Builders Test Their Metal

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A quiet revolution--save for the whine of screw guns--is underway at the corner of Culver Drive and Bryan Avenue in Irvine, where Lennar Homes is building 203 homes with steel-framed panels.

The lightweight, galvanized steel studs used in these panels replace the wood studs that have been used to frame houses since the mid-1800s and don't require sawing and fastening together on the site in the traditional "stick-built" fashion. Instead, the panels are planned in a computer, assembled in a factory and shipped to the site to be put together like a giant Erector set.

They represent the latest development in a decade-long effort to transform the way homes are built and further a trend to build homes out of pre-assembled components.

Framing homes with steel has appealed to builders for years. Wood from younger trees harvested today tends to twist and warp more than lumber from the old-growth trees cut down in the mid-20th century. And steel prices tend to be more stable than lumber.

But there are fewer places to buy steel than lumber, and few carpenters who know how to work with it. Building codes have been slow in adopting standards for steel use, and many code officials are unfamiliar with it. Plus, steel studs take longer to cut and screw than wood, resulting in higher labor costs.

Panelizing the wall sections in a mass-production, factory environment, however, cuts the cost of on-site construction.

"This is one of the most significant possible changes in our industry," said Lennar's David Ball, who was hired five months ago to help the company shift from wood studs to steel panels.

Lennar Homes, which builds 23,000 homes a year in the country--about 5,000 in California--had not used steel framing in a big way until last year, when Paul DiGiovanni, president of American Steel Builders in Commerce, talked Lennar into using the galvanized steel panels his company manufactures for the last phase of its Camrosa development in Anaheim.

Most enticing to Lennar was the speed with which the panels could be put up. Whereas framing a house with wood took Lennar's framing contractor about 22 days, framing with steel panels takes about 10 to 14 days.

The ability to frame a house quickly, for less, is motivating the company to eventually frame all its homes with steel panels. This represents a significant resolve for a big player in an industry which, as Balls said, "doesn't change very much."

"We believe in it," said Jeff Roos, president of Lennar's Southern California operations. "We feel steel is superior to wood, and panels are superior to [steel] stick-built."

Tests Are Touting Steel

as Superior for Framing

Scores of studies and tests tout steel as a superior material to frame many of the 1.2 million single-family homes built in the country each year, but barely 1% of homes are framed with steel. That percentage jumps to 5% if interior partition (non-load-bearing) walls are included.

Among those lauding steel's benefits is Nader Elhajj, an engineer with the National Assn. of Home Builders Research Center, which also studied building with insulating concrete forms and structural insulated panels of wood product sandwiched over solid foam.

"We found steel would be the best choice for replacing wood," Elhajj said.

Especially in earthquake-prone Southern California, framing with lightweight galvanized steel makes sense.

"It doesn't collapse suddenly," Elhajj said. "It tends to give."

And it really makes sense in Hawaii, home of voracious Formosan termites, where 50% of the homes are framed in steel.

In colder climates, though, steel is less practical because the studs act as a high-efficiency transmitter of heat from inside the house to the outside. One solution is to attach a solid layer of insulating foam between the studs and the exterior siding or stucco, but that adds enormous costs in materials and labor.

Though steel's thermal-bridging characteristic poses less of a problem in Southern California, it still is a consideration for homes to meet energy-efficiency codes. Lennar's homes use a specially designed "thermal stud" that minimizes the heat loss (or cooling loss in summer), but the product is expensive and is only available through one source.

Studies to find and test alternatives to wood began in earnest in the early 1990s, when the cost of framing lumber jumped from $219 a thousand board-feet (the standard by which lumber is measured) in March of 1991 to $454 in March of 1993, according to Random Lengths, an industry publisher that reports on lumber prices.

The price increase, coupled with complaints about a decline in lumber quality (a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report states that the density of framing lumber has decreased 10% in the last few decades), motivated builders to look at alternatives.

Last week's price was $330 a thousand board-feet, but May's average of $402 caused some to predict that another upswing was on the way.

