O.C. Developer Trying Steel-Frame
By Leslie Earnest - LOS ANGELES TIMES - July 10 1996
MISSION VIEJO-At one Orange County construction site, the traditional sounds of home building-hammers thumping on wood-have given way to a more grating noise.
The air there rings with what some say are the sounds of the future: screws twisting into metal, saws slicing through steel. Instead of wood frames, the 14 houses on this street will have skeletons of steel.
Taylor Woodrow Homes California Ltd. is introducing steel-frame tract housing in Orange County after launching a similar venture in Temecula. If the concept proves popular, the Laguna Hills-based builder plans to put up another 26 homes with steel frames in the 94-house development, CliffWood at Canyon Crest. The remaining houses in the development will have traditional wood frames.
"They're trying to find out if Orange County will accept them," said Bob Zeien, the foreman at the site. Although steel-frame homes accounted for only 5% of the new single family homes built last year, their numbers have increased a hundredfold since 1992.
Some industry officials predict that 25% of the new homes will be built with steel by the end of the century, particularly if wood prices remain high.
"Steel mills look at this as the biggest new opportunity for steel since the automobile" said Tom Porter, vice president of sales for California Expanded Metal Products Co., which manufactures steel framing studs.
Taylor Woodrow, which has sold all but a handful of the 80 steel-frame homes built in Temecula over the past 18 months, is optimistic about the Orange County market. "We have sold six of the 14 already," spokesman Hank Mailand said, "and we're just in the framing stage."
Promoters say steel-frame homes have straighter walls, pose less of a fire hazard, could withstand earthquakes better, and are a turnoff to termites. They are even politically correct, since metal is recyclable, they say.
A spokesman for lumber manufacturers scoffs at the claims, however. Projections that steel-frame housing will corner 25% of the market by the end of the century are "exceedingly optimistic," said Butch Bernhardt, communications director for Western Wood Products, a Portland trade association. "That's not going to happen."
"There really aren't any significant benefits, from our view, for steel framing verses wood framing," he insisted. "Wood-framed homes are, from a seismic standpoint, among the safest structures around."
He also disputed claims that steel is an environmentally superior option. "Steel making is very energy intensive," he said. "Wood is the only totally renewable resource we have.
Ultimately, many agree, the success of steel-frame houses will hinge on the price of lumber, how efficiently the houses can be built and whether any savings will be passed on to the buyer. Developers have tended to run hot and cold on steel, depending on the price of wood.
"Residential construction people are extremely-and I mean extremely-bottom line oriented" said Ken Vought, manager of product development for U.S.S.-POSCO Industries, a steel manufacturing plant in the Bay Area. "For $50 per house, I've seen builders change from one type of system to another."
Lumber prices, while slightly below the peak reached two years ago, are still almost 61% higher than they were in 1990.
Fluctuations in the price of wood are just one factor that has kept steel-frame homes from catching on more quickly, industry observers say. Other roadblocks included the lack of workers skilled in steel framing (a problem Taylor Woodrow faced when building the Temecula homes) and a dearth of tools and equipment that would make the homes easier to build. "Our biggest issue right now is probably trained labor," Porter said.
"At the CliffWood development in Mission Viejo, the wood and steel frame houses will carry the same price tag", said Mailand, the Taylor Woodrow spokesman. The houses run from 2,886 to 3,443 square feet in size and prices range from $329,000 to $355,000. "Hopefully, we can get them below the wood price," Mailand said. "That depends on the lumber market."
Buena Park-based Nicholas Lane Contractors Inc. was the contractor'in both the Temecula. and Mission Viejo projects and is bidding on other Orange County developments with home designs engineered to accommodate wood or steel, said Scott Nicholas Shaddix, president.
Steel-frame houses are not made entirely of metal. For example, the Mission Viejo homes will feature wood eaves and stairways and cement tile roofs. "When completed, they will look identical to a wood frame house", said Zeien, the foreman.
Steel-frame promoters say they are already taking steps to make construction of steel houses increasingly cost effective.
They have been urging tool and fastening companies to design labor-saving tools that would increase productivity. Indeed, toolmakers have now created an airdriven gun that will spit out "knurl nails" (which resemble screws) that are used with metal. Toolmakers are currently seeking better ways to fasten drywall onto steel.
In the meantime, the industry has set up seminars across the nation to train workers. In Costa Mesa, Orange Coast College offers a class in steel-frame construction.
A group of building industry representatives also is pushing to have steel framing requirements included in residential building codes to make it easier to get these projects approved.
"So far, steel-frame homes have sprung up more quickly in Northern California than in Southern California", said Vought, the steel plant official. One developer has erected 200 houses in the Bay Area and plans to build another 1,800. Another developer is planning to erect 4,600 in that area over the next eight years.
Although the Taylor Woodrow project is the first tract housing development in the county to use steel framing, the technique has been used sporadically in custom home construction.
"After the 1993 firestorm in Laguna Beach, which destroyed 286 homes in the city limits, three or four houses were rebuilt with steel, said John Gustafson, the city's building official.
"I think it's certainly a viable alternative to wood framing, and it certainly has its place in the market", he said. "Once they have experienced people out there working on them, they slap them together pretty fast."
Still, the transition period presents headaches for workers who are still trying to get used to screwing a house together. At the Taylor Woodrow site recently, construction workers offered mixed feelings about the change.
"I'm watching both ends of this with amazement," said carpenter Melvin Geiger, who has been building homes for 33 years. "I don't think these houses will stand any better than a wood house."
But Taylor Woodrow's Mailand said his company's investment in the
steel-frame housing market will prove worth the effort. "I don't
think it's just a trend that's going to come and pass," he said.