Steel is strong and sustainable

Why use steel instead of wood to build a house? The versatility of the material makes it attractive to architects and consumers for both aesthetic and structural reasons. And there's less waste when using steel rather than wood. Strength: The most obvious appeal of the material is its strength, which allows the same level of structural stability, or more, as a conventional wooden frame, using far less material. Steel can help minimize structural elements or achieve daring effects, such as Pierre Koenig's famous Case Study House No. 22 of 1960, a vertigo-inducing structure suspended above Laurel Canyon by cantilevered steel beams.

Cost: Compared with wood framing, steel costs more, although architect Barton Myers says the comparison can be misleading and argues that home builders should look at the overall budget when comparing steel with wood. "Steel is competitive with high-end wood construction, when viewing the budget as a whole," he says.

Speed of assembly: A skilled crew can frame a steel house in a comparatively short time, sometimes a few days. Although the Rogers' house took about a year to build — not much of a time savings over a conventional home — Myers said he is working on a second house, this one in Santa Barbara, using prefabricated wall panels and windows, and expects to cut construction time to six months. A shorter construction time can translate into savings in labor costs.

Sustainability: Wood framing involves a large amount of waste: construction of a typical 2,000-square-foot house generates 3,000 pounds of unused wood, or about a quarter of the project's total waste stream, according to the National Assn. of Homebuilders Research Center. In contrast, the individual parts of a steel frame can be prefabricated in a factory and assembled on-site with virtually no waste. Steel is also more sustainable than wood because the material can be recycled easily. Most of the steel on the market is, in fact, 60% recycled material. "The Rogers house is made out of recycled Buicks and Fords," Myers says.

— Morris Newman

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