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A steel-framed house can be a cozy home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Lynn Beattie decided to build a house, she began to research all the various decisions that would have to be made during the process.

One seminar she attended mentioned the growing problem of finding quality lumber. And then it dawned on her.

"I thought, they build steel buildings every day, so why don't they build homes out of steel," Beattie asked. "The speaker was talking about how the quality of wood was not what it used to be, and I decided I wanted something solid."

Beattie made her decision after attending yet another seminar, this one hosted by Tri-Steel Structures Inc., a Texas-based manufacturer of steel-frame homes.

What she is ending up with is a 5,000-square-foot home in Phoenix that is as strong as steel.

"I knew there were problems with wood and there were just so many benefits to using steel. Not the least of which is you're not cutting down trees to do it. Instead, you can use recycled materials [with steel], and I thought that was a great idea."

While the steel industry has tried for decades to get into homebuilding in a significant way, steel-framed homes have not become the phenomenon that industry officials would like. But the industry keeps pushing the idea, and there are indications that it is slowly catching on. Steel-framed homes account for about 1.5 percent of the homes being built in the country, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The number rises to almost 8 percent when looking at the number of homes built with some steel parts.

Builders know the option is there, but, with the housing boom going on, they can't spare the extra time to learn the new craft.

"The work forces around here don't really exist for residential steel framing. When [Beattie] first came to us with this project, we looked and looked for a crew to assemble this," said Michael Aieilo, vice president of Cockeysvile-based Cher-Chris Construction, which was brought in to construct the home.

"We had a crew capable, but they didn't want to jump into a project that large for their first time," Aiello said. "A lot of these framers have enough to do, and they don't want to take on something that's going to put them in a bind. There is definitely going to have to be some people educated in this area."

Aiello said the Beattie project was taken on to learn more about working with steel and to possibly promote steel framing in the future.

"It has a lot of appeal; it comes down to the dollar and if people are willing to pay a little more for it," Aiello said. "For someone who is really looking for perfection in a house, who is really concerned about a twist in a stud, for example, it's a good alternative.

"You're dealing with man-made precision materials. So everything is basically perfect. You don't have any of the imperfections of a natural product, Usually, people are willing to pay a little more if there are advantages to it."

Beattie choose a pre-engineered steel-framing system with each component delivered to the site, cut to length, clearly marked and ready for assembly.

"When it arrived, it looked like a giant erector set like we had when we were growing up,' she said.

Tri-Steel provided the blue-prints and detailed assembly instructions.

The steel homes can be built on any type of foundation and can be finished with any material such as brick, stucco or siding. An unaware observer wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a completed steel-built home and a wood-studded home.

The biggest hurdle for Beattie was finding a local builder to put it together. That eventually turned out to be Cher-Chnis, which laid the foundation. North Carolina-based builder Diversified Building Services said it would send a crew to erect the steel framing. And Cher-Chris returned to complete the exterior finish.

"The things we can say about steel are it doesn't rot, warp, split, crack or creep. It doesn't burn, and termites can't eat it. It doesn't expand under different moisture contents. It has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any building material. All of this makes it a superior construction mate-rial," said Donald Moody, president of the North American Steel Framing Alliance (NASFA).

"So it's fundamentally a better framing material. It dominates every other segment in building construction except residential," Moody said.

In several parts of the country such as Hawaii, California and many Southern states, where termites and severe weather are a houses foe, the use of steel framing has grown.

While some steel companies operated steel-home divisions in the 1960s and 1970s, steel was more expensive than wood and the demand never took off. But lumber prices began to fluctuate while steel prices have remained relatively stable for the past 20 years. Consequently, steel has become an attractive alternative.

Although materials may be relatively equal, the expense of a steel-framed house rises when labor costs are added. A steel-framed house can cost more than a wood-framed house by from 40 cents per square foot to as much as $2.50 a square foot, Moody said.

One reason construction costs are higher, even with experienced construction crews, is the way steel frames are put together. Steel builders use screws instead of nails.

"Screws are a much, much stronger connection than nails, but they take a little longer to install, so labor costs will be higher," Moody said. "We are currently working with tool manufacturers to find ways to make steel framing faster."

Steel has another disadvantage.

"Steel is more conductive than wood, so you have to add more installation to meet the energy requirements; this can add extra cost," said Nader Elhajj, an engineer with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Research Center in Upper Marlboro.

