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Will Steel Be the Building Material of Homes of the Future?

When it comes to building a new home, a few builders are starting to think of steel.

While most commercial buildings are framed with steel, homes have traditionally been framed with wood. But lumber prices have nearly doubled over the past two years, so a handful of local home builders are starting to experiment with light-gauge steel framing.

Across the country, steel-framed homes account for just 1% of new U. S. housing starts according to the National Assn. of Home Builders. And there is not one major new home development under construction in the San Fernando or Santa Clarita valleys, or Ventura County, that utilized steel framing, according to The Meyers Group, a home-building research firm. But a few local custom home builders and remodelers are starting to use steel framing in some projects.

“Steel is easier and more stable to work with,” said Tim Gurule, owner of Integrated Environmental Systems, a Las Vegas-based company that is building a steel-framed home in Pacoima. The house is being built on the foundation of an old home that has been demolished. Thanks in part to the cost-effectiveness of steel framing, Gurule said, the 1,360-square-foot home will be built for just $55 a square foot--versus an average in the area of $100 per square foot.

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Steel homes are more fire-, termite- and earthquake-resistant than wood, argued Bill Justus, co-owner of Long Beach-based Silverwood Structures Co., which has built several steel-framed homes in Ventura County. Unlike wood, steel won’t warp, split, crack or twist, Justus said, and “you build our homes like an erector set. All the parts are pre-cut, marked and labeled. Using recycled steel to frame a home is also much better for the environment than cutting down trees,” he said.

But since the Northridge earthquake, there has been a lot of concern about the safety of steel-framed buildings. The Los Angeles Building and Safety Department reported recently that at least 90 steel-framed commercial structures in the San Fernando Valley were damaged in the Jan. 17 earthquake. Another 900 steel-framed buildings could be in jeopardy if another earthquake occurs in the Los Angeles area. And this month, the California Seismic Safety Commission urged government officials to force builders of new high-rise buildings to show proof that their steel-frame buildings can withstand a big earthquake.

But steel advocates point out that office buildings have steel frames that are welded together, while the steel-framed homes are screwed together. This gives the steel-framed homes more flexibility in a quake, Justus contends. Most of the earthquake damage in commercial steel buildings happened when horizontal beams and vertical columns welded together were unable to withstand the force of the quake, he said.

There are actually two types of steel studs used by residential steel-frame builders. Load-bearing steel studs are generally more expensive than wood. Non-load-bearing steel studs are now considered comparable in price, and sometimes cheaper, than wood. The cost of framing a home can vary widely, depending on the square footage of the structure, number of doors and windows, and the complexity of the roof and floor plan. The cost of labor is another variable because there aren’t too many workers who are trained to put up steel-framed housing.

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“There is not a large enough steel-skilled labor pool,” conceded Dave Busk, owner of Busk Homes, a general contractor in Monarch Beach. Because of this, he said, steel framing often takes about 25% more time to put up than wood framing. With an experienced crew, however, steel and wood framing times are comparable, Busk said. Steel also costs less to transport than wood, he added, because light-gauge steel is 60% lighter.

“I have found that there is widespread acceptance of steel framing from home buyers,” said Busk, who has erected a steel-framed home at the Anaheim Convention Center for the Southern California Home and Garden Show now under way. Most of that acceptance has come not in Southern California, but in Southern states, where buyers are more often looking for homes that are tornado- and hurricane-resistant.

“It’s not economically and logistically feasible for us to go with steel framing now,” said Mark Beisswanger, president of Kaufman & Broad’s Coastal Valleys Division in Woodland Hills. Currently, the cost of lumber framing is slightly less than steel framing, Beisswanger said. Two other reasons to stick with wood now are that K & B’s labor pool is unfamiliar with steel framing, and all of the company’s architectural and structural plans are designed for wood.

“For us to make the move to steel framing would require a lot of changes, so any change is going to be gradual,” Beisswanger said. “We’re continuing to evaluate steel framing and it may become the preferred alternative in the future.”

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“People are reluctant to be the first to jump into something new,” said Jerry Hughes, owner of Anaco Building Systems, a steel packager in the city of Ventura. Anaco, which has been a commercial steel supplier for a number of years, has only supplied steel for framing two homes in Ventura, Hughes said. The company bid on supplying steel to several home builders, Hughes recalled, but the orders were either stymied by the economy or builders who were jittery about using a relatively new framing process.

Steel advocates say it’s better to build an 1,800-square-foot home with six recycled cars than with 41 mature trees, but lumber advocates question the validity of such a comparison. “There are a lot of half-truths being promoted about the practical and environmental benefits of steel framing,” said Butch Bernhardt, director of communications for the Western Wood Products Assn. in Portland, Ore.

Bernhardt maintained that the recycled content of steel framing is lower than its promoters claim and said the manufacture of steel framing uses a massive amount of energy that may actually be more harmful to the environment than cutting down trees for building lumber. Bernhardt added that wood-framed houses increasingly feature the use of so-called oriented strand board, which is made out of wood strips and recycled wood products.

There are other potential drawbacks to a steel-framed house. Building a home with steel framing requires the services of a licensed structural engineer who is familiar with light-gauge steel homes. Another problem is “if you don’t have a trained steel crew, it will take forever to build,” Justus admitted.

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