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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.