"Also, distribution can be a problem. With wood, if you need an extra part you can run to Home Depot or somewhere to pick up what you need. With steel, you still have to call in to a distributor and may have to wait for it to be shipped out," Elhajj said.

The steel industry also uses the argument that steel is 100 percent recyclable, with steel framing containing a minimum of 25 percent recycled steel.

"We feel we are positioned well, and I do think it is the wave of the future for a few reasons," Moody said, "Lumber prices, in general, have risen throughout the 1990s, and the forecasts expect that to remain the trend. The reason wood prices have gone up is because the supply is threatened. So, as time goes on, steel is increasingly better positioned against wood."

Lumber prices have indeed increased from previous decades's. Prices averaged about $200 per 1,000 board feet during the 1980s, and in the 1990s prices averaged well over $300, according to the NAHB's Housing at the Millennium report.

The cost of lumber and wood products accounts for one-third of the cost of materials used to build a home. At $400 per 1,000 board feet, the lumber package for a 2,000-square-foot home costs about $10,000.

Comparably, steel prices have remained stable since 1980. A steel package for a typical 2,000-square-foot house now would cost about $12,000.

The total cost of a constructed steel house is being compared with that of a wood house in a study being carried out by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the NAHB, The study will finance construction of six houses - three steel and three wood-in three parts of the country. Two identical homes in Indiana have just been completed and their costs are being analyzed, Elhajj said. A report is expected soon.

The materials for each of the 2,200-square-foot homes ran $14,200 for the steel and $16,675 for the wood. However, preliminary numbers indicate that the steel home will come in slightly higher in total cost than the comparable wood home, Elhajj said.

Although the benefits of steel can justify the slightly higher total cost, the steel industry has had other hurdles to overcome in convincing the public of the merits of its product. In the past, the steel industry suffered because standard practices were not in place for using steel frames as they were in the wood-framing industry.

There was also a lack of education and understanding within the marketplace, forcing builders into the added cost of consulting an engineer to go over plans.

In recent, years, industry groups have made significant gains by conducting training programs around the country, getting the prescriptive framing requirements included in the International Residential Code and standardizing the dimensions of steel.

"The steel industry started to make inroads in the residential industry about five years ago when lumber prices increased. However, at that time the steel industry was not ready to meet the demands," said Michael Carliner, an economist with the NAHB.

"It wasn't something that was easy to switch over to. But the industry has really made significant gains in solving these problems. Now, they do have standard dimensions; they are incorporated into the building code; and they have training programs in place."

One reason the use of steel framing in the residential market has not increased more is the over-all shortage of labor in the home-building industry, combined with the lack of labor trained in the steel residential market.

"We are facing a substantial labor shortage. So to do something where there was a new labor learning requirement isn't conducive to further adoption," Carliner said. "But I think, with some of the efforts the steel industry has made; I would expect to see further inroads."

Beattie is pleased. "I like the feeling of having a good, solid, sturdy home. It's something that will last a long time. And I love knowing that I didn't cause any trees to be felled on my behalf, There are just so many benefits."

Facts about steel

Question: Will a steel-framed home look different than other homes in the development?

Answer: No. A steel-framed home will look exactly like any other home; the same exterior finishes tan be applied to a steel frame as those applied to a wood frame.

Q: Does a steel frame interfere. with radio or television reception?

A: No. Waves pass through the space between the studs, allowing the use of all electronic appliances without any interference.

Q: Is it easy to hang pictures on steel framed walls?

A: Yes. Lighter pictures can be hung from the drywall with toggle bolts or hangers. Heavier objects. can be hung with screws attached directly into the steel stud, easily found with a magnet.

Q:Is a steel frame safe in lightening storms?

A: Yes. A steel frame actually allows more protection for the occupants in the case of lightening. Steel provides a path for the lightening straight to the ground, reducing the likelihood of explosions or secondary fires.

Q: Can a steel-framed home be" remodeled?

A: Yes Since steel framing allows for larger spans in the design of the home, fewer interior load-bearing walls are needed, making renovation easier while allowing more flexibility in design.

Q: Will a steel-framed house rust?

A: No. The use of zinc coating on the steel-framing protects the steel from corrosion for the life of the structure.

SOURCE: North American Steel Framing Alliance

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