards will be encouraged to handle steel.
[Right: Steel roof trusses, manufactured by Tri-Chord Systems, were assembled using automated press-jointing techniques at the company's plant in El Cajon, Calif., and trucked to the construction site in Las Vegas. The company says steel trusses require 8% to 1 0% less time to assemble than wood trusses because of steel's consistent quality. 619-588-2591. E-mail: email@example.com ]
"Piece by piece, the infrastructure for residential steel framing is being put into place," says Kinney of Tri-Chord Systems. "I'm comfortable it's going to have a bright future." BP
Don Bestis a Surry, N.H.-based France writerand co-editorof Energy Design Update.
[Right: A section of steel roof trusses is lowered onto a townhouse under construction in Fredrick, Md. The builder, Ryan Homes, is using the project to evaluate steel's potential. The two story, 1,400-square-foot townhouse is one of three test homes (the others are made of structural insulated panels and wood) built side-by-side in conjunction with the Consortuim for Advanced Residential Building. 203-857-0200]
In fact, steel studs can reduce the in-cavity R-value of a 4-inch wall by as much as 50%. Thermal losses through wood studs, by comparison, reduce the R-value by about 10%.
In addition to stiff energy losses and related comfort problems, steel framing also can cause "ghost marks" on interior walls where dust and mold accumulate along the relatively cold stud lines.
The most common way to address these problems is to wrap the house with an inch or more of rigid foam insulation, Research conducted at NAHB Research Center and the federally funded Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee shows that this method improves thermal performance and prevents ghost marks, Thermal losses decrease proportionately to the thickness of the insulating foam.
Unfortunately, adding insulation also adds costs. Oak Ridge researchers believe there are less expensive solutions. One approach uses new stud configurations, such as the EESI-STUD (Energy-Efficient Stud Interchangeable), developed by Tri-Chord Systems. Another approach, invented at Oak Ridge, wraps the studs in a foam sleeve so that insulation is placed only where it's needed. Nevertheless, insulation sleeves aren't being manufactured yet.
[Left: This innovative steel stud, manufactured by Tri-Chord systems Of El Cajon, Cald., uses two biangular chords with narrow connecting webs. The reduced web area greatly improves the EESI-MD's thermal performance compared to standard C-shaped studs, according to the manufacturer. The stud can be used wfth efther steel or wood plates. 61 @2591. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.]
"Our research has convinced me that we can design and
build metal stud walls in which the studs reduce the in-cavity Rvalue by
15% or less," says Jan Kosny, an Oak Ridge researcher. "And I
believe it can be done cost-effectively" -D.B.