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Sky-high cost of wood drives homebuilders to turn to steel


THERE WAS a time when a building site would be stocked mostly with wood and drywall, but these days some new materials are showing up on the job.

The rising cost of lumber is a major reason for some of the changes. Since framing is such a big part of the budget in an addition or new house, builders are constantly looking for alternatives to help keep costs in line.

Steel studs, long used in commercial construction (think high-rises in Ocean City), are beginning to show up in suburban residential building as well -- not only in the walls, but in the floor and roof systems, too.

The cost of the material itself is slightly less than wood (metal studs cost $1.99 each, wood costs $2.34 each); but big savings come from the labor end. When you buy a steel framing package, the materials arrive pre-cut for the project. It's like a big erector set, with plans to show what piece goes where. Assembling it is faster than wood framing, and that leads to the savings.

There are, of course, pros and cons to steel framing. In its favor, the framing members are straight and won't warp or shrink like wood. They won't contribute to a fire and termites can't eat them. They are lighter than their wood counterparts and can span greater distances.

However, the big disadvantage to steel is that everything that is attached to it has to be screwed on. That's standard practice for drywall on the inside, but in the case of steel framing, the doors and trim have to be screwed on as well. The hole a trim screw leaves is more difficult to fill than that left by a finishing nail.

On the exterior, plywood is attached with screws so that shingles and siding can be nailed to it. While you do save money on the structure, you spend a little more putting it together. So, while it is being used in residential applications, steel framing probably will not replace wood until the price of lumber far exceeds the price of steel.

Usually, the driving force behind manufacturers' developing new products is either costs or maintenance -- or both. But sometimes you have to sacrifice one for the other. A good example of that is decking. You can buy decking in conventional treated lumber for about $3.50 a square foot, but eventually you will be resealing or replacing it, because wood has a limited life span.

You can reduce or eliminate the maintenance on your deck by using a wood composite decking material such as Trex (made from sawdust and PVC) or you can use vinyl or fiberglass decking. With these newer products the cost will increase to $5 or more per square foot, but they are virtually maintenance-free.

Another example is in new roofing products. You can buy shingles that look like cedar shake, tile, or slate, but which cost less than the real thing.

The imitations come in a variety of materials from fiberglass shingles with shadow lines that make them appear to have more depth, to composite materials that actually are thicker and look more realistic. As a rule of thumb, the more realistic they look, the more they cost. But you will still save in the long run because they are designed to outperform the real thing.

One area where the new material improves on both cost and maintenance is in trim.

If you like fancy moldings and ornamental details, polyurethane products are the way to go. Multiple-part wood crown moldings and items that once were crafted in cast plaster would cost a fortune to re-create today.

But you can buy preformed polyurethane moldings for a fraction of what the real thing would cost. For example, a three-piece, 60-foot-long crown molding in wood would cost $316 for materials, plus $250 for labor. In poly, the cost of materials would be $384, and the cost of labor $70.

The selections available are virtually endless -- you can get moldings, cornices, chair rails, casings, pediments and medallions for interior or exterior in an enormous array of styles.

Elaborate crown moldings come in one piece, are easy to install, and won't shrink. Once they are painted, you can't tell the difference. And some replications are so authentic-looking that they are endorsed by historical societies.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and past president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at hw@renovator.net or Karol at karol.menzie@baltsun.com. Or write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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