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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California economy is on the rebound, housing starts are up and the familiar sound of framers pounding nails into studs can be heard at new housing developments throughout Southern California.

Well, at least that sound is heard in most new developments. But in some subdivisions, the familiar sounds of construction have given way to the less familiar clang of metal against metal and screw guns, rather than nail guns, fastening framing together.

Welcome to the world of steel-framed housing, an emerging alternative to the traditional wood-framed home that has long been the staple of builders.

Steel has been making inroads into the national housing stock for

the last five years. About 1% of the

new housing starts each year use steel framing, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders.

The steel industry claims that as much as 6% of new housing is steel-framed. The American Iron and Steel Institute estimates that 95,000 steel-framed homes were built in 1997, up from 500 in 1992.

Admittedly, these numbers represent only a small part of the 1.2 million housing starts each year. But the iron and steel institute is aggressively marketing steel to the building industry.

The steel industry hopes to capture 25% of the market in Southern California and three other targeted areas--San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago--and 10% of the rest of the country by 2000.

"In California in particular, we're spending $1 million on projects to test new tools, new fasteners, new technology," said Geoff Stone, who manages the American Iron and Steel Institute's residential steel-framing program.

The institute is working with builders to reduce costs and train and educate workers, he said.

Builders like Jeffrey Prostor, division president of Brookfield Homes in Costa Mesa, are turning to steel in a big way. Most of the company's current projects in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, nine subdivisions totaling about 500 homes, will be framed with steel.

"We believe the benefits are significant for our potential buyers, that if we commit ourselves to steel, people will start to identify it as superior to wood," he said.

Another Southern California company that has had success using steel is Taylor Woodrow Homes in Laguna Hills. The company has completed two tracts of steel-framed housing in Temecula and Mission Viejo and has plans for a third in Newport Coast, a high-end Orange County community where half the homes are framed with steel.

Taylor Woodrow was one of the first to venture into steel-framed construction with its "Homecoming" project in Temecula in 1993, said Dale Hines, director of construction for Taylor Woodrow.

"Temecula was the largest tract of steel-framed housing in the country at the time," Hines said.

About 100 single-family homes were built and sold from 1993 through 1996. The Mission Viejo project, Cliffwood, includes about 55 homes built with steel studs.

Steel framing is not new. Heavy, welded, so-called red iron has been used for years in custom homes and commercial buildings.

But today's material is light-gauge, galvanized steel. It is joined with screws and other fasteners and manufactured in sizes that match traditional lumber dimensions, making it more attractive to building contractors.

"Builders are looking for something that looks, acts and goes up like a wood stud," Stone said.

Builders began to look to steel as a viable alternative when lumber prices spiked in the early 1990s.

The composite price of framing lumber nearly doubled from 1986 to 1994, as average annual prices soared from $218 per thousand board feet to $410.

Monthly lumber prices peaked in December 1993, at $499 per thousand board feet, according to Random Lengths, an industry publication based in Eugene, Ore., which reports on market trends in the wood products business.

"Whenever lumber prices go up . . . lots of people start thinking about steel," said Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research for the home builders association.

"In the marketplace, when the Random Lengths composite price moves into the $500 range, builders across the country start planning on switching to alternate materials," he said. "We've observed this phenomenon twice, in late 1993 and early 1994."

The price increases impacted builders dramatically, often wiping out already slim profit margins and contributing to considerable financial losses.

"When lumber prices went up sharply, there were builders that had contracts based on much lower prices. It's my understanding that some of those guys got hit in their pocketbooks in six figures," said Jay Crandell of the home builders association's research center.

Steel offers builders price stability not afforded by often volatile lumber prices. It "allows us to lock in our price for a year," according to Brookfield's Prostor.

Although cost is an important factor influencing builders' decisions, other issues play a part as well.

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As the price of lumber was going up, many in the building industry saw the quality of the wood they were buying going down.

"There's no question that the pressure to go to younger growth and managed forests is having an impact on the materials," Crandell said.

His colleague at the home builders association agrees.

"The quality of wood is coming down; today the [growing period] is 30 to 40 years, down from 60 to 80 years," Ahluwalia said.

A related concern for many builders and consumers is the environmental impact of using wood rather than steel.

"When we explain to people that about 70% of a steel stud is made out of recycled steel, when someone is looking to be more environmentally conscious, this becomes appealing to our buyers," Prostor said.