The benefits of steel framing for builders could be great even after the house is finished: Because steel does not expand and contract as porous wood does, a builder faces fewer "call backs" to repair cracked drywall and stucco.

"Nobody likes to see drywall cracks, even though they're just cosmetic," said Jeffrey Prostor, president of Brookfield Homes Southland, a smaller company than Lennar that has been stick-building steel homes for several years in Southern California. Prostor estimates that his company saves about $250 to $500 per house in decreased call-back costs.

The benefits to consumers could be great, too--termites can't eat the framing, dry rot is eliminated and steel doesn't burn (though it does start to melt at 1,000 degrees or higher).

While consumers don't generally dictate what materials a production builder uses, that could be changing as homeowners become more educated.

Pete Niezen, who with his wife bought one of Lennar's first steel-frame panel homes in Anaheim's Camrosa development, admits that the floor plan was his home's most appealing feature. But he said he feels safer in a steel home.

"I don't think it will rock and roll as much in an earthquake," he said.

And while there are little cracks around the windows of the 6-month-old home, he has noticed that the wood-framed homes in his tract have bigger cracks around their windows.

On the downside, the couple said their new home seems noisier than their previous wood-framed home, despite wall-to-wall carpeting throughout.

Buyers Aren't Showing

a Preference So Far

Lennar's Ball said the company is not yet seeing a preference among homeowners for steel, but at the same time there's no aversion to it. Gopal Alualia, an economist with the home builders' research center, said surveys indicate homeowners have no preference for steel or wood. But Brookfield's Prostor said after consumers are educated about the benefits, they prefer it.

Even so, steel framing has not caught on with most builders, who can be loath to disrupt well-tested construction systems and methods.

"We don't feel the rush to get into steel," said Larry Gotlieb, a vice president with KB Home, the largest builder in the state, who said the cost of installing steel and the relative scarcity of vendors make lumber and engineered wood products (made of wood fibers and adhesives) his company's favored framing materials.

But he won't count steel out of the running: "It's a technology we're watching."

Pulte Homes, one of the country's largest home builders, does not frame whole homes in steel, but uses steel for interior partition walls, especially in its concrete homes in Florida and in Sun Lakes, a new development in Banning. Like Lennar, Pulte is turning to pre-assembled panels to cut down on the labor costs associated with steel framing.

Pulte's "next phase" is to panelize the partition walls in a company-owned factory and ship them to sites, said Randy Folts, a construction vice president.

Standard Pacific is another local builder who has looked at, but so far rejected, steel framing because of the labor costs.

"We studied it pretty heavily six or seven years ago," said Ram Fullen, vice president of operations. But when his company found that it would cost $1 more per square foot to build a house with steel and it would take weeks longer to frame it, "We shied away from it."

Since then, though, many of the roadblocks to steel's use have been surmounted, thanks in part to a $100-million effort by the North American Steel Framing Alliance and its sister organization, the Steel Alliance, offshoots of the American Iron and Steel Assn., one of the country's oldest trade groups.

With the framing alliance's help, steel studs have been standardized for size and thickness (a process the lumber stud industry went through in the first half of the 20th century), steel specifications have been included in building codes, building officials have been trained and new steel-working tools have been developed.

Brookfield's Prostor said the steel-framing industry is suffering the same growing pains drywall did 40 years ago when it was considered as an alternative to interior lath and plaster.

"People said, 'Oh, it'll never happen,"' Prostor said.

"Now, you can't find someone to do lath and plaster," he said. "Attitude is the issue, not the product."

Still, without a large and steady supply of carpenters proficient in steel framing, and considering the longer time it takes to frame with steel even if carpenters are available, high labor costs have remained a stumbling block for steel. It is hoped that panelizing will speed home builders' acceptance of steel framing.

"Now that makes sense," said Fullen of Standard Pacific when he heard about Lennar's commitment to framing with steel panels. "It's a material we need to take another look at."

Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer. She can be reached at kathyprice@aol.com.

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