Residential Steel Framing

By KIM GIFFORD

It’s hard for people to change” is a refrain uttered repeatedly by those in the steel industry as they confront a longstanding tradition of wood framing within construction.

Dan Feazell, president of Premium Steel Building Systems in Roanoke, Virginia says, “A lot of people are intimidated by steel. The wood framers have been using wood their whole life. People are very slow to change, so to do something different, even though it’s a very small change, is difficult,” he says.

The History of Residential Steel Framing

The use of steel framing in residential construction dates back over 40 years ago when GIs returning from World War II spurred a need for increased housing. Answering this call was the Lustron Company, which produced 2,500 steel homes before declaring bankruptcy in 1950.

The last 20 years has brought a renewed interest in residential steel framing. “The key to steel framing has been the self-drilling screw,” declares Don Allen, director of engineering for the Steel Framing Alliance.

Also, helping the movement has been the establishment of codes such as the Prescriptive Method for Residential Cold-Formed Steel that reduces the need for engineering in most cases, and the addition of prescriptive standards to the International Residential Code and the International Building Code.

Feazell and others in the industry claim there is little difference between erecting a building out of wood or steel. “The same principles apply,” he says. Most definitions of steel framing equate it to conventional stick frame or post and beam design with the exception that steel studs and trusses are substituted for lumber. “The biggest difference? There really is none,” answers Feazell. “You use a steel floor truss or a wooden floor truss. You just use different fasteners. Instead of nailing everything together, you screw it together and cut using a different blade in your skill saw.”

Popularity of Steel Framing

Yet, despite the similarities with wood, steel framing accounts for less than 2% of new, single-family home construction in the U.S., according to an April 6, 2005 Wall Street Journal article. The industry, however, is witnessing growth. According to statistics from the Steel Framing Alliance, an organization devoted to the promotion of steel framing, more than 7 percent of all new homes in California and Florida are built with steel framing and over 70 percent of homes in Hawaii. Steel framing is also growing in Texas and among other western and southeastern states. Most of these hot spots have a particular reason for relying on steel. In Hawaii, for example, steel framing is favored because of an infestation of the Formosan termite in that state. As a result, all wood construction in Hawaii must use treated wood. “Steel has a price advantage over this treated lumber, so it is very popular there,” says Allen.

In California, steel is popular because of its advantages in earthquakes and in Florida, for its ability to withstand high winds. Nationwide, 10 percent of all multi-family projects use steel studs for interior walls. In fact, one of the ways the industry is trying to promote the use of steel is in introducing it one application at a time. “Start with the interior walls, then add the floors, and finally the exterior walls and roof,” says Larry Williams, president of the Steel Framing Alliance.

In California, steel is popular because of its advantages in earthquakes and in Florida, for its ability to withstand high winds.

Although steel framing is more popular in certain area of the country, there is nothing that prohibits its use in New England. “The areas mentioned are some of the biggest growth areas, but [steel framing] is scattered everywhere. We sold a system last week in Stamford, CT,” says Feazell.

One of the disadvantages of steel in cold climates is the need to install a thermal break between the steel framing member and the exterior wall to prevent the transfer of heat or cold. “The key is proper insulation. Steel is very good at conducting heat, which is not a selling point when you are putting up an exterior wall,” offers Allen. “The way you insulate is to use a type of insulation like foam that keeps the dew point on the outside of the framing so you don’t have condensation in your walls.”
This need for added insulation, however, can jack up costs in cold weather climates.

Steel framing members or studs are thin sheets of steel material, typically rolled and shipped in coils. “These coils weigh eight, 10, sometimes 20 tons, depending on how wide they are,” says Allen. The coils are slit to specific widths such as a foot, foot and a half wide, etc. In residential construction, these are typically rolled into a channel shape called the C-shape.

“The C-shape is basically the same shape as a 2 x 4. The ones most commonly sold for residential construction are 3.5 inches deep just like a 2 x 4,” he notes. “Because they are made from a coil, it is relatively easy to manufacture both long lengths and custom lengths.” As a result, proponents argue that steel can result in reduced labor costs and on-site waste.

“You can sell scrap steel, you can’t sell a bucket of sawdust,” says Feazell. In addition steel-framing production uses a minimum of 25% recycled steel.

Other advantages include steel’s strength, allowing it to withstand earthquakes and high wind loads. As an inorganic material, steel offers mold nothing on which to feed and grow. It is non-combustible, meaning it will not fuel a fire. In fact, insurance companies around the country seem to be catching on and are now offering better rates on steel frame construction.

“The way you insulate is to use a type of insulation like foam that keeps the dew point on the outside of the framing so you don’t have condensation in your walls.”

“There’s also a long-term savings on the structure and of course, the maintenance because it’s a much more stable structure than you would have with conventional construction,” says Feazell.

Cost of Materials

Cost of materials, of course, can vary depending on the marketplace and the region. “Wood is very volatile. Prices vary from week to week and in different areas of the country,” says Allen. “As a general rule of thumb, the thinner steels particularly used for interior partitions are going to cost you less than a stick of wood.”

Although many argue that the cost of steel has remained relatively stable over the last few decades there have been recent price fluctuations. In 2004, for example, steel prices doubled. Yet, most agree that overall steel prices are “pretty competitive” with wood, says Feazell.

Wood supplies, however, may be more readily available. “You can go to any lumber yard and pretty much get any piece of lumber that you want. With steel it’s not as easy at present,” says Feazell.

One of the advantages in beginning steel framing with the interior walls is that they can be less expensive than other framing materials. Roofs and exterior walls, for example, tend to cost more, floors and interior walls less. Although many factors influence cost, the Steel Framing Alliance suggests that when adjusted for current material prices, labor and material for steel framed interior walls is 16 cents per square foot less than wood framing and for flooring, seven cents per square foot less.

Labor Requirements

Most information suggests, however, that the cost of labor with steel framing is higher, at least initially, contributing to an overall higher cost. According to an online Toolbase Services article, some studies have shown that the overall cost of a steel home including labor and materials “can range from three to seven percent more than that of a wood-framed home.”

Yet, Nadar Elhajj, a researcher at the NAHB Research Center, in The Wall Street Journal article, suggests “cost becomes a non-issue once you get over the learning curve.”

Allen says working with steel “has some trade-offs.” It takes longer to drive a screw than a nail; yet cutting wood is more time consuming than steel as it is thicker. The lighter weight of steel requires less exertion on the part of the contractor during the course of a workday and as Feazell points out “it requires less energy to run a screw gun versus swinging a hammer.” Steel does have the disadvantage of getting hot in the sun, so contractors must be careful when picking up the first piece or two not to get burned.

The biggest challenge in terms of labor is finding a trained workforce accustomed to using the tools and specifying and designing correctly with steel. It is the lack of experience of the workers in using steel that tends to be driving labor rates, experts say.

The Future of Steel Framing

Industry insiders are hoping to meet this challenge through education. For the third year in a row, STUD University, a 16-hour intensive program using classroom sessions and hands-on training, will be offered to design and construction professionals at METALCON, the industry’s largest convention, to teach them the techniques of residential steel framing.

“It used to be that the informed homeowner were driving the growth. Now we’re getting more builders coming to us,” says Feazell.

As steel framing becomes more popular, companies such as Heritage Building Systems in North Little Rock Arkansas are producing their own steel home building kits. Avant garde architects such as Adam Kalkin have even begun using steel in their home designs. Dave McQueen of Butler Building Systems says Butler has done three homes with Kalkin so far. Kalkin combines Butler buildings with cargo containers to create innovative steel homes with futuristic appeal.