Showing their metal

Special to The Times

Architectural writer and music critic Thomas Small, 49, and wife Joanna Brody, 44, a public relations consultant, had outgrown their two-bedroom town house in Santa Monica.

So in 2004, they bought a “decrepit” Culver City cottage to remodel. Unable to salvage the 1,500-square-foot fixer-upper and hoping to create an affordable, custom-built home, the couple turned to Whitney Sander, principal architect and founder of Venice-based Sander Architects, who uses prefabricated steel to provide a cost-effective building option.

Construction on the new home started in December 2005 and this February, the Small-Brody brood, which includes two large, hairy Briard dogs, Calvin and Hobbes; and two infants, Joey, 1, and Lyra, 6 months, moved into their 3,800-square-foot part-prefabricated steel, part-custom home.

The Culver City residence features a main house with three bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms, two offices and a separate one-bedroom rental apartment above the garage.

“From certain angles, it has an industrial look,” said Small, who didn’t want to hide the metal aesthetic with stucco or conventional sidings and used corrugated-metal-siding panels to finish the exteriors. “So some of the traditionalists in the neighborhood didn’t know what it was when it was going up. But the way it turned out, most people really like it. And it has gotten a very warm reception.”


With costs below those of conventional building methods, quick and easy assembly and no termite issues, prefabricated or pre-engineered steel buildings are finding a place in the residential home market.

For Small and Brody, metal also helped them stay true to their green theme.

“Most of the metal in this house is recycled and will be recyclable at the end of its use in this house,” Small said.

“And there’s also very little waste with metal. It was made at the factory and then shipped here. There was no sawdust. No cutting,” he said. “And we didn’t have to hire specialized builders. It was built by the contractor who built the rest of the house, and bolted together very easily.”

If there’s a downside, Small said, it’s the roof. “You’re not supposed to walk on the metal roof.”

Sander’s hybrid houses, as he calls them, are “part-prefab, all-custom residences” that use pre-engineered steel manufacturers to produce the frame or bones of the home in a facility off site and deliver the parts to the site on a flatbed truck.

‘Like an erector set’

“It fits together like an erector set,” Sander explained. “And it goes together in three weeks. The inside takes longer, but the prefabrication can save you months and thousands of dollars.”

Sander has designed hybrid homes for every budget, urban homes as well as 10,000-square-foot country retreats, and found the savings over wooden structures to be significant.

Two projects completed within the last year cost about $130 per square foot or about one-third of traditional custom residential costs, which can top $400 per square foot, according to Sander.

Small’s construction costs were about $175 to $200 per square foot, compared with $120 to $350 for traditional non-custom homes, according to construction experts.

Sander’s relationship with steel began in 1991 when a contractor suggested the architect use the material for a warehouse and office project in San Francisco.

“That building was 10,000 square feet, and all the pieces arrived on a flatbed truck for $60,000,” he said. “From that point on, I started looking for opportunities to use prefabrication in residential projects.”

Almost 20 years later, Sander said most people still don’t think about metal with residential use. But with the growing green movement, he said, more homeowners, architects and builders are adopting the material.

“Folks are opening up to metal,” he said. “Five years ago, we did one or two projects a year. Today, we have 10 projects in the works and have to turn people away.”

Although metal was once largely associated with Quonset huts or industrial buildings, construction expert John Knight, who founded Santa Clarita-based Knight Building Systems in 1987, said because virtually any traditional exterior wall material -- stucco, brick and conventional sidings -- can be used on a pre-engineered frame, today’s metal residential structures can look the same on the outside as conventionally framed buildings.

The majority of his work still comes from commercial projects, but Knight completes 10 to 12 projects a year for homeowners looking to add garages, accessory-use buildings, storage sheds and barns. He currently is building a garage and home office for an Agua Dulce residence.

“The larger you go,” he said, “the more cost-effective our systems become.”

A two-car wooden garage costs about $60 per square foot, Knight said. “With a pre-engineered one, you are probably closer to $40 or $35 per square foot.”

When software engineer and Santa Clarita resident Ken Abbott, 58, priced his 1,200-square-foot, four-car garage in 2004, estimates for a traditional wood building exceeded $100,000.

Abbott hired Knight and ended up with a metal garage for about $35,000.

Pre-engineered steel buildings are not without limitations, however.

Because the steel is a lighter gauge and weighs less than structural steel, which can be used in large buildings, L.A. city building code design requirements limit these structures to one- and two-story structures of up to 40 feet in height.

Some impracticalities

In addition, homeowners considering small structures with cut-up rooflines may lose some of the cost advantages of metal because of the additional engineering required.

For homeowners looking to add space to their existing home, pre-engineered steel would most likely not be a viable solution, said Dick Woodworth, a Southern California district manager for pre-engineered-metal building manufacturer Varco Pruden Buildings Inc.

“If you’re doing a room addition, steel is not the way to go. It doesn’t work well when we try to attach it to conventional construction,” Woodworth said.

“But for custom homes . . . or to increase space on a property for a garage or barn,” he added, “pre-engineered steel is very practical and cost-effective.”


Michelle Hofmann can be reached at