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A lack of steel framers remains steel framing’s biggest barrier to growth


With most builders exhibiting a "Lincoln Log" vs. an "Erector Set" mentality, steel framing seems destined to remain only a small fraction of the U.S. residential construction market.

The sector is fragmented, with a multitude of residential steel framing producers scattered throughout the country and no large entity dominating the market—one that, according to industry sources, accounts for less than 1 percent of all houses built in the United States.

But some solace might lie in the Internet, with customers increasingly using the Web to map their way to players in the small niche market. Certain climates and increasingly educated customers also have helped grow business.

Jim Andrews, director of sales at Tulsa, Okla.-based Metal Building Industries (MBI), said that many customers find his company largely via the Internet. "Most of our customers seek us out and come to us because we use true residential framing—steel studs instead of wood studs—and there are no beams protruding in the houses. It is just a stronger house. We started in commercial steel framing and moved into residential as we found it is the best solution for a customer trying to achieve it all," said Andrews, whose company is in the midst of building a home in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton.

One positive aspect of steel-framed houses is that no interior wall is load bearing, which allows the homeowner the ability to take down any wall in the structure. Homeowners also enjoy a smoother, sturdier building that is termite- and mold-proof.

Steel-framed homes also outlast their wood-framed counterparts, according to Mark Nowak, president of the Steel Framing Alliance. "Accelerated aging tests have been conducted on steel framing in pretty severe conditions. Framing will last hundreds of years in (the) worse case and thousands in normal conditions," he said.

MBI, which has a home designer on its payroll, purchases slit coil through a supplier to manufacture the framing. Using galvanized sheet as the raw material to prevent corrosion, the material is roll formed into shapes for framing. Some steel framing makers buy and slit their own coil to fabricate the pre-engineered designs.

NexGen Structures of Texas LLC relies on Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor Corp. to supply its coil, which it fabricates into framing. "It's a factory in a box and we take the factory to the job site," said Cliff Singleton, vice president of operations at the Beaumont, Texas-based company. He noted that any extra pieces can be fabricated on site.

"We have designed a modular steel framing system, and with that in mind we are hoping to carry it further," said Singleton, who at the end of August noted that his company had delivered 75 homes in the previous six weeks.

As an advocate of energy savings, Singleton said he favors steel. "Steel is a recyclable product and with the insulated system it will cost 60 to 70 percent less to heat or cool a home," he said.

So why the lack of acceptance? Public perception and the lack of a work force trained in steel framing are slowing growth, Andrews suggested. "The work force is the main issue. We had to send a crew to the Wheaton (Ill.) house and just sent one to Mississippi. The talent pool is not there to erect them."

Wood framers are used to working with nail guns and are not trained to use screw guns, he said. "I see steel framing picking up steam, but it will always be a fraction of the market." He suggested that vocational schools should teach steel framing to increase the number of skilled workers.

In addition to training workers, steel framers need to lobby the insurance industry to help promote growth in the sector. "Here in Oklahoma they will give you a reduction in your premium for a steel roof, but not framing," Andrews said.

Dan Feazell, president of Roanoke, Va.-based Premium Steel Building Systems, is a third-generation builder who converted to steel after getting his start with wood framing. "I was having trouble with the material we were using and developed a system," he said, noting that his projects range "from a single room addition to really large homes."

Feazell agreed that builders are slow to change. "They are tied to doing what they are doing and there is not a real supply chain. You have to go to someone who specializes in steel," he said, adding that his company is able to put out a fairly competitive product "when you add up the whole package."

But some players in steel framing just aren't interested in entering the residential field. The subsidiaries of at least two domestic producers participating in the non-residential market said they aren't trying to gain a foothold in the residential sector.

Varco Pruden Buildings Inc., a division of BlueScope Buildings North America Inc., has chosen not to participate in the residential arena and focuses on public and commercial opportunities, a spokesman for the Memphis, Tenn.-based company said.

Nucon Steel, a Denton, Texas-based subsidiary of Nucor, has built residential housing but isn't in the market anymore, focusing instead on commercial endeavors. "With lumber prices, it is hard to be competitive," Don Moody, the company's general manager, said, noting that lumber prices can fluctuate between $200 and $500 per thousand board feet. Prices for hot-rolled coil, the raw material used by framing fabricators, had reached $580 per ton as of early September, a 57-percent jump from a low of $370 per ton in June.

Lisa Gordon

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