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Steel Framing Provides an Alternative to Lumber

Nation's Building News - March 24th 1997

With unpredictable lumber price swings, supply uncertainty and rising environmental concerns prompting many builders to search for viable alternatives to traditional wood-framed houses, steel manufacturers are optimistic that their time has come to carve out a growing niche in the single-family housing market.

"Steel framed housing is in the future and we are fortunate to be on the front end of this growing industry" said Scott Shaddix, president of Buena Park, California based Nicholas Lane Contractors, Inc., which is in the vanguard of the light-gauge steel residential building industry.

The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) hopes to see Light-gauge steel framing capture 25% of the residential market by the year 2000 and, while many industry analysts believe that this goal is overly optimistic, the fact remains that many builders are considering a shift to steel-framed construction.

A survey conducted by NAHB at its annual convention this past January shows that 10% of builders are using steel framing for load-bearing walls and 18% are planning to use it. Likewise, 8% use steel framing for nonload bearing walls and 18% are planning to use it.

Nationwide, NAHB estimates that 1%-2% of single-family homes were built last year using light-gauge steel framing, while about 5%-6% of the homes used steel studs in interior partition walls.

Builders are increasingly switching to steel studs because they are not only competitive 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 that eliminates the problems wood framing generates. Steel studs are also stronger and lighter than wood, which makes for less foundation settlement and cracking.

"Anything we can build in wood we can build in steel," said Shaddix, whose firm frames houses with both materials to remain competitive in today's marketplace, but believes that the shift to steel is clearly in the future of the industry.

The cost of lumber can have a significant effect on the cost of a new home. With lumber prices fluctuating dramatically last year, primarily because of a trade agreement between Canada and the U.S. to limit duty-free imports of lumber from Canada, American home builders are becoming keenly interested in new material and technologies. And steel, with its promise of price stability, is at the top of the list.

Whereas many lumber dealers fail to guarantee prices for more than 30 days, Jeff Ohmtedt, California Building systems manager for Los Angeles based Angeles Metal Systems, a manufacturer of steel studs, notes: "Over the past 24 months, there has been no greater than a 5% fluctuation in our price package. For a typical 2,000 square-foot single-family home, we see that steel nine times out of 10 times will cost about 10%-15% less than wood."

In addition to price stability, steel has a number of characteristics that make it more appealing than wood. These include: increased flexibility; consistent quality; it does not warp, shrink, twist, split, swell or rust; it is termite and vermin proof; its noncombustible construction can result in lower insurance premiums for the home buyer; a strength-to-weight ratio higher than that of wood allows for the creation of longer spans and more open areas, creating flexibility for a variety of floor designs; a waste factor of under 5% versus 15% to 20% for wood; it is environmentally sound - steel is 100% recyclable and 66% of it is now recycled; for chemically sensitive people, steel is completely nontoxic; 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; plus remodeling is easer - home owners can unscrew walls rather than rip them apart.

According to Shaddix, the largest problem to overcome in the steel market is training the trades that work in the wood market and developing new tools and techniques to allow workers to assemble steel framed homes as efficiently as their wood counterparts.

"What the industry is going through now is a learning process on how to use steel" said Shaddix, who plans to build nearly 300 steel-framed houses this year, a nearly six-fold increase from the 50 built by his firm in 1995. "Right now, the material package is cheaper than the wood package but labor costs for steel are higher than for wood. This is because the tooling system has been around for hundreds of years for wood houses. Steel is in its infancy. But in the last four to five years, manufacturers have created new tools and fasteners that are providing greater efficiencies and techniques to assemble steel-framed homes more effectively and allow us to become more efficient with our labor costs."

Indeed, toolmakers have now created pneumatic nailers that actually drive a screw like a nail and twist it into place as quickly as a nail gun. And new screw guns are being developed to fasten steel framing members together more quickly and efficiently.

Once framers and subcontractors get past the learning curve and master the tools of the trade, using steel, for the most part, is easier and more efficient than wood construction. Labor costs are reduced because the steel is prepunched for electrical and plumbing lines, its light weight requires fewer framers, and because of steel's superior strength-to-weight ratio, studs and trusses don't have to be placed as close together as they would using wood.

Up until recently, builders everywhere in the U.S. faced difficult engineering calculations before being able to embark upon steel framing projects, because there were no code-approved prescriptive requirements available. That situation has now changed, and it has removed a major obstacle to steel framing. Effective Jan. 1, requirements for residential steel framing were approved for inclusion in the One- and Two-Family Dwelling Code used by the Council of American Building Officials (CABO). This now allows builders to select joist and stud sizes without the use of an engineer. Shopping for steel 2x4s is no more difficult than shopping for lumber, and the price of steel in recent times has been considerably more stable and easier to predict than lumber.

The new requirements standardize the basic cold-formed steel members; provide a system for labeling members; and provide minimum corrosion protection requirements. The approved code changes also include floor joist span tables, wall stud tables, wall bracing requirements and connection requirements. Next year, CABO requirements for roof trusses and rafters should be available.

As a result of this progress on the codes front, the NAHB Research Center is in the process of conducting seminars for code officials. There remain approximately 4,000 local jurisdictions that need to adopt the new CABO codes on steel framing.

While heavily concentrated in California, the steel phenomena is not just a West Coast occurrence. Atlanta and Chicago are also considered "hotbeds" for steel framing, according to AISI's Geoff Stone, because they are close to steel mills and are served by builders and subcontractors who already have expertise in steel framing.

Florida, Texas (especially Dallas), Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest have also seen higher than average levels of steel framing. Very little steel activity is occurring in such states as North Dakota and South Dakota, where there is inadequate infrastructure for the production and delivery of steel. Most conspicuously, steel is lagging in the Northeast, largely because the housing markets there have been sluggish.

In earthquake-prone California, proponents of steel framing cite its ability to withstand seismic activity that can destroy a traditionally built wood-frame house. In Florida, where hurricanes are common, steel can withstand higher winds. The bad news is that in parts of the U.S. that commonly experience natural disasters the code requirements for earth tremors and wind loads for steel framed houses have not been developed by many local communities, and that can take some time.

For builders interested in making the switch to steel, Shaddix offers one word of advice: commitment.

"Commitment sums it up. If developers are committed to sticking with steel, the subcontractors will do whatever it takes to develop success," he said.

In order for steel to make a significant dent in the residential housing market, Shaddix says that the market must reach a "critical mass" where key players in the building industry developers, architects, engineers, officials, the labor work force - choose to become involved.

"We have shown that steel is a technically superior product and can help the developer save money,' he said. 'We are creating what I think is an inevitable trend. Having the opportunity to be involved, I'd rather be on the front end of this movement than the back end."

Builders who are interested in learning more about steel can call the Steel Hotline at 1-800-79-STEEL.