The wood products industry vigorously disputes steel's claims to environmental superiority, however, calling their claims "exaggerated" and citing a "life cycle" evaluation of wood that measures the overall burden on the environment of using different materials.

They maintain that steel's arguments leave out such factors as the energy used in steel production, pollution in the mining and manufacturing processes and that the amount of recycled steel in a stud is far less than what is claimed.

"It's very difficult to compare [alternative materials] with wood," said Erik Wilson of the Western Wood Products Assn. in Portland, Ore.

Steel's advocates also maintain that it is stronger and more durable than traditional wood studs.

"Wood warps and twists; a steel stud is not subject to the twists and knots of wood. . . . There's no rotting and it won't rust because it's made of galvanized steel," Prostor said.

"Steel is more consistent--straighter walls, no nail popping or cracks from settling," he said, adding that it is also fire-resistant and termite-proof.

The durability of steel framing was what led Jasvina and Andy Gill to buy a Brookfield home that is now under construction in the Northwood community in Irvine.

"We had looked at a lot of new homes when we happened on this project," said Jasvina Gill, 33, who works in marketing. "We saw the steel framing and it sparked our interest and we learned about it.

"We're not looking to move again until we get the kids through college [son Jess is 6, Paul is 4]," Jasvina said, "so durability--no termites, no dry rot, good in earthquakes--made us look carefully at steel framing. We've watched the house being built and have no second thoughts."

In a 1997 survey of consumers, the home builders association found that among Southern California buyers 43% of the respondents felt that steel would make no difference in their purchase decision; however 40% said it would be a desirable feature.

When asked about wood framing, 49% said it would make no difference and only 38% said they found a wood frame "desirable."

"Consumer acceptability is not a problem. The buyer does not care [about] what he cannot see with the naked eye," Ahluwalia of the home builder's association said.

"But they are not prepared to pay more just because it's steel," he added.

But Prostor notes that "once we've explained the benefits of steel, over 85% of buyers prefer steel. Even without that knowledge, it's still a 50-50 split."

In quake-prone Southern California, earthquake safety is a major concern for both buyers and builders as well.

Although steel-framed homes do hold up better in high-wind situations, such as in Florida's hurricanes, there is not such a clear-cut superiority in the seismic performance of steel frame.

But Prostor and steel institute representatives maintain that because steel-framed homes often have a higher level of structural engineering, they may perform better than wood in an earthquake.

There is a "better seismic level of comfort with steel," Prostor asserted.

Design considerations also play a role in deciding to use steel, experts say. Heavier gauge steel studs can be used in load-bearing walls. Longer spans between studs can translate into more open space in the interior.

The wood products industry acknowledges that steel is making inroads but attributes it to the educational campaign rather than to any superior quality of steel over wood.

"The [steel industry] is working darn hard to get the education out there right now," Wilson said.

There are still problems to be resolved before steel becomes widely accepted. Some may be more easily dealt with than others.

One such roadblock was the lack of a standard building code for framing with steel, but Council of American Building Officials standards were adopted in late 1996.

Another sticking point is steel's thermal conductivity. It can drain heat from a home, detracting from energy efficiency. This can be countered, experts say, with increased insulation materials, either in the wall or coated onto the stud. But the additional materials can drive up costs.

The biggest obstacles that remain are a lack of trained labor, resistance to change among the building trades and years of experience working with wood. Most agree that the labor issue is critical because it can add substantially to the final cost.

"We have a shortage of skilled workers in steel framing," said Stone, the steel industry's spokesman, also noting that with the boom in new construction, there are labor shortages across the board.

"A few trades are resistant; that's one of the areas we need to work on," he said. "Home building hasn't essentially changed in 150 years."

On this point, Wilson of the wood products industry agrees.

"One of the biggest issues is what do you do when you get [steel studs]? It's very easy to make wood work in a way that you want it to based on years of experience. Everyone understands what you can and cannot do with wood," he said.

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The fact remains that lumber is still the material of choice by far. Although companies like Brookfield and Taylor Woodrow are using more steel framing, Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., the state's largest home builder, has yet to do so.

"At this point Kaufman & Broad is not using steel frame in our construction," said spokeswoman Melissa Robinson.

"We don't see that we'll be using it soon, but we're continuing to follow what's being done," she said. "It's just a better return on our investment to stay with wood."

Lumber prices have fallen in recent months, cooling builders' interest in steel and other alternative materials. But it is clear that interest in alternative building materials is on the rise.

"The use of steel will increase, there's no question about that," said Ahluwalia.